The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet

- 1949-
     Jill's a good kid who's had some tough luck. But that's 
another story. It's a day when the smell of fish from Tib's hash 
house is so strong you could build a garage on it. We are sit-
ting in Izzy's where Carl has just built us a couple of solid 
highballs. He's okay, Carl is, if you don't count his Roamin' 
Hands and Rushin' Fingers. Then again, that should be the 
only trouble we have in this life. Anyway, Jill says, "Why 
don't you tell about it? Nobody ever gets the poet's point of 
view." I don't know, maybe she's right. Jill's just a kid, but 
she's been around; she knows what's what.
     So, I tell Jill, we are at Izzy's just like now when he 
comes in. And the first thing I notice is his hair, which has 
been Vitalis-ed into submission. But, honey, it won't work, 
and it gives him a kind of rumpled your-boudoir-or-mine look. 
I don't know why I noticed that before I noticed his face. 
Maybe it was just the highballs doing the looking. Anyway, 
then I see his face, and I'm telling you—I'm telling Jill—this is 
a masterpiece of a face.
     But—and this is the god's own truth—I'm tired of
beauty. Really. I know, given all that happened, this must 
sound kind of funny, but it made me tired just to look at him. 
That's how beautiful he was, and how much he spelled T-R-
O-U-B-L-E. So I threw him back. I mean, I didn't say it, I say 
to Jill, with my mouth. But I said it with my eyes and my 
shoulders. I said it with my heart. I said, Honey, I'm throwing 
you back. And looking back, that was the worst, I mean, the 
worst thing—bar none—that I could have done, because it
drew him like horseshit draws flies. I mean, he didn't walk
over and say, "Hello, girls; hey, you with the dark hair, your
indifference draws me like horseshit draws flies."
     But he said it with his eyes. And then he smiled. And
that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying
as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn't one of
them. And here is where I say to Jill, "I just can't go on." I
mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all
happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep-
tual storyteller. In fact, I'm a conceptual liver. I prefer the
cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That's why I 
write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the 
reader and say, "Reader, you go on from here." And what I like
about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I 
mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They 
pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in 
a dark alley, I'd want it to be a poetry reader. They're not like
some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, "Put this
foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button
your coat, wipe your nose."
     So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I 
feel, deserve something better than they're used to getting. I 
do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself, 
who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some-
body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every-
thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange, 
are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something.
And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the 
form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the 
average reader likes ideas.
     "A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross." I 
said this to the poet Mark Strand. I said, "I could not stand to
write prose; I could not stand to have to write things like 'the 
draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown.'" And 
he said, "You could do it if that's all you did, if that was the 
beginning and the end of your novel." So please, don't ask me 
for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the 
bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, al-
though you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the 
very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for
the rest of it.
     I don't think many people do. But, like me, they're either 
too afraid or too polite to say so. That's why the movies are 
such a disaster. Now there's a form of popular culture that 
doesn't have a clue. Movies should be five minutes long. You 
should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange 
draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, "I'm having a 
hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the eleva-
tor." And, bang, that's the end. The lights come on, everybody 
walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experi-
ence. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get 
Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had 
to do boring, dogged work. Everyone has lived a life that 
seems to inflict every vivid moment the smears, finger-
ings, and pawings of plot and feeling. Everyone has lived un-
der this oppression. In other words, everyone has had to eat 
shit—day after day, the endless meals they didn't want, those 
dark, half-gelatinous lakes of gravy that lay on the plate like 
an ugly rug and that wrinkled clump of reddish-orange roast 
beef that looks like it was dropped onto your plate from a 
great height. God what a horror: getting Raoul into the ele-
vator.
     And that's why I write poetry. In poetry, you don't do 
that kind of work.

More by Lynn Emanuel

Inventing Father In Las Vegas

If I could see nothing but the smoke
From the tip of his cigar, I would know everything
About the years before the war.
If his face were halved by shadow I would know
This was a street where an EATS sign trembled
And a Greek served coffee black as a dog's eye.
If I could see nothing but his wrist I would know
About the slot machine and I could reconstruct
The weak chin and ruin of his youth, the summer
My father was a gypsy with oiled hair sleeping
In a Murphy bed and practicing clairvoyance.
I could fill his vast Packard with showgirls
And keep him forever among the difficult buttons
Of the bodice, among the rustling of their names,
Miss Christina, Miss Lorraine.
I could put his money in my pocket
and wearing memory's black fedora
With the condoms hidden in the hatband
The damp cigar between my teeth,
I could become the young man who always got sentimental
About London especially in Las Vegas with its single bridge­-
So ridiculously tender--leaning across the river
To watch the starlight's soft explosions.
If I could trace the two veins that crossed
His temple, I would know what drove him
To this godforsaken place, I would keep him forever
Remote from war--like the come-hither tip of his lit cigar
Or the harvest moon, that gold planet, remote and pure
  American.

The Burial

After I've goosed up the fire in the stove with Starter Logg 
so that it burns like fire on amphetamines; after it's imprisoned, 
screaming and thrashing, behind the stove door; after I've 
listened to the dead composers and watched the brown-plus-gray 
deer compose into Cubism the trees whose name I don't know 
(pine, I think); after I've holed up in my loneliness staring 
at the young buck whose two new antlers are like a snail's 
stalked eyes and I've let this conceit lead me to the eyes-on-stems 
of the faces of Picasso and from there to my dead father; after I've 
chased the deer away (they were boring, streamlined machines 
for tearing up green things, deer are the cows-of-the-forest); 
then I bend down over the sea of keys to write this poem 
about my father in his grave.

It isn't easy. It's dark in my room, the door is closed, 
all around is creaking and sighing, as though I were in the hold 
of a big ship, as though I were in the dark sleep
of a huge freighter toiling across the landscape of the waves 
taking me to my father with whom I have struggled 
like Jacob with the angel and who heaves off, one final time, 
the muddy counterpane of the earth and lies panting 
beside his grave like a large dog who has run a long way.

This is as far as he goes. I stand at the very end 
of myself holding a shovel. The blade is long and cool;
It is an instrument for organizing the world; the blade is 
drenched in shine, the air is alive along it, as air is alive 
on the windshield of a car. Beside me my father droops
as though he were under anesthesia. He is so thin, 
and he doesn't have a coat. My left hand grows 
cool and sedate under the influence of his flesh. 
It hesitates and then...

My father drops in like baggage into a hold. 
In his hands, written on my stationery, a note 
I thought of xeroxing: Dad, I will be with you, 
through the cold, dark, closed places you hated.
I close the hinged lid, and above him I heap a 
firmament of dirt. The body alone, in the dark, 
in the cold, without a coat. I would not wish that on my 
greatest enemy. Which, in a sense, my father was.

inside gertrude stein

Right now as I am talking to you and as you are being talked 
to, without letup, it is becoming clear that gertrude stein has 
hijacked me and that this feeling that you are having now as 
you read this, that this is what it feels like to be inside 
gertrude stein. This is what it feels like to be a huge type--
writer in a dress. Yes, I feel we have gotten inside gertrude 
stein, and of course it is dark inside the enormous gertrude, it 
is like being locked up in a refrigerator lit only by a smiling 
rind of cheese. Being inside gertrude is like being inside a 
monument made of a cloud which is always moving across 
the sky which is also always moving. Gertrude is a huge gal-
leon of cloud anchored to the ground by one small tether, yes, 
I see it down there, do you see that tiny snail glued to the 
tackboard of the landscape? That is alice. So, I am inside 
gertrude; we belong to each other, she and I, and it is so won-
derful because I have always been a thin woman inside of 
whom a big woman is screaming to get out, and she's out 
now and if a river could type this is how it would sound, pure 
and complicated and enormous. Now we are lilting across the 
countryside, and we are talking, and if the wind could type it 
would sound like this, ongoing and repetitious, abstracting 
and stylizing everything, like our famous haircut painted by 
Picasso. Because when you are inside our haircut you under-
stand that all the flotsam and jetsam of hairdo have been 
cleared away (like the forests from the New World) so that the 
skull can show through grinning and feasting on the alarm it
has created. I am now, alarmingly, inside gertrude's head and I
am thinking that I may only be a thought she has had when 
she imagined that she and alice were dead and gone and 
someone had to carry on the work of being gertrude stein, and 
so I am receiving, from beyond the grave, radioactive isotopes 
of her genius saying, take up my work, become gertrude stein.

Because someone must be gertrude stein, someone must save 
us from the literalists and realists, and narratives of the 
beginning and end, someone must be a river that can type. 
And why not I? Gertrude is insisting on the fact that while I 
am a subgenius, weighing one hundred five pounds, and living 
in a small town with an enormous furry male husband who is 
always in his Cadillac Eldorado driving off to sell something 
to people who do not deserve the bad luck of this mer-
chandise in their lives--that these facts would not be a prob-
lem for gertrude stein. Gertrude and I feel that, for instance, in 
Patriarchal Poetry when (like an avalanche that can type) she is 
burying the patriarchy, still there persists a sense of con-
descending affection. So, while I'm a thin, heterosexual sub-
genius, nevertheless gertrude has chosen me as her tool, just 
as she chose the patriarchy as a tool for ending the patriarchy. 
And because I have become her tool, now, in a sense, gertrude
is inside me. It's tough. Having gertrude inside me is like 
having swallowed an ocean liner that can type, and, while I 
feel like a very small coat closet with a bear in it, gertrude and 
I feel that I must tell you that gertrude does not care. She is 
using me to get her message across, to say, I am lost, I am
beset by literalists and narratives of the beginning and middle 
and end, help me. And so, yes, I say, yes, I am here, gertrude, 
because we feel, gertrude and I, that there is real urgency in 
our voice (like a sob that can type) and that things are very 
bad for her because she is lost, beset by the literalists and 
realists, her own enormousness crushing her and we must 
find her and take her into ourselves, even though I am the 
least likely of saviors and have been chosen perhaps as a last 
resort, yes, definitely, gertrude is saying to me, you are the 
least likely of saviors, you are my last choice and my last 
resort.