23 April 2014

Out Walking #5

Out walking because the Pebble step-counting device on my shoe demands that I shuffle around as much as possible each day. It's also a way to remind me that I'm always at work, checking the leader board that measures me against my colleagues. Unfortunately the standings are determined by "minutes of activity" rather than "miles traveled," which means I'm trailing a bent 60-year-old woman who sports a metal cane, a jet black wig and the tortoise's approach to races.

I've come to Land's End, which is not just a catalog I miss getting but also a popular walking spot on the northwestern-most coast of San Francisco. Climbing up the first bluffs, I find street art scripture written into even the driftwood. The taggers favor a metallic grey paint, perhaps because it goes so well with the the sagebrush dullness of the sea. Wood chips pile like discarded styluses on the sand and I take in the dramatic view of Seal Rock, riven with a hole. I wonder what Banksy would make of the negative space if we invited him to make an installation here.

For a moment I'm under a helicoptering, buff-throated hummingbird busily spritzing her excrement in golden clouds--it's like stepping through a spray of Chanel No. 5. Farther out, gulls with that hollow-boned knowingness circle the timeworn, white-winged barometer atop the Cliff House. The Sutro Baths are lousy with children and I can't spot a single otter. Or is it seals for which I'm supposed to be watching? Sea lions? I don't see a single pinniped. Fog sits like an island miles out on the horizon and the first indications of salt spray spot my cell phone. I remove my headphones to better hear all the nature happening.

It's just as I turn my back on the Baths that I am first troubled by the phrase: "And complete acceptance is always bittersweet." I love it, but where's it from exactly?

I recently reread Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. That would be the simplest explanation for how the phrase got stuck in my head but then it seems to me that book ends without complete acceptance. Norman's father makes him repeat the detail that all the bones in Paul's right hand were broken. And Norman tells me that the people he loved and--this is such a great addition--did not understand in his youth are dead.

But this bittersweet is being dredged from somewhere less recent than that. Women keep giving me beckoning looks and I smile at them and they wave me over to take their picture with friends in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. I understand the necessity--I also want to get on Instagram as soon as possible and improve the light of my snapshots.

I descend some wooden steps to the shore, skirting pumpkin-sized stones in greys and blues and greens marbled with white lightning. The flawless sky is cut by crows or the rarer Air Korea jet. Waves thump with such force that they spook a Pomeranian prancing over the rocky beach. In the surf there are goldens retrieving tennis balls and moss covered pine cones. My climb back up is delayed by a three-year-old who must walk himself to the top of the grade, abetted by his mother who, for unknown reasons, is pronouncing the principal town of the central coast of California "San Louise Obispo."

In front of me as I lunch is a young woman in a Stanford hoodie who's arranged herself on a tree stump with a studied, self-conscious gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps she has a friend, an arborist who also attends the Harvard of the West, stashed in a tree, with a fancy camera, who will take her picture looking at the bridge and send it to her phone so she can Instagram it. Behind me, a golfer chases his Shankopotamus down an embankment in the shadow of the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The next time I look up from my peanut butter and jelly sandwich the Cardinal is gone, replaced by a bouncy Frenchman decked out in neon orange shorts of a brevity usually reserved, in this country, for men in their sixties. He has the build and demeanor of a tennis pro with an ATP ranking in the mid-200s, as well as an impossibly attractive blonde companion. They pose for the de rigueur bridge shot but the composition is ruined when he is startled by a dragonfly.

He scrabbles down the cliff to safety while the girlfriend produces from her purse, and slowly begins to peel, a banana. In spite of the spectacular view she'd traveled thousand of miles to see, she turns to face me as she takes the first bite. She stands 20 feet away, at a slightly lower elevation, and eye contact is inevitable. These Pepperidge Farm goldfish pretzels are making me thirsty. I break away from her gaze and focus on a hawk with a red tail so distinctive that I believe to be a Red-Tailed Hawk. I go back to my literary research.

The reason I'm getting Google results about chocolate and pop song lyrics is that I'm not putting quotes around "and complete acceptance is always bittersweet." When I remedy this the answer is obvious: an enjambed line from my old friend Spencer Reece.

"The Clerk's Tale" (which you must read now to maximize the value of the rest of this post) was printed on the back page of the New Yorker. And I am always prepared to harp on the fact that, where you once found "The Clerk's Tale," you now find a neverending cartoon caption contest. This is my #1 sign of the end of American culture. (On the other hand, it's possible to see a short film James Franco made about "The Clerk's Tale," costarring Tywin Lannister as "the old homosexual." No, really.)

Spencer Reece has written many good poems that remind me of many other good poems from many other good poets in an era that Stephen Burt will tell you is a good era for poetry. Spencer Reece also wrote "The Clerk's Tale," which is better than good. It occurs to me that I am most often moved by poems that are long (or serial) and use plain speech (see Carson's "The Glass Essay," Bidart's "The Third Hour of the Night," Niedecker's "Paean to Place," Seidel's Cosmos Poems). 

At work, I've been "temporarily" restationed to a coworker's desk. On it there is a small fan, with fabric strips for blades. This means you can put your finger to the edge of the blurred circle and hear clipclipclipclip. I've gotten better and better at modulating the sound and can make noise like a helicopter approaching then receding from my airspace. It's like trying to slow down a very fast-moving clock.

I read "The Clerk's Tale" ten years ago. The idea of being in a deadend job at 33, making 30-something-thousand a year was then inconceivable; it is now now. I wonder whether I might not be happier working at Brooks Brothers. I would come to hate it but for a time I would be so satisfied by putting the ties back in color order.

I put continental distractions behind me and continue on my way. As a matter of course I text my coworker M. pictures of hiking goldendoodles. I follow Buckles for awhile, a gentleman with a complicated coat, blonde but also brass and silver--the color of his hair must inevitably be compared to a worn belt clasp. His whole world is this walk. He even looks back at me, prancing and panting, to make sure I'm also having a nice time. We need this animal comfort now more than ever--the weather has changed at work and the President's blustery powerpoints on austerity tell me the end is coming. Each Monday to Friday, I keep my bag in M.'s office for safety but also so I have an excuse to come in often, for wallet and mints and umbrella. Now I've started to think about the last time I will do this. We most often end the day with a silent salute in her doorway, and walking out into all these fatigued evenings I think to her we no longer have any need to express ourselves.

I check into the Pebble steps leader board and think of my life as a Brooks Brothers associate. I doubt I could reach the matched professionalism of the old homosexual: tie stuck with masking tape, the teeth capped, the breath mint always in place. Reece understands what it means to be an artist in the wrong line of work--into the quotidian he adds the "Spanish Dances" by Granados and Hollywood starlets and the English countryside and the light of cathedrals. If you're like me, you might think it's a stretch that anywhere in the Mall of America there is light like that. But I know why he does this--these comparisons to eternal beauty are the only things keeping us alive. I did not know, and still do not know, what he means by "St. Paul / who had to be shown," but I still know it is perfect.

Because poetry is how it is--I guess you have to call it "a small world"--I was face to face with Spencer Reece not long after tearing the back page out of that New Yorker. He was to be my teacher for my last semester at Bennington. When we first met I was disappointed--I'd expected snappier ensembles. That winter in Vermont he wore a comfortable, cabled cardigan (remember back to the mid-aughts, before cardigans had roared back). One must always hesitate to conflate the speaker in a poem with the author of the poem but it is true that Spencer had a receding hairline, going grey at the temples, and horn-rimmed spectacles.

After the first workshop Spencer and I went out walking to introduce ourselves. I was guarded and cold and insufficiently shod as we crunched along in January snow. I railed about my difficulties and he alluded to ways life could be worse. Our walk was one of my many failed attempts to see Robert Frost's grave, which is somewhere near Bennington. I never saw it because the people I met had already been, or had promised to go with someone else later or rejected the idea entirely because all of Frost's children hated him.

I've come to the end of Land's End. It's a terrible place called Sea Cliff, a community where your Range Rover is parked in the driveway and your second Range Rover is parked on the street. Instead of the glitter of broken glass on the curbs, there's actual glitter (in the shape of champagne bottles, no less). The rich live beside spookily quiet roads circled by private police cruisers. I get a dirty look from an overextended jogger who is probably just worried she accidentally purchased the Lululemon that shows your ass. A rent-a-cop pulls over to tell me how to get to Baker Beach but he's really giving instructions on how to get the fuck out of this neighborhood. I want to ask him for a ride but that seems unwise.

At Bennington, you correspond with your teachers, and Spencer sent me letters on a variety of beautiful stationery, composed on a typewriter and hand-corrected with a pen. I had other professors who had phoned it in (one was singularly focused on making my lines of verse shorter and another told me Parisian anecdotes that appear unchanged in the New Yorker years later (I suppose in poetry you take what work you can get)). But Spencer actually phoned me. He told me he could not makes heads or tails of my poems so we went through my manuscript line by line, adjectival phrase by adjectival phrase, until we were both sick of my work. Explaining at length what each line meant (two and sometimes three meanings) made me see how none--no more than one or two--of the poems were any good.

At the time of this epistolary exchange I was working an 8 to 5 in the same university department where I studied as an undergrad and wanted nothing but to run out the clock on writing school, on the job, on the lease to my apartment. I was done and I wanted the poems to be done too. I thought what I required was a change of scene, a part time job, a lower rent. And after finding each those things all I still lacked was the ability to write publishable poems. Though perhaps I had no idea what I was doing all along--my MFA thesis, archived forever in Crossett Library, is printed in Futura Condensed.

The best letter I got from Spencer was the last, typed on pages as colorfully dotted as funfetti cake. It was not just a final review of my work--about which he was thoroughly bemused and complimentary--but also of my character. He wrote about my initial display of "barely concealed contempt" (I had at one point sent him a DVD copy of Contempt to clarify my feelings) and noted that our relationship had warmed to a "labored tolerance." And there is my epitaph! "Kirk Michael: He Had a Labored Tolerance for the World."

I've popped a couple of stitches at the toe of my shoe following the smaller trails to see more of these blue stones shined to semiprecious sheen. I'm wearing myself out. My calves want it to stop, but it is a pleasure to instead walk faster at these moments. I step away from Baker Beach under a sunset in colors almost as gorgeous as International Orange. I smile in spite of myself and accept that Spencer was correct about my poems and my personality and--as you already know--complete acceptance is always bittersweet.

01 April 2014


The water is the dumped perfume of five hundred years, lavender and Chanel, though she smells better. The boy and girl of the story are alone at a Vaporetto stop, the lagoon a muted spectrum of pigeon feathers. The boy’s eyes are the wet blue of back cover cologne advertisements, his ears iced with imitation stones to show how far he plans to be from his current means. His face is sharpening to hardness, lupine teeth charming even leaning in, like the viscous current, his hair black glistening, spiked sideburns, a single drip of aquavit sweat following the line of his jaw. The girl is three-quarters back to me, summer freckles brushed over her nose, hair as dark as his except where it’s folded in with brunette, her tanned legs drawing away from a short black dress, planted on the jetty, what light there is under the smoked glass overhang on the back of her thighs, the careless hairs.

She’s leaving; he’s not ready to let her go. Sections of her curls are breezed free, she tucks them behind her left ear, he her right, his watch wide as the bottom of a beer bottle and ringed in rhinestones, a smile working its way towards her ear. He shouts a question at the ferryman. I can’t understand the answer but it’s probably that there’s always another one coming, this dusk of aranciata and blood, the thick ropes connecting boat to dock come undone, the canal is a swirl of gasoline, ciao regazzi, her thumb running where his bicep meets bone, the sunset about to light us on fire, his hand at her cheek as we jerk away, her soft features, shining hair touched now with that red American woman forever fail to duplicate, he’s laughing, she left to meet him in a rush, the blue shampoo bottle balanced on the bathroom windowsill, the lingering wave at her temple catching reflections across the canal, she leans, the shampoo bottle leans, it smells of citrus, her balance is perfect, my wobbling ankles rock on the deck, she lifts one foot and wraps it around the back of his knee he buckles into her, the lap of water, shy bubbles of saliva in her teeth, languid jaguar eyes and the power of her jaws working green mint Vivident, he comes whispering into her neck, she laughs hand to mouth, I bob away, she drops her gum on the rotting wood, a black lizard tattoo stretches from triceps to elbow, to the same razor point as his sideburns, the animal on his other arm lost in the shadows, he has a cut on the inside of the thumb and she’s kissing it.

The blades of the motor slice the water and in the eddy I see her first grey hair, her dropped hips in a house dress, the messy bristles of the broom standing on the tiles inside the front door, “It Never Entered My Mind” on the radio, his glass of orange juice and worn cuffs folded up four times, the thick black and white beard down his neck, the faded iguana green ink diffuse over his arm. The proud bridge of his nose, the rheumy water of his eyes as they cast back over Venice.