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ETERNITY IN A GRAIN OF SAND
(WYOMING IN MANHATTAN)
by Becket Knottingham
I'd heard trying to sleep through the spring thunder,
As the stormy March sky drew lightning's sword,
I dreamed it was God beginning to wonder.
And I dreamed I was captain of a ship,
I dreamed of a loyal crew about me,
Sailing the world wide web at a great clip,
With my soul's keel thundering across the sea.
And I dreamed poetry rhymed once again,
And they were building marriages to last,
That lovers set flowing verse down in pen,
Children didn't have to grow up so fast.
And when I awoke, I saw it could be,
I could break through the fog with poetry.
So I packed my pack with some old sonnets,
And bought a ticket to New York City,
A fisher of men, from words I weave nets,
Bid farewell to the Southern spring so pretty.
And I watched America's city recede,
As I rose in the Carolina blue,
And I recalled all we ever really need,
Are those deep-down things that we always knew.
Away up there--I'd never felt so free,
The tide was turning, and this was my chance,
No denying what spring'd thundered to me,
Beyond the fog I'd glimpsed a renaissance.
I wanted peace, but I knew it would take war,
To gain the eternal soul's pristine shore.
For I knew well the cynics' cruel weapons,
How postmodernists kill with irony,
But yet, their best--it only ever stuns,
While they burn so fast in rhyming beauty.
To gain the rainbow you must know the storm,
And fierce, dark clouds swirled rain at JFK,
It's only by winter that spring is warm,
And a cold March wind blew through the subway.
The Taxi driver said he did not know,
Where Central Park's ducks went in the winter,
But my friend was in Cats, and after the show,
We went out in Chelsea and I asked her.
But before she could answer, she was high,
She'd given up--didn't even know why.
And if someone has to go it alone,
If it's for poetry, I'll volunteer,
If somebody has to remain unknown,
Then I'll take the helm, you can stay right here.
For working for money's too great a risk,
A poet doesn't need an IPO,
For the same wind that carries truth shall whisk
these poems about the globe, and all shall know.
Out here the internet's not 'bout money,
And words aren't about building a brand,
Beyond the irony where one can see,
The eternity in a grain of sand.
And if, and if I can show it to you,
It's only because this you always knew.
An undercover rebel, on the run,
Amongst the tourists touring through Time's Square,
With the dazzling lights brighter than the sun,
It could be hard to hear her solemn prayer.
For something a little bit deeper now,
For a promise, a promise that would last,
For an ideal a bit higher than the Dow,
Which would endure when all else joined the past.
I didn't say it, but I saw it there,
Deep within, behind her soft, subtle eyes,
And to say it, you know I didn't dare,
For I was undercover, in disguise.
It was too dangerous to write her a line,
For in New York rhyming truth is a crime.
Then I was on the Tribecca rooftop,
Found her again, though she was someone new,
I wanted to go slow, wanted to stop,
And talk about all that we had been through.
And it's hard to describe a pretty girl,
There're so many levels, but I love the eyes,
Ageless and timeless, they'll never unfurl,
And deeper beauty in honesty lies.
But then I heard they were looking for me,
A posse of postmodern editors,
With their deputy critics after me,
And I saw feminists guarding the doors.
Outnumbered again, couldn't stand my ground,
And then I was gone when she turned around.
But in the East Village, I forget when,
Saw her again, pretty's easy to find,
She couldn't tell--I don't carry a pen,
But I write the poetry in my mind.
And it's funny how someone can hold you,
Without touching, but only with their eyes,
A smile, hearkening back to something true,
Wished I could stay, but I'd blow my disguise.
Then I'm lost--the Soho fog's gotten thick,
My friends all gone, walking night's streets alone,
Where Hope feels like a candle's dying wick,
And on the wind you can hear Faith's voice blown.
She whispers, "my friend, my friend, I believe,
For poetry's death I also do grieve."
And can't you see that it's all connected?
Rhyme, meter, romance, this great New York night,
That when our faith in God is neglected,
Life loses meaning and love becomes trite.
And I know that that was why she told me,
That today's poetry means naught to her,
The elite modern poets think they're free,
But life's a prison without honest prayer.
Then it's midnight, drinking wine with dinner,
With two pretty girls from Mississippi,
Then it's 3 A.M., and she's sitting near,
On a piano bench in the City.
And I dared not speak when she leaned too close,
Played Pachabel's Canon, maintained my pose.
I think I saw a ring on her finger,
Felt the romance of what would never be,
And how those we never kiss can linger,
The lost moment becomes eternity.
It was just before dawn when I realized,
That she had never given me her name,
So pretty sleeping, but she was disguised,
In hiding our hearts, we both were the same.
I guess we'd just heard it too many times,
Romance must die so cynicism can live,
Tired of being persecuted for our crimes,
We hid our judgment, asked God to forgive.
"My name's Wyoming," she awoke to say,
Then closed those sky eyes, and drifted away.
Late night Madison Ave. when ghosts arise,
Saw one over St. Patrick's Cathedral,
I ducked in the Waldorf, and closed my eyes,
And the sweet angel, she began to fall.
Followed me into the Helmsley Hotel,
All the extravagance and fineries,
Were a wooden frame to a Southern Belle,
Wearing all black, she could kill with such ease.
When you think of Venus she comes to mind,
And all the Met's paintings--they can't compete,
But I knew, I knew she could make me blind,
To the task I had come here to complete.
I'd learned the art of writing poetry,
To pen rather than touch her mystery.
Stood on her balcony, looking out West,
And she came up behind me, took my hand,
Said she knew the feeling--she couldn't rest,
When there were things she couldn't understand.
From Midtown, I could hear the West calling,
But I don't think it was Silicon Valley,
And in Manhattan the culture was falling,
Resounding throughout Silicon Alley.
And I wasn't all that sure, where to go,
Editors, VCs, they'll never believe,
In anything they don't already know,
But I knew, I knew it was time to leave.
And in the dawn's fog, I saw three tall masts,
He who signs aboard shall be he who lasts.
And the great ship docked on her balcony,
Flying a skull'n'bones, armed to the teeth,
I climbed aboard, and Wyoming joined me,
Headed West as New York awoke beneath.
And though I'd come to talk to editors,
It'd turned out I just didn't have the time,
To walk the fog down there, knocking on doors,
I'd been too busy dancing with New York's rhyme.
And so often it is that when we roam,
The new sights are things we see in ourselves,
It's on the road that we finally find home,
The poems in her heart were but closed books on shelves.
In silicon I saw eternity,
And the Jolly Roger--she set us free.
Call me Ishmael. Not so long ago I found myself back in New York, walking the windy spring streets around Times Square, trying to find a place I couldn't get out of my mind ever since I'd first found it there a couple years back. Perhaps it was too formidable a task, for the place was not so much a physical locale, nor a building, but it was more of a feeling. The doorway to it had been inside the Times Square Brewery, and though the Brewery was still there, the doorway to the feeling was gone, and search as I might, I could not find her again amongst the passing faces.
Within the story of this search lies the foundations for THE JOLLY ROGER POETRY & PIANO PUB, which we sailed ashore one foggy night a couple weeks ago, and opened for business on Manhattan's upper East side. To me a tavern should be like a good poem--her meaning should deepen every time you return, and yet her ultimate mystery must never be apprehended, so that you keep coming back. And like a poem, a pub is best created in honor of a mystic memory, like the tombstone of Gatsby's great mansion, which was built in honor of a fantastic dream of that which would never again be. And it should also be a place where you can hang out with some old Midwestern buddies and talk about The Federalist Papers over a Guinness. Upon the walls of many reputable taverns I have seen engraved famous quotes by the likes of Melville and Frost and Yeats, but I've yet to be in a pub where the quotes can be heard in the conversations. Until recently.
I remember well that night I found the place, when I saw a ghost over St. Patrick's Cathedral. I had been flown to the city to meet a publisher, and having little more to do than get over a cold at around midnight in my hotel room, I called Greg--an old Ohio friend--and left a message on his machine for him to meet me out at the Times Square Brewery. I had first seen the Brewery earlier that evening, from the taxi on the way to the hotel. I was supposed to be staying with Greg over the weekend--he was a good high school buddy from Akron, and I figured I'd try to meet him out that night.
So there I was at the Brewery, standing in the shadows and people watching, which is a unique experience in Times Square, as nobody that you see have you ever seen before, and you can be fairly certain that you will never see any of them again. There were three guys hitting on two pretty girls who were attempting to enjoy their glasses of white wine at the bar--I'd actually noticed the girls poster shopping earlier on 47th Street--that's the kind of pretty they were. They kept ignoring the guys to talk to each other, and after a small eternity, one of the guys finally took the hint and dragged his friends away from their victims. I waited awhile, gathering the courage that it takes to look like you don't need time to gather courage, and then figuring I could do no worse than the previous act, I walked up to the girls.
"Hey--is this a girl's night out?™"
"What are you reading?" I noticed one of them had a book kind of sticking out of her little black back pack, and I was thankful for the discussion topic.
"I just bought it--some guy was selling them on the street."
She held out a copy of Moby Dick--the kind with the deluxe binding and gold-embossed covers.
"Some guy was selling Moby Dicks?"
"He was selling all the classics--this was only five bucks. I heard it was good."
We got to talking, and I found out they were both doing PR work in the City, or at least one was, and the other would be soon. I caught the inflections of a Southern accent, and it turned out they'd been in the same sorority down in Mississippi. And when I got around to explaining how Greg had ditched me, I decided to exact revenge on my good friend.
"You guys should come over for dinner on Friday. My friend Greg has dinner parties every Friday."
At first they didn't quite believe me, and Caroline asked if Greg was gay, as she worked in the fashion industry at Ralph Lauren, and all her male coworkers were always having dinner parties. Susan and Caroline were their names, and I got Caroline's email before they headed back to her place in Chelsea--I told them I'd email them directions to Greg's. They promised me they'd come to dinner, and they said they'd bring the wine and flowers.
At first I'd figured they'd probably have boyfriends, but I have heard that nice girls often stay single in New York city, as a few vindictive feminists and their liberal brethren have degraded the culture to such an extent that the higher ideals have been lost in the postmodern fog, along with the pristine feminine, the noble masculine, and enduring, eternal romance. But I'm a believer in those finer things, and I have always found poetry wherever I walked. And though the New Yorker didn't publish it, I figured that cool poetry had to exist in Manhattan, and so I'd invited them to dinner.
Well the next day I met with the publisher/editor I'd been flown up to meet, and it kinda felt funny, as she was about my age, but she seemed so much older, so much more corporate, professional, tired, and out of it--she hadn't even looked at my website yet--and yet she wanted to talk to me about a jollyroger.com manuscript, even though the website was where all the renaissance action had been going on for the past five years. The Good Ship had already left port, and she was sitting there on her MFA throne, like she was going to decide if my words were seaworthy enough for the good people of this country--it was bit too much for a poet or a pirate to tolerate, or anyone who had tasted the wild, wondrous freedom afforded by technological innovation. And then when she started talking about some David Foster Wallace reading she'd been at the night before, where with all her great clients like Maria Shriver and Magic Johnson and John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, I kinda stopped listening. I'll do that a lot--I'll smile and nod, but meanwhile I'm thinking about if Caroline and Susan are really going to show. "One time, in my creative workshop, David Foster Wallace wrote a sentence that didn't mean anything, and it was really cool, and subversive too." The editor totally reminded me of this one girl who'd been on the yearbook staff in high school who was always trying to get me to write stuff for it--I know it was rude, but I started looking out the window--any kind of a renaissance was going to be a long, hard road with these guys driving. "One time, at band camp…"
Meeting publishers explained a lot about why a lot of them kept going under and getting bought out by the huge conglomerates, and I didn't exactly get a huge buzz going when I thought about working with them. I'm sure there were cool editors out there, but that week I was pretty much down on my luck. They didn't seem very entrepreneurial--it seemed they'd rather listen to Jedediah Purdy preaching about the dark evils of Wired than learn some linux. And it seemed a lot of them didn't love classic literature all that much either--at least not enough to defend it to the death, which is what it usually takes. They didn't write Great Books, they didn't read Great Books, and they didn't publish Great Books--it was kinda hard to figure out exactly what they did. They didn't want to sign their souls aboard The Jolly Roger--they wanted a three day cruise in the Bahamas. It's like they scorned both the classics and the cutting-edge technology, and now they were stranded on a small island of postmodern pomp and circumstance, with Oprah's book club and powerpoint presentations from their marketing departments.
Showing up in New York after reaching the world on the WWW kind of reminded me of that scene from the Odyssey, where Odysseus returns home from his arduous adventures to find everyone partying in his house, trying to score with his wife. That's what the literary industry is these days--everyone's partying with Madonna and Maria Shriver, trying to score with a Great Book, where those who really own them are out there on the road writing them, battling the Cyclops and one-eyed giant bureaucrats and everything. And if you've ever read the Odyssey, you'll know that none of the guests ever scored with Penelope--she was faithful to Odysseus the whole way through--she waited for him until he returned, and that much hasn't changed over the past five thousand years. But postmodernists are always trying to subvert romance's rules.
At first Greg didn't believe me when I told him two Southern Belles were coming over for dinner--back in Ohio we were always kidding about things like this, like the one time Greg spent a few weeks calling this one girl Marsha Wagner and pretending he was me, and all of a sudden she showed up at my house for a party one Friday night--my mom'd answered the door, and when she'd called me down, that was the first time I'd ever talked to Marsha. We actually headed out to see one of the Lethal Weapon movies, as soon as we figured out what was up. My mom thought she was a very nice girl, and she thought it was very rude that I'd told her I was having a party just to get her to come over.
But Greg started believing me about our dinner date when I offered to buy the supplies, under his tutelage of course, unless he wanted Grapenuts. So we headed out and walked about twenty blocks to get some salmon, and then we grabbed a taxi to another place to get the salad stuff, and then we grabbed another cab and stopped by a Starbucks to get some of their new Mocha Moby Mint coffee ice cream for desert, and then we caught another cab on home--that's how you get food for dinner in New York--you hire a travel agent.
Well they finally ended up coming to dinner, about two hours late, as is the fashion in Mississippi, they explained. We (Greg) fired up the salmon, and they'd brought two bottles of wine which were pretty good--I don't know all that much about wine beyond how to drink it, but one of his roommates was reading one of the bottles the next morning, and he said something about how one bottle must've cost twice as much as dinner.
After dinner, we watched some old eighties videos from Ohio which Greg had--I'll put them online someday so you can see me dancing as Michael Jackson in "Beat It", just as soon as I figure out how to make it pay-per-view. I remember how pretty it all was in Greg's room, with all his candles lit, and his front-street Madison Ave. view through the huge window in his room which was big enough to land an airplane in--Greg was an internet entrepreneur. And they told us how they'd meant to give a friend their cell phone number so that she could call and check up on them, and make sure that they weren't being tortured nor murdered somewhere in New York, and Greg told them how the apartment wasn't even his, and that we had tied up the owners and thrown them in the closet, and just then one of his apartment-mates came home with flowers, and Caroline right away said "there're the flowers I ordered," and it was pretty funny, but mostly who comes home at midnight with a bunch of flowers anymore? And his roommate Dan with the flowers took out the Santanna and put in his new Crosby, Stills and Nash CD, and Susan told us that she had been Ms. Glam-O-Rama on MTV's spring break '97, which was easy to believe when you thought about it, and then she started saying how nobody writes things with language as pretty as that found in Moby Dick anymore, and how she wished she could, and I would've fallen in love with her right then, because she just did, but I was already pretty far gone. And then, about 2 AM, just when Caroline was saying she was tired, it happened. We decided to go to the Waldorf Astoria.
On case you've never been there, the Waldorf Astoria is a big old hotel--I'd been there for a couple formals back when I'd attended Princeton. If you walk in those places like you know what you're doing, the desk people won't stop you or anything, and as we had Caroline and Susan with us, we looked like we knew what we were doing. We found the grand old Waldorf ballroom, which was dimly illuminated through the great windows by the streetlights, and sure enough, there was the Steinway in the shadows--a grand, and she was in tune, too. Greg borrowed two bottles of wine from somewhere, and we gathered 'round the piano and I started playing Guns 'n' Roses "November Rain." It's all I could remember. "/Nothing lasts forever/and we both know hearts can change/and it's hard to hold a candle/in the cold November rain." Boy, was that the truth these days, walking around in the postmodern fog. When it came to poetry, Axl kicked the whole New Yorker/Tea & Crumpets crowd's collective ass. It'd been awhile, but it's an awesome piano song, and it's always fun playing when you haven't played for years. Then I performed all the pieces of all the Journey songs I could remember, and some Pink Floyd, and then Bob Seger's "we've got tonight," all the while passing the bottles around. After awhile I started in on Pachabel's Canon, and Caroline joined in on the melody--she could play--she'd said she couldn't, but she could--she was really good. And the security guard finally kicked us out at 4 AM, which completed the gothic romance--we'd been caught.
And that's the New York I was trying to find the other night, not so long ago. I was out looking for someone to share a piano bench with me. And as the March drizzle sputtered on down by the haloed streetlights on Madison Ave., I just couldn't go home quite yet.
I ducked in some club and paid the huge cover charge to go hear a band, but pretty soon the lead singer started reminding me of those Priceline commercials, so I took off. "And I wanted to get out of here, and go, but I needed to rent a car, so I named my own price. I'm free as a bird now! Love me!"
And as I walked on through Soho, watching everyone catching cabs on home as the rain started soaking on through my jacket, I was thinking about something that Caroline had said around 3 A.M. at the Waldorf a couple years back--I hadn't really been listening, as I'd been playing piano, but now it was haunting me--I ducked into another dark bar to find her, but I couldn't, and I'd never felt so invisible--everyone was looking through me. I don't know why I was thinking about it now, but Caroline had been telling us how she'd never smoked dope, and she'd just broken up with some guy who had smoked--who had smoked a lot, who had joked that if ever they had a son, he was going to smoke with him. And Caroline told us how she'd been trying to explain why smoking dope was wrong to him, but the thing was, she couldn't. She couldn't, and yet she was right. And that was the whole crux of the matter here--we shouldn't have to explain God. There was something beautiful within her, which transcended reason, which opposed the status quo and common wisdom, which was because it was, and I don't know, but when you glimpse God in someone, and you're too busy playing piano, and it hits you a couple years later, well there's not too much else you can do other than take to the streets to try and find them and tell them that you understood--that you understand. That you understand and that you think it's beautiful.
And that's when I got the idea. If I built it, she would come. She would someday walk in the door, and this time I'd listen a little more closely, for the years had taught me how rare those simple sentiments can be. And so it is that the first JOLLY ROGER PIANO & POETRY PUB has docked in New York.
And I want this to be a place of the simple treasures. When you walk aboard for the first time, I want it to be like the first time that you read The Catcher in The Rye, or the first time you tasted literature's glory when you read Joseph Conrad's Youth for English class in high school, or the first time you heard Beethoven's ninth in its entirety. I want these decks to be a place of that most perfect silence that Beethoven knew when he composed the Ninth Symphony, when he built a magnificent tower on the simple foundations of the first five notes of the C major scale. For in New York these simple treasures seemed so hard to find--and that was kind of ironic, as New York was supposed to be the center and circumference of higher culture--I mean ask anyone. There were hundreds of literary agents and hundreds of publishers, and thousands of critics, and yet the middlemen somehow seemed to be crowding out the true poets--'cause I know they're out there--thousands of them have signed aboard jollyroger.com. Whereas a poet's task is to serve the people, the middleman's principle task is to muscle their way in-between the poets and the people, with all the idealism, optimism, and tact of a postmodern bureaucracy. And it seemed after awhile that a lot of them were in the literary business not so much because they loved poetry, but because they loved postmodernism--because they loved themselves.
And middlemen and postmodernsim are a bad mix, as the result is a most formidable bureaucracy, which is interested in neither preserving nor furthering anything but itself. Postmodernism exalts liberal critics by razing higher aesthetic standards, and the ambitious middlemen who religiously subscribe to postmodern tenets appoint themselves as the sole arbiters of what constitutes good art. In the absence of objective standards, the middlemen and critics reign supreme, and it kind of becomes an inside-joke-country-club dictatorship for the liberal elite, or for anyone who has ambitions overshadowing their talents. And it didn't help too much that they had all attended the same creative writing workshops. Back at Princeton I had always wondered--since creative writing cannot be taught, what would happen to all the people who majored in it--who excelled at it? And now I knew. They had become the pessimistic middlemen--the stolid enforcers of their private cynicism and their misdefinitions of irony, the scuttlers of once noble publications such as The New Yorker, the obfuscators and deconstructors of the higher ideals by which all romance is born. And the ironic snobs of cynicism had to rely upon irony and cynicism for the simple reason that they had nothing intrinsic to be snobbish about. They weren't working to deepen the night nor enrich the context--they weren't writing poetry that anyone would want to read, nor were they publishing it, nor were they editing nor representing it, nor were they soliciting it, but they were striving to get to know all the right people so they could party with Sting and Hillary, and someday represent one of their ghost-written books. I don't know, but perhaps "literary" isn't the best adjective to place before "agent" anymore. But I did know this, metered rhyme yet lived upon the city streets.
Greg's aunt and uncle had owned a small antique shop over on E. 52nd street in New York, not all that far from the Waldorf, and as they were retiring to go live in North Carolina, it all made perfect sense. I knew Greg would be into opening THE JOLLY ROGER PIANO & POETRY PUB, and no sooner had I spoken the proposed name that his eyes lit up and he said, "let's do it!"
And I know it's going to fall short of the fleeting moments spent playing the piano in the Waldorf that one mystic New York night. I know the angles of intent and the mysteries of her methods are most likely lost forever, and that I will never hear her voice again. I know it'll all fall short of how we crossed over to the Helmsley, sneaked on by the sleeping security guard, and rode the elevators to the top to watch the sunrise over Manhattan--I know THE JOLLY ROGER PIANO & POETRY PUB will play host to people who do not comprehend these finer elements, but as captain of the Good Ship, I shall never stop believing that they can learn to. If they look on the walls of this pub where all of Shakespeare's sonnets are rendered in the most perfect silence, if they look on our bookshelves where they can browse and buy the Great Books, if they attend our weekly poetry readings which combine the classics with the contemporary, then they'll be well on their way upon this classical voyage.
MTV is driven by continually polling teenagers about what they want, whereas jollyroger.com has always been about telling them what they need. The pop culture industry must continually invent new fads and fashions to fill the company's coffers, but since money is not our fundamental motivation, we are free to relish that which never changes, and live that deeper, fuller life as we walk amongst the eternal community of souls. We have the luxury of finding the words for God's immutable tenets, within all we read and write.
Let the skull'n'bones be a warning to all ye imposter critics and postmodern marketers--this pub is for the classics--MTV's just a couple blocks a way in Times Square, and postmodernism has its place. Madison Ave. might mean fashion and advertising to ye, but to us it represents James Madison, as we're interested not in the superficial, but in the first principles. So show some respect for the captain and the crew, and read Federalist #10 before ye enter--we'll always keep a copy of the Federalist Papers at the door for yer benefit. It's just us in here--you, me, and the Greats. And every time ye turn off Madison Ave. to get here, ye'd be wise to remember what Madison wrote when he was twenty one:
However nice and cautious we may be in detecting the follies of mankind, and framing our economy according to the precepts of Wisdom and Religion, I fancy there will commonly remain with us latent expectation of obtaining more than ordinary happiness and prosperity till we feel the convincing argument of actual disappointment. Though I will not determine whether we shall be much the worse for it if we do not allow it to intercept our views for a future state, because strong desires and great hopes instigate us to arduous enterprises, fortitude, and perseverance. Nevertheless, a watchful eye must be kept on ourselves, lest while we are building ideal monuments of renown and bliss here, we neglect to have our names enrolled in the annals of Heaven.