Think Think Think
I write most of my poems from a little room on the second floor of a crumbling Spanish colonial in an old neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska. Two wide windows face west, sky and tree-tops staring me down day after night after day after night. Powerlines and rooftops, rain and robins, and, once—though I was so high I doubted my bleary eyes—a showdown between thirty cardinals and three bluejays, which ended with a jay’s Stuka-dive calamitous slam three feet from my face. Sky must be reflected on the glass, because birds wham into it all the time. I notice with a start, then peer down to see a small, still form on a little sun-room roof one story below. If I look away, they disappear.
For all this weirdness and wonder, the swath of this vista usually bores me. I was very bored the January morning I wrote “Hard-Headed Mantra” (Superstition #20), leafless dark trees throwing up their hands to the wintry whiteout that swaddles Omaha four months of the year, my cold bones wrapped in flannel, brain ricocheting with restless cravings for something to do and to be. For years upon years I had filled those empty hours with intoxicants, churring through the lonely hours like a June-bug, sickly as a summer cold in any weather. But those draughts were done the day I wrote the poem. What to do, then?
My AA sponsor has always said if you have nothing to write about, write about nothing. He says Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for writing about nothing, so I might as well write about nothing, too. So there I was, restless and moody as any addict, with no salve for my jangled nerves. A poem, then.
Ted Kooser once told me he always reads a poem before he attempts to write, as a kind of mental calisthenics, so ever the dutiful acolyte, I soon found myself appraising C. Dale Young’s “Between the Dragon and the Phoenix”, which opens “Fire in the heart, fire in the sky, the sun just / a smallish smudge resting on the horizon / out beyond the reef that breaks the waves” before delving into memories of father and son and the ambiguities therein. I loved his roiling rhythm, his painterly images, the high-tension wire between generations thrumming, and thought I might launch out from his reef into my own, more wintry, reverie.
And so I did, conjuring the not-much around and within me that January of 2017 before leaping into the fraught past I share with a man I once hated but have come somewhat begrudgingly to love. The poem tells the story, so there’s not much need to elaborate, but in my emotion recollected in boredom I did make an epiphanic leap between the casual cruelties he larded upon my youthful head and the dazed drunk I eventually became. I mean to imply no causality, but surely the seeds of my later ruin were planted not by his hard hand, but by the lazing, mazing, dozing days of my youth, when I filled the idle hours with daydreams and space operas, comic books and candy. He seemed to find me and my methods contemptible, and perhaps, I now realize, I protested—to myself only, for he brooked no opposition—too much. I always thought I was unique, especially gifted, golden…but it turned out I was just a drifting boy who became a man adrift.
I haven’t dosed since September 30th, 2014, but still I struggle to incite myself into productive action, and find myself staring out that window at a world built for the whims of others. And eight miles to the west, my father does the very same nothing.