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Poetry of Blood and Guts

Todd Moore’s Epic on the Life and Times of John Dillinger

By Bill HelmerThe Chicago Reader June 23, 1988

who is that guy & what is he doing
w/his business suits & pistols
why does the air crack a little
when he walks thru it
why do most people throw in their money
or guns at the sound of his name

–Dillinger, by Todd Moore

Todd Moore is a working poet, which is to say that his work gets published, gets praise from reviewers, attracts attention in the poetry community, and sometimes brings him a buck. Not enough to live on, God knows; for that he teaches junior high school English in Belvidere, Illinois. But his achievements are all the more impressive for his contrariness in subject matter, which is not calculated to please the polite-poetry establishment. For present instance, he is now three books into a 21 -volume series titled Dillinger. That’s right: an epic poem about John Dillinger, the bank robber. The new reviewers are eating it up, and the old ones are conceding that it has, ah, merit. Our Dillinger has found his Homer.

Moore’s been publishing in the journals and little magazines since the early 70s, and his book-length works bear titles like The Dark and Bloody Ground, D.O.A., and Point Blank. Blood and guts poetry, which tends to fend off recognition and approval. The fact that he’s getting those anyway must say something. I don’t know if he’s “the greatest poet of the American Plains since Sandburg,” as some guy gushed in the LA Times, but Dillinger has been subscribed to (I guess that would be the term) at $90 the bunch by libraries, including the New York Public; and volume one, The Name Is Dillinger, has made it to the syllabus of an honors course at the University of Toledo.

What attracted the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which is bankrolling Dillinger (the publisher is a small one, Kangaroo Court in Erie, Pennsylvania), was Moore’s feeling for the mind-set and value system of a class and a culture he knows firsthand. Moore hasn’t robbed banks or shot anybody, but he was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Freeport and much of his youth was spent in rented rooms of transient hotels because his alcoholic father couldn’t hold jobs in small towns around Chicago. Growing up in the netherworld between country and city, you get to know the personalities and mentalities of the people who make up the pool of restless, poorly socialized young men from which some kinds of criminals are drawn more by chance and circumstance than by their own conscious effort. Moore sees Dillinger as coming from that pool–an adventuristic kid who committed himself to a criminal career almost accidentally, without losing the same traditional values that permitted lots of despairing Depression Americans to identify with him. They were feeling helpless, powerless, frustrated, and no longer in control of their destinies. At least John Dillinger had taken charge of his.

The profoundly stylish booth that Rick Lopez built and designed for Printer’s Row. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

where the rivers converge
where the forest line thins to cornfields & apple orchards
where the prairie begins & a man w/a stick stands in the field
where my father & all his friends were known by their hats and dreamnames
where horses were still magic
where the civil war came up into the north for awhile
where I first learned about stars & and the smell of milk on my mother’s arm
where I was born & became john dillinger …
dillinger of the fists
ballpark dillinger
loved curve balls the pitcher’s control
w/longest curve possible ball
spinning away as though to
fly into the stands the air as though
it will never complete
the arc it was shot from pitcher’s hand
into yet returns caught in
absolute geometry the sliced semi
circle of air poised before home plate
like a wild ricochet that
couldn’t possibly hit target does
catches corner of the plate for out
that wild control of things I love
control of bullets
control of sheriffs
control of banks
control of money
control of women
coming …

Dillinger had the smarts to know that in those hard days robbing banks wasn’t considered the worst of crimes. Moore reminds that the banks had been robbing the people, after all. And Dillinger’s cocky style had popular appeal, as did the confidence he displayed in any “daring daylight robbery.” With his situational ethics, sweet-and-sour personality, and help from the police and the press, he made it to the top–Public Enemy No. 1. Which expressed the feelings more of the authorities than of a public that didn’t mind some distraction and vicarious adventure to take its mind off its own problems.

dillinger of the stolen cars
dillinger of the names not always dillinger
dillinger of the banks that dillinger & the pistols
dillinger of the reward posters & f b i memos
dillinger of the dossiers
dillinger of j edgar hoover’s bad dreams
dillinger of the newspapers & the radio news dillinger
dillinger of the bars clubs & hooker houses
dillinger of Crown Point
dillinger of Little Bohemia
dillinger of the Chicago Century of Progress …

Moore has always been interested in the style and other qualities that delinquents need, and rarely have, to become world-class criminals. His boyhood friends were petty thieves and burglars, small-towners and small-timers. A lot of them had what Dillinger had: a wonderful can-do attitude that works to the advantage of anyone who doesn’t know his own limitations–and thereby isn’t bound by them. Some went to jail in obscurity because they didn’t have what else Dillinger had: quick wits plus self-discipline and a fatalistic self-control that permitted so many successful acts of daring. He also had a self-awareness and a self-image that was greatly enhanced by the U.S. Justice Department, which needed some archcriminals for political reasons. But that’s another part of the story.

Moore is 50 now, a smallish, nice-looking man, settled, with a wife and two sons, all members of the middle-class intelligentsia. But when coming of age on the fringes of working-class society, he made up for his size by using his brain (reading, reading!), which exposed him to alternatives never considered by his peers. Poorly equipped to be a punk, he had no choice but to take the road less traveled.

Possibly he was saved by his imagination: he could imagine the consequences of criminal actions. And by a high school teacher who scholarshiped him off to Northern Illinois University in 1956, where he wandered around the curriculum and eventually arrived at a BA in English. That ruined him totally for a life of crime. He stayed around for a master’s and ended up teaching–thus following his cultural mandate only to the extent he still avoided honest work.

He found himself a member of respectable society, as surprised by this as a juvenile delinquent is surprised to find himself a wanted criminal. Who, me? All I did was accept a scholarship! By going to college he discovered what young criminals discover–that once you’ve done something major like that, you’re marked, and there’s no turning back. And if you understand what’s happened, you make the most of it. In college, Moore could see himself a victim of benevolent circumstances that permitted his escape from a life-style that often was fatal, one way or another.

He drifted into poetry the way some of his friends had drifted into felonies. One high school buddy is now 33 years into a 99-year sentence for a simple car theft that went sour and ended in the killing of a deputy sheriff with his own shotgun. Likewise, Moore started out with nothing more serious than experimental prose. Now he’s using poetry to open windows to a culture that he knows something about for having lived in it. Respectable society can safely look in and glimpse some of the unconscious frustration, power factors, and effectuality issues that make idle minds the proverbial devil’s workshop.

As he made his way up and out of low-rent society, Moore’s interest in criminality was transplanted to movies and the pulps. These often treat the subject as deliberate wrongheadedness, and miss the mark. But some have recognized it as a naturally occurring phenomenon–a “left-handed way of doing business,” as Louis Calhern says in The Asphalt Jungle. That was a theme in movies about the Prohibition-era gangsters who were organized along business lines. Capone, rising from brothel bouncer to multimillionaire crime lord by the age of 30, was a Horatio Alger figure–a self-made man who took advantage of opportunities. If the ostensible intent of gangster movies was to spotlight corruption for the purpose of reform, they also confirmed that crime was an avenue of upward social mobility.

Crime movies changed in the early 30s, thanks in large part to the Dillinger-style bank robbers. Directors like Archie Mayo and Raoul Walsh emphasized circumstances, personality, and character. Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest and Roy Earle in High Sierra were Dillingers whom Bogart could represent convincingly. In both films, he was the kid from the rural or working-class communities well known to Moore, the flawed kid with certain noble qualities who is driven to crime by the society against which he now wars without hope of winning. He was a role model for stylish losers, but the message he sent was that a life of crime was better than no life at all. And when he lost, he lost big. Which carried another message: Crime Does Not Pay, but it can be a shortcut to immortality.

More than insight, the 30s movies offered vicarious adventure and a brief moral message as ignorable as the warning on a pack of cigarettes. Nor did Moore’s delinquent friends aspire to anything particularly grand. Their transition (if such occurred) from casual lawbreaking to criminal self-awareness could come as a slow awakening or a sudden one, depending on how bright the individual.

face in his lovers’ arms
she holds it little boy of it
she touches his cheeks & mouth
rubs his forehead he sez to
her what do you see there
who is it you see when you
look at me they say you
it’s you johnnie but
is it like the faces in the photos
they answer it’s better
not frozen w/cameras who’s
there he asks who’s in there
who is this guy & what’s he doing
it’s johnnie he’s the one
he’s doing dillinger
her hand across his face
when she sez it
& he thinks
does that change
the way he looks & what he is
does that make him someone else
does that unmake him …

It was about 15 years ago that Moore’s muse and bard teamed up over his discovery of John Dillinger. Here was the kind of young troublemaker that Moore once had run around with: the restless teenage son of a widowed, aging farmer living on the outskirts of the Indiana town of Mooresville (no relation), near Indianapolis. Bright, bored, ballsy; personable and capable when he chose to be; “basically a good boy” in the eyes of locals, despite his rowdiness. Fun-loving, and a first-rate baseball player on a city team who had pro potential, everyone said. A delinquent streak kept him at odds with laws that he and his friends broke mostly for the excitement of it. Then an older guy made it sound like nothing to rip off a local grocer who walked his receipts to the bank each evening for night deposit. Didn’t work, and young Dillinger, age 21 in 1924, promised leniency if he pleaded guilty, got the surprise of his life. His first excursion into violent crime netted him nine years in the joint. Moore sees that as the career move.

In the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City Dillinger accepted his outlaw identity and apprenticed himself to some experienced armed robbers. After his release in May 1933, he smuggled in the guns the others used to break out in September. Three weeks later they returned the favor, Dillinger having gotten himself arrested in the meantime while raising working capital. With everyone finally present, the gang that would soon be known as Dillinger’s began robbing banks in Indiana and all over the midwest.

Todd Moore leans into subject John Dillinger. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

I’m the man w/a gun & cock
I’m the man ready for a fast fuck or bank job
I’m ready to drive 500 miles
I’m ready to act like a tourist so I can talk to cops about myself
I’m ready to leave the country
I’m ready to come back
I’m ready to sleep forever
I’m ready to wake up
I’m ready to give you everything I have
I’m ready to take everything you have & forget I ever did it
I’m mad dog john …

Moore sees a lot of kid in Dillinger, who never made it into responsible adult society before he was locked up. The show-off quality he took into banks–he’d vault over railings, spread smocks on the floor for women tellers to lie down on.

He also was good–fast, organized, unflappable, with a boldness that psyched out the opposition, whether bank guard or president, or the cops who might give chase.

He could be hard–machine-gunned an East Chicago policeman, but only after he told the man to stop shooting at him.

He could be soft–wrote wistful letters to the father who had tried to exorcise his devilishness with sticks; and in the end, made his daddy sadly proud of a son who went wrong but at least amounted to something.

As for women, there was nothing wrong with ol’ John in that department. He never went without, and loved them all. Romanced them with walks in parks and along the Chicago beaches. They knew who he was, he warned them of the risks, worried about them, fixed their teeth, sent money to their lawyers when they faced a harboring charge. None complained.

And thanks to a strange, symbiotic relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger made more law than he broke. He was the ammunition Hoover used to persuade Congress that the automobile had made crime an “interstate” problem requiring a national solution–in the form of new federal laws that would give muscle and teeth to his FBI.

To overcome states’-rights opposition, Hoover needed criminals of mythic proportion to demonstrate the weakness of local law enforcement. So he helped create them–the Pretty Boy Floyds and Baby Face Nelsons and Machine Gun Kellys, and John Dillinger, whose only federal crime in his career was interstate car theft. In Dillinger, he got more than he bargained for. The others were low-rent and mainly elusive; the infamous Machine Gun Kelly never fired a shot in anger, if at all. But Dillinger twice took on the G-men in spectacular gun battles and made them look so foolish, so dangerously trigger-happy, so incompetent, that Hoover came under pressure to resign. The trouble with fostering the Dillinger image was that Dillinger liked it, believed it, and ultimately became it.

The guy had “moxie,” press accounts had made clear from the start. Declaring him Public Enemy No. 1 gave him even larger shoes to fill, and there’s nothing like national recognition to inspire the kind of self-confidence that makes a prophecy self-fulfilling. His reputation alone helped him outrun, outshoot, and outwit the police.

he can see in the faces of people he’s
robbing what they’ll do
a bank guard or cop
reaching for pistol telegraphs his move
even then
even in the middle of shootouts
he’d like to reach out
touch rage
in those lips & cheeks
those eyes
of the shooters
do they know this do they see it in his
face does he blink &
tell them
passing a hand across his mouth
to wipe away a food crumb
or lipstick smear
do they know who this guy is
& what he’s after
can you tell by looking into
a man’s face
how big his cock is
can you tell by looking into
a man’s face how
big his gun is can you
read a man’s fortune from
his face … .
can you read hatred
can you read a man who’s afraid
can you read beyond the shaking behind the eyes … .
these questions
he asks
himself trying
to locate the john dillinger
who sleeps behind that johnnie
smile …

When the gang was captured by fluke in Tucson in January of 1934 and extradited, Dillinger smilingly posed for pictures, trading arms on shoulders with an Indiana prosecutor too befuddled to realize he was blowing his career. And six weeks later he did the impossible: walked out of the brand-new Crown Point jail that was called “escape proof” the way the Titanic was called unsinkable. Waved a wooden pistol (plus a real one, some believe), took two hostages (plus a machine gun, for good luck), stole the lady sheriff’s new Ford V-8, and headed for Chicago singing, “Git along little dogie, git along.” When he let his captives go, he shook hands and apologized for giving them only a couple of bucks for their trouble.

They would have paid a thousand for the experience, if not for the embarrassment.

And get this: despite two months out of circulation, Dillinger took only three days to assemble an ad hoc gang and rob a South Dakota bank of $49,000, a princely sum in 1934. You can’t help but admire a man who’s so able to get things done. And then he did the last thing the most wanted man in America should ever do: went home to Mooresville to spend a few days with family, posing outside for snapshots with his wooden pistol and Thompson submachine gun.

Dillinger also died a legend’s death. He’d once quipped to a gang member, re unreliability, “Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol.” And so it came to pass: he was betrayed by a loving girlfriend’s older woman friend, Anna Sage, the “woman in red,” and gunned down from behind by federal agents as he walked out of the Biograph theater on the sweltering night of July 22, 1934. They never gave him a chance.

Now there are even myths about the legend–that Dillinger’s penis was a whopper and is on display at the Smithsonian. That it wasn’t Dillinger who died outside the Biograph.

So it’s not like poet Moore has nothing to work with.

he stands
beneath theater marquee
staring into clark gable’s face
manhattan melodrama’s the movie
& gable w/slick down hair plays
a gangster
then
dillinger steps up to the box office
trades a dreambook page
a secret message
picture of his father
for one more
dream

The two of us spent a day driving around Chicago, talking Dillinger and visiting Dillinger places. The Biograph still stands, but renovation has left only the original ticket booth and marquee. The alley will stay, I should hope, and it was a little eerie to stand on the spot where Dillinger fell, at the entrance to it, looking at an old newspaper photograph of a pool of blood surrounded by an excited crowd showing off for the camera. Papers described Lincoln Avenue as carnivallike that night, jammed by people, men dipping handkerchiefs, women the hems of their dresses, in Dillinger’s blood. The cops righteously reported that the archcriminal died with only $6.71 in his pockets, testimony to the low wages of sin. However, Anna Sage’s statement to federal agents said he was carrying around $6,000 when they’d left her apartment that night.

(If Moore and I were meant for each other, Moore also was meant for Tom Stern, marketing director of Group W Cable, which has adopted the Muscular Dystrophy Association as its annual public service project. Stern is another Dillinger groupie and this year’s fund-raising extravaganza will be “Dillinger’s Night at the Biograph,” featuring food, light booze, newsreels, Manhattan Melodrama, a Dillinger look-alike contest, antique automobiles, door prizes, and Todd Moore, who has been declared MDA’s poet laureate for the occasion.)

We toured other places, including a shabby hotel in the 3500 block of Sheffield where Anna Sage had operated before she met Dillinger. I referred to it casually as a flophouse; Moore corrected me, for he’d lived in ones like it as a kid. The family had been poor but weren’t bums was his point.

The McCready Funeral Home on Sheridan, just south of Wilson, where Dillinger’s body was taken, now houses a social-service agency for American Indians.

The house on Pulaski where Dillinger had his plastic surgery is gone, replaced by a commercial building next to a defunct gas station.

A college now occupies the spot on Wilson just west of Broadway, across from the fire station, where Polly Hamilton was working as a cafe waitress when Dillinger met her. It was her friend, a Romanian immigrant turned brothelizer, who betrayed him for $15,000 in reward money and a promise from G-man Melvin Purvis that he’d help her beat the deportation she faced for her immoral ways. Anna Sage got $5,000 and they deported her anyway. Served the bitch right. She died in Romania in 1947; no one knows what happened to Polly.

We ended up at Dillinger’s, a new bar and grill a few doors up Lincoln from the Biograph, looking for cheeseburgers. We’d missed the lunch period, and now the menu was kinda yuppie–everything smoked, mismatched, and too expensive. Made me glad John wasn’t alive to see it. And the idea of his raising money to fight a disease: that was something we decided was not out of character, for in his last days Dillinger actually entertained the idea of seeking a pardon so he could make movies and speak to American youth on the evils of crime. Look, nobody said he was realistic. That’s probably what made him such a good bank robber.

At four o’clock, to beat the traffic, Todd Moore shook hands and headed back to Belvidere, his family, his classes, and his epic poem, with 18 volumes to go.

if he woke up one morning
& he didn’t have the same face
as the one on reward posters
what wd he do
start all over again w/banks
this time he’d use a whole new technique
no leaping the old face
owned that style
he’d learn to walk thru walls
he’d learn to levitate doors & vaults
he’d learn to turn bullets
w/just glances
or if that didn’t work
he’d learn to master the art of shifting
all his vital organs before bullet impact
overcome ripping shock of slugs
tearing thru flesh
imagine
walking thru a wall of gunfire
taking half a dozen hits & moving
on w/out showing or even having pain
a little blood coming out of the wounds
but the very idea of not thinking about
being shot stops the bleeding
technique of healing yourself before
you’re hurt
that magic
or the evil eye
technique of looking of throwing murderous
looks feeling something heavy & black
lift off you off your face
& land upon the face of another
smooth slam of power
from your face
thrust of fists moving
at a great velocity from your eyes
you can actually feel that muscled
dancing behind your eyes
even when you’re smiling
even when you’re dancing
or rolling in the sheets
w/your lover
dillinger staring
into his face …

Author and Publisher take a break from the mayhem. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

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