What I’m trying to imagine is the first time that Shakespeare realizes that Hamlet is Hamlet. What I’m trying to imagine is that moment when Shakespeare knows that Hamlet is something more than some lines in a play he’s writing. What I’m trying to realize is that instant when Shakespeare is having a drink with a friend and Hamlet walks past him in that tavern and then glances back. What I’m trying to imagine is Shakespeare waking up in the middle of the night to find Hamlet sitting on the edge of the bed.
Or, think of Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky is walking down a crowded city street and a nervous young man rushes past, half whispering under his breath and his coat parts for the briefest of seconds and Dostoevsky catches the shape and glint of a hatchet blade inside. Or, think of Raskolnikov following Dostoevsky down a shadowy alley, always just a few feet behind. Or, think of Raskolnikov sitting just a table away in a restaurant staring at Dostoevsky unblinkingly, staring and mouthing words that Dostoevsky is unable to make out. Or, think of Raskolnikov waiting on the street outside Dostoevsky’s apartment. Just waiting there and staring up at the window where Dostoevsky is watching just behind a curtain. And, in each of these instances Dostoevsky is beginning to feel something way back in his very core tremble a little.
And, maybe Huck Finn was always just underneath Mark Twain’s skin. A slight touch of him, a twitch, a nerve end quivering. And, whenever Twain went near a river or a stream he could feel Huck moving around restlessly inside. He’d seen a hundred Hucks, maybe even a thousand Hucks along the banks of the Mississippi, or on the San Francisco waterfront. A thousand Hucks just itching to light out for the territory, any territory so they could get the hell out because america is the place to escape from and the territory to escape to. And america is the territory of all territories, the hole in the wall for every outlaw poet and river rat in the world.
And, I’m trying to imagine Ahab in any given seaport lunging down the street on that whalebone leg. Lunging through mobs of seamen with a rage of energy piling out of his face. I’m trying to imagine Ahab asleep and his bed has become a whaleboat and the white whale is a solid wall before him and I’m trying to imagine Melville dreaming this. Or, it’s not really a dream but an assault of images coming at him while Hawthorne is trying to or trying not to explain the meaning of the Scarlet Letter and Melville doesn’t hear him or hears him and watches Ahab reaching for that white wall of fury. I’m trying to imagine that and while I see it I can feel Melville begin to shake imperceptibly. Hawthorne doesn’t notice it because Melville’s shaking takes place inside, originates from the marrow as the epicenter of all quakes and drives out toward the blood.
And, Ginsberg. I can’t imagine madness but I can imagine howling. I can see a mouth taking shape in the half dark. I can see the shape of the mouth and the way that it works against itself as though it is trying to eat itself, as though it is trying to devour itself in the american darkness. I can see Ginsberg pacing back and forth between his bed and his typewriter. He gets a line and types it out and the goose bumps are forming along both forearms and it is summer but suddenly he feels so cold with poetry that he has to walk to shake off the chill. And, then the words pile up inside him so much that he has to sit down and type and the typing is a form of his rage and his fury and he types as quickly as possible until his hands start shaking and then he has to go and sit on the bed and it is back and forth like this because the poem won’t let him be quiet or comfortable or warm and the mouth is back howling and trying to devour as much of itself as possible.
And, I can imagine Baudelaire walking in Paris. Just walking it is night and he is walking because any kind of movement will shake off the demons which are also the poems that he is getting always walking the night air is bracing but the poems are heating him up from the inside he loves that feeling and also the feeling that he can just reach out in the air and grab a magical sentence it is hovering near him above him swirling around him and he passes a prostitute she smiles at him and suddenly she is a poem and is in a poem and he is in love with the poem and her cheap perfume and the night it feels as though he is flying into and out of himself he is vibrating through a whole swarm of poems death and flowers and evil and love are his muses he is crawling with words.
I’m trying to imagine the very first time Cormac McCarthy channelled Judge Holden. By channel I mean saw, by channel I mean envisioned, by channel I mean discovered, by channel I mean beheld. And, yes, I know there was a real Judge Holden but that Judge could never have been the one McCarthy created. That Judge could never have been a seven foot tall albino with superhuman strength and total mythic and godlike knowledge. That Judge could never have been so murderous and immortal. I’m trying to imagine McCarthy maybe hiking out into the Sonoran Desert it’s a hot day and the heat is coming off the earth in waves and McCarthy is playing a game of pretend while he walks because it passes the time he pretends he is B. Traven and Fred C. Dobbs is walking toward him leading a pack mule loaded with gold dust and wouldn’t it be wonderful to come across a treasure like that what would he do with that much money and suddenly McCarthy finds himself walking in the shadow of a very tall man a man who is blindingly white but somehow needs no protection from the sun’s rays because his skin refuses to burn and this man is talking is telling McCarthy about the secret key to the universe as well as a story about violence and love and scalps and death and the fate of an america so in love with its murder and that may have been that could easily have been the nano second flash and birth of the infamous Judge Holden. Or, maybe not but even if it wasn’t I’d still love to believe it was.
The only way that I can dream about how other writers created that character of all characters that nightmare epic of all nightmare epics, that poem of all poems is that I know how it happened to me. I know how I felt. I remember that shot of something shooting up my spine when I realized that Dillinger was my treasure of the sierra madres, was my Ahab and white whale, was my Raskolnikov, was my Judge Holden. And, it isn’t so much remembering what actually happened as it is remembering what mythically happened. I know it was a Saturday night in April, 1976 and I was restless and bored and excited and exhausted. I wanted to run the hundred yard dash full out revved to the max and I wanted to grab a book off the shelf and read a thousand pages and I wanted to tell someone a story that went on forever and I wanted to walk on the ceiling and I wanted to play tag with a rattler. I wanted something I wanted everything I wanted the everything of nothing I wanted to kidnap death’s shadow and ransom it back to him. The short Dillinger poems I’d been working on to make a sequence were stalled going nowhere I wanted a drink I wanted to be so drunk with everything that the words coming out of my mouth would catch fire. Then the title ignited me. I had the title first before I had anything else but because I had that title I also realized that I owned the poem. The Name Is Dillinger. The whole thing was so obvious and simple like finally inserting the frozen key into the white hot lock. And, the door opened wide. And, suddenly it felt as though I was assaulting my black steel Royal, arm wrestling the words out of the worm hole of its darkness.
Finding Achilles, finding Huck Finn, finding Song of Myself, finding Ahab, finding Raskolnikov, finding A Season In Hell, finding Holden, finding Hamlet, finding Dillinger. These are the singular and primal moments of a writing life. The only way I can describe what happened is to imagine it, to dream it all back as though it was happening for the very first time. We live along a fault line of visions and dreams. Little bolts of lightning wait in our clothes.