History is a nightmare that I’m trying to invent. Propped against the desk next to my right leg is a running iron which stands about knee high. I bought it from an old man at a flea market out in the country. The tag hanging by a string from the iron curled tip read, branding iron, twenty bucks. I picked it up, ran my fingers down the hand forged length of it and said, where’s the sign. What sign you talken about, the old man asked. You, know, the sign. Like the Bar T, the Rocking Y, the Circle Ten. The sign for the outfit, the ranch where this was used. The old man cocked his beaten up black cowboy hat back on his head and said, when you’re an outlaw, you don’t need no sign because you are the sign. Then he smiled and kept on smiling while I dropped the twenty into his hand.
I remember watching my old man pour himself a shot of whiskey. He was always careful with whiskey because it was so hard for him to come by in both money and blood. If he spilled a drop, he licked it up. He used to say, leave a quarter of an inch at the top of the glass. Some barmen are so good they can pour it right to the top and never have spillage. But me, I like to leave a fingernail of space for death to swim in. Then he’d work his nose a little like he was adjusting his face before taking the shot down.
You can’t write it unless you dream it, my old man said, rocking back and forth a little in his chair. He was very drunk or he wouldn’t have talked like that. He probably wouldn’t have said anything at all if he’d been sober. But when he was drunk the door to his darkness opened wide and I never knew just what would come out. You can’t write it unless you dream it, he said again, this time a little louder so he would be sure I knew he was making his point. How much dreaming have you done, I asked, not quite sure I should have said anything. He leaned forward in his chair and I could smell his sour and ongoing rage. When he got like this his eyes would go dangerously blue and dark. You want my story, don’t you? I didn’t say anything. He waited a few seconds, then said, when I talk to you I expect an answer.
You want my story don’t you so you can write the novel and become rich and famous. I know what your goddam game is, don’t think I don’t. And, you know what? You ain’t getting it, because it’s mine. His mouth was open more than usual and his teeth were showing. Somehow I knew the rat in the wall was listening. I was pretty sure it was crouched next to the hole where the plaster had been punched in and the studs exposed. And, that was okay, that was just fine because it was my old man, the rat, and me and it was a nightmare as well as a conversation.
Sometimes when I am writing a section of DILLINGER, I can almost hear the man breathe. It doesn’t always start out that way because I have to trick the poem out. It never comes willingly, it somehow needs to be jumpstarted then it boils out, it blows out like some kind of crazy oil gusher and when that happens Dillinger himself comes close as though he becomes part of the energy, part of the way the air gets just before something ignites it. He was there when I wrote The Name Is Dillinger. He was there alright, I could feel him near. It seemed as though there were times when he would tap me on the shoulder so he could see what was going to happen next and then next and then next like this was a story he had become addicted to and the way I was writing it was just like I was telling it to him and his knowing about it somehow made him so much more of the Dillinger we both dreamed of.
And, Dillinger was there when I wrote The Sign Of The Gun. He really was there then. I could feel the way that he walked around the room, like he was doing a half strut half dance and that was when he was telling me the story only it was more like a series of stories and I could feel the way that he would pause between stories like he wanted to be sure I was getting each and every detail down just right before he got into the next story. Because every story counted with him, every story meant something special and he didn’t want me to overlook anything he said and I let him talk for as long as he wanted, I let him narrate, I let him become all of the voices until he couldn’t be the voices any longer and when that happened I let him stop talking and listened to the sound of his dreaming which was maybe like the way the moon sounds at night when it passes through the tree limbs up in the mountains.
I remember seeing an old photograph of a dead man in a book. The corpse was sprawled out on a barroom floor next to a poker table. It looked as though someone had thrown his hat at him and it landed crown up a few feet from his right hand. He may have died in a gunfight or he may have been a murder victim. It really didn’t matter. The photograph had somehow become the metaphor, the image, the sign of his death. And, the entire scene had taken on a kind of gray, soiled sepia look to it as though death had somehow colored everything. And, for as long as I can remember this has been the only part of history I’ve ever been interested in. The apocalypse of the moment, that one anarchic second when death emerges from the furniture to reveal just how much of a fiction history really is.
History is a nightmare that I’m trying to invent. Without the nightmare side of it, history is just a shitlist of facts and a wishlist of fantasies until you get shot down, blown up, or catch your everloving death of something or other. History is a nightmare that I’m trying to invent before it invents me. History will whistle love songs up your asshole until the skin rots off, history will whisper a sickening sweet poison in your ear and if you don’t believe me ask Hamlet’s father. History will fuck you blind and then blind you in the fucking place. That’s history’s job, that’s history’s genius, that’s the be all and end all of what history does. Or, should I say that’s what death does because he wears the mask of history, it’s the only way he can move among us freely.
Nobody escapes history. Nobody escapes the mask of history. But, what you can do is one up history which is also death by inventing the nightmare. Not even death is capable of that. History which is also death is only capable of clacking one bone against another. That’s the sound of death’s history book, those are the lyrics of history’s death song, the long serenade of nothing and then nothing. Sometimes when death is singing a crow will fly out of its bones and go up into the air like a small black impenetrable cloud. Death doesn’t know it but the crow is alive with death’s massive ignorance. And, the crow is also alive with the black electricity of the universe and is always dreaming.
The big trick if you can pull it off is to capture the crow in the midst of its dreaming, to lay claim to the crow and all of its dreams. Because it’s in those dreams where the nightmare of the world is sleeping and dreaming and it’s in those dreams where the nightmare of the world is waiting for you, because the only way to write is to steal its eyes. It always grows new ones, so it’s easy to do. Once you’ve done that you can invent your own private version of the nightmare any way that you want.
Homer invented the nightmare when he created Achilles, Sophocles invented the nightmare when he created Oedipus, Virgil invented the nightmare when he created Aeneas, Shakespeare invented the nightmare when he created Hamlet, Goethe invented the nightmare when he created Faust, Melville invented the nightmare when he created Ahab, Dostoevsky invented the nightmare when he created Raskolnikov, Kafka invented the nightmare when he created Joseph K., Cormac McCarthy invented the nightmare when he created Judge Holden, and I am inventing the nightmare by creating and conjuring John Dillinger. Inventing the nightmare means dreaming an archetypal character so powerful he can step outside the fiction of history, someone so alive in the word he can survive as long as death itself, if not longer.