The sound of the gunfire was more like a firecracker going off, a quick sharp crack and then nothing. A second before the bullet cutting the air near my ear was a discourteous whisper, not so much a hiss as a low whistle. I turned around to see who shot at me and either saw a blurred darkness or maybe a large dog cutting through the narrow space between two garages. I ran back to get a better look and saw nothing.
Death was there standing in the shadows. Not the skeleton image of death that we all know but something other maybe wearing ripped jeans, something with the face of a drifter, its hair partly ripped away and hanging sideways, just off the eyes. Maybe Death as an archetypal image but not the kind usually thought of. This image of Death is also so real.
The skin on the forehead is torn straight across and has a place where I could stick my finger in if I wanted, but I don’t because once I give in to that temptation who knows what could come next. The archetype of Death just standing there as I walk past, smiling with all of its front teeth pouring through its lips. It holds its hand out to offer me a bone. I almost accept it.
Somebody once asked me if maybe DILLINGER was a long nightmare I’d been having for the past thirty five years. Maybe he was right. Maybe what I’ve been doing is dreaming of Dillinger and then putting him into a series of poems. Pound is reported to have said that THE CANTOS was a long poem with some history in it. With me, DILLINGER is a long poem with a great deal of mystery in it. But, it isn’t the kind of mystery that a private eye could solve.
If DILLINGER is anything it’s been a history of explosions. And, it has also been a saga of creation myths. The writing of DILLINGER encompasses the explosions. Writing about DILLINGER includes the creation myths. And every time I write something new about the writing of DILLINGER I add a variation to what I’ve already written. An interviewer once asked me which story is true about how I started to write this poem. My answer was they’re all true. Or, maybe they’re all false. Some days one version seems truer than the others. In some ways, the writing of DILLINGER became a poem unto itself.
Maybe the greatest mystery of DILLINGER is the one surrounding the archetype of the american outlaw. Dillinger the man may have been many things in his life, but the one thing that he became in this poem is an archetype, the representative american outlaw. Dillinger’s career as an outlaw lasted just a little over a year. And, Dillinger as an archetypal outlaw has lasted for more than seventy years and the reason for that is that somehow in this culture he has become a cultural as well as a historical outlaw.
I’ve lost count as to the number of films that have been made about Dillinger’s life and the number of novels and biographies that have been published about him, not to mention the articles, stories, and references to him in books not necessarily about him. This alone would be enough to ensure Dillinger an infamous immortality.
Many, but not all, great archetypes were once figures from history. Tolstoy’s Napolean from WAR AND PEACE is certainly an archetype as well as a fictional character. Judge Holden really was a southwestern scoundrel and scalp hunter who lived along the U.S. Mexican borderland back in the 1840s. Cormac McCarthy hijacked Holden and transformed him into an american super demon for his novel BLOOD MERIDIAN. Richard Hughes’ portrayal of Hitler in THE FOX IN THE ATT IC works in about the same way. He is both fictional character and certainly the archetype of evil in the twentieth century. Some archetypes are strictly fictional invention. Huck Finn, Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby fall into this category. And, as archetypes as well as fictional characters, they somehow become more than just figures in their respective novels. They become catchwords, easy phrases, signals for something else. If you say you are going to pull a Huck Finn, then you are telling me that you are getting ready to Light Out For The Territory. In a way, these kinds of archetypes are not just products of a culture. They mysteriously have a way of summing up that culture as well.
Enter Dillinger. Time for another creation myth. If you asked me just how I had decided to write about Dillinger I wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I could say is that I’d been looking for someone like Dillinger for a very long time. Maybe all my life. I’d experimented with Custer but the chemistry wasn’t there. I’d thought about Harry Houdini and didn’t feel the mojo, but just as soon as I thought of Dillinger, I realized that he was the perfect fit for whatever it was I wanted to do and I really had no idea, no plan for exactly what that was. May I wanted to rob the First National Psychic Bank of America. Who knows, but was just the blue volt jump of it that got me going. Got me all worked up, ghost danced me into the biggest truth or dare of my life.
And, I didn’t know if I could do it, let alone be any kind of poet at all, but I was sure as hell going to give it a try. This was my white whale, this was my raft on the biggest river of all, this was the scalp to end all scalps. The one thing that I did know then more with my gut than with my head was that Dillinger had and continued to have a very powerful charisma that had not gone away with his death. He was sort of like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy. Death had been unable to erase them from the american memory. From the collective american outlaw dream. This is the power that the poet has over Death. Death can claim you, fuck you skin you, kick your diseased and bony ass, but if you are a poet you can create a new archetype that Death can never kill.
It took me a little over three years to tap into that place, that collective. It took me three years of playing a kind of Death Tag with Dillinger before I hit that underground ocean. It took me longer than I thought it would before I was able to take a cold dark drink from the waters of the collective unconscious. And, it was better than any shot of whiskey I ever had, including a jar of white lightning I once shared with my father in law on a sub zero winter afternoon in a hundred year old farmhouse not far from the place where Jesse James passed through on his way to Northfield, Minnesota.
When you drink from the waters of the collective unconscious you almost instantly discover everything. You earn your psychic PHD, you find Maria Sabina’s secret book, you discover the Lost Dutchman Mine of the american soul, you locate Orpingalik’s breath, you earn the ghost dance shirt that was meant just for you, you invent your own personal alphabet, the secret language of who you are. You uncover all of the origins for the greatest of movies. You discover the places where all the nightmares have their beginning. You discover enormous longing, you discover the first garden and the first snake. You discover the face and the voice that you know you should have and you find a way to steal them because they are yours, they have always been yours and theft is the primal ritual for becoming heroic. This is what makes you a poet and this is most certainly what makes you an outlaw.
And, that is where I stole all the lines for The Name Is Dillinger. I stole them at night in a fugitive dream, I found them sticking out of the waters of the collective unconscious like the roots of a tree and I bit a little of that root off and ate it and that’s when the lines started coming, that’s when Dillinger walked out of the shadows and started telling me poems. And, if you don’t believe that story, believe this. When I drank from those waters, Dillinger swam out from a big black wave, fully formed and more than ready to be in my poem. To take it completely over, blood, breath, soil, iron, and stem.
There is no doubt in my mind that Dillinger is an archetypal character and somehow his very presence is a primal definition of what it means to be an american. Dillinger summed up this culture when he was shot down in 1934 and he continues to sum up this culture even today. Up until now, he has somehow eluded his own definition. No film I know of, no book has ever really summed him up. Until now. Most books and films have gone for the easy strokes, the simply lurid, the quick action sequences, the pulp without soul. Just as no book has ever really summed up Hamlet. No book has ever really summed up Ahab. No book has ever really summed up Judge Holden. Or could even come close. Both Dillinger and the Judge are psychic densities, black holes, impenetrable dreams. Just as no book has ever really summed up either Homer’s or Joyce’s Ulysses. Archetypes like these just are. They are the storms that surround us. They exist like lightning, like the wind, like the blackest hurricanes in human memory, like all the sacred mountains of the world. They are undeniably the densest enigmas of themselves, of the darkness plus themselves. Theirs is the darkness that gives poets breath.
After thirty five years I still don’t know Dillinger but I can feel him. I can feel his life force and I can feel his death mojo. Some nights I wear his dreamface and let his dark blood flow through me. I am the song that he sings, he is the skin that I wear. And, those days when I am writing a long section for DILLINGER I know I am lunatic crazy with the way that he talks. The long poem DILLINGER demands nothing less than lunar language with the wild talk so visceral I could put a knife through it just to hear it scream. Somewhere out there in the waters of the collective unconscious Dillinger swims with his BLOOD MERIDIAN brother, Judge Holden. They dive with the sharks and swim in the murder and the ecstasy of the everlasting dream.