can plan to burn a house down. You can even do it on the spur of the moment and then step back and enjoy the heat of the fire and the way it blows the windows out and breaks the doors in half. Burning a house down is a little like committing murder. Sometimes you do that in the heat of the blood and the velocity of the moment. It just happens the way that you pull out a gun and shoot a man in the head just to see which way the blood flies. Burning a house down is a little like blowing up somebody’s car. Maybe with the driver is inside, maybe not, but you do it because you have the dynamite or you have the Molotov cocktail or you have some kind of explosive and the fuse is lit and you are dancing up and down with the fire and the fury of that dynamite that gasoline that plastique and you have to do something or you are going to explode.
Writing a poem is a definitely like burning a house down or shooting a man in the head or blowing up a car. Writing a poem begins with a headlong rush into the white fury of the words crowding into your brain. You don’t know where they are coming from but they are coming. And, when I say you I mean me because all you’s in my essays are really me, the shadow me, the outlaw me, the gangster me. I don’t expect the you out there to feel anything like this. Even if you write poetry. Even if you are an outlaw, too.
And, when the house is really going, when the flames are shooting out through the roof and holes in the walls where pieces of the house have fallen out into the undefined darkness, I am way inside the poem. I am so far inside the poem that I can feel the fire’s black heat and I can swallow long pieces of its crackling fury.
than a run
at the red
thru a hole
in her cheek
Poetry is so gorgeously flammable. And, poetry knows this. Poetry has a mind of its own and loves to instigate house burnings and homicides. Poetry is a cock tease and an open wound. Poetry is the fire that comes out of a bullet hole in a woman’s hair. Poetry is a psychic manifesto against the ordinary, the safe, the mundane. Poetry wants to rob banks, poetry wants to blow up trains. Poetry wants to take hostages. Poetry scares the shit out of death because poetry doesn’t give a fuck about anything except poetry. The thing is, poetry doesn’t die. Sometimes it is neglected, even forgotten, but poetry has a half life of a hundred million years at warp speed. Death has always counted on fear. Poetry has no fear. Poetry runs hundred yard dashes with bullets and wins. When poetry howls, death listens. When poetry fucks with you, you have two choices. You can either put on a bullet proof vest or you can run. But you can’t run far. Poetry is better than death at finding you in the dark. That’s the magic of poetry, that’s its mojo, its duende. It can spookdance you right into the center of its hurricane voodoo and once you get inside of that you are done for. Lorca knew that. Bukowski even in his wildest drunkenness knew that. Tony Moffeit knows that.
you hold the ace
of spades woman
you hold the jinx
card in your hand
while the cats in
the alley knock
over garbage cans
you have the blood
of the gypsy woman
and the mercury
goes up with your
casino crave to
the backbeat of a
blues you soar
like a black angel
red weather as the
in the wind gotta
move gotta move
From DANCING WITH THE GHOSTS OF THE DEAD, Tony Moffeit, Suburban Wilderness Press, n.d.
When I’m writing I would get the burnt smell of cooked electricity all over the house. What I used to do whenever I noticed that odor is I’d get up and walk all through the house to see if I could find the source of that burning. But, after awhile I’d get tired of looking and go back to the poem. Then, one day it occurred to me that I was the one who was burning.
She Was Halfway
She was halfway
Down the road
When she threw the gas can
In the weeds
And turned to watch
Through the car windows
He sat in the front seat
Through empty eyes
Bullet hole in his forehead
Was a kiss of darkness
In the heat
Some days I go out, get in the car, and drive. I never know where I’m going. That kind of driving is like writing a poem. One day while I was out in the mountains I saw a car burning. I drove past a man holding a gas can. He was smiling. I didn’t stop but I recognized that smile. It was kind of like a poet smiling after just writing a poem. Somehow he understood the fire and the fact that after awhile the car will blow. That kind of explosion is so close to the way a poem explodes in me once I am done. And, I have to keep reading it over and over just to get the effect. Just to feel my blood shake.
accelerate like a motherfucker
then a pick-up
in the back
then a large
hauling 6 cesspools
to its back
of waste & death
flying by me
under the cloudless
blue summer sky
then i saw my face
in the rear view
a skull wrapped
in pasty, stubbly skin
& i accelerated
like a motherfucker
Speed, fire, murder, futility, the excitement of writing the poem, the ecstatic velocity and that shaking engagement with fear. Writing a poem is like having rough sex with death. You know damn well who is going to win but you have to fight it out. Poetry expects you to. And, that’s what death fears most of all.
Cowboy Poet, Kell Robertson, Outside Vesuvio’s Bar, North Beach, San Francisco, 2001, Copyright: A.D. Winans
to Kell Robertson sing When You Come Down Off The Mountain. His voice sounds like his throat has been sandblasted raw, gravel over gravel, bourbon through phlegm. The second he sings the line, Just remember, you gotta die, it hits me that this strikes right at the core of what Outlaw Poetry is really all about. Or, maybe any poetry that is worth a damn. It’s all about writing full throttle under the constant sentence of death. Or, at the very least, of being down and out in the american southwest.
Robertson sings almost everything off key or at least it’s off the key that I’m used to. Call it a Kell Robertson form of the duende. But, he more than makes up for it in the authenticity that he brings to the music. And, he more than makes up for it in the originality he brings to his poetry. Kell Robertson has been writing poetry since the 1950s. Nobody knows just how much poetry he has written since then. The work that has survived his legendary walk and ride abouts in america, the poetry that survives in difficult to find chapbooks is small compared to the work of Bukowski, Micheline, or Ginsberg who were close contemporaries. Robertson may have a published legacy of perhaps two hundred poems in all. Not much more than a Constantine Cavafy or a Weldon Kees.
In both published and unpublished interviews and private correspondence, Robertson has admitted that he considers himself lucky to write ten poems a year, if that. Personally, I can write ten poems a day. But, that isn’t the point. The point here is the quality of the work that is produced. And, the quality of much of Robertson’s work is first rate. However, it isn’t just first rate. It’s unique. It’s extraordinary because it is so originally and wonderfully primitive.
And, here I used the word primitive as a compliment. When I say primitive, I also invoke the word primal. Because it is primal in the very best sense that any primal work of art is important. A primal poem, like a primal painting calls down all the powers, conjures all the nightmares, completes the circuit for passion, longing, terror, and dreams. This is the area that Kell Robertson writes out of. This is where he has been. This is what he knows best.
Some careless critics have called Kell Robertson a Cowboy Poet and that really is about as wrong as it gets. Or, lets go this direction. If Kell Robertson is a Cowboy Poet, then he is the extreme dark side of Baxter Black. But, he’s not Baxter Black. Instead, Kell Robertson is an american original. You won’t find his like anywhere else in america.
This morning Teresa sleeps
in the doorway of the plasma center.
Teresa of the rotten teeth
and sweet smile. Teresa
of diseased sex and raped dreams.
The cops can’t arrest her because
she’d infect the other prisoners
and no social service will touch her.
She blows winos for drinks of cheap wine
and screws anyone for a glass of beer.
and a quarter for the jukebox.
Her grin is black, the stumps
of her teeth framed by scarlet lipstick.
She told me once
how she wanted to dance
dance into the grave
with music coming out
of every hole in her body.
From A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION, Aspermont Press.
I don’t think Charles Bukowski or Jack Micheline or Ray Bremser could have written anything any better than this. Teresa is, in my opinion, one of Robertson’s perfect poems. There is not one false note, note one bad line in the whole text. It is just simply a masterpiece. The way that The Gunfighter is a masterpiece. The way that Pretty Boy Floyd is a masterpiece.
Almost twenty years ago I sat in Kell Robertson’s kitchen up in Raton, New Mexico. That was back in 1992 when he had an apartment and a kitchen. DILLINGER: BOOK ONE from Primal Publishing was on the table between us. I’d just written something in the copy for him. I could tell that he was uneasy with it sitting there. He took a hit of vodka right out of the bottle, touched the book, then looked at me. The look was a mix of rage and pain and drunken envy. Suddenly he pushed the book toward me and said, Hell, you have John Dillinger and I have John Wesley Hardin. Then he leaned forward nearly dumping the ashes out of an ashtray on the table. The book on Hardin’s all up here he said pointing at his eyes. I got it here but when it comes out, he paused. It’s really gonna be something. All I gotta say is watch out. Then he settled back into his chair, took another hit of vodka, smiled and said, Lets get some guns, go down to Mexico.
The gun dance
performed in singles, doubles,
a marriage of steel & smoke
through saloon doors
“This is a bullet hole
Billy the Kid”
I used to shoot all the chances I got
every weekend blowing out a case of ammunition
on cans & bottles
but one day
a friend touched my shoulder from behind
& stood there
with a cocked gun in his belly
a walking reflex
tripped from behind
The gun dance
a dance to death
like all magic
dangerous to play with.
Because Kell Robertson was born in 1930, he is a product of the Great Depression. His was a hard scrabble childhood. Born in Dustbowl Kansas, raised by a stepfather who shot pop bottles off his head for the hell of it, Robertson was already on the road by the mid forties. Which meant he grew up listening to all the best talking. His stories were also my stories because if you were raised on the flip side of T. S. Eliot andRobert Lowell, the stories you read were really the stories you heard. Maybe along the railroad tracks or in a bus depot or by the side of the road or out behind some skidrow hotel. The one thing you could count on was that these were the kinds of stories that had blood in them.
Landscape, New Mexico
A blue pickup
dust rising behind it
up the wide canyon
into the dark.
Two Indians, drunk
reel to the top of a hill
the blue spot is gone,
laugh, punch each other in the mouth
celebrate the end of anything.
From A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION.
On a first reading, Landscape, New Mexico comes across as a bit of local New Mexico. Strictly lightweight, almost satiric. It has hills and mountains and canyons and pickups and Indians. All the usual suspects for a local color poem. This could be something right out of a Max Evans novel, except that it’s not. The second time you read it, you get it. This is not one more evocation of the Land of Enchantment. Instead, it’s about being so far gone, so drunk, so catastrophically lost that a punch in the mouth is just something to laugh at. It’s a celebration of “the end of anything.” It’s really a celebration of the end of everything.
The Passionate Coyote
The passionate coyote rolled
in the dust to kill his fleas
but when he arose and shook himself
his eyes fell out and grew
into a philosopher poet
who wound up in a motel in
Albuquerque telling jokes
to himself in the cracked mirror
“Check out time is one P.M.”
they shouted and broke down the door
but all they found there
was a dead coyote
as if it had run for a long way
a long time.
From A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION
This poem grew on me over time. At first it seemed slight, almost coyote gimmicky. But after awhile I realized that this is a kind of abbreviated Kell Robertson bio. This is what should have been printed in the bio sections of all the journals and zines Robertson ever appeared in. And, now, every time I see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN which was filmed in one or two of Albuquerque’s old Central Avenue hotels, I think of this poem and am reminded of the fate of the poet in america. The dead coyote is all that’s left of the poet. His eyes have all morphed back into the poems.
Of course, there is that other Kell Robertson extreme. The image of the gunfighter. Maybe it’s the way Kell has always wanted to see himself. Empowered, armed and dangerous.
is always ready
(although he doesn’t consider that
much of a possibility)
His gun is loaded
strapped in place
he can get it
& fire it
(he never aims, he points)
as easy as
or taking a leak
behind the tavern
If he is a saint
he is a deaf one
If he is a god
he is blind
& if he dies
he’ll shit all over himself
even as you or I
but while he lives
From A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION
Both The Passionate Coyote and The Gunfighter form a kind of Kell Robertson psychic biography. A powerful western mythos. The Passionate Coyote is Robertson’s realistic take on who he is. Don’t let the coyote image fool you. This is Kell Robertson taking a close look at himself. The poet’s genius lies in his ability to shapeshift from man to coyote and back again. In fact, that is his poem. And, it doesn’t matter if you die in a rundown motel. At least, you were able to shapeshift those jokes you told to a cracked mirror into something more than the sordid surroundings where you died like an animal. Then we go from that vision of the poet to Robertson’s take on the poet as Gunfighter. The Gunfighter survives as a force unto himself. He’s strictly a loner and is fast on the draw. And, he knows it. He also knows that some day he will die but he will do it “clean.” Just as a Hemingway hero will know how to die alone and with grace. Like John Wesley Hardin. Like Pretty Boy Floyd.
Kell Robertson has somehow become the prototypical outlaw of Outlaw Poetry. And, what he brings to Outlaw Poetry is a primal and passionate sense of all the old stories told around freight cars and old trucks and bonfires and barn stalls. This is something that can’t be taught in writing schools because the old storytellers are almost all gone. The old talking is also nearly gone and you can’t fake it back, you can’t dance it back, you can’t dream it back any more than you could fake a velada by Maria Sabina. The wind has blown a lot of that old talk away. You might catch a few riffs like Robertson’s in some of Bill Hearn’s songs or in maybe William Faulkner’s The Bear or in the best parts of John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. And, while Kell Robertson’s body of work may be small compared to the large output of other poets, what he has written and what has survived of his work in chapbooks like Regular Grinding and Bear Crossing and in his masterwork A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION, is the classic essence of what it means to be an outlaw and a poet in post 911 america. This is pure blood primal, the stuff that the great american dreams and nightmares and stories and poems are made of.
Cowboy Poet, Kell Robertson, Outside Vesuvio’s Bar, North Beach, San Francisco, 2001, Copyright: A.D. Winans
published by Dave Roskos’ Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books, is a compilation of three of Robertson’s early chapbooks – Toward Communication, Between Standing Up And Sitting Down, and Outlaw Fires. Roskos is one of the really fine small press editors, the kind of editor necessary to keep the small press vital and viscerally real.
And, publishing Kell Robertson is vital. There is no doubt in my mind that Kell Robertson is an important american poet. Not every poem he has written is a masterpiece, but he has written enough masterpieces to qualify him for greatness. His book A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION is a major book of american poetry. POEMS is an essential read for anyone interested in Kell Robertson’s work.
Iniquity Press / Vendetta Books
This chapbook consists of 3 out of print chapbooks by Kell Robertson. His first 2 books from the 1960s, which were published by Ben Hiatt on his Grande Ronde Press, & Outlaw Fires, which was published by Tom Kryss, on his black rabbit press, in Cleveland in 1989. There are 20 copies of this chapbook with black covers w/ art attached; 11 copies w/ white covers w/ art attached; & 96 copies with tan covers. January 2009. all rites belong to Kell Robertson.ISBN-1-877968-43-9 Silk sreened front cover art by Tom Kryss.
In memory of Ben Hiatt.
I did write you some stuff about Ben Hiatt didn’t? He was the first guy who really believed in my poetry. Got me started on my magazine…DESPERADO. Anyway man, give him credit for that. Maybe I should dedicate it to all the folks who gave me a shot with my writing. There have been damn few over the years. All the “fugitive” publications. And I’m honored to have Kryss doing the cover. Ride Easy. Kell Robertson, November 20, 2008
More on Kell Robertson can be found by clicking here…
Some days my face paints all the mirrors so black the glass screams in fear of its blindness. Some days my face gets into car windshields and turns them a so viciously dark they want to shatter outward into skin. Some days my shadow plans all the ways it can to escape from the wall. It wants to become the ultimate outlaw, maybe already is.
I’d spent the morning writing a section of DILLINGER and I was exhilarated to the point of not being able to sit still. Reading did no good because everything I read had a piece of that DILLINGER section in it. And, when that happens, just the thought of DILLINGER infects everything, even the air that I breathe. When I get like that I have to drive it out of me, gun that car engine so hard the needle wants to fly off the speedometer. That’s when I have to go out somewhere, really escape the air that I’m standing in. So, I drove up into the mountains because they were mountains and because there were storms up there and I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to be driving into them and maybe even literally be covered and surrounded with clouds so gray and dark they felt like long tunnels of tomb after tomb with a continent full of wind blowing through.
Kell Robertson’s standing on the sidewalk in front of Silva’s Saloon. He is dwarfed by the Sandias and he knows I’m watching him in the rear view mirror as I drive away, so he gives me his big outlaw grin and points his gunfinger at me. Then he fires an air bullet and lets his hand drift up in faux recoil. That’s his way of giving me his own special version of the Death Wave. And, he’s laughing hard in a black wind blowing in off the mountains.
Right after I wrote Death Song I raced up into the mountains because that poem took place there and had an old Navajo in it and he was dying along some stretch of old 66 and I had to drive the full length of Tramway which skirts the Sandias because somehow I was looking for that old man. I had to find him and give him a five dollar bill and a pack of cigarets, the same way that Dillinger did in the poem. I was convinced he was waiting up there along the side of the road and when I realized that he wasn’t there except in the best of all of my big dreams, I drove down Central and gave the cigarets to a homeless man standing on the corner of Central and Carlisle. But, some nights when the wind howls through Tijeras Pass I dream of that old man dying in the snow and the wind by the side of the road. I dream of him and dream of him and then I am dying, too.
Tony Moffeit’s on the phone. He’s trying to tell me about the essence of Billy the Kid, the whole blood story of Outlaw, but his voice is breaking up in the black ache of cosmic static, black hole drift, and death noise. However, a few of his words crack through the void. Voodoo, guns, Kid, bones, chile, blues, and beer. His voice was dying into his words and then back into the horrible burn and scorch of itself. Tony is searching for the dream Kid, the shamanic Kid, the blues Kid, the Kid who knows the secret code for the deep night of america.
It’s easy to die in a poem. It’s so easy to die into the writing of a poem. And, the poem loves you for it. The poem is so hungry for the taste of the human that it doesn’t know what to do with itself. I think Whitman must have died a little in Song of Myself. In fact, I’m sure of it. It’s just the way that he talked in that poem. The way that he opened up his entire self and talked to everything. You can’t open yourself up that way without dying, even for just a little bit.
I think when Faulkner wrote The Bear he must have died a little. You can’t write about men and animals that way without having a piece of your personal dream self dying, even if it is a small piece, a piece no bigger than your thumb, your index finger. You can’t write about men and animals and wilderness and dreams and wounds and death and madness that way without dying a little and I know that Faulkner died a little bit after the whiskey and the storytelling and the blood talk and the dreams in that old hunting lodge. He had to.
I know for a fact that when Maria Sabina sang her veladas to cure people she died in the fury of that singing, even though it was a little death. Maybe a little piece of her voice cracked off in the blood and vomit and went up through the trees and even farther up into the air and then the clouds. Or, maybe a very small piece of her skin sloughed off and went down into the ground where the bush and tree roots got hold of it and were nourished by it. But, whatever happened, Maria Sabina died through her songs and then her songs brought her back for another long singing and shivering cure, it works like that. You can’t cure anyone without singing yourself into all the fever dreams of the nightworld. The cramped dying of the singer plunging into the toxins and electricity of the song and then the power of that song bringing the singer back. That is the magic of the song, that is the primal power of poetry.
I can’t imagine Picasso painting Guernica without dying in his dreams after a long day of painting. I can’t imagine Picasso painting Guernica without losing something of himself in those nightmares of being burned alive and blown to pieces. His fingers coming off and running away because the death strokes he used on that painting were so terrible the fingers just had to run away from Picasso’s body and hide in all the little out of the way places of Paris. Some nights his fingers would run away. Some nights his toes. Even his eyes wanted to escape from his body and he would put up big fights in his dreams to keep them from going but he knew he was always going to lose. And, then they were gone and he had to use his dream eyes to see. And, his dream eyes would permit him to see unpainted parts of the painting that his real eyes could not bear to look at in the dark. Then, the next day he would get his fingers or his toes or his real eyes back for another hard bout of painting. They would come back because something way out there in the night would heal them would take the death blisters off and then he could use them again. But Picasso always died while he was painting Guernica. He had to if he wanted even an ounce of that paint to become human and even to dream.
There are those times I get so haunted that it feels like the chills and fevers are about to split open the skin on my arms. There are those times I get so haunted that I can’t do anything except move and keep moving and have my headlights shoving as far up into the black peaks as they can. The first rule in america is that you have to move or die. That’s why people drive so fast. That’s why the clouds in the southwest move faster than anywhere else. That’s why everything blows up here better than anywhere else. That’s why explosions in american movies are better than anywhere else. That’s why games like Quantum Pinball work here with such murderous ferocity. If you are looking for death while summoning the duende, all you have to do is whisper d=av squared. Death will be all over you in a nano second. Death will make love to all of your scars. Death will eat both you and your pain and then ask for more.
John Macker is standing out behind his house and is surrounded by dry sticks and mesquite and sage and cactus and scrub brush. The Sangre de Cristos tower in the distance. They are crowned with black clouds, lightning, shadows, and snow. Macker is wearing his ghost dance shirt. It’s the one where in his dreams all the stars, the circles, and the moon crescents move. He stands next to a stone slab holding an old rusted shut typewriter. He knows it won’t work but he believes if he touches it just right it will give him the first line to a new section of Underground Sky. And, he knows that this is the poem that will define him, this is the poem that will heal him.
I am reading The Riddle of the Wooden Gun to the wall. And, because the house I am living in is an old one and there may be many spirits also staying here, I am reading to all those unseen presences. I am testing my voice out on the poem but I am also conducting a healing reading. I am reading to try to heal all the wounds in this house and in the ground under the house where the ancient ones may have walked.
While I was writing the conclusion to Dillinger’s Thompson I began to get this overpowering urge to run out and find a Thompson sub machine gun somewhere because I wanted to touch it, I wanted to annoint myself with it, I wanted to feel all of its sharp angles and curves, I wanted touch the barrel where the bullets came out. And, I somehow realized that this was the only way I could find some kind of closure to the poem. So, I visited every gun shop in town. With no luck, though I did get to touch all kinds of large caliber pistols, some shotguns, and a few assault rifles. But it wasn’t the same thing. I had to have a Thompson right then, at that precise moment and there were none to be found. Years later at a gun show I did get to touch a Thompson but by then it was already too late. The moment had passed and somehow, this is something I can’t explain, Dillinger’s Thompson will always feel jagged, fragmented, spiritually unfinished even though I know, as a poem, it is finished. Just the way that america is unfinished, will always be slightly jagged and unfinished because the dreamt of parts can somehow never be touched, can somehow always be lyrically violent in their unfinished state. And, maybe that’s the way I want the poem. And, maybe that’s the way I want america.
When I was a kid I used to have a friend by the name of Donny whose father used to carve him toy wooden guns. He’d sit out behind that falling down wreck of a hotel on the runningboard of an old 1933 Pontiac holding a broken off tree branch in one hand and a Case Double X jack knife in the other. He’d have a lit roll your own jammed into his mouth, his eyes would be nothing but slits in the top half of his head on collision face and he’d be talking about a stock car he was planning to build and he’d be curling the wood back on that stick which was maybe not much bigger than a man’s wrist and pretty soon he had part of that wood looking like a gun barrel and then he’d glance up though I don’t think it was at any one thing in particular but he’d look up like he was taking a break from talking or carving and he’d look way off at the sky and then he’d start in carving again. He always left a little bark on the wood. When I asked him why he said, it’s to let the wood remember where it came from. If the wood can’t remember what it used to be, then it won’t be wood anymore. It wouldn’t be anything.
In my opinion, those toy wooden guns were really works of art. They even had names carved right on the grips like Desperado and Outlaw and Bandito. I remember that Donny gave me one for hitting Kenny T in the face. But I have no idea what became of it. It got lost, or stolen, or burnt up, or run over, and smashed up in the garbage like most things in america. America has a genius for the art of destruction, unparalleled in the history of mankind. The true definition of america is both the birth and the death of poetry. The dark definition of america is and always will be outlaw but you can’t think about it that way for very long because death gets into it and has a way of infecting everything, even lilacs, even rain.
Thinking about dying was the way I got around to writingThe Corpse Is Dreaming. I’d written a lot of poems about people getting shot and killed but not so much about the act of dying itself. It’s so much easier just to show death than to get inside of the dying itself. And, I didn’t want to think about Dillinger dying because he seemed so alive, so full of the kind of energy that only a few people can ever dream of. He was my buffer, my bodyguard, my free zone, my letter of transit, my get out of jail ticket to any serious thought about what it must feel like to die. And, then one night when all of the demons came knocking at my door at once, I actually thought about Dillinger dying. I saw the bullets go into him and I didn’t like it because whatever bullets went into him also went into me and I hated that more than anything I could ever explain. I ached inside that crackup, I broke apart inside the full impact of that death. And, then I could write about it. Just like that. Even though it felt like I still had the bullets inside of me, I could write about it. Or, maybe somehow I had to have the feeling of those bullets floating around in my head and through my back and side before I could get the first few lines of The Corpse Is Dreamingdown on the paper. I had to dance through the reenactment of his death before I could even try to write about it. And, once I got started I had to get it all down, all of it, everything before it ever felt done. Except that this is a section that also feels slightly unfinished. And, it isn’t so much connected to the words as it is connected to the psychic/visceral feel of it. That skin/dream fracture of everything in a human body breaking off from every other thing. The experience of the human question morphing into the great inhuman silence. That was the feeling, that was the event of death I was reaching for because in this poem the corpse was both the dream and the dying. The corpse was my shadow coming back to the wall.
Several years ago while I was walking down Central back to my car a man stopped me. At first I thought he was going to ask me for some spare change and I was about to wave him off when he said, this is not about money. That’s when he held out his hand. He was holding three smashed up lead slugs. He gave me a twisted smile and said, I’ve been looking for someone to give these to. They were in me and then they were out and if I don’t give them to someone who knows what death is I will keep right on dying. When he dropped them into my hand he said, they will keep you safe. Death doesn’t like his toys anymore once they have failed in their tasks.
When I’d finished writing The Corpse Is Dreaming, I got into the car and drove up to the mountains. I had to plunge through shadows and mists and clouds and be in the presence of all those monstrous boulders. And, the wind. I had to be somewhere up in the wind. But this time there was more to it than that. It wasn’t just because I was so excited and haunted and shaking with energy that I couldn’t do anything else.
It was because I somehow had to wash myself clean of death in the high mountain air. I had to let the wind heal me.
My poems feel like dreams, my dreams play like movies.
I’m standing on the corner of some big city street. Armies of people are hurrying past. I spot death talking to someone. Death is wearing a uniform and has camouflaged his face with just the right amount of good looking meat. He has just told a joke that involves a pun and is laughing at it when he glances over and sees me watching. He reaches for an automatic he wears in an official looking holster but before he can yank it out I already have a small pistol in my hand. I fire once directly at him at almost point blank range and hit him in the chest. A woman is screaming. I’m not sure if it’s with horror or joy. I can see the hole my bullet has just made but it seems to have no effect. He finally gets his automatic out of its holster and empties the clip at me. I brace for the hits but instead death misses me with every round. Death is such a terrible shot. I notice the place where my bullet entered his chest has no blood. It is a large, empty wound where his ashes are beginning to spill out on the pavement. Then the meat starts to drop off death’s face like so much rotten cosmetic. And, while his cheeks are becoming exposed to patches of bone he begins to call me bad names, the worst names possible. But his sophistication is gone. Now all he can do is stutter and howl.
Nothing wounds death like a powerful poem. Nothing wounds death like Lorca’s Duende. Nothing wounds death like PEDRO PARAMO. Nothing wounds death like Black Elk’s death song. Nothing wounds death like LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND. Tom McGrath dying in that room in Minnesota, his black mittened hand that could never get warm. Death wanted that mitten because it was so black and so loaded with poetry that he could never have. Nothing wounds death like Darwish’s MURAL. Darwish was exiled right down to his shadow and when Darwish died death tried to scoop it up but the shreds of darkness slipped through death’s bones. Nothing wounds death like shadows and poems. Nothing wounds death like Judge Holden’s scalping knife. And, even though death has no hair, Holden always finds a topknot of something and slices it off. Nothing wounds death like Dillinger’s Thompson. Death hates it when Dillinger blows him to pieces. For death this is the equivalent of projectile vomiting. And, for just a moment death enters his own private oblivion. But, since death is the ultimate trickster, he always finds a way to conjure his bones back together again.
Mayakovsky is reading to a huge crowd in some Moscow auditorium. The people are elbowing each other to get close to the stage. They are practically brawling in the aisles for front row seats. Mayakovsky might as well be Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. Mayakovsky has men standing guard at the stage entrances so people won’t mob him. He’s reading from CLOUD IN THE TROUSERS. Every once in awhile he pauses to skip around on the stage like some pre rock rock star. Some minor poets in the audience are lip synching the lines. They somehow know that if they say the lines with him they will become part of a secret reading that lets them own him and the poem for one flash second. They want to own something. They have to own something if they want to keep writing. The same way that Bukowski’s fans longed to become part of the heckling because they knew that if somehow he heard one of their wisecracks and responded they would be talking directly to him electrically maybe even sexually and almost certainly intimately and if any one of them said just one thing that he replied to then that person would become immortal. Or, at least immortal for a moment.
Once, when Mayakovsky glanced up at the audience for one of his nearly overly dramatic pauses, he saw death sitting out in the audience. Death was wearing a french beret cocked to one side over the right eye socket and he was holding a bony gunfinger to his shiny yellow skull, the fragment of a thumb cocked back. Mayakovsky knew that this was death’s private joke, his secret sign for Russian roulette. It was death’s little prank, his way of teasing Mayakovsky for the suicidal games he played with himself. Even more erotic than masturbation because Mayakovsky would kiss the gun barrel before spinning the cylinder with one bullet in it. Death knew that this was Mayakovsky’s way of giving himself permission to continue writing poetry. If he won he was free to write whatever he wanted to for the rest of the day. Trickster that Mayakovsky was, once he saw death sitting in the audience playing gunfinger, he would pause in the middle of the poem to give the audience the finger and they would howl with laughter and some of them even return it, but the gesture was really meant for death and death alone.
Dillinger is sitting across from me at a beaten up yellow chrome kitchen table. The floor is cluttered with the wreckage of broken dishes, garbage, paper, bent silverware, liquor bottles, beer cans, cigaret butts, and rotting food. On the table between us is a Model 1921 Thompson submachine gun. Dillinger kicks a bent beer can away for effect and the noise and says, Would you like to touch it. I look over at him. It’s Dillinger alright. For a moment I thought he was some imposter, some dream fake and this might be some practical joke death is playing on me for shooting him in the chest. But, no, this is definitely Dillinger. He looks as though he just stepped away from that famous mug shot where he is sitting with one hand crossed over his other arm. He’s wearing the same white shirt and dark vest and his hair looks as though the wind has played with it.
I reach over and stroke the stock. It looks as though it was made of cherry wood and is dark and rich with nicks and dings that means it has been used. Touch the barrel he said. Every time you touch the barrel you fuck death up. You cold cock him, you sucker punch him. I glanced across the table at Dillinger. His face was flashing Bogart, Oates, and Depp. It was a crazy back and forth flesh strobe across raw bone. Then it did a slow fade back to Dillinger. I reached over and touched the barrel but didn’t hear death howling anywhere. Dillinger must have been reading my mind because he said, You don’t have to hear death taking it in the crotch to know that he is. Just trust me. He is. I run my hand up and down the fluted barrel, then out to where the barrel goes smooth. Then across the big sight where the barrel ends.
Feels good, doesn’t it, Dillinger said. I put my fingers on the guard and Dillinger smiled. It killed a man once, he added. I can just barely touch it anywhere with the palm of my hand and then I can feel it shaking. Death loves to put his mark on all the murder guns. What he does is rub them with bone. After that, they’re never the same. They vibrate at night. Some of them levitate, float right up into the air and hover near a ceiling bulb. Death is good at fucking with murder.
But, death can’t levitate one line of poetry. That’s what pisses him off. He can’t levitate Black Elk’s death chant. He can’t levitate the Coen brothers film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It levitates him. And, death can’t levitate Bob Dylan’s BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. And, death can’t levitate Kell Robertson’s Gunfighter. And, death can’t levitate ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. And, death can’t levitate A SEASON IN HELL. In fact, it puts death in hell just to try it.
The one thing death would love to levitate more than anything else in the world, the universe, the cosmos is DILLINGER. Death would love to somehow get control of The Name Is Dillinger and be able to manipulate it, play with it, confuse all the lines. Death would love to fuck with The Sign of the Gun, Relentless, Billie F, The Corpse Is Dreaming. What death knows is that this is a long poem fated for something and he wants a piece, he’ll settle for a taste. He’ll do anything for it. If only he could own one page, one line, one word, he might gain control of history, the american psyche. What he also knows is that he can’t have any.
Sometimes death comes in the middle of the night for Dillinger’s Thompson. I always tell him I just wrote the poem, I don’t have the real thing but he doesn’t believe me because he knows I can conjure it by just reading the first page and if he owns that weapon, if he owns the original Thompson that Dillinger used he would have everything. Most of all the midnight history of the american psyche. And, in the depths of his longing, death squats like a dog in my back yard howling for the gun of all guns hidden in a cluster of black metaphors. And he stays that way, washed in the blood of the outlaw moon.
I remember my old man standing in the doorway of one of his favorite watering holes, a dive called Jerry’s. He was telling Jerry who was tending bar one of his outrageous stories. I think it was the one where he and some other guy went hunting for The Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona back in the Twenties. When he got done Jerry looked up from the draft he was pouring and gave my old man the finger. He did it with a smile and to complete the ritual, my old man returned the favor. Then the whole joint went up in laughter and Jerry bought the next round for the house.
I was fighting a kid down by the railroad tracks. He was trying to get me with a railroad spike and I had a cut down lead pipe and he grazed me once in the side scraping my ribcage and I got him a good one just above the left ear and he dropped the spike and took off across the tracks. When he got to the other side, he stopped next to a Southern Pacific boxcar and flipped me off before taking off for the hobo jungle down by the river.
I’m trying to pass a blonde on I-40. I get right up next to her red Buick. Then she guns it and gives me the finger. Somehow I don’t mind because she is so classy looking, the car is so new and so red, and between her speed and the way she looks she gets all the dreams going. It takes me right back to AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
The first two fingers of either hand carry a million years of ritual and meaning. The anthropologists have long believed that we are the way we are because of our opposable thumbs. But, in my opinion, those first two fingers also carry the key to it all. A few years ago, when I was writing a section of DILLINGER called The Sign of the Gun, I researched all kinds of hand signs and found almost nothing. At least, nothing worth using. The sign of the gun or what I’ve come to call the gunfinger, is the index finger pointed straight at someone with the thumb cocked up. The sign itself, I think, is older than the invention of the gun but that’s only my opinion.
However, the ritual of giving someone the finger, according to a website called THE FINGER, can be traced back to the Greek playwright Aristophanes who reportedly told a vulgar joke that involved the confusion of the penis with the middle finger. Also, THE FINGER included a brief history of how the middle finger gesture eventually migrated to Rome where the emperor Caligula found it so interesting he made it a tradition for anyone who met him to kiss his middle finger rather than his hand.
In the United States, the middle finger gesture was officially recorded by a camera when the nineteenth century baseball team the Boston Beaneaters posed for a photograph and the pitcher, Charles Old Hoss Radbourn flipped off the photographer. I’d like to think Radbourn was drunk or just fucking around when the picture was taken. Was he the first american to be photographed in the act? And, even if he wasn’t, he had to be among the first.
The question is did Jesse James ever give anyone the finger? The question is did Billy the Kid ever give anyone the finger? The question is did Doc Holliday ever give anyone the finger? The question is did Butch Cassidy ever give anyone the finger? Imagine Doc Holliday turning up an ace while Ike Clanton just sits there watching the tubercular dentist raking in his money. And, when Clanton starts to say something, Doc just gives him the finger and then dismisses him.
Or, consider this scenario. Arthur Rimbaud gets up in front of a group of poets to read a page from A SEASON IN HELL. First, he cuts one. It’s a long reverberating fart that seems to echo throughout the room. Then he picks a louse off his coat and flicks it at one of the minor poets sitting next to him. The man ducks and giggles nervously. Finally, Rimbaud reads the page to an audience that doesn’t know how to react, so as a final gesture he simply flips them all off.
all by it
of a squad
My old man used to tell me to be careful about who I was giving the finger to. He said he used to know a gambler back in the Twenties who would cut the middle fingers off guys who had flipped him off. My old man grinned when he told me the story because once when this gambler’s house caught fire, my old man helped carry some of this guy’s suitcases out of the house. Later, the gambler took my old man aside and said, Don’t ever tell anyone I showed you this shit. He opened one of the suitcases and ran his hand over bundles of tens and twenty dollar bills. Then he peeled a couple off a stack and gave them to my old man who said, I’m a fireman, it’s my job. Go on and take it the gambler said. And, you can have this, too. He dropped a couple of finger bones into my old man’s hand, then smiled and said, Don’t ask.
Maybe Aristophanes was onto something. Maybe what he did was invent, not just a sign, but an entire range of possible signs, a metaphor that both lived in and transcended the crotch. But for some reason no one looks for any transcendence from a middle finger.
put a bullet
out of the
According to the Chicago Code, which was a loose set of rules that Capone drew up for his mob, if you used your middle finger to tap a man on his right shoulder, he was okay, you could trust him. If you used your middle finger to tap a man on his left shoulder, he was considered mister inside out, totally worthless, shoot him. And, once you’d tapped that kind of death into someone, the next best thing to do after killing him, was to wash your hands thoroughly to get all the shit of him off.
An unsubstantiated story has Melvin Purvis kneeling down next to Dillinger’s body just seconds after he was shot, slipping his right hand out from under him, and bending the middle finger straight back until he heard it crack. What Purvis failed to understand was that Dillinger was the outlaw’s outlaw and the finger he gave to the banks could never be broken.
I remember having a drink with Kell Robertson once in some downtown bar in Albuquerque. Robertson had just ordered his seventh beer when the bartender looked at Robertson and suggested that he slow it down a little. Robertson, characteristically, stepped back from the bar, folded his jacket back slowly on the right side as though he were clearing that space so he could draw a pistol. Except he wasn’t wearing a gun. Instead, he put his hand down near his leg, then raised it, a folded fist with the middle finger pointing up.
The middle finger, the bird, the fuck you wave is maybe the purest sign of the outlaw that I know of. Even more than the gunfinger, it is an expression of hate, joy, and everything that ranges in between. Aristophanes may have invented giving the finger, but the Outlaw Poets are working hard to perfect it. It’s the one pure poem we all give back to chaos. It’s the twenty seventh letter of the alphabet.
Dillinger’s face changes from snapshot to snapshot, mugshot to mugshot, photograph to photograph. His face never looks the same way twice. It almost seems as though he has the power to change his entire countenance, make some small lines near his mouth, his eyes, his nose, appear and then disappear. I knew a woman who had an original wanted poster of Dillinger framed and strategically placed on the wall facing her bed and she swore that every night when she started to undress Dillinger’s eyes were actually staring at her.. She claimed that once while she was propped up reading a murder mystery in bed she glanced over at the wanted poster and Dillinger actually winked at her. She was so unnerved that she slept that night with all the lights on.
Once after giving a reading at Café Esperanto an old man came up to me and told a story about how he believed Dillinger had the power to shapeshift himself into something else. He said it was a trick Dillinger had learned after getting out of prison. The old man said his brother had been a guard at Crown Point and that he was one of the men Dillinger had rounded up during the escape. He claimed that Dillinger had gotten all of his shape shifting powers from the wooden gun and that he had actually walked right through a steel barred door just by raking that wooden gun barrel across it. It was the old man’s theory that Dillinger wanted to make a grand exit with a machine gun instead of just walking through walls. He smiled and said Dillinger knew it would make him a star.
Dillinger’s escape from Crown Point is the equivalent of Captain Ahab putting a harpoon in the white whale’s side. Dillinger robbing a bank is the equivalent of Judge Holden taking a scalp. Dillinger driving from Chicago to Tucson in the dead of winter in 1934 is On The Road twenty years before ON THE ROAD was written. Dillinger getting shot to death just steps away from the Biograph Theater is pure Outlaw Theater. It instantaneously elevated him to the status of american myth. He obviously didn’t plan for things to happen that way, but if he had, I think he would have fallen in love with the symmetry, the pure mythology of it. And, no matter what you do, you can’t kill a myth. You can try to deconstruct it but somehow that kind of story just seems to put itself right back together again. Only this time it’s stronger and more potent than before.
The minute I started to writeThe Name Is Dillinger I knew what I had. I had Faulkner’s bear, I had Hemingway’s marlin, I had de Angulo’s coyote, I had London’s wolf, I had the treasure and the blood of the word. It was like finding a roll of hundred dollar bills all balled up with a rubber band and thrown into the weeds. Something does a little jump in the stomach. You don’t really know how much you have or how important it is but you know it is something huge, it’s e equals mc squared, it’s the knowledge that that something is a whole lot more than you ever had in your entire life. Or, maybe ever will have.
I wasn’t even a hundred lines into that Dillinger section yet I was so excited and furious with the desire to do nothing but write write write that I couldn’t sleep for most of that week. The best night’s sleep was maybe three or four hours at a time but somehow that was enough. Because I was playing off something that was bigger than sleep. I was playing off some kind of dream energy that would not let me alone. That plus my own visceral energy that I couldn’t deny. This was enough and more than enough. Because The Name Is Dillinger had become my wooden gun and I knew I had broken through to something enormously magical, to some more intricate and risky level of writing than I had every known before. And, I also knew that writing for me would never be the same again.
In THE HEDGEHOG AND THE FOX Isaiah Berlin carefully divided writers into two categories. The hedgehogs and the foxes. According to him and to the Greek philosopher Archilochus who originally came up with this idea, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin goes on to say that while it is easy to classify some writers such as Dostoevsky and Nietzsche as hedgehogs and Shakespeare and Joyce as foxes, the categories are largely superficial. Still, they grant you ways of looking you had not considered before.
However, here in america it’s easier to see the hedgehog/fox pairing morph into the coyote and the wolf marriage. Not only does the coyote know many things, but he is also a trickster and has the ability to conjure and make wagers with the void. Nothing is mentioned either in any of Archilocus’s fragments or Berlin’s book about conjuring. Conjuring is about the shamanic, storytelling, mythmaking. Berlin is interested in the intellect, Tolstoy, philosophy, history. Both the coyote and the wolf represent prehistory, the primordial, the irrational, the night, and the void.
The wolf is less known for conjuring but he does know the one big thing and his talent is shapeshifting. He has made a blood pact with flux, a détente with dreams, and soul stuff. The coyote’s supreme genius is that he can conjure the wolf and he does it so well even though sometimes the wolf will eat him. The wolf’s specialty is that he can shapeshift into the coyote effortlessly whenever he feels the need to play his other. When he does, the coyote steals his soul. The wolf is the master of ritual, chant, and mask. The coyote is a cowboy a grandstander and is unbelievably impatient, he craves instant gratification. The wolf is patient. He knows where the meat is, he knows he is going to get some, and he can wait.
And because the coyote is so impatient he is incapable of making the one big thing because he can’t stand still long enough. His talent lies in the prank and the trick and he is a master of the small well made thing. The best literary example I know of is the poet Ed Dorn. He was a coyote poet who created GUNSLINGER which is a mock epic of Billy the Kid, the comedic portrait of the old west gunslinger, a coyote’s anarchic laugh at the night. However, it takes a wolf to create a total epic like BLOOD MERIDIAN. It requires a wolf to learn the breath of the cosmos. It requires a wolf to enter the empire of blood. The problem, especially in poetry, is that there are many coyotes but very few wolves. Still, without the Ed Dorns there would be no Cormac McCarthys.
The creation of an archetypal character means the automatic induction of the writer into the Society of the Wolf. Shakespeare is a shoo in because of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Falstaff. It doesn’t matter that Berlin thinks Shakespeare is a writer who knows many things. Shakespeare knows everything wolf. Goethe is a wolf because of Faust. Homer is a wolf because of Odysseus and Achilles. Fitzgerald is a wolf because of Gatsby. Bukowski is a wolf because of Chinaski. Wolves are marauders. They sack streets, cities, books, bars, and alphabets.
Dickinson, Eliot, Crane, and Stevens were coyotes. Melville was most definitely a wolf. Whitman was a wolf who really wanted to be a coyote. Song of Myself is a wolf’s howl. Howl is Ginsberg’s blackest coyote laugh. Twain, armed with his outrageous humor, was often a coyote, but when it came to Huckleberry Finn, he was undoubtedly a wolf. Hemingway was a coyote who longed to be a wolf. Faulkner was a chaotic wolf who probably dreamed of becoming both at the same time, his long version of everything and nothing. McCarthy is a wolf who dreams of eating the sun. He will eventually have to settle for what remains of the moon. Charles Olson got there first and left it half eaten, a coyote trick if there ever was one. Pound was that consummate wolf who ate himself right down to the bone. And, while Pound was editing Eliot’s ur version of THE WASTE LAND, he did the wolf like thing by chewing all the excess meat off THE WASTE LAND’s carcass. He literally devoured two thirds of the poem.
For me, Dillinger was always a wolf who thought like a coyote but ate voraciously like the wolf of all wolves. He really did want it all. And, I think he got it. In fact, his nature drove him to make it an all or nothing venture. While he was robbing banks he was actually choking down big chunks of dream starved america whole and america loved it. The best part was america always wanted more of what Dillinger had to offer.
When I began writing DILLINGER I realized that Dillinger was much larger than the canvas Dorn painted on. Dillinger would require something like a psychic I Max, a dream Jungian Cinema Scope screen stretched clear across the darkest of skies. Dillinger was not just the wolf, he was the super star wolf. And, that aspect of him has always appealed to me, teased me, witched me toward the poem of all poems.
Because, once I started to work on DILLINGER, I realized I had to write the big thing, the total thing, the encyclopedic thing, the cinematic thing. Not just know it as Berlin’s hedgehog knows it, but do it the way the wolf does it, enact it, shapeshift through it, plunge into it, knowing that all these years I have been a dream participant in those bank robberies, as though I invented all of Dillinger’s dreams, as though I said everything he said and then I scripted everything I said and put it all together in one massive poem that threatens to eat itself and me with it.
And, yet there are singular elements of coyote lodged in DILLINGER. Once I realized that I probably would never see all of this poem between covers, I knew I could try to get the sections published as discrete little books all by themselves. That is my wolf shapeshifting itself into a whole pack of coyotes. That is my wolf speaking in a whole universe of alien and unrelenting tongues.
I can’t speak for the hedgehog and the fox. In some ways they seem to operate independently of each other. The hedgehog writer does not need the fox to make the big thing and the fox writer does not require the hedgehog to make the many and various things that it can. But, here the coyote and the wolf have a kind of symbiotic relationship. The coyote definitely needs to conjure the wolf and the wolf is driven to shapeshift itself into the coyote. In certain ways that cannot be rationally explained, both the coyote and the wolf preside over american literature, especially poetry. Sometimes one may have more power than the other. Yet, american poetry can’t function without them.
While I write a shrivelled coyote face stares at me from a nail hook driven into a book shelf near my desk. The ears have curled and hardened into iron. The fur on the face itself is a mottled tan with black and some scattered white showing. The eyes are irregular savage slits, one is larger than the other. The fur lining both sides of the face is a soiled white. Just a small section of the black nose remains. The mouth has gone back to the void. I’m waiting for it to conjure something.
I’m waiting for it to conjure the wolf and the outlaw again. – Todd Moore
Working the wreckage of the american poem in an Illinois cornfield while listening to the wind crack through the dry cornstalks. Working the wreckage of the american poem on the Kansas prairie while trying to figure out just where my grandmother’s sodhouse stood. I’m sure she heard the faint sounds of the arriving cattle herds coming up from Texas in that vagrant and outlaw wind. Working the wreckage of the american poem while standing on the sidewalk outside the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona, while trying to catch the faint sound of Dillinger’s voice in the heat and the primal wind blowing up from old Mexico.
In Los Angeles I hear some guy complaining about the Santa Anas, how they make him a little crazy. He’s been trying to find his old copy of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, the one called Red Wind. He claims reading that is the only thing that might save him, keep him from pulling a gun or a knife. He’s drunk and brushes past me in the crowd and for the fraction of a fraction of a second in the blur of street moves he almost looks and sounds like a kicking crazy version of Bukowski.
Working the wreckage of the american poem in an old bar that sits next to the railroad tracks and some guy is showing off a scar he got in a fight with box cutters. Said, the sumbitch tried for my throat and I put my hand up and went sideways. Then got him in the eye and while he’s wrestling with his eyeball which is out on his cheek, I notice that my thumb is wearing a red hat only it ain’t a red hat. It’s blood. Outside the bar a freight is rattling by and I go outside with my drink and in that rush of dust that the train clicks up I get the last three lines to a poem. It’s like they dropped right off that freight and announced their arrival.
I’m driving highway ten in Arizona from Deming to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Barbara is sitting beside me. She isn’t sure we can make it because we are right in the heart of the worst sandstorm I’d ever seen. The wind is blowing a wall of black sand straight at us and even though I can’t see very far out the windshield I can still just barely make out the white line in the middle of the highway. And, as though the wind isn’t enough, I am beginning to get the first few lines of a poem I will write in Las Cruces. And, I know that somehow the poem is all the compass I will need but I have to keep working it, I have to tease the lines out of all that black sand so they will haunt me.
Working the wreckage of the american poem in Belvidere, Illinois. The sky to the west is black and blue green, tornado weather. There has been no wind at all for several minutes.
The trees in my backyard have grown peculiarly still. The blackness looks as though it could drop right out of the sky. Then a little puff of wind starts up, just the slightest hint of a breeze. The leaves begin a slow shake before they speed up. The way they slap each other sounds almost like a kind of leaf hysteria. It is still not raining when a scrap of paper gets blown into my yard and is whipped straight at me. I grab it before the wind can sweep it high into the dark clouds. It’s a newspaper article on the bankrobber John Dillinger. Only the top half of the article remains along with the photo of Dillinger holding a Thompson in one hand and the wooden gun in the other and he has the biggest smile on his face I’ve ever seen. This happens just a week before I will write The Name Is Dillinger.
Jerry is talking about the day his old man accidentally shot him in the leg with a 22 target automatic. He was drunk, Jerry said and he was trying to do the road agent’s spin and he dropped the goddam pistol on the floor and it went off. What did it feel like, getting shot, I asked. He said, I think I said oh oh, like those times I dropped a glass on the floor and it broke only I was the glass and I got broke. And, I remember there was a wind going outside and when the ambulance came it was dark and the moon was all red and one of the guys loading me onto the gurney said it looked like there was blood on the moon and then the wind looked like it was getting red, too.
I’m watching MILLER’S CROSSING again. It’s pure Coen brothers gangster anarchy. And, the more I watch it, the more I find myself needing to see Albert Finney work that Thompson sub machine gun. I need that as much as I have to see the pitched gun battle at the end of THE WILD BUNCH, as much as I have to watch the trailer for PUBLIC ENEMIES just because it’s the best mini film going, as much as I have to watch Jimmy Cagney shoot it out with the feds at the end of WHITE HEAT. These are compulsions, these are obsessions, these dark visions are both my dreams and my blood. But, I am especially obsessed with the way that the wind blows the hat out through the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING. It’s a gangster wind, it’s an outlaw wind, it’s a desperado wind. And, somehow, at least for me, that blown hat has become a kind of dark metaphor for the wrecked poetry of america.
I’m on my way up to the box office to buy a ticket to BONNIE AND CLYDE. A gust of wind blows a thin spray of dust up the street and along with it comes the strong odor of burnt rags. You smell that the guy in the ripped gray jacket says when I pass him under the marquee. Smell what I say, fishing my wallet out of my coat. That odor. You know what it is, he asks. I’m trying to make it to the box office but he’s blocking my way. No, I tell him, not really wanting to get into it with a street crazy. It’s blood, pal. He winks like he’s in on the biggest secret in the world. So, okay, I say, whose blood. Ripped gray jacket says, it’s the blood of us all, then puts a gun finger to his head, cocks his thumb and goes bang.
Wrecked poetry in america is the blood of us all and we are standing in an outlaw wind and all we have is the wind and the wrecked poem and the anarchic blood of america and Kell Robertson is trying to write a poem about the wind and I’d like to think he’s doing it at a beaten up picnic table out behind some New Mexican cantina and he has a half filled long neck sitting in front of him and a sheet of borrowed paper held down by an adobe brick against the splintered wood surface of the table so the wind won’t blow it away and he is using a cheap ball point pen he stole off the bartender and the lines of the poem are beginning to come to him fast now and he keeps looking up at the Sangre de Cristos because mountains have a way of talking to you when you write and while he is writing a woman brings him a plate of tamales and another beer because she knows he is hungry and that his hunger is for food and also for dreams but she also realizes that she can only touch his dreams by touching him she can’t get any closer than that and he knows he needs the food and the beer and the pen and the paper and the lines of the poem and the woman but right now what he needs most is the poem because without the poem he is nothing. Later he can put on his Wes Hardin face but if he is going to be any kind of an outlaw at all, he’s got to rob the wind if he wants to get the poem.
What’s left of the wrecked poetry of america is the outlaw wind. Todd Moore
Writing poetry in america under the sign of the gun. Writing poetry in some broken down american bar. Writing poetry while trying to drive a cab. In america. Writing poetry while working at the post office, some guy has a stop watch on you, the hangover you are sweating through is soaking the back of your shirt. In america.
Writing poetry in america when every knows that writing poetry in america is like playing against the very long odds. Writing poetry in america in the shadow of a police cruiser. Writing poetry in america while washing dishes in The Greasy Spoon Diner and some guy called Vinnie is yelling Where the fuck are the forks. Writing poetry in america on the back of some lost child poster you found blowing down the street. Writing poetry in america when writing poetry in america is reserved for the marginal, the outsider, the fucked up, the condemned, the outlaw, and the very very lost. Writing poetry in america when the only other option is to suffer silence as though it were a tumor.
Albert Huffstickler wrote poetry in beaten up american diners and stayed in old motels where the plumbing rattled and knocked and the air conditioning didn’t work in the heat and the heat didn’t work in the winter and somebody was always screaming or singing in the next room and it messed with his cadences.
in his sixties
in my arms
for his dead
and worked a
day still drunk
from the night
before at sixty
in my arms
for a dead
From CITY OF THE RAIN by Albert Huffstickler
Kell Robertson writes poetry in america. Kell Robertson has written poetry in saloons and underneath bridges and on the tops of mountains and behind dumpsters and drunk and sober and with money in his pockets and with no money at all but with a can of beer in one hand and a borrowed ballpoint pen in the other. Kell Robertson is the kind of Outlaw Poet who could have robbed banks, maybe even did but isn’t telling. He doesn’t have to. His poems do all the talking.
Pretty Boy Floyd
with a banG
broke the laws & the banks
they called him chock
because he was part choctaw
& when he drove into town
the people cheered
they knew he was going to burn a mortgage
& take some money
away from the bankers
they wouldn’t turn him in
for the reward
though they were starving
Old Chock was alright
Ain’t seen him
But the law got him
shot him down in a cornfield
not because he was a criminal
but because he wasn’t organized
He was layin there
full of bullets
& the cops asked him
Are you Pretty Boy Floyd?
& he said
“My name is Charlie Arthur Floyd”
like it was important to him
From A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION by Kell Robertson.
Maybe the most important thing about poetry written at gut level, the poem written at blood level, the poem written at Outlaw level is that your name is your poem and you die for the primal. And, because you know you are going to die anyway, you die for your name. And, because you are an Outlaw Poet when you die for your name you die for everyone’s name.
strange movie full of death
Strange movie full of death
asks us to play ourselves
as the front door falls face first
onto the floor.
Women and men explore consent
in the back alley
where memoirs get written
Smiling zombies in police lineups of love
look painfully familiar.
The ER is overfull,
and First Class is on fire.
I went down and out to find gold under the asphalt.
I beat my chest and sang like a mockingbird.
The ambulance is coming to see you
and the murder rate has its own new hour show on HBO.
Beneath the bleeding stairs
an uneasy truce is reached,
and lovers intend to do their laundry
before the next attack.
From STRANGE MOVIE FULL OF DEATH by Scott Wannberg
Scott Wannberg writes poems that masquerade as film scripts for the Marx brothers, produced by the Coen brothers, story boards by Magritte. Nothing makes any sense in a Scott Wannberg poem because he writes in america and yet everything makes perfect sense. Once you realize that the true meaning of poetry is meaninglessness, you will understand everything. And, how might Wannberg’s poetry possibly fit an Outlaw scenario? The Outlaw Poet in america is both literary felon and literary victim and Wannberg is the perfect victim voyeur.
Poem by Todd Moore, first published in Poesy XXXIV, the Outlaw issue.
Outlaw Poetry contains both ferocious laughter and comedic gunfire. And, it has an acute knowledge of both blood and fate.
and we sniffed the air like wolves for the scent of rain, probing the night for a vision in a clock of numbers under mad stars.
From Tony Moffeit’s novel BLUES FOR BILLY THE KID.
Todd Moore books/cds are availablehere… Scott Wannberg is avalable here… a Albert Huffstickler CD by Vox Audio is available here… a Kell Robertson book is available here…Tony Moffeit books/cd’s are available here… and last (but not least) click for Poesy Maghere…
that Tony Moffeit wrote a book entitledPOETRY IS DANGEROUS, THE POET IS AN OUTLAW, is poetry really dangerous, is the poet really an outlaw? I’d like to think so though I’m pretty sure John Ashbery’s poetry is not really dangerous and John Ashbery is not really an outlaw. Louise Gluck’s poetry is not really dangerous, Louise Gluck is not really an outlaw. Ted Kooser’s poetry is not really dangerous, Ted Kooser is not really an outlaw. Billy Collins’ poetry is not really dangerous, Billy Collins will never be an outlaw. And, I suppose I am loading the dice here because these poets are all mainstream, they all have the establishment’s seal of approval, they are icons of the safe, the politically correct, the untaboo.
I want a poem to be a little more like the monster in the closet. You know it’s in there just waiting to be let out. And, sometimes you can hear it calling to you, whining and crying to be released into the psychic burn. But, you’ve been warned in no uncertain terms to open that door. You’ve been told that it’s both beautiful and dangerous, homicidal and loving. And, the door is calling you. The door is like the first words of some Outlaw Poem calling you to put it in your mouth, to taste it and let it eat you up bones and all. And, you reach for the door knob.
What I want is poetry that is enormously dangerous. What I want is poetry that will really scare the everlasting shit out of whoever reads it. I want poetry that will definitely be 86’d at Carnegie Hall, the Poetry Foundation of America, and the Library of Congress. I want the poem to be as palpable as a Glock 40, a stainless switchblade, a baseball bat to the frontal lobes. I want the kind of poetry that will not only heal you but hurt you deeply, wound you in ways that you have never been wounded before.
it off for
I want a poem that threatens the reader with psychic damage the way that a 45 auto could take out the eyes. I want a poem to be so dangerous that just the simple reading of it could take you right to the existential brink of whoever or whatever you are or could ever hope to be. I want a book of poetry to be as lethal as a razor to the jugular. This time a nick, the next a slash. I want to see a book of Outlaw Poetry to be so dangerous it might bear this warning: Reading this book could be dangerous to your mental health.
I want an Outlaw Poem that might have knocked Nietzsche back on his ass. I want an Outlaw Poem that could have given Roberto Bolano his worst nightmares ever. I want an Outlaw Poem that would send Charles Bukowski straight to the shittiest bar in the world and on the way have him mumbling, I wish to god I’d have written something like that. I want an Outlaw Poem that William S. Burroughs might have written right after he blew Joan Vollmer’s head off with a drunken automatic.
And, I don’t want any philosophy involved in the writing of Outlaw Poetry. No hint of an Andre Breton manifesto, though I will take the blackest wildest most incoherent of rants from Antonin Artaud. I don’t want any rational justifications for the writing of any kind of poetry, let alone Outlaw. No polite excuses. No chickenshit poetics. Just give me the blood dance psychic act of writing an Outlaw Poem all by itself.
And, I don’t want Harold Bloom anywhere near Outlaw Poetry. Or Theodor Adorno or Walter Benjamin. All they’ll do is fuck it up with theories. All theories do is weigh the poem down with so much unintelligible intellectual freight.
In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid is getting all set to target shoot a stone when he says, Can I move. Movement is the essence of Outlaw Poetry. Movement like when you are getting ready to blow something up. Movement like when the poem is all movement and you are flying through the space and time of it at the speed of psychic light. All theories are bankrupt. Or, is this just one more theory? If it is, it’s totally Outlaw and anything but bankrupt.
We are living in the first decade of the twenty first century, but in poetry we may as well still be stuck twenty years from the end of the twentieth century. All the same tired old strategies in poetry remain in evidence. All the same old kinds of boring poems continue to be published in the same old boring poetry journals. Where are the powerful revolutions of the word? We’ve had Modernism. It’s dead, though elements of it are still floating in the air like blown scraps of paper. And, Post Modernism? There are still fragments of its shrill artificial laughter echoing somewhere.
But, where is the essential poetry? The poetry that longs to be released from the blood. Those poems and those books you can’t wait to get to the bookstore to buy, you can’t wait to crawl into the quietest corner of some coffee house or bar or restaurant or library nook to read as though you are reading some bloody tracks left in the sand or splattered along the cement or splashed through the grass. Where is the kind of poetry that you would rush across town through a riot zone or a crime scene or a catastrophe to get hold of and then read as though you are reading a ransom note or a declaration of war. Where is the poem you would read the way you read the current best thriller? Where is the poem you would read breakneck and almost breathlessly the way you would read a very great novel?
Personally, I have yet to find a book of poetry quite like that so I have been writing DILLINGER the way Pasternak secretly wrote DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, the way that Dostoevsky nocturnally wrote THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, the way that Orhan Pamuk wrote SNOW while being watched by agents of the State, the way that Camus wrote THE STRANGER while still searching for blood in his spit, the way that Melville wrote MOBY DICK inside a circle of harpoons, the way that Faulkner wrote AS I LAY DYING on the lid of a handmade coffin, the way that Cormac McCarthy wrote BLOOD MERIDIAN dreaming of scalps. I do it subversively, I do it clandestinely, I do it in a fury of scabs and festers, I do it in a crowd of death sentences and firing squads, I do it darkly at the center of deathkisses and blood. A powerful book of poetry is kind of like a wound. You want it to heal but some part of you wants it to still be a wound. We also survive by our wounds.
Falling asleep in Boot Hill Bed and Breakfast in outlaw country, the Wyatt Earp room. Falling asleep in outlaw country with the sounds of the trains whistling down the tracks. Falling asleep in outlaw country, in the heart of Dodge City, Kansas. Falling into a deep blood sleep and dreaming of someone reading a poem in a ghost shirt where the bullet holes are very black patches. Dreaming that the ghost shirt won’t keep death away but instead will call down the poems one after the other and the poet has all he can do to write them out on pieces of scrap paper and then read them except that the reading is a telling, that the reading is a long chant down a count the coup wind, that the poems are stories and during the telling they come off the poet like billows and strings of wounded smoke.
Saturday night, September 12th, 2009, the Carnegie Arts Center, Tony Moffeit is singing A Piece Of America’s Heart, is singing A Back Street Called The Blues, is singing There Ain’t No Light, all new songs and they are almost like a mixture of honky tonk wise guy and the big dark elegy blues, they are restrained and sad and have a hint of duende in them and suddenly I am thinking about Kell Robertson’s music, especially those songs on that home made cd that he sent me back in 2003. A song like When You Come Down Off That Mountain, and I can hear his slightly off key boozy twangy fucked up broken voice half yelling the barroom bossy in my ear. “Honey, it ain’t no picture show.” And, between Tony’s new songs and Kell’s old songs, I couldn’t help but write something down. I scrawled it on the inside of old manila folder while someone drove by outside playing loud music about some rapper who gets gunned down out on the Sunset Strip.
blues & it’s
it & it’s got
& it’s got
to have a
in it &
it’s got to
it & most
it’s got to
have a sweat
the very best
in it the
go so far
back into yr
I always get a little crazy in Dodge and am not sure why except that it feels like the air there is so thick with all the great stories all I have to do is reach up and get hold of one. They are like the bones of old movies ripe for the taking. Rick Terlep is playing a hard riff on his dark guitar. He has his head bent down and I know he’s not really looking at the floor. I know that he is really staring into the heart of the music which sleeps somewhere under the old brick streets of Dodge and even deeper than that, it sleeps somewhere down in the heart of primal Kansas, somewhere down in the dreamcore of a mythic america and he is using his guitar to conjure the music right out of the bone sacred earth.
I go into
time I go in
throw me out.
Kell Robertson, unidentified song lyric.
There is a part of Dodge City that has forever been thrown out of the acceptable culture, barred, exiled, condemned, 86’d, outlawed. Just like an Outlaw Poet who dares to write those quick poems of bright nightmares and unrelenting murder in Dodge City light. And, yet, it’s that sense of outlaw and exile and being marooned out on the high plains with the visions of coyotes and wolves that I love. Dodge just sits there on that old coup stick ghostdancing ground with the wind blowing the green black promise of tornadoes in that crazy slant light, in that blood light of old cattle hides and buffalo hides and rancid scalps and shattered bones, crowned with that tangle of old high talk, the gun brag, the bad whiskey, the shot horses, and the lost lost dreams.
Her hair smelled of campfires…
Kell Robertson, unidentified song lyric.
i was jesse james
and you were belle starr
in that hotel in
dodge city our bed
full of bananas
and oranges that
we would peel and
eat while a parrot
squawked in another
room our bodies
sticky from the
wild fruit the
skins and juices
your elbow knocked
over the clock
as we fell to the
Poem by Tony Moffeit, from MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO DODGE, Kyle Laws, editor, A Pueblo Poetry Project Publication, 2009.
I’ve only been to Dodge City a couple of times but the one thing I’ve noticed while I was there is that something comes over me I call Dodge City Longing. And, I don’t think it’s new. I think the feeling has always been around. Say that it exists somewhere between love and mayhem. I’m sure Wyatt Earp felt it those nights when the killer winds brought waves of black snow and those lunatic dreams. I’m sure Doc Holliday felt it when he raked in the last pot of the evening and all he had left was his hotel room and all those demons dancing in the air over his bed. I’m sure Ed Masterson felt it when that 45 slug hit him point blank range and he was swimming in blood while his clothes were burning.
The Dodge City Longing is purely american. You can feel it in Akron, you can feel it in Peoria, you can feel it in Iowa City, you can feel it in Telluride but where you feel it to the max is in Dodge City, Kansas, because that’s where the big gamble was, that’s where the gunfighters went, that’s where the dream money was sleeping, that’s where the blood was waiting for even more blood. And, still is.
And, that’s why it’s so easy to read Outlaw poems there. That’s why it’s so easy to read BLUES FOR BILLY THE KID there. Tony Moffeit is reading me something from his KID novel and for a minute or so he starts to look a little like Billy. Like he is shapeshifting himself into the Kid. He has always had high cheekbones, he has always had the same loose outlaw stance as the Kid. But, now he is shapeshifting himself into the Kid’s legend and dreams and meta skin which is also a body and in the process he blurs back and forth like a multi faced Picasso painting, like a Bill Gersh print of the dark lady diving into and out of her black gypsy night, like the kind of photograph he has been experimenting with where the shapeshifting has become the one thousandth exposure of a Billy the Kid smile which was his real weapon because that smile completely disarmed you put you off your game just long enough for the Kid to get his gun out.
And, that’s why it’s so easy to read Kell Robertson’s The Gunfighter there. Just before I read at the Carnegie Art Center on Friday night, I read The Gunfighter to myself again in a mirror maybe for the ten thousandth time. I don’t know why I did that. Maybe it was a kind of psychic proxy reading for Kell Robertson because he couldn’t be there and I wanted some phantom version of him to be part of what was going on during that weekend in Dodge. Or, maybe because it was one more way of conjuring that cracked stick duende that Dodge City has become. Outside, I keep looking for a black wolf to walk down the railroad tracks. A black wolf in search of its original shadow.
And, that’s why it’s so easy to read anything from DILLINGER there. Especially an excerpt from The Riddle Of The Wooden Gun. Because the authentic wooden gun had been a kind of shaman stick, a magical way of pointing and talking. I wanted to call back all of that energy that Dillinger had originally known at Crown Point jail, call it all the way back to Dodge City and somehow make it work as it had never worked before. What I wanted to do in the writing of the poem and what I try to do in every reading of the poem is to join the first murderous energy of the wooden gun to the ghostdanced power of homicidal love pushed back in the breath.
There is an old legend that Wyatt Earp whittled a wooden gun in Dodge City while he was a deputy marshal there and carried it tucked inside his boot for good luck. And during the Gunfight at the O K Corral that wooden gun shook right out of his boot and got lost in the dust and Burt Alvord found it and later took it to Mexico City where it somehow ended up in a curio shop. Then, Malcolm Lowry bought it and allegedly gave it to Maria Sabina during a healing ceremony. Ironically, Sam Peckinpah liked using an old wooden gun to signal good takes while he was filming BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA in Mexico. Where he got it no one knows for sure. One very dubious account has George Stevens mailing it to him. Apparently, the note read, This is the wooden gun that Brandon De Wilde used in SHANE. You deserve it for THE WILD BUNCH. Warren Oates claimed that Peckinpah liked to tease Gig Young with it. Young wanted that wooden gun more than anything else in the world. He even offered Peckinpah a hundred bucks for it but Peckinpah wouldn’t part with it. Then, on the last day of shooting Peckinpah gave it to a Yaqui who had been working as a gofer on the set just to aggravate Young. No one knows how it got from the Yaqui to William S. Burroughs who liked to stage gunfights with his reflection in a mirror. He often used real guns but sometimes he would substitute the wooden gun just for the hell of it. A Mayan shaman who knew Burroughs claims that the wooden gun eventually got lost in the mirror. And, the wind in america is filled with old sticks that sometimes resemble powerful dream pistols that promise to take us away.
Cowboy on the run…
Kelly Robertson song lyric.
Stories are blood. Found scrawled in white chalk on a broken sidewalk in Dodge City, Kansas.