The Roof Garden
In a nest of small hills
sounds of the railway resonate
at once in a skylight window.
Following the elections of 2010, partly as a reaction to them, I took a planned four-day trip to Washington D.C., traveling via amtrak and staying at poet Buck Downs' row house on Burke Street near the Anacostia River and including a Sunday afternoon poetry reading at the Washington D.C. Arts Center, where Buck curates the "In Your Ear" poetry series.
The grand saga began at the Milwaukee "Intermodal" train and bus station on a gray mid-November Friday afternoon, drinking coffee, the only customer in a tiny soup cafe, getting ready to board the train for Chicago. It seemed like the excitement might start early as a rather large number of police gathered for the passenger security search at the gate to the boarding area. Repressive-looking motorcycle police in knee-high patent leather boots gripped their holsters. A K-9 Swat officer with dog appeared to be examining lottery numbers with another policeman standing at the condiment counter in the snack bar, not to mention private uniformed people preparing for searching the gathering crowd of passengers.
After waiting in line but with minimal security contact, I found myself sitting in a whisk-broom-clean train passenger seat all to myself, with my heavy H.P. laptop, book bag and plenty of electrical outlets. I powered up excitedly as I waited for the train to leave the station, my nose nearly pressing the window, looking at huge rust-stained concrete posts with much anticipation of fields and forests, loading docks and backyards of America that the train would soon be passing nostalgically as of trips from eary years.
Chicago's Union Station is an impressive piece of 20th Century architecture that opened for use in 1925 and still, in its cathedral-scale vaulted ceilings and mammoth neo-classical gold-painted ceiling-high statues, resonates with the nation's historic past in a way that modern sound-proof airports have never been able to achieve. Though the cavernous Great Hall is no longer milling with travelers, the marble-like floor still gleams, the clocks still provide times from international zones, the large wooden waiting benches are still oversized and imposing. Several friendly city workers were setting up a Christmas display as I watched, with basketball-sized tree ornaments worthy of the approaching frantic Second-City holiday shopping.
Waiting below at the crowded departure gates was as chaotic as Ellis Island, with children, babies hidden in mothers' blankets, luggage, candybars, soda containers, pods of plastic chairs, television screens, hit-or-miss boarding calls for Saint Louis, New Orleans, Seattle. As darkness began to fall, I was again seated on the train, looking out the window, the Capitol Limited beginning to glide into farmlands east of Chicago, headed dimly toward small towns, Goshen, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, the forest-covered Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers around Harper's Ferry and on to Washington, D.C..
and all our labor
shall be in delight
True to his promise, Buck was at the station when I disembarked the next day. He supplied me with a pre-paid pass for the D.C. metro, and we were off to his row house in the Hill East area to unload baggage and then the National Mall, emerging from beneath the ground, like foxes, into an extremely exhilarating moist air, as after a solid cleansing downpour, near the Washington Monument. Government workers were busy taking down scaffolding and grandstands following a walk-a-thon for the homeless on the mall, as we crossed toward an impressive array of government buildings many of which seemed to me to look like the Jefferson Memorial. As we crossed, the massive bleached white Capitol Building, with steps in full view, was directly to our right. We were headed to the National Gallery, which I had told Buck I would probably prefer to the Smithsonian if we had to choose. I hadn't seen Washington, D.C., since I was in high school.
We spent the afternoon mostly in the newer west building of the National Gallery, viewing a breath-taking exhibit of "small French paintings," Edvard Munch prints, American Modernism, the grotesque Renaissance anomalies of Arcimboldo, and then, in the east building, the permanent belle epoque Chester Dale collection. Among the small French paintings were a Manet still-life with rose, seaside landscapes by Boudine and Jongkind, Fantin-Latour flower vases, Pissaros, Monets and even a Constable cloud sketch. The Munch exhibit consisted of thirty prints many of which showed lovers intertwined as twisted tree trunks, thematically similar to his famous work, variations of a print titled "The Scream."
diversity insures unity
its own but also everyone else's
Nourished on some of the most famous, not to mention worthwhile, paintings in the Western tradition, including Renoir's "Little Girl With a Watering Can," we departed the Gallery and began wending our way along Pennsylvania Avenue, past many new buildings, past the National Treasury, the Wesley Hotel (where Buck regaled me with the tale of how the word "lobbying" evolved from former President Grant's activities in that very hotel lobby) until we arrived, somewhat circumspectly, at a familiar black iron fence at a distance from the taciturn, peaceful-looking White House, with its trademark light fixture hanging above the front door. I might have gotten misty-eyed, but the small crowd was so quiet and contented, like the murmuring night itself. The U.S. Presidential residence did not look at all imperious or fancy. Nor did it seem overly large. The usual media photos showing it far away from the iron fence seemed to me quite inaccurate. It was not distant or detached. Parts of some of the rooms inside were easily visible and well lit. I seem to recall a bright pink wall in a second-floor window that looked as though a child might go racing past it at any moment.
We walked on, past well-preserved vintage townhouses, through neighborhoods of ambassadors and embassies, then sections that blended into unmemorable city blocks. At the crest of a small hill, near a turn, we entered the modest east-Indian Aroma restaurant for dinner. Following an excellent meal and conversation, we again set off, until Buck advised me that we were in the Adams Morgan area, on 18th street, with a little more lively street crowd flowing along the sidewalk, East African, Italian, Middle Eastern and Japanese restaurants, not forgetting The Reef with its roof garden bar and restaurant. At a shadowy door on 18th Street, flanked by brightly lit businesses, we entered and climbed the stairs to the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) second floor studio and gallery, where the party was underway for a piggy bank fundraiser, the artists having hand-painted ceramic piggy banks for auction. On the wall in the background was an endemic flower-splotched all-covering drapery, and in back toward the exit to the theater was a small cash bar.
Buck is a board member of the D.C. Arts Center. We met and talked to several other staff members of the center, including B. and LeeAnn Stanley and others. Fueled by an Arts Center publication from a past exhibit titled "Abstract Realities," the discussion became intense and turned to Mark Rothko (Faith's favorite artist) and the idea of modern "perspective." At last Buck and I departed for his place, anxious about tomorrow's full schedule of events. Despite cold temperatures for D.C. that night, the blue inflatable mattress with blanket on Buck's hardwood living room floor proved to be fairly restful accommodations.
light in itself offers pleasure or is
an end in itself or there the self begins
The next morning, after a shower and coffee from Buck's interesting and functioning kitchen/bathroom basement, decorated with clippings from small arts zines and event posters, we were out the door fairly early, headed for the metro and the Foggy Bottom station near Georgetown and the East Market area. Drinking coffee from bowls in the sunlight of an outdoor breakfast cafe, we talked about movies, particularly some good ones that had been on Turner Classics--A Foreign Affair, Palm Beach Story, The Sweet Smell of Success; the virtues of Claudette Colbert, Burt Lancaster, Jack Webb, Jean-Luc Goddard and many others. Crossing the street to get to the restaurant, which we considered turning down due to possible too high prices, I caught a glimpse of the Capitol building again and in awkward tourist fashion snapped a photo from the cross walk in the middle of the busy street.
After breakfast was something I had been looking forward to for quite a while, a main destination on the trip's itinerary, Bridge Street Books, owned by Philip Levy and managed by well-known poet, Rod Smith. The book store, on Pennsylvania Avenue, was in small colonial-style area, with perfectly restored and painted English and Italianate building facades nearby, a median of endless fruit trees and cobblestone sidewalks. We arrived at the small red-brick building just as Phil was opening for business at twelve noon. The inside was cozy, as expected, with a stairs and second floor and a bathroom off in a broom closet area. Buck and Phil conversed while I quickly began to browse. Bridge Street is one of a handful of book stores in the country that has a significant contemporary poetry section. It's sister book store is Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. Phil asked about Woodland Pattern. As it turned out, he was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin.
Buck had some business to take care of and left me to my devices in the upstairs poetry section. With fifties-era jazz saxophone on the sound system, I thoroughly perused the shelves for authors I might not be able to find elsewhere, possibly that I had seen read or heard about, Beat titles I might not be familiar with, foreign writers, post-modernists, anything that suggested striking futuristic compassion or element-battling social progress, such as John Godfrey's City of Corners, which I had recently read. After an intense search, I had narrowed my selections to Edwin Torres' The Function of External Circumstances, an author Buck had recommended, Borges' Poems of the Night, a critical book about Russian poetry, Jackson Mac Lowe selections in A Beautiful Thing, at last purchasing the Russian criticism and later the Borges.
what's not what's
me what's not
We bade Phil a sad farewell and hurriedly departed. As it turned out we were a little behind schedule for the poetry reading at the D.C. Arts Center. We ended hailing a cab in order not to be late, which as it turned we weren't. In fact, it seemed we had arrived in a time warp. We again climbed the stairs to the gallery, where we had been the night before, but all was different, quiet and unlit. We walked to the door in the back, descended another outside set of stairs, into a solid concrete, black-walled three-sided theater, that actually looked quite appropriate in my mind for reading contemporary poetry. As we made minimal preparations for the performance, it was so quiet that I thought everyone must have forgotten about the Sunday afternoon event. And yet I wasn't anxious. Buck and I had become characters in a Samuel Beckett play. A poetry reading with each of us reading his poetry to the other, each of us a vast audience, appeared an interesting prospect.
It wasn't long, however, before fellow reader, Allen Fisher, a London poet, energetically descended the stairs, like a swordsman, saying he had brought several people with him. The other reader, Katy Bohinc, originally from Cleveland, also arrived, as did Buck's co-curator of the well-known reading series (someone had asked me about the reading before I even left for Washington) Maureen Thorsen. The place began to fill to a respectable degree. I took some photos of Buck and my fellow readers.
I felt slightly sluggish when my turn came to read. It seemed I had endured a lot to get here. I read from a manuscript titled The Sacred River of Consciousness, loosely and idiosyncratically an ecologically themed collection which I had been working on for quite a while. I felt somewhat confident in the material. I'd read it several times previously, and I'd done much more research for these poems than for anything I had written before them. I was allotted twenty minutes. I had a small clock in my pocket but lacked the presence of mind to use it. I don't know how long I read, but Buck seemed to think it was a much shorter than twenty minutes. Even so, I felt that what I had read had made an impact due to my emphasis on content rather than style. Several people came up afterwards and commented on specific parts, which I took as a good sign.
My fellow readers were both excellent, also more polished than myself. Katy B's reading included a radically powerful poem titled "The Revolution." Performance artist Fisher having been on a U.S. reading tour was not nervous at all and read joyfully and with much variation for a substantial amount of time. His reading was impressive. Later, as I stood talking beside the wine and soda bar in the exhibition room, someone, I think Maureen Thorsen, walked up and gave me a decent-sized wad of money, including change, my cut of the afternoon's take, for which I was extremely gratified.
What sober inebriation
Gives me words for a glorious cause?
Pure adornment of Parnassus
Following the poetry reading, in keeping with tradition, the readers and members of the audience adjourned to the Reef's roof garden bar and restaurant a few doors from the Arts Center. Plopping down on a stool away from the bar, somewhat spent and bemused, with the day's NFL football game barreling along on a distant TV screen behind the bar, I found myself sitting with Rod Smith, whom I had not met previously, puffing expertly on a filtered cigarette, as though in the manner of a master cigarette smoker, perhaps Kerouac himself. Smith's surprising "Hi Tom" greeting pulled me out of my doldrums. The open rooftop was unusual and exciting, but the day had turned windy, grey and cold. People seemed on the verge of needing sweaters and jackets, but the poetry had been thought-provoking and warming, and everyone stayed at least for a while. Buck and I moved to a long table with Fisher and his entourage, trying to talk about the London poetry scene and other subjects. Poet Doug Lang was in the group. Tina Darraugh and Peter Inman were also at the table. The group all thought about ordering dinner and continuing with the discussion, but the cold gusts pried us apart. Everyone, including several young black members of the audience, began to disperse. Back on the street, Buck and I had dinner in a cafeteria-like restaurant called the Diner. We ate sandwiches and then picked up some coffees at a near-by Starbucks.
These images and objects arise from
the depth of my mind, where history,
legend and fantasy are mixed.
(from "Abstract Realities")
Armed with lattes in to-go cups, we were walking again on a fantastical night path through mysterious D.C. residential neighborhoods, Buck guiding the way, back to the outskirts of Georgetown and Bridge Street Books. As it turned out, Bridge Street was also having a poetry reading that night, featuring two women poets, Cole Swensen and Sarah Riggs. Despite a few latte spills on my coiled hand, we arrived at the picturesque commercial corner pretty much in tact. We entered the book store in the middle of Riggs' reading, with Buck bounding up the stairs to watch through a hole in the floor and me sitting across the cash register desk from Phil, slouching somewhat from the king-sized grilled chicken sandwich that Jennifer our fellow-D.C.-worker had warmly served up at the Diner.
The lights were dim for Riggs' reading, and I was unfamiliar with her work. But I enjoyed immensely talking with her following the reading, finding out that she was living most of the time these days in Paris. What a nice person. I knew Cole Swensen's work fairly well, having reviewed her excellent collection Goest for the online journal "Word/ For Word." After the reading I mentioned to Swensen "Word/ For Word" editor Jonathan Minton, a big fan of hers, whom she remembered. She autographed and gave me a copy of her new book Greensward.
The night seemed to have warmed up from the earlier cold winds at the Reef. Buck and Cole talked calmly on the sidewalk outside the book store. The trees in the Virginia/Maryland area still had much of their autumn color, and the November leaves hung quietly in the Colonial American light. Both poetry readings had gone well. It had been a good night for poetry in the nation's Capitol. In some extensive virtual nowhere down the road, disjointed communal values had been brought back into alignment. The words had created a renewed order. I felt connected with myself again. Buck and I talked informally in the well-lighted metro car as we took our last ride of the day back to Burke Street.
There is no moment that can't be the pit of Hell.
There is no moment that can't be the water of Paradise.
There is no moment that isn't a loaded gun.
Washington D.C. had been a dedicated, hospitable weekend host. And I hoped I had not been an imposition. The weather, as it intermingled with the late-autumn season, the near-by ocean breezes, had been at times fantastic, at times grey and cold. The dispassionate work-a-day riders of the metro had provided the usual uplifting diverting feeling of universal purpose and assurance as they went to and from their destinations during the pre-December weekend. The architecture had been ornamental and gay, out of the pages of The Education of Henry Adams or Mark Twain. I had escaped the upsetting four walls of political and economic turmoil at least for the weekend. Buck and I had one more restaurant meal late on Monday morning, in reappeared sunlight, at still-chilly outdoor Irish restaurant called Bread and Chocolate in the Eastern Market area. The only other outside customers were a lady at one table and two soldiers dressed in their light-colored camouflage uniforms at another. The pastrami sandwich on toast I ate would have made an Italian draft horse pulling vegetables to market sleepy.
Buck got me to the train station via the metro where we said good-bye, and I waited for the Capitol Limited to depart back to the Midwest. As dusk approached, the train began to board, and once again it pulled out beneath the street lights, embarking on the venturesome all-too-brief journey home.