Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000


Straight Up Toward The Sun

Soon enough he arrives outside the boundaries of time’s false expectations, and there he knows that he can be a visitor no longer, at least not yet; his day for sitting still is yet to come. The two lovers’ shoulders grow cold to his touch. He reaches for their cane, but they yank the cane away from him, and by this signal gesture he understands that they desire him to leave.

He stands and bows, tips his hat in their direction, and next remembers that he wears no hat to tip. He feels his face flush red and warm with shame for all the poetry he’s written. All the scattered lines he’s traced in imitation of so many artful poses that he witnessed on one altar or another. Inside amphitheater classrooms dressed in tweed and dungaree. Between the leather covers of thick volumes he pretended hard to comprehend. Scribbled words on cotton, perfumed paper floating free above the weave of picnic blankets cradling wine and cheese and randy dreams of sexual intercourse.

“Your life,” he tells himself in a rare and honest moment, “this image you designed and named your life, is all about unrequited love in the form of a serial apology.”

“No matter this cynicism,” he answers his own voice. “All around me now, this very minute, side to side, behind and forward leading me to tap my soles along this worn-slate path; all around me grow my flowers.”

A Birth In Blood

He next stops to watch a rosebud, and standing there he considers that while the rosebud springs unbidden from the ground, waiting for yet another self-proclaimed artist to compare her face to that of love, the metaphor is weak and just as limited as humanity’s vision of romance. “Trite, like you, and as shallow as your poems,” he whispers. “You are no more than a visitor to your self.”

He shivers in spite of the brilliant sunlight that bathes his arms and legs and back, because although somewhere deep inside he wants to realize, with the full and undeniable force of utter candor, that as death approaches so wing away his affectations, yet he feels afraid of death. With a flicker of the edge of hope inside his eyes, he notices that the rosebud leans toward the earth whence she came, and he walks on farther down the played-out path.

Golden Fruit

He picks a poppy from her stem and nibbles gently on her petals. “As I eat this fruit, I beg to save my soul,” he says; and then he tries to laugh away the bitterness he feels inside. “Your visit to this park has failed to change you. Your flowers are a sibling to your poetry; by way of both you mean to wear a mask. What soul? And who is there to beg? A priest? Yes, that’s it, you try too much to sound like a priest.

“Can’t you hear your own voice? You speak to dead people who sit still on a wooden bench within the confines of a garden hideaway that shelters you from the town which surrounds it. You talk to flowers and expect that they will answer you. You tip a hat that you imagine wearing; presume to separate yourself from youthful, amphitheater posturing; almost convince yourself that sexual intercourse never satisfied your urge to be the animal you are; and yet you cower from the angry heat that courses through your veins.

“What need exists, other than to live a lie, for this serial apology you claim as ode?

“If you want to become a poet, then throw away your pen and smell your neighbor’s breath.”