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

The Dreamer Interrupts The Dream


 Dressed For A Distant Shore

I feel fortunate to live here now, inside this place and time that I call home. A gabled house, costumed in a Cape Cod shade of blue. A sheer disguise to match the sky. A clever reminder of a long-ago honeymoon evening spent inside a New England restaurant; wind pelting rain against a picture window; fire burning in the hearth; lobster lying on the plate before me; unhappy wife sitting at my side, picking at her food. Doom’s shadow crawling through the chambers of my undeveloped heart, nowadays replaced by the wisdom of an old man’s smile as he contemplates the past.

More than thirty years ago I left that restaurant, as she left me, and I arrived on this newer coast just west of a young lover’s dream. Within the first few days of rediscovering myself here, I found romance and sex enough to leave me sated as I lay under fresh-starched hotel sheets, my arms wrapped around the supple flesh of a warm girl’s back, my hands cupped soft to hold her breasts, sunshine illuminating the morning sails of boats slapping water inside slips of the marina just beyond the balcony.

Drunk on possibilities. Rid of blizzard winters. Sharp tap of midnight footsteps on cobblestone streets now no more than subject for poems yet to be written.

And yet, and still, I sometimes miss the salty breeze that I remember as clean breath tickling through my boy’s dark hair, as I marched miles, back and forth and back again along the boardwalk of my youth.

Somewhere In The Crowd A Young Man Paces

The dreamer interrupts the dream.

He imagines the scars he’s only heard about by way of telephone conversations. Up and down his brother’s sternum, raw-red reminders of the places where surgeons of the second rank first wielded a buzz saw to open his inert body, then later shot a staple gun to close him up again.

And next, somewhere inside a separate nightmare, younger versions of the same two brothers are sitting side-by-side inside a beach-town tavern. The dreamer with a dozen wet excuses for another double-shot of scotch and rocks in front of him on the mahogany bar: slippery oysters, lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, a tiny silver fork he leaves unused in favor of the sucking sound his mouth makes as he slurps the slimy animals onto his tongue.

The dreamer’s brother, eyelids winking in a nervous way, pretends not to watch or hear the hungry gurgle going down his sibling’s throat.

“Don’t you want another glass of wine?” the dreamer asks.

“I’ll pass. It’s kind of early in the day, and I have to drive us across the bridge soon if we’re going to visit our parents’ grave and wash the headstone before the tourists jam the highway and stop us from getting back to my house before it gets dark. Not hurrying you, but will you be finished soon?”

The dreamer sucks the last hot, golden dose of medicine as it trickles its way through the ice cubes he tries to avoid. He sighs away his frustration, tosses dollar bills onto the table and slides his body off the vinyl-covered stool.

Why Stay Here When Home Awaits?

The dreamer’s dream interrupts itself.

Do you realize that for all the photographs you snap each day, most shots contain no human beings, no faces, no company, no friends or fools to comfort you? Return your self to that long-ago coastline, that walk atop two-by-fours nailed to creosote-painted pilings, themselves buried deep in muddy floors beneath the ocean waves. But look straight on as you travel; resist denial of the fact that back then you touched people with your camera’s lens and even sometimes with your hands.

Yes, go back at will, but by all means whenever you return to that place we measure as the past, go equipped with an honest glance as you recall the midnight cobblestone tap that until now you’ve used as reason for self-pity. Fairness to the truth insists that you welcome entrance of the dreamer’s brother’s vision. He knew you for the man you were, and not for the wet excuses you begged him to entertain. You slid off the stool. You watched him wash the headstone. And next you fell asleep, exhausted by the meal you drank.

While he arose still steady, and held the girl you failed to touch, the family you abandoned.

The Dreamer’s Brother Holds His Brother’s Dream

I feel fortunate to live here now, inside this place and time that I call home.

And yet, and still, I sometimes miss the salty breeze that I remember as clean breath tickling through my boy’s dark hair, as I marched miles, back and forth and back again along the boardwalk of my youth.

There are kites and cotton candy. Pot-bellied tourists unworried by the weight they pull. One giant slice of pizza in exchange for a sweaty quarter, melted cheese sliding off the crust, hot enough to burn a hungry boy’s tongue. A bright-green snow cone costs a dime. A hot dog smeared with tart, yellow mustard; sweet relish juice dripping between sensitive fingers.

Ride a roller coaster above roiling grey water and obstinate black jetties. Absorb the seaside view from the back seat of an electric car as it rolls its quiet way between the lanes of slow-sauntering tourists who escape the big city for a day or two. Brave the images of foreshortened bodies reflected by the glass of cheap trick mirrors.

Hold your father’s hand.

Listen to the sound of children giggling. Waves pounding and exploding on the shore, then rushing back to shape a semblance of their former selves. The squawking song of seagulls. The honky-tonk ping of player pianos. The flap of flags that fly overhead. The snap of bathing trunks’ elastic band against sunburned skin.

The tinny tone of love gone wrong squeaking through the tiny speaker of a transistor radio.

A Sweet Taste She’ll Remember

The dreamer’s brother interrupts the dreamer.

I see you now, through the fog of distance that forever will remain between the two of us. In spite of that cloud that interrupts the air we breathe together, finally I realize that you’re walking steady and approaching a peaceful accord with the people you once considered strangers. Yes, you owned fair reasons for feeling the sharpened edges of loneliness. But yes again, back then you employed those reasons in a way that encouraged friends and family members to shy away from you. What person, after all, wants to call himself companion to a man who fails to study the faces that surround him, who refuses to allow his camera’s lens the pleasure of looking back upon himself?

No honest man, surely. No loving brother. No honest dreamer.

 Colors Fly Above The Present Moment

Today I’ll choose to chase away all interrupted dreams, in favor of the life I’ll miss if thinking of another.

I’ll search above this temporary slip of time for the colors of a kite. I’ll look beyond the pelting rain, leave unhappy wives behind, and aim my camera’s lens back upon myself.