I’d like to talk about my poem “Atomic Monkey”, and in doing so, talk about my whole life.
When I got sober I use to go to these meetings where people trying to get alcohol and drugs out of their lives would gather and talk about how that was going. Sometimes a whole group of us would go to a different meeting, and we’d be the talkers, which meant walking up to a podium in the front of the room in a church or school or community center and telling my “story”, so to speak, kind of a how it was and how it now is. Talking in front of a group of strangers – and it could be 30 or it could be 150 – about wicked personal stuff was a little scary. Anyway, you probably know all this about me, so hang on, I’m getting to the point.
It was suggested, at these meetings, you look around and see if there was someone who stood out for you, in a good “I like what they have to say” way. Then ask that person to be your sponsor. The asking also wicked scary, in fact I was so chicken eight months in that I asked a woman to ask a guy if he would be my sponsor, and he told her to tell me he would. His name was Dick. He was a counselor at a sober living house and he sponsored about seven million people and he was gay and laughed a lot and said don’t take yourself so damn serious, and Dick told me that on those occasions I was asked to speak before a crowd of strangers that on the way up to the scary podium I ought to ask whatever it was I believed in for help. Help to say things that were helpful, useful, maybe offer a smidge of hope for someone out there listening. Dick also said there were three talks – the one you planned to give, the one you gave, and (back down in your chair) the one you wished you gave. But if you asked for help, he said, and believed in the help from whatever power there was greater than you, the talk you gave was the only one you were supposed to give.
All that was back in the mid eighties. My life changed then, slowly and surely it moved closer to the place Dick described as “right where you are supposed to be.” This last week I didn’t think I was right where I was supposed to be when I was ripped off in a scam for most of my earthly money, but, who knows. A lesson I have learned over and over again these last 35 plus years is that often, right behind the shit-storm that has settled in directly overhead, is the most magnificent rainbow. Glowing. Pulsing. It could be some crazy opportunity otherwise hidden forever, a nudge down a different path I would never have wandered on my own, even what Vonnegut calls ” a dancing lesson from God.”
Long ago I was elected President of my high school class four years running. If I could go back and change my life I never would have run, I would have enrolled in the automotive shop curriculum versus college, I would have hung around with just a few different people and not so many of the ones I did, I would have run cross country, and I would have registered as a conscientious objector when I was 12, because over all these 70 years I have come to realize that I consciously have objections to almost everything. But you don’t get the do-over.
Which brings me to “Atomic Monkey”. This is a poem in my newly self-published book “The Automatic Poems”. You can find it on page 30. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the better poems, it is a little out there, and certainly not on the poetic level of many others, especially the “Cape Cod” poems which may be some of my best writing and, shucks, I believe have an ethereal beauty and capture well tiny scenes and sacred places . But….
There is something that draws me back again and again to “Atomic Monkey.” And one of the things is that it’s a poem that feels like my whole life. Now, it’s a little long to type here in its entirety, so I’ll allude to a few simple ideas.
There are five stanzas of verse. The first stanza relates to the now of my life. I could have written it yesterday, based on yesterday’s experiences. The second stanza (one long parentheses, and Mary Oliver warns against ever putting parentheses in a poem) flies back to my time in fifth grade, the Intermediate School in my hometown of Wareham, MA, me with a big crush on a beautiful black girl named Bonnie Jesus, but never going beyond a flirtatious place, and the fact that all the “mental” kids, those with retardation and Down syndrome and who knows God what else, were housed in the school basement, away from the gym where we went for……gym…….. and seen rarely, like ghosts passing in a group toward the otherwise vacant cafeteria. Stanza three describes a tar and concrete trail I often ran after I got sober, right by the 93 expressway just out of Boston, by the HoJo’s near the rotary, because I was a devoted runner
then and when I was sliding around that two and a half mile loop over and over again the Mystic River on its way out to Boston Harbor, sometimes going around three times, I was for sure right where I was supposed to be.
The fourth stanza takes in all the years between then and tomorrow, my move away from the crowd of class presidency toward just a sacred few – and today I can count on two hands all the people who matter in my life, truly feel like my people – as well as the sense of being judged, over and over again, and not just me being judged but everyone who doesn’t “fit”. And the wonderful feeling of giving the judgers the finger.
This is the fifth stanza:
“And I’ve nothing in common
With neighbors or any lineage
Save zip codes
All these years.”
The abstract painter and art critic Elaine de Kooning has become one of my heroes. One time she said this about painting: “When I start I don’t know what’s going to happen. I begin by resisting what I think I already know, so that I can find out what I know that I didn’t know I knew. It’s mysterious.”
That’s how my life seems to have gone so far, at least to me. The ghost kids down in the Intermediate School basement – I’ve got one now. The beautiful young black woman I crushed on in fifth grade – I learned she passed away a couple of months ago, former graduate Wareham High School class of ’67. And yet here I am, still standing. These three paintings? I came to a palette different days with the dregs of a few colors left, and with the only goal to scrape clean the palette for the next round of colors and serious painting, I pushed paint around with a knife and came up with these. Favorites of mine – “My Hawaiian Vacation”, “Blue Cow”, “Iowa Cornfield in September.” Some four years between the first and the most recent. I guess I didn’t know that I knew.
On bare branches
Over pampas grass
Just outside Boston
Carbon monoxide refugees
From the Interstate.”
I don’t know. Kind of sounds like me.