things I had to say December 28, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
So I take my son out to Metairie on errands and one of our stops is Barnes & Noble to spend some of his Xmas gift card and we have to go out to Metairie and into Barnes and Noble because it’s a gift card from his Aunt and Uncle from Fargo and there are no good independent bookstores in Fargo, and after I find the Folger Library Julius Caesar he needs for school I find myself looking at the poetry shelf at a Barnes and Noble in vacant suburban Metairie and at least they have one and it’s not horrible but stocked with predictable titles and I end up with the last of the five posthumous Charles Bukowski books from Ecco Press (an imprint of HaperCollins and at least there is some comfort they still have an imprint that will publish things like this but I am fairly certain no one I know will find themselves on HarperCollins’ list for poetry, at least not in our lifetime) and why am I buying this I have a half dozen books to read already but for some reason I can’t resist and the first two poems seemed almost to be about my own life which means my day is shot I’ll be reading it all afternoon.
Before I get on to posting the poem I have to explain why I’m posting it (not out of holiday laziness about blogging or other writing or chores but there’s that). It put me in mind of my own experience growing up with some of the noticeably bent and Odd branches of the family tree and it left me thinking that is part of a southern upbringing my children are going to miss. Sure my family has its appropriate Southern allotment of drunks and suicides but my children don’t hear anything about that What is missing are aunts as fragile as as paper lanterns that we children foolishly called Aunt Taunte, aunts who lived in hotels after their husbands retired from overseeing a plantation down the river in Plaquemines and who could not only speak good French but could certainly write a letter in French if there were still anyone in New Orleans or even in the scattered family who could read it. My children have no maiden aunts living in a French Quarter apartment, talking in their gravelly voices while smoking their Kents and drinking gin cocktails, one of whom was once “Coozan Dudley” LeBlanc the medicine peddler’s special assistant, special said in such an accented way that now in adulthood I understand what they meant. There are no mad uncles in a beret who make mobile sculptures out of bottle caps or even kind maiden aunts who worked their whole lives as a bank teller and brought us all those little stand-up calendars with the mercury thermometer and Confederate Memorial Day listed among the holidays, the one who read nothing but screen magazines and who would play endless games of Concentration with us to pass the time back in the days before 24-hour cartoon networks.
I’ve had my own share of strange people after I left New Orleans and even since moving back. There is Crazy Alice up the street, out in the street shouting at her elderly mother’s house about things I can barely make out the sense of it beyond her public ranting anger but she’s not precisely a relation and my children don’t find her half as entertaining as my wife and I do. We have had others through the years, the elderly woman up the street when we lived in Washington DC who befriended us and once got Rebecca and I into her house where she was walking around naked beneath a thin housecoat held shut but unbuttoned, showing us the large kitchen knife she was going to use to protect herself from “them” but that was before my daughter was born and I certainly wouldn’t let her within a hundred feet of my children, or the woman in Minnesota who would sit out in the frigid cold of an upper Midwestern night dressed as a scarecrow to scare the children when they came up to the door.
They have seen eccentricity but not the sort that seemed to populate every family and every block when I was growing up, the kind they don’t get visiting their grandmother in her modern apartment number 710 a three bedroom at the end of the routine apartment building hall of occasional tables with bolted down fruit bowls and bad paintings, a three bedroom across from a two bedroom in 709 and another two bedroom behind 708 with the fire escape door at the end of the hall, a pattern endlessly repeated as in opposing mirrors down through the sixth floor and the fifth and the fourth and down to the bowels of hell for all I know, because their grandmother is too old to get tipsy at the holidays and tell the sort of stories we heard a few times when I was younger and all the rest of the elderly relatives are gone or too far away or just too damned normal to count. Perhaps the advances of psychiatric medicine, the diaspora of our family and our bad American habit of locking away the old in sterile hotel settings has ended the tradition of the family eccentric, and that’s too damned bad.
So while everyone else laments the passing of K&B or D.H. Holmes or Royal Castle or whatever tokens of New Orleans’ past you choose I can live with CVS and Dillard’s and Rally’s if I have to but I regret that my children will grow up without what strikes me as an essential element of eccentricity (although Bog knows I try to make up for it in my own small way) or a sense of the great age of their own family, an analogue to the great age of this place.
Here is what started that whole train of thought:
for they had things to say
by charles bukowski
the canaries were there, and the lemon tree
and the old woman with warts;
and I was there, a child
and I touched the piano keys
as they talked–
but not too loudly
for they had things to say,
the three of them;
and I watched them cover the canaries at night
with flour sacks:
“so they can sleep, my dear.”
I played the piano quietly
one note at a time,
the canaries under their sacks,
and there were pepper trees,
pepper trees brushing the roof like rain
and hanging outside the windows
like green rain,
and they talked, the three of them
sitting in a warm night’s semicircle,
and the keys were black and white
and responded to my fingers
like the locked-in magic
of a waiting, grown-up world;
and now they’re gone, the three of them
and I am old:
pirate feet have trod
the clean-thatched floors
of my soul,
and the canaries sing no more.