portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article creative oregon & cascadia

arts and culture

Poetry is the news

"You see I began reading Poetry about four or five years ago and I gradually began to realize that I was getting the news there."

A short story from the Portland Writers website, a free publishing service for local writers.
A Modest Act
Dennis McBride

"Jesus Christ, shut up!"

Nancy Merril tried to ignore the phone. "Hell," she said, sinking reluctantly into the chair at her desk as she picked up the phone. "Nancy Merril, CBS"

"Nancy, this is Brad at the front gate. There's a Mr. Leventhal here with a pass. Says he's supposed to audit tonight's broadcast for Rolling Stone Magazine."

Nancy felt her annoyance rise. "No one told me anything about it, but then that's nothing new," she said sarcastically, "who am I to question. Hell, send him up." She hesitated a moment, then dialed the sound room.

"Leo, this is Nancy. Let me talk to Mr. Rather."

"He's cueing, Nancy. It's thirty minutes to air time."

"I don't care, I just need a second, Leo."

"Okay, it's your quarter, your career, hold on."

Nancy braced herself for punishment, but the voice only reflected impatience. "What is it?"

"Sorry to bother you Mr. Rather but there's a Mr. Leventhal here from Rolling Stone with an authorization to audit. I just wondered if you knew anything about it."

"No I don't," he said curtly, "You handle it," and hung up.

"Well gosh and golly," she said out loud, "someone's going to trust my judgment. I don't mind if I do." She swung her feet up onto the desk and reached for a cigarette when the knock on the door stopped her.

"Christ, guess this is my day on the cross." She rose and glanced at her five-foot four inches in the mirror for a quick appraisal, continued on to the door and opened it with one of her all-purpose smiles.

The man in the door was different, but Nancy couldn't say different from what. He was a short six feet in a casual dark brown sweater and matching tweed pants with a strange not unpleasant face, a little reminiscent of Donald Sutherland, she thought, as though it had been shaped from genes heading toward mental retardation but at the last second the dice fell in the red after hesitating above the black producing a kind of odd kindness.

"Hello, Lon Leventhal," he said, offering his hand.

"Hi, Nancy Merril. Welcome, come on in, grab a chair. To be honest, you weren't expected. One of those communication breaks I guess."

"I guess that means we're on the third planet from the sun," Lon said smiling.

Nancy felt that critical thumb in her mind begin to turn slowly up. Nice guy, she thought. I might even enjoy this. "Grab a seat or desk anywhere," she said. "Make a home for yourself. We're very informal around here since Vatican ll. And whatever your expectations were, just adjust them downward. That includes the espresso which is right behind you. Help yourself."

"Thanks anyway," he said, fidgeting with his briefcase, "but I'm a little nervous. You wouldn't have any chamomile tea would you?"

"No. I relax the old fashioned way, Valium. But there's no need to worry, nothing harmful here, except for the news. Just consider this your maiden voyage on the yellow submarine. We're pretty friendly, really."

Lon grabbed a chair at a desk kitty-corner to hers and sat down.

"Well it's just that I've never done anything like this before," he said, setting his briefcase carefully on the floor and reaching his right hand inside.

Nancy heard a small clicking sound from inside the briefcase. Something in the air suddenly changed, shifted to slightly out of the ordinary. She felt an internal alarm begin to sound slowly inside her, just on the edge of awareness. "Done anything like what," she heard herself say.

He looked at her with an altered intensity. "Do you like poetry?" he asked.

Her growing sense of oddness in the air increased, but she responded to something earnest in the question. "No, not really. I mean I can't say I've paid much attention to it. Why?"

Lon leaned slightly forward in his chair, "Well, then it may be difficult to explain myself to you. You see I began reading Poetry about four or five years ago and I gradually began to realize that I was getting the news there. That it wasn't real but it was important, in a vital way, where as when I listened to the news it was real, but unimportant by comparison, and I began to wonder what would happen if you gave people what was important."

Nancy's unease took a large leap. She couldn't tell if it was toward fear or excitement but she knew it was away from business as usual.

Lon fumbled around in his pocket, pulled out a Jolly Rancher candy, undid the wrapper thoughtfully and continued. "Look, what is your favorite season?"

Nancy hesitated, unsure how to respond and then, as though answering a test question, said quickly, "Spring"

"Ah, good. Let's see." said Lon, glancing off toward the ceiling. "Yes! Philip Larkin; 'the trees are coming into leaf, like something almost being said." Lon looked at Nancy for a response. "Do you see. Isn't that perfect?" The urgency in his voice rose slightly. "See how metaphor makes you see more, understand more?

Nancy's head dropped down, slightly sideways, like a dog registering incomprehension.

Lon stood up suddenly. "You see, on Television you give us the ambulance siren and tell us where it's going and what happened after it got there. But when Galway Kinnell tells us 'we are not healed, but gathered and used again' he gives the siren a deeper meaning -- one of many. It's also saying 'it's somebody else's sad turn. It tells you to look quickly at the secret sweet rush inside that whispers, I'm safe, I'm safe, I love my life.' But all that is missed if your attention isn't directed to it. Lon sat down and relaxed into his chair as though he'd just finished a summation in district court.

An unmistakable shiver of apprehension darted through Nancy's stomach. She felt an internal need to tidy things up, put the train back on track. She spoke tentatively,

politely. "What exactly is your interest in Network news? Who did you say you were with?"

"Well, actually that was a bit of a white lie," Lon said. "I'm not really with anyone. This was my idea and I take full responsibility for it."

"Responsibility for what," Nancy asked suddenly, half regretting it as soon as she'd said it. She didn't want the answer, sensing it would take her deeper into quicksand.

"For giving people what's important, like I said. I decided someone had to do it, and that's why I'm here. The news literally denies people the opportunity to see the significant. They remain stoic without even knowing it. The deeper meaning is missed and that's the most tragic form of attention deficit disorder."

Nancy felt herself being pulled further out to sea by some wayward force gathering in the room. "Do what?" she forced out of her mouth.

"Well" Lon replied, "William Carlos Williams said something about people not getting their news from poetry and how they die miserably every day because of it.' I want to stem that tide of terrible death, so I'm here to take over the air time tonight and donate it to poetry instead." Lon sat back, relieved at having delivered his intention.

Nancy sat stunned in silence for a moment. "Is this a joke! Who sent you? I know. I bet it was that new generation x bunch over at the ABC commissary. Seriously, you could get into trouble with that kind of clowning around."

"I assure you, this is not a joke. There is no punch line. The explosive device in my briefcase is devoid of humor."

Nancy felt her sphincter muscle tighten and her stomach become a quick knot. "I can't believe this is real," she said. "You're serious, aren't you ?" The disbelief in her voice grew louder, "Jesus, this can't be happening. To me!"

"Yes," said Lon abstractedly, 'that's how the real comes, doesn't it. It's so different than the news. The interesting thing about the news is that it never really happens, does it. You see, poetry is oddly the opposite. Poetry actually makes nothing happen and the news which, though it in fact happened somewhere to someone, isn't really real to you. So, in the deepest sense, it didn't really happen. In terms of ground zero reality, felt reality, what didn't happen happens, and what happened doesn't. Isn't that amazing! Anyway, that's it in a nutshell. Now, maybe you could help me. What do I do next? How do I get the ball rolling. I mean thirty minutes isn't much time. We'll have to skip commercials, of course."

Nancy slowly regained some composure. "Get the ball rolling! Skip commercials! Look, I'm going to get up and go out that door and get the security guard."

"That's okay. You can do what ever you want," Lon said flatly "but it won't change anything. On my way up here I left another device for insurance and believe me he'd never find it. Besides this half hour is no different than the rest, there isn't enough time anywhere. That's a large part of the point of this. Air time is replacing real time and what really happens in it. You people are in charge and you're leading us headlong like lemmings into a global communication. You are sending up the smoke signals of our technological civilization. You are becoming the sole owners of all the kindling and all the fire and you give us Monday night football. I'm not asking for equal time, just for half an hour. Personally I think I'm being moderate to a fault."

Nancy felt a slow anger begin to rise. "So, you're going to be our self appointed seer, huh! Look, I've been to college too, and I know your type. The campus radicals who look down on us ordinary souls while preaching that we must 'love one another or die'."

"You're close, but not close enough. You're talking about propaganda. I'm talking about poets. The real ones, who change the prescription of the lens just enough for us to see with clear vision, "We must love one another and die," W. H. Auden."

Nancy felt herself bristle. "That's typical also, everything's always tragic. You would turn us all into depressives."

Lon smiled. "There's some truth there, but I prefer to think it was really dull contentment that killed the cat and dissatisfaction that brought him back. 'Divine discontent', you know. We can't go on turning people into psycho-spiritual Legos"

Nancy decided to put some cards on the table. "Look, you don't seem unbalanced. I mean I can tell when there's a crack or pothole in a personality. So what's your angle."

"Your wondering if I'm bluffing, aren't you?" Lon said.

"So," Nancy continued, "You read poetry, commit acts of terrorism, and read minds. It just doesn't add up."

"It doesn't add up because you don't have all the numbers," Lon explained. "The biggest numbers are always the missing ones. He pulled a sheet of paper from his front left pocket and handed it to Nancy. "That's from John Hopkins, oncology department. It seems that the big number, my number, is up! Oat Cell carcinoma. I've got six to nine months."

Nancy paused, at a loss for words, then reflected briefly. "Well, that seems all the more reason to doubt your intention. Why spend what time you have left in jail or blow yourself up?"

"Because," Lon said earnestly, "I want to leave the world a going-away present, replace the fool's gold with real gold. Take the TV dinner from under their starving faces and present them with a real feast. Someone once said war was too important to be left to the generals. You see, I've decided poetry is too important to be left to the poets."

The air studio door flew open as Mr. Rather, his face distorted in anger, burst into the room. "What is going on out here, Nancy? Have you noticed the studio yellow light blinking for the last eight minutes? The Prime Minister has just been accused of sexual misconduct from a very credible source, there's even talk of resignation from high up. Now the AP wire is breaking a story that the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman has been caught cheating on his taxes, and the head of the National Organization for Women has just admitted to having had two face lifts and a breast enlargement. Where the hell have you been!"

"Ah!" interrupted Lon loudly and crisply, "Let's see. Yes, I know:

"People are funny
about sex and money
and the mirror says
be vain;
who thought the ones
to follow the dinosaur
would speak of good and evil,
dance, wear hats in the rain."

"That was either W.H. Auden or Dennis McBride. Actually, I think McBride wrote that after reading Auden."

Mr. Rather's face glazed over with a look of startled confusion as Lon suddenly entered his awareness. He stood speechless as his eyes stuttered in the search for coherence.

"Mr. Rather," said Nancy, "I think you'd better meet Lon Leventhal."


At precisely 5:32, the phone rang in the air antechamber at ABC news. Franklin Pearce let the pencil drop from his left hand and picked up the white ceramic receiver. "Frank here -- please be brief. Yes, what? No. What did you say her name was? Elizabeth who? Something about a tie-in with CBS, huh? Rolling Stone magazine! No, I don't know anything about it....huh? What fax agreement? Hell, I don't have time to go over the faxes now. Well, okay. Send her up, but just for a minute understand. We're coming up on National News.

At 5:36, the phone rang at National Public Television. "Hello, McNeil-Lehrer New hour. This is Linda. May I help you?"

Like a good clock working, Ted and Allyce McIver eased their '94 Ford Taurus up the driveway to their Detroit suburban town house and watched the garage door quietly, effortlessly rise. "I'll race you to naked in the living room," Allyce challenged cutely. "Let's do it to the news."

Ted smiled sheepishly but eagerly, "You're on. Loser does the other's pleasure first," he added. They ran like gleeful children to the sunken living room and began their ritual race through zippers and buttons just down to their underwear. Allyce snapped the back of her pantyhose playfully. Ted grabbed the remote with one hand, switched on the TV and grabbed Allyce with the other, fitting his hand in between her skin and the elastic on the back of her panties, letting it slide down. They sank to the couch as the television began speaking.

"Willa Cather said there are only three or four human stories, and they keep repeating themselves as fiercely as though they had never happened. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the news brings you every evening, endless variations on those three or four human themes. Only the names and dates change. Good evening, I'm Lon Leventhal, and I'm sitting in for Mr. Rather. This evening we're going to do something different. We're going to bring you a different kind of news. Poetry. We're going to bring you close to those themes.

"It has been said that poetry raises us into the realm where everything is of consequence. It's like discovering human footprints in Antarctica or on Mars. No matter where you've been, it reassures you someone else has been there also."

Allyce jerked Ted's hand off her breast and sat up straight on the couch. "Excuse me, honey, but did you just hear what I did?" Ted seemed momentarily disoriented. He gave a confused look at his empty hand. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Listen! the television. Look," Allyce said, pointing.

Ted saw a young clean-looking man in the dark brown sweater and slacks reading from a hand full of notecards.

"Listen to Laura Jensen in one small poem. 'The Goodyear Blimp' tells us what the news is about and what draws us to it:

"The Goodyear Blimp has lost itself
and gone down peaceful in a cornfield.
The grounded pilot walks out of the field,
no one hurt, no one around but the blackbirds,
who laughed and kept laughing. He walked
down the empty road in the middle of the day.
It was fine to be uninjured,
to have hurt no one, to walk
in the brief sweet world of the saved."

Lon continued, "Now, let's have Sharon Olds take us into the news and deeply beyond it in 'The Photograph of the Girl'."

"The girl sits on the hard ground,
the dry pan of Russia, in the drought
of 1921, stunned,
eyes closed, mouth open,
raw hot wind blowing
sand in her face. Hunger and puberty are
taking her together. She leans on a sack,
layers of clothes fluttering in the heat,
the new radius of her arm curved.
She cannot be not beautiful, but she is
starving. Each day she grows thinner, and her
bones grow longer, porous. The caption says
she is going to starve to death that winter
with millions of others. Deep in her body
the ovaries let out her first eggs,
golden as drops of grain.

"See, 'the caption says' is all you get from news. Then she goes on to give you its meaning, terrible and beautiful. The terror and beauty you nightly deny yourself watching the news."

Ted pulled his pants up. "I don't fucking believe this. What is going on?"

Allyce raised her hand to her mouth. "Ssshh, I don't know. Listen."

Lon continued, "Now here is Brenda Jaeger in 'House of Fire, House of Death'."

"She saw him in the frame house,
he was her father
and he was on fire
and his house was on fire.
The crowd stood gaping,
they were his friends,
they had shared beer at the trading post.
He was their drinking buddy,
Oscar was,
and it was blazing too hard
and they ran with buckets.
All they had was haul water
and they groaned with the agony
of knowing they didn't have enough.
and there is no firetruck
and the roads are gravel,
and all they could hear was the crackle,
the roar and blaze of the fire
and he was staggering
and trying to find the door.
And he was blind, his head on fire.
And when it was too late
no friend would give up
but they stood there
with their arms out for the pain
and they could not take it from him."

Allyce looked at Ted, her mouth open and silent, then said, "Quick, call Heather and Frank, see if they're watching. I'll switch to McNeil-Lehrer." She pushed the remote to channel 10 and found Lon sitting in casual repose at the news desk, looking like an ordinary newsman. "How to hell have they done this," she said to herself.

Lon unbuttoned the sleeves of his shirt and began to roll them up as he continued speaking, "Now, let's have Charles Simic take us to 'The Country Fair'."

"If you didn't see the six-legged dog.
It doesn't matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it.
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.
And that was the whole show."

"Did you recognize anything? Is anything familiar? It's a part of the truth, isn't it. But now let's go on to Philip Larkin for a deeper consolation. This is 'High Windows';"

"When I see a couple of kids
and I guess he's fucking her and she's
taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives.
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
like an outdated combine harvester,
and everyone going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. And beyond it,
the deep blue air, that shows nothing
and is nowhere, and is endless."

Allyce and Ted sat in rapt, stunned silence, staring at the television. Then Ted said quietly, "Christ, I can't wait to watch the news tomorrow night. This is bigger than that 'War of the Worlds' thing that Orson Welles got away with!"

Lon laid the papers down on the desk. "By now you're probably wondering what the stock market did tonight, so I'm going to read you Pat Vivian's 'Poco Diablo';"

"The sisters, crones, cronies were inviolate
in their togetherness. They lived up the side of the mountain
in a cranny cracked blue to the open
lovely canyon -- ochre, rust, lavender --
in their hearts, and called him Poco Diablo,
little devil. His songs come from there,
where he can cook up bright red dust storms,
sudden columns of air spiraling into nothing.

He drifts out over that ruddy desert pocked with jade,
comes in through the screen, gets in my suitcase, my toothbrush, my hair,
makes my toenails grow, keeps my limbs milky green, says
don't mind, keep cool, stay hot
on the scent, in a heartbeat, learn to ignore
the numbers being juggled in the air. Watch out for the streets --
a number might fall on you
and glitter like a snowflake in your hair."

Lon rolled his sleeves down and buttoned the cuffs. "Well, maybe we should end here. I'll give you back to your lives, to the truth of their fiction, to the wonderful belief that it's never happened before, that it's all happening for the first time. I'll leave you with a gift from Mary Oliver:

"Death is not just an Idea.
Doesn't everyone die at last
and too soon. Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"

"Oh, the Dow Jones went up and down today, as it always does. Good night."

Allyce turned slowly to Ted, shaking her head. "What the hell is this country coming to?"

Ted snapped the elastic of her panties. "I don't know, Allyce. Come here."

homepage: homepage: http://portlandwriters.com/

Thank you 24.Apr.2004 20:15


Thank you.