Sunday, July 2, 2017

In Search of Beginnings

Stanley Kunitz is not a household name except in poetry circles. Yet if he was not a first class poet of the century he was certainly a first class second rate one. In addition his voice as an essayist was erudite and eloquent. It was my great good fortune to have attended his seven-day workshop in 1978. In one of his prose pieces he writes about his childhood love, in rural Massachusetts, of a Lake Webster mainly because of its Indian name Chaugg…………………………………………….amugg, forty-two letters in all. It meant, I fish my side, you fish your side, nobody fishes in the middle. Naturally he learned to say it and never forgot.  He lived 101 years having twice been named Poet Laureate, the second time at age 95.

My urban experience was different yet his love of language resonates with me.

There were tribes back then in big cities. Not nomadic. They stayed close to home. I know, I was one of them. The proper pronoun is, We, and we had our oral, sometimes non-verbal culture. We belonged to a tribe called Children. Kids in New York City, probably also in Philly, Boston, Baltimore maybe as far west as Chicago were members whether they knew it or not. What made it tribal was the passing along of rituals, chants and rhymes along with an unwritten code of behavior. It arrived mysteriously as initiation and membership as if some invisible Moses descended from a rooftop with a stack of commandments. We were carriers of a long oral tradition and were given arcane knowledge unknown or long forgotten by parents. When we got to a certain age we modeled it for new members and it left us without a peep.

Tenements with stoops and four or five story apartment buildings created a density of street kids gathering and spilling out into the flow of traffic. Cars were cursed for interrupting our games. From about age six to twelve my pockets were stuffed, at various times, with marbles, bubble-gum baseball cards under crossed rubber-bands, skate key, football needle, tennis ball, hanky, house-key, and most importantly, chalk which sidewalks were made for. A patch of earth was ours for Mumbley Peg played with pocket knives. Bottle caps filled with melted crayons or wax were collected for playing skully on the pavement. Every game had its own ground rules agreed-upon but never put to paper.

One potato, two potato, three potato four. Ally, ally, In Come Free. "A"
my name is Alice. Marbles were played with aggies, bolders and purees. As a receiver in touch football I ran patterns of stop and go or button-hooks. Where did it all come from? Provenance was never questioned. No one dared ask. From neighborhood to neighborhood there may have been slight variations but the words had a certain universality across the boroughs. Maybe it’s still alive there. It’s certainly not here in L.A. where three people congregated in suburbia suggest a conspiracy.

I don’t know where the line is between cheap nostalgia and the genesis of Self. If I’ve crossed it I’ll take that risk. What I’m getting at is those seminal moments, the sense of a beginning. It happens slowly by accretion as much on the street as around the kitchen table. When as a teenager, my neighbor, Johnny K, had a knife slip through his arm while climbing a chain link fence it resulted in a severed nerve which disabled two fingers. I never forgot the medical term for his condition: Palmar fascia aponeurotic expansion of the palmaris brevis. It was a fascination with the music in that terminology which stuck.

In the same way was the flow of sounds that spurted from my mouth in the one fight I can recall, at age ten, plus or minus, when out came those immortal words, You Fucking Bastard Son of a Bitch. Tell me it doesn’t roll off the tongue. Meaning meant nothing to me; it still doesn’t. Just the cadence, the rhythm of it which could instead be,You plucking custard fun of a stitch. Like Kunitz, I have never forgotten that porridge of syllables.

My friend-de facto-brother, Stanley  D. (not Kunitz), and I invented our own country, Aduldabia, located it as an island off the coast of Siberia. We even invented our own language but never got past a secret greeting. Those words remain in my memory bank. (I'll never tell)

Carl Jung, who knew an archetype when he met one, wrote, No one can free himself from his childhood without first generously occupying himself with it. In a sense archetypes are nothing more than original patterns. I’m the guy who would rather order a frothy saccharine concoction of a lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadruped….than a milk shake.


  1. Just catching up, Norm. As always all are interesting I especially loved the baseball reference in one of the preceding blogs.

  2. Thanks, I love to sneak in a baseball reference whenever possible.