A Review of Unpublished Manuscripts, One a Conceit of Its Author
by Philip Brady
Borges, says Frank, went one further. He praised books that were never written. Phantom books. Make-believe authors. And this is not off point, since Frank himself, letter of acceptance from Miami University Press in hand, threatens to decline publication of his manuscript, thus joining the ranks of the make-believe, the phantom, the unpublished.
“It’s unheard of,” I say.
“Yes,” says Frank, “I suppose I will be.”
Frank Polite is not exactly my father, but if you’re a poet in Youngstown—and what else can you be with unemployment what it is?—you’re pretty much Frank’s bastard. He has a real son, Khepri, by his first wife, who once played the sexy Zenite mining alien in a Star Trek episode. No, now that I think of it, Khepri belongs to Frank’s second wife, the jazz singer. I met her at a local speakeasy; Frank introduced her as “the mother of my son.” That’s Frank. Only he can get away with tweaking ex-wives.
“They just want to mother me,” he shrugs.
Frank saw Borges read once, and during the question period felt the need to be recognized as a fellow human by this great man and so stood up and caught the attention of the sighted translator and asked Borges what he thought of Yeats.
“Stupid!” Frank spluttered, telling the story, to ask Borges, this Homeric presence, what he thinks of another writer.
Then Frank’s face lit up as if he himself were blind, delivering Borges’ reply, “Thank you for linking my name with a name of such greatness.”
Some days in this ex-steel town, it’s hard to link our names to anything great. Hard to imagine Borges or Yeats or Captain James T.Kirk are members of our species, which, I suppose, makes Hyde a trope for Youngstown, as a place and also as a cankerous worry inside each of us, no matter where we live.
Hyde: A Novella Noir is Frank’s book-length manuscript of pantheras, “an obscure poetic form/ developed in Kang-/al-Sivas region of Turkey,” as one panthera reveals. “A panthera lurks & leaps/ jolting its prey into/ a dazed clarity.” This is a region Frank knows well—both the daze and clarity—having once fled a job in the Human Resources Department of Mahoning County to live in Turkey. Turkey has become for Youngstown poets a kind of sister city (our imagination is expansive if fuzzy) whence at least one pilgrim, George Peffer, has reported. George needed a vacation from “the hard work of living.” His review: “We all choke on misapprehended hope.”
Misapprehended pilgrimages are Hyde’s metier. Beginning in ancient Egypt; migrating to Las Vegas; on to Malabar, a hideaway in Ohio where Bogie and Bacall were wed; and finally to the ‘Holy City of Trebizond,’ Hyde “lurks & leaps” through language, an elusive principle of calm in a kaleidoscope of exotic trash.
In this town we take our trash straight up. The other day I found a note stenciled on a cardboard sign in the window of a derelict building. “When you love a place, really and most hopelessly love it, I think you love it for its signs of disaster, just as you come to realize how you love the particular irregularities and even scars on some person’s face.” The words are attributed to “James Wright, Ohio poet.”
Ohio poet indeed! James A. Wright was one of the greatest poet in English since Yeats. There’s something beatific about the appearance of these lines so near their source. Having made the journey from Martins Ferry to Florence to international fame, they return, not as lines from a famous poet, but as the words of a citizen haunting a place badly in need of naming. It’s this kind of harebrained compassion for personal disaster that impels Hyde on his pinball spin across centuries and continents, all the way to the oblivion of an unpublished manuscript.
The reason Frank decided to withdraw Hyde from Miami University Press is that they offered him “a contract from hell.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They take copyright, the movie rights, they even skim a percentage off any readings I give.”
“Why didn’t they offer you a standard contract?”
“Well, it is the standard contract, but Hyde isn’t a standard book.”
One thing’s certain: Frank’s not the standard author. There’s something loopy about worrying about movie rights for a manuscript of poems, but as Frank points out, why not? “I’m sixty-two years old. I don’t belong to any university. I don’t care if I get brownie-points from AWP. There’s no real money involved. I’ll just publish it myself if I have to.”
Loopy, to me, louring in a provincial outpost of academia where news of publication seldom reaches. Yet sensible, too. It’s an exercise of one of the few privileges that the ghetto economy of poetry allows. Frank offers a sane response to the current state of affairs: thousands of poets struggling to sell books no one reads.
Nor is this Frank’s first brush with oblivion. There’s the story of Miro Papadakis, the poet from the island of Skyros. Frank received a letter from this rural bard—through what agency God knows—inviting him to meet the great man and to “adventure” with him, translate his works. Frank coaxed a local politico to muscle a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and made his way to Greece. His lack of Greek was no bother; it wasn’t long before he found a bilingual collaborator with flowing dark hair and island eyes.
The adventure started beautifully. Papadakis was a fireplug in a caftan. Wildly hospitable, he caroused with Frank from noon till midnight, sloshing ouzo in his hut on the side of a rough mountain. He composed his poems orally, and in fact had never written them down at all, yet he employed complex stanza forms that seemed to recall the dactylic hexameter Homer had heard in the sea-foam. His images, his intensity, and his simplicity were rooted deep in Greek soil; yet the demotic Greek was vivid as jazz. Few knew this iconoclastic bard, and fewer, Frank believed, appreciated his genius. Frank hoped to produce a volume of these translations.
Then one morning Papadakis disappeared. Frank climbed the mountain path to his hut to find the poet vanished. No note, no good-bye. Lost at sea? Apotheosized? Fled a jealous husband? No one knew. Frank was left with a handful of scrawled poems, the dregs of his Ohio Council grant, and a nubile translator. “Four Translations from Miro Papadakis” were all Frank could save. They appear in his book, Letters of Transit.
Who can trust a fugitive, or translator, or poet in transit, or even their own judgment these days? Would I be writing this, or you reading it, if Hyde’s worth weren’t confirmed by some poltergeist lurking in the basement of the English Department of the University of Miami? Even Lauren Bacall declined to read it. Frank wrote her, explaining that his forthcoming book of poems was set in Malabar, the Ohio resort where she’d married Bogie. Would the great lady accede to read the manuscript? Perhaps write a short blurb? A postcard with SASE was enclosed for her convenience. On it, Frank typed ‘Yes/No,’ with two boxes to check. Frank read the letter aloud at the monthly open reading at the Cedars bar, a country western beatnik festival of bathos. He held the card up for all to see, the card touched by Lauren Bacall, the card with the penciled checkmark under ‘No.’
“She could have at least written it out,” says Frank. “You know how to say ‘No,’ don’t you baby? Just put your lips together and blow.”
Though I pose as a son, I have reached the age when manuscripts have more adventures than I do. In a place like this, the real rift isn’t between Fathers and Sons or between Town and Gown; it’s between Word and Flesh. Our manuscripts live the lives we’ve missed. Every poet has a tale. Like urban legends they follow the same plot, having to do with close calls and dying editors. Our manuscripts flit around the world, seeking danger, avoiding certain death by strokes implausible as a James Bond escapade. There’s the writer who left Youngstown for Boston and lounged so long in Cambridge cafes that when his manuscript was accepted by Knopf he turned them down because word on the cobbled streets was that it’s a bad idea to debut with short stories. There’s the poet who was so afraid for his manuscript’s safety he would mail it ahead when he planned a plane trip in case the plane went down. There’s the poet who was promised publication right before the editor was indicted, and the poet whose reputation was ruined because another poet of the same name circulated dreck. The stories go back to Nora saving Stephen Hero from the fire and beyond, harkening to the old testament mystery of the lost ark.
It’s Flesh v. Word all the way down. Word claims that all you have to do is live until you’re thirty and after that you can hand over the adventuring to the manuscript. “As for living,” says the French aesthete, Villiers-d’Isle, “our servants will do that for us.” Or in our case, our students. You can burrow into the academy, get a PhD (with an oxymoronic “creative dissertation”) and live in the cloud-cuckoo land miles above the Zenite mines where Frank’s first wife panted her fifteen minutes. We too have our poets—eighteen feet of us: William Greenway, Steve Reese, and me. PhD’s and manuscripts in hand, we landed in Youngtown from far parts—first William, then Steve, and finally me, careful not to swamp the boat. William landed two books with Breitenbush and when they folded managed the next four from U. of Akron. Steve’s manuscript was taken by Cleveland State, and my second, after collecting more rejections than a smuggler’s passport, won a small prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Ah, the stories. The strokes of luck. The almosts. The could-a-beens. Of course we submit (perfect word) to all the unread journals, from Poetry to Twenty Million Flies Can’t Be Wrong; though there’s not a penny in it, and some days we doubt if the even the featured authors themselves read any but their own poems. We’re inveterate contest entrants: our entry fee tab tops our bar bills. But we can afford it. Youngstown’s cheap, and short of mayor, we’ve got the cushiest jobs in town.
Fed up with stamp-licking, Flesh ripostes that to be a poet you have to leap out of the ivory tower chuteless. You have to travel to Turkey and work years in the Human Resources Department of the third cornice of hell and marry passionately and often and lose sleep and bleed pantheras. You have to, in a word, suffer.
In the suffering one’s identity is purged. “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” says Yeats, “Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” But Yeats also applied for the job of Professor at Trinity College just in case. He didn’t get it.
Raging in the dark, few attain Yeats’s stature. Most just get the suffering. But the belief that personal experience lends a necessary credibility to poems that we would not expect from fiction is an attractive idea, especially when the suffering looks compulsory anyway. Youngstown may be the official capital of poetic suffering in the U.S.
There’s a need here to shoot yourself in the foot as if success might spoil your soul. Hyde’s gift for duende aside, Youngstown poets regularly maul whatever poor chances for the poor version of success poetry holds out. Sometimes it seems like a stampede toward invisibility, a collective yearning to rhyme the ghost smoke of dead steel mills. Or perhaps it’s just a desire to return to a home whose name has been lost.
For instance there’s Ed Curley. A professional house-sitter, Ed describes a safe orbit around the university, enrolling in, but seldom finishing, courses in a basketload of subjects. Once at a reception for a visiting poet, he spent the best part of the evening in my bathroom, and after he stumbled out I found the sink plugged with Curley flume. This, I suppose, in application to house-sit. And why not. Come sabbatical or June, the faculty is so desperate for any sort of scarecrow to stand sentinel that Curley’s services are always in demand.
As far as I knew, Curley’s poetic career consisted of his monthly performances at the Cedar’s open readings, where he operates as “Leo Rude.” The pseudonym not only pays tribute to Frank but describes the poems Curley reads—fragments from Catullus, Verlaine, and Bukowski—along with lintballs pulled from his own pockets. So I got quite a shock returning home after a stint of his house-sitting to find that Curley harbored poetic ambitions in his own name.
A few days after he’d moved on to his next target, my phone rang and a woman’s voice—cultured, New England—asked for Mr.Curley. I explained that the Curley no longer lived here and left no forwarding number.
“Well, if you do find him, could you ask him to call Maxine Kumin,” and she gave me a number that whirred and jumbled in my head.
“The Maxine Kumin?” I blurted out.
“How kind,” replied the voice.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Ms. Kumin, how do you know Ed Curley?”
“We’ve never met,” the famous poet responded, “but he sent me a letter with a wonderful poem about Alexander Pope. He left this number. I was just calling to thank him. I hope I’m not disturbing.”
Disturbing? My world was turned inside out. I conjured the bulbous head of my housesitter, his Camel slouch. Hard to imagine he’d written anything that wouldn’t fit on a cocktail napkin. But curiosity gnawed, and I drove down to the Cedars and nabbed Curley—who probably thought I meant to pester him about a cracked dish—and I asked for and received a copy of the poem Maxine Kumin praised.
It’s a poem of several hundred lines in two sections. The first section, composed of heroic couplets, pastiches the elegant vitriol of Pope. Addressed to the poet who “considered with a cast eye what dissolves, who assessed bitterness and scale,” the poem echoes Pope’s contempt for poetasters, quoting a line from “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” about a versifier so addicted to rhyming that “lock’d from ink and paper, [he] scrawls/ with desp’rate charcoal round his darken’d walls.” The second section veers into another kind of prosody—long syllabic lines laced with internal assonance, describing a contemporary of Pope who died virtually unknown in debtor’s prison in Ireland. He went by the formidable name of Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Ghuna, and if he’s known at all today, it’s for Thomas MacDonough’s translation of his poem “An Bannan Bui,” “The Yellow Bittern.” Curley balances these two worlds—one enlightened; one verging on oblivion, suggesting that the enlightenment fed on the neighboring darkness—that in fact light leeched its power from truths incubated in darkness. The horror of the poem comes from the revelation that Cathal Bui, according to legend, scrawled his last poems on his prison walls in charcoal.
Maybe ours is such: a necessary darkness. Maybe we in Youngstown are figures in a dusk without which the belief in a poetry which emerges from a select cadre into the light of publication would disintegrate. Perhaps our role is to remind that every literature course ought to assign at least one book that is not a book. Every bookstore ought to feature empty shelves.
And in case this essay in its published form reflects too much glare, I have taken the precaution of including two poets who do not exist. One was Frank’s invention. There is no Miro Papadakis. In a modern day version of MacPherson’s scam, Frank invented the Greek poet for the sake of the state grant. The great adventure was a yarn woven with Frank’s customary flourishes deep into a Cedar’s endless evening. The four Papadakis poems that appear in Letters of Transit were his own compositions, rendered afterward into Greek by his beautiful translator.
The poet Curley, with a bow to Borges, I have made up myself.