by Emily Carter
Here in a nation's bleeding Heartland,
in Minneapolis whose very name reveals
the forced conjugation of Hellenic upon Lakotah,
the streets run to endless horizons
and peter out in stubble grasses
still wet with the blood of the conquered...
Telephone posts weep a tarry sap
remembering when they were a forest.
An old man cries at bar closing time.
Outside the cold air drops him like a mugger.
Why have I returned to this land,
still raw from glacial scouring? ...
Because the very cold and emptiness
engender a horror vacui
which forces us to connect and to create. ...
As when, in that frozen night
my car sat dead on Lake Street
under a pink fluorescent sky.
Two strangers in a pickup truck
stopped and hauled forth
twinned cables of orange and black.
An electrical surge passed
to this jaded hipster.
and my car came back to life
with an apologetic cough.
from Minnesota Poem
It's true, as people tell me, that I don't get out enough. I consistently find myself lacking the energy to attend functions and festivals from which I would benefit. Oh, I intend to go; like all happy trudgers on the path to the shining wire my intentions are nothing but good. It;s just that, at around seven o'clock at night, my apartment seems so warm and the night so cold; and the sight of Christine Aguilera and her chorus line of 15-year-old dancers doing the coochie-pop on the pre-pre-Grammy awards Spectacular is so implacably compelling. But on Sunday, February 20. I am managing to overcome the cozy lull of inertia and drag my butt out to Nikki's to celebrate the 60th birthday of John Christopher Shillock. author of the above quoted description of my state and state of mind. It's only the hard won jump start of hope that's worth leaving the house for anyway.
Upstairs at Nikki's around seven o'clock, people were milling around, sipping on wine, eyeing the buffet table. Something's missing however, from the honey dark, brick-walled dining area. Where's the nervousness, the boredom barely concealed, the invisible current of discontent and ruffled feathers that people usually plough through at these gatherings like goldfish in liquid jello? At first I can't even define the ambience, it's been that long since I've seen more than 50 people gathered together in a relaxed atmosphere of good will.
The poet of the evening with his usual gentle deliberate manner appears, a nervous but not overwound host. His neat, three-piece uniform of black pants, shirt and vest seemed, as usual, not pretentious posing, but merely elegant and classic. After all, if anyone's got the right to wear the colors of the existential flag, it's a 60 year old poet.
Because think about it - how many poets get to be 60 without going insane, becoming chronically depressed, or succumbing to the lure of a lucrative marriage with someone willing to trade financial security for creative cache? Poet, in my darker moments, is often synonymous with "impecunious nervous wreck." Poets don't even always make good conversationalists: they tend to think long rather than quick, spend entire afternoons in the bedroom only to emerge blinking in the glare of the kitchen crying "Lambent, the word is lambent." They will consider this a decent day's work if you let them. And it's no longer even glamorous to be a poet, it's got zip in the alternative street-cred department. Even sex is no longer a fringe benefit for a life dedicated to the art of word spinning. Male poets don't get laid enough. The female ones, all too frequently, You get no power, except over younger poets. No money. No retirement benefits. Nothing, usually, but the assurance that a quickly shrinking group of people who like the written word will listen to the one you have written, and sometimes not even that if there's too much flirtation going on at the coffee shop where you read.
So what does a poet get to keep? What's permanent? Maybe it's an eye for quality along with a blessed indifference to fashion and trend. So if you are Chris Shillock, you have, at a certain point, developed the assurance to know what has quality and what is of use to you. You can write folk ballades full of catchy rhyme, or villanelles loosely based on the work of François Villon. You can hang out at First Avenue and watch punk rock in the early '80s when it was slamming something new and fierce into our heads - you don't care if you are older than the crowd, because you like what you like and you use what you use. Sometime you use the Picasso picture of the young girl leading the blind Minotaur, Sometime you mine the ideals of the '60s while discarding the dross.
So, on Saturday, it's the ability to sift through things for what is valuable without swallowing the whole enchilada that we are here to celebrate. It's a gift given only through experience, and almost never to the very young. For lack of a better word, call it integrity.
Of course, I'm hesitant, when writing about anyone involved in the arts, to use the word integrity. Use the word, and you're just begging for a barrage of ex-lovers, loan officers and former employers to bury you under an avalanche of unflattering personal anecdotes. But Shillock has clearly made more friends than enemies, and Saturday, the room was packed with them. He came here 28 years ago, in 1972, and the crowd was layered into burnished, wine infused strata of age and inclination: anarchists with dreadlocks, anarchists with no more hair whatsoever, silver-tressed married couples, colleagues from decades of day jobs, bohemian ingenues and smokey-eyed women of a certain age. His kids. ......
After dessert and coffee and a little more wine, all the guests pitch in for a reading of "Millennium City," Shillock's verse cycle. A hefty task, and the jazz quartet downstairs does not make it any easier by completely drowning out everyone who can't project their voice.
"Millennium City" is many things at once, a cut-and-paste collage, a sincere cry against injustice in the true tradition of road show agitprop - at points it seems to be lacking only six-foot tall, paper mache puppets - a walk through different poetic forms and rhetorical strategies. As reader after reader gets up, some shy and struggling, some high on oratorical adrenalin, it seems as if the poem is gathering speed, careening, but with a clear destination. through a tale of data entry workers in love, riots in the city, the machinery of oppression, and the difference between grommets and grimbels. Sometimes there is too much to follow and we are reading without knowing what we are saying. But it's clearly moving toward tragedy, and with a sense of winding down at the end.
Someone read the last stanza and, even with the music from downstairs the room seems quiet:
in noir and mercury vapor lights:
the corpse stretched languid
upon the chaste sheets of room 23
of some nameless hotel;
one fist frozen near a class of water,
one open hand reaching for the light
or the Gideon Bible or the telephone.
My final gesture shall remain
We sat, for a hovering second, without speaking, as Shillock said thank you. Maybe it was the wine, but we let the words sink into our chests, causing that specific kind of sweet pain that people are always seeking out, even when they don;t know it.
So that, in lieu of a comfortable retirement in a tropical resort stroked by the warm ocean breeze, is what you get for being a poet.