Thursday, October 1, 2009
This is something I wrote for the book party for Cecilia Vicuña's new book, V, pictured left. I was out of town, so the ever gracious Renato Gomez, who published the book through the tRpode imprint he runs, read it for me.
I used to smoke in my apartment, in the kitchen, sitting in one weird yellow plastic chair, my feet up on another, reading a book and listening to the Yankees on the radio. Finally, my girlfriend won the argument and I started smoking outside, in the courtyard in the middle of our building. And suddenly I knew my neighbors, I knew what the weather was like, and I got a lot more reading done, because it's hard to follow a book and a ballgame at the same time, especially if the book is in one language, the ballgame in another. More than not minding it, I found that I actually liked smoking outside. I did not tell my girlfriend this. Her response would have surely been, Well, imagine how much you'll like quitting!
It's not even a problem when it rains, since there's a covered passageway about fifty feet long leading into the courtyard. If there happens to be water falling from the sky, that's where I go. I stay dry, my book stays dry, the cigarette gets smoked, everybody's happy. So that's where I was about a week ago, in the passageway, avoiding a light rain, reading Cecilia Vicuña's new book V. I finish the cigarette, put the book under my arm and I'm stubbing the cigarette out against a wall, so I can throw it in the trash rather than leave old butts lying around all over everywhere, when I hear the distinctive crackle of a police radio.
They're supposed to turn those things down when they sneak up on somebody, but they never remember. So I look up and here come two cops, a man and a woman, both somewhere in their early twenties, walking very carefully toward me. And the he-cop says, Excuse me, sir.
Let me just step aside from my narrative here for a moment to say this: I don't like cops. Not even a little bit. They make me very, very nervous. I've had guns pointed at me by cops and I've had guns pointed at me by muggers, and the muggers were less frightening. Pathologize me how you will in light of this information, I offer it simply as background to the incredible fear that seized me at the sight of these two people who, in jeans and T-shirts, would not have drawn a second look.
So, Excuse me, sir, says the he-cop. And I try to stay calm, look casual, and I say, What's up? And he asks me if I live here. I say that I do. He asks if I have identification, I tell him it's inside, in my apartment. He-cop is now very suspicious. He looks over at she-cop, and she's suspicious, too. He-cop asks me my name and I tell him it's Brandon. He says, Can I ask you what you're doing here, sir?
I was having a cigarette, I show him the butt in my hand, And reading a book, I say, reaching under my arm for the book. The cops flinch. Both of them. It was really, really cute. I show them the book. Yeah?, says the still suspicious he-cop, what's the book about?
I tell him it's a book of poems, so it's not really about anything the way a novel might be, but it's...well it's by this woman from Chile named Cecilia Vicuña. I tell him I met her a few nights ago, at this gallery in Soho. I describe her: she's about this tall, she has hair like so, a face like so, a voice like so. I'm basically just scared to death and I can't stop talking, just rambling on, hoping that something I say is going to convince him that I'm harmless-crazy, as opposed to whatever kind of criminal he considers me to be at present.
I show him the book so he can see that it's in Spanish. I say the book's kind of about language and how it works and how poetry and what we call religion now but what we used to call magic were basically all the same thing once. How a long time ago poetry and religion and magic and art and maybe science, too, were all a single thing and that thing was called poetry. I tell him the book is mostly about how poetry is still that single, weird thing, still magical-religious-word-science-art, but we've gotten so used to it not being that, to those things not being the same thing, that we forgot, so Cecilia is here to remind us.
And my hands are shaking, my heart is pounding and I can't really breath I'm so freaked out by these cops, so I just keep talking, about how last year I was working as a proofreader in the Financial District and they gave me this dictionary that had a section in the back on paleo-linguistics, which is when word scientists use modern languages to figure out what ancient languages were like. Specifically one ancient language called Indo-European, which is the ancestor of many, many languages. And these word scientists know that the people who spoke this ancestor language had horses, and lived where it was snowy, and had kings and poetry and that's really all that was known about them when that dictionary was written back in the early 80's. I start talking about how these word scientists have reconstructed the words of this ancestor language, and how in the introduction to the dictionary of reconstructed words it said that every word was originally a poem. Every word was a successful attempt to capture something in the world and turn it into language, and every word became a word, rather than something weird someone said once, because it was a successful attempt. That the magic was that: the attempt being successful, and when that happened it was so amazing that everyone remembered and started saying it and so a word was born. That's how every word was born.
He-cop is looking at me very quizzically now, so I tell him that at that gallery in Soho the other night Cecilia wrapped everybody there in yarn then told us all that the Mayas believed the gods made humans because they wanted to hear some poetry for a change. I say that if that's true, which it obviously is, and if the word scientists are right that every word was once a poem, which they obviously are, then Cecilia's book is about getting back to that moment: getting back to when every word was an awesome piece of magical-religious-word-science-art, the creation of which is the whole reason we're on the planet in the first place. Gods or no gods.
Suddenly I realize I've been rambling on about poetry and paleo-linguistics to a New York City cop for I don't know how long. This seems bad, so I try to swing the conversation back down to earth, to me, and how I'm not insane or illegal enough to arrest. I tell him that Cecilia was nice enough to sign the book to me and my girlfriend, who won't let me smoke in the house anymore which is why I'm outside, and I show him Cecilia's signature, which is more a drawing than a signature, ranging all over the title page, and I point to my name, Brandon, right there in Cecilia's handwriting.
And he-cop has the weirdest look on his face. It takes me a minute to figure out that he's trying not to smile. He's kind of wrestling with a grin and losing. She-cop is openly giggling. And now they're behaving very differently. They're not nearly as suspicious. He-cop apologizes for disturbing me. He says, It's just that there have been a lot of burglaries in the area recently, which is a standard cop lie. I've heard that line at least a dozen times. What really happened was they mistook me for one of my neighbors, one of the guys a little younger than me that hang around the building looking kind of gangsterish, smoking weed and bothering nobody.
But now he-cop is trying to extricate himself from this situation. They're sorry for disturbing me, he says, and they're really sorry but they kind of have to take down my name, if I don't mind, it's standard procedure. He-cop's in a tight spot here, caught between the regulations and his concern that I might go inside and call the ACLU as soon as he leaves. I say, Sure! No problem. I spell my name out, give them my DOB. I even ask them if they want my social security number, but they don't need it.
With all that written down in she-cop's little notebook, they shake their heads, apologize again for disturbing me and are about to leave when, just to be a jerk, I ask them if they want to hear one of the poems. They're really good, I assure them. He-cop laughs like now he thinks I might be more than just harmless-crazy. That's okay, he says, we don't speak Spanish anyway. Thanks all the same. You have a good day, sir.