R.I.P. ALI

River Bend Chronicle, pp. 230-247:

Next door neigbbor Mr. Hickey wore a black bow tie and no sweater vest on the October night we gathered in his kitchen to follow radio reports of the boxing match in Zaire, Africa, between former champ Muhammad Ali and the young reigning king, George Foreman. “Turn on the radio,” I, ten, squealed. “Soon, Benny.” I stared at his dress shirt that looked so undressed without the sweater—the sweater my heart clung to like mega-lint. “The undercard must be over by now, Mr. Hickey. It’s gotta be.” “At eleven,” he whispered. “Eleven.” Downtown at Masonic Auditorium a rowdy crowd watched preliminary bouts on a big screen, booing whenever the closed-circuit feed powdered or went wavy-granular. Jerry Bernaur, the sweetheart across the street who deboned hams at the Oscar Meyer plant, told me everything the next day—beer thrown, ushers pushed, posters ripped off lobby walls. And I told him all about my big fight night, starting with the shocking appearance of vestless Mr. Hickey on the back porch, answering the bell like a ghost-referee with four opaque eyes. The kitchen light revealed a shirt with white sleeves, yellow pocket, yellower shoulders, brownish buttons. Were moths to blame or the weird fashion of 1937? I tried to think of a delicate way to ask the question as Mr. Hickey’s pink lips pinched the plastic cigar tip like an addicted bivalve shell. During the Great Depression did the Arrow shirt company recycle cloth? No. Did Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom host ornithological masquerade parties, requiring that men come yellow-breasted like finches? No, no. “Ali’s going to whip Foreman!” I finally gasped, needing to say something and locate by sound my friend all but lost in the Tiparillo haze. Mr. Hickey softly agreed—“Hope so”—and more smoke spumed over ashtray coils, leather-girdled Panasonic radio, aqua Tupperware pill counter, prune box…reaching the far corner of the Formica table and lending the pistol a Wild West aura of shootouts past. “Foreman will be done in one,” I predicted and took another slug from the warm 7-Up bottle, bubbles foaming tepid over my teeth and prickling tongue, provoking such a wince that I was again offered a highball glass of ice cubes but again refused because tonight we were beyond the reach of quaint Midwestern niceties like aluminum ice trays with handy-dandy cube ejection cranks, far beyond checkered tin bread boxes, four-slot toasters, quilted pot holders, even though all these items were in plain sight, just a few feet away. Mr. Hickey and I were fight fans in a sweltering Cuban cabana, snacking on spotted bananas, swampy lime potions, stale cookies, and cigar smoke. We were part of a gregarious global congregation hunched around five-band radios—buzzing Philcos—whistling short wave jobs—bent and foil-wrapped antennas connecting rich and poor, the humblest locales with the snazziest venues such as Rio and Monte Carlo. Factory workers and viscounts, prostitutes and beauty queens, grand prix drivers and garbage truck drivers, winking reactionaries in tuxedos and unblinking revolutionaries with coconut leaves stapled to helmets, double-chinned me in the XXL rummage-sale Penguin shirt and Mr. Hickey wearing that Arrow shroud of two yellows—all of us in the thrall of a poetic brawl that promoter Don King called “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Since being stripped of the heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Ali had been imprisoned, released, defeated by Joe Frazier in a fifteen-round bout at Madison Square Garden, and then? He had beaten Joltin’ Joe in an instantly historic brutal rematch (they were each other’s last name’s now; Ali Frazier / Frazier Ali: say one, think the other), and after that? Ali got his jaw broken by Ken Norton. But on this steamilicious night in 1974—the real champ would show. Floating, stinging, singing about it afterward to Howard Cosell and George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, too—the literary gorilla who’d stabbed his wife not once but twice, as mother always liked to say.

 

My old friend took a long slow drag on the cigar, smoke not shooting from the lips but dribbling down the shirt front, then I knew. I knew a thing I very much wished I did not know. I knew that Mr. Hickey, subsisting on a fixed income (Social Security plus a meager Coast Guard pension), bleached only his shirtsleeves to conserve Clorox and save dimes to put toward the purchase of treats for his many daily visitors. (Each sleeve in a bowl, held down by stacks of quarters, I imagined, the shirt front dangling between.) The shirt front nobody would ever see because of the red sweater vest—no one but me, on this evening, and it was no accident. He wanted me to see the tobacco-stained seams. He wanted to present fresh proof of what an ignoble struggle life was for even the most well-intentioned of males. It was fight night: the right night to let your animal feralness show—the sweat stains and nicotine stains and stale primal thirsts that might be tamed but never extinguished. Forget all the fatuous Sports Illustrated copy about boxing being “the sweet science,” every right cross a rogue thing of divine beauty, blabber, blabber, blabber. The beauty of a knockdown punch was its pure beautylessness—the teeth of the struck man sticking through the lower lip like boar tusks. Fans cheered broken noses, detached retinas, cauliflower ears. They rose at ringside, in front of closed-circuit screens, next to radios at taverns, bistros, casinos, piers, international airports, prisons without running water. They saw the blood-mask and pumped their hairy fists, waving rivulets their way, desiring to be sprinkled, baptized by violence, released from the stifling bonds of civilization. Weekly Mr. Hickey confessed to me the awful truth that he had run a gambling game as a young man, confessed with forceful sorrow, and I nodded, nodded, but seeing this shirt was something else—the active stain on his existence, deepening a little each day, despite generous deeds done and so many temptations resisted. He was human, that was all—and that was everything. Everything. It meant courage and fear, strength and weakness, generosity and selfishness. Contrary traits linked in the most amazing ways—illogically inter-reliant. For instance, the nakedness of boxers—their very vulnerability—required them to be more vicious than athletes in protective gear. It was Ali’s brutality in the ring that gave such beguiling legitimate power to his pretty press-conference smile, the lyrical utterances, and the long fluttering eyelashes.

 

The radio receiver crackled as Mr. Hickey caressed the tuning knob and adjusted the antenna. He looked like an expert safecracker subduing a giant cricket atop a little Zaire safe full of Mobutu diamonds—right, left, right, left: krehkkkkrzzkrkrezzhkkk WBBM , news radio sssseventy-eight. It was raining in downtown Chicago, wind off Lake Michigan gusting to thirty miles an hour. Sixteen elevator inspectors were under arrest for taking kickbacks, with more arrests expected soon. A Lincoln Park man had shot his girlfriend three times and then turned the gun on her German shepherd. Or something like that. And the office of Alderman Eddie Vrydoliak had no comment on the South Side waste-disposal contract scandal. “In Zaire . . .” The far off land of Zaire zebras, Zaire sky, Zaire sun, Zaire moon, Zaire jungle, Zaire villages, Zaire kalimbas—handheld teak pianos with metal strips of various lengths to pluck (mother’s sister, the globe-trotting chemistry professor, had sent us one)—amid tinkling Zaire music and Zaire dances, Zaire zoot suits and robes and dresses, Zaire limos and Zaire pushcarts, Zaire creation fables and Zaire camera cables, “The bell sounded and . . .” neither boxer did damage, trading just a few hard punches. “Ali’ll get him in the second round. Foreman will be through in two.” “Cassius,” Mr. Hickey whispered—using the former champ’s birth name out of habit. “Cassius Clay better be careful. This kid can punch.” Right, I acceded with a tilt of the 7-Up bottle poised under my sticky lips, Foreman had won Olympic gold at Mexico City in 1968—it was in the World Almanac on my bedroom windowsill. “Cassius has to play it smart.” Down went the Tiparillo and up went the delicate pugilist’s two little fists. Aggressive sugar bowls they looked like, hovering in front of the bigger bowl of Mr. Hickey’s enamel-white noggin. “Protect the head with the right,” he murmured. “Jab with the left, jab and dance, jab, jab, dance.” Hands in my lap, I agreed—yes, for certain, no doubt, that was how to win a heavyweight fight. Then Mr. Hickey reminded this 190-pound, four-feet-ten-and-a-half-inch contenda for the fat farm to “hit the rope and stay clean,” and I promised to jump rope to improve my agility and also to keep away from the mob wiseguys and gamblers who ruined many palookas, including “Two Ton” Tony Galenta and Primo Canera, the ex-champ Mr. Hickey had met in a flea-ridden Iowa hotel lobby in the 1930s. Even Joe Louis—the Brown Bomber—had ended up a “greeter” outside a dubious Las Vegas casino, his wheelchair flung like shrapnel under the throbbing spectacle of a neon sign, shaking hands with whomever. “I won’t wager any of my snow-shoveling money this winter, Mr. Hickey. I’ll save it all for college.” He smiled mildly, reinserted the cigar tip between his lips, and smoke genied out nostrils as fragile as china thimbles—belts of smoke, ropes of smoke, smoke towels and smoke fedoras floating across nicotine-stained cabana walls and shifting like lazy fronds of a ceiling fan. WBBM, news radio ssssseventy-eight, hissed John Madigan, night news announcer. It was still drizzling in Chicago, expected low of forty degress. Investigators were removing evidence of Medicaid fraud from a South Side podiatry clinic. Avoid the Pulaski Skyway due to a five-car pileup—take Roosevelt Road, the Cermak, hop the el, rent a fishing boat, anything but get on the Pulaski. Now, an update from Zaire . . . “The bell sounded and Ali retreated to the ropes, covered his face, took a left from Foreman, a right, another hard left . . .” Mr. Hickey choked on the smoke like it was milk that had gone down wrong. The Greatest retreat so early? Ali who had done the bravest thing a male could do—call himself pretty in public. “Another body blow by Foreman, another right, then a left, and the bell sounded.” Cuh-cuh, coughed my host, cuh-cuh-cuh. Over his cringing shoulder peered the oval blue eye in the oven enamel, and I had no answer for the Amana Sphinx—no friggin’ idea why Ali had willingly cowered, dancing no jig, hiding his face with both Everlast gloves. Both gloves. It just was not him. It could not be. All week he had traveled Zaire winning over the populace with his openness. That was Ali. He lived not behind castle walls but generously in front of TV cameras—prancing, preening, singing, predicting, taunting, scolding, philosophizing, proclaiming what he believed, what he would and would not fight for. In a world of phony celebrities and carefully worded press releases, Ali was the Real Deal, unmanaged by his entourage and leading them (Dundee, Pacheco, Boudini) around the globe, cutting a wide swath of excitement through every country entered. Ali = All Intelligence, All Inspiration. He was the best thing America had going for her after the debacles of Saigon and Watergate. He could not be tired after one round. He was ageless. He was the freshness a country needed, the immense energy and hope that always had been required to prop up the sprawling notion of America—and without which there would be a sea-to-shining-sea collapse, Ohio sliding into the Pacific right behind California, an avalanche of cars, blenders, blow dryers, televisions, microwaves, and millions of other consumer goods that made life so much easier but were no replacement for belief in oneself. Ali was faith in the moment of his being—faith in the power of heart, brawn, ideas—faith in free expression and faith that America was strong enough to withstand the harshest shot of any honest critic. And Ali—our one and only Ali—was crumpled on the ropes, taking an awful beating from Foreman? Yes, and it happened again in the third round, and the fourth, too, the fifth, and the sixth as well. “Another body blow by Foreman, two lefts, a right, two lefts, and the bell sounded.” Mr. Hickey dunked the host of the cookie into the wine of Sanka. It might help, but of course it would not. He crept into the bathroom off the kitchen, I guessed, unscrewed the lids of tubes and jars of muscle cream arrayed on the toilet tank, hoping I guess that the fumes would reach Zaire and revive Cassius’s failing clay. But Mr. Hickey neglected to open the frosted window. I did, and the wind was blowing the wrong direction. Minty vapor wafted into the kitchen, commingling with Tiparillo smoke to create the vintage stench of a locker room before the advent of Right Guard and Dr. Scholl’s: air bugless yet bug-heavy, astringent and stinging my nostrils. I should have gotten up and shut the window, but dared not approach the commode—the swarthy specter of wrestler Gorgeous George might be sitting on it; or Jock Semple, Boston Garden trainer; or Paul Moon, Central High basketball coach who had won thirty games in a row in 1958 while wearing the same blue turtleneck. I glanced at the sarcophagi profile of the Kelvinator, dismissing the notion of sticking my head inside for a draught of fresh air—the temptation to crawl in with the salmon loaf would be irresistible. I breathed and spoke through a finger mask. “Ali’ll get him in the seventh. Foreman will be . . .”—what in seven?—“. . . will be . . .” Leavened? No, I was all rhymed out after “driven to a knee in three,” “hit the floor in four,” “take a dive in five,” “out of the mix in six.”

 

In Chicago the barometric pressure was still dropping. Authorities had identified the Lincoln Park shooter as a thirty-year-old Jack in the Box employee: unregistered gun, five prior convictions, and neighbors can’t believe it—such a nice man murder a girl and a dog? The elevator-inspector kickback scandal had oddly widened to include eleven forklift operators, eight welfare caseworkers, five meter maids, and three high school principals, but no partridge in a pear tree, not yet. The mayor had no comment on that oversight or on Alderman Vrydoliak’s not commenting on the waste-disposal contract scandal. Now, an update from Zaire. “The seventh round began with Ali again retreating to the ropes. Foreman delivered a right to the ribs, another right to the chest, a left almost too low, warning issued. Then Foreman went back to work on the ribs, a right, left, right . . .” Mr. Hickey leaned toward the radio as if trying to take the ferocious blows himself and spare the old champ further punishment. “A left to the gut, a right,” and Foreman leaned on Ali, the fighters exchanged words and the ref stepped in, round over. Back soon with more action. That is, if Ali answered the bell. It was a massacre. The Greatest had not landed a hard punch since last week. Foreman had done him in—and Mr. Hickey, too. “Goodness,” my old friend moaned, sinking in the chair. “Gracious.” I suggested taking some oxygen. He inched his way into the dining room and emptied the slender green tank on the doily table—bow tie inhaling, safety shoes inhaling, slacks inhaling and straining the belt circling the waist like a glossy licorice whip. Fatter, he returned and immediately deflated like a dapper balloon—chest withering, waist shrinking, shoulders slumping, lending the shirt little more bulk than a hanger. “Oh boy,” he sighed, grasping for the pill counter. Outside, frost fingered the fallen leaves, but in here the steam heat had curled the corners of the VFW wall calendar, and the wooden pistol handle glistened through the haze as if it had broken into a nervous sweat—worried more about Ali than burglars crawling in basement windows or stoned Weathermen bombers taking the wrong interstate exit on the way to Berkeley or the mere existence of nude John and Yoko in New York City. Only the sixty-four-ounce prune box had no fears or concerns whatsoever. The clock had struck midnight, and the photo on the clotty black label intimated with cold confidence that it was autopsy time: Snap on the rubber gloves, open the drain, Igor. Atop the counter the oatmeal box loomed like a totem-pole stump, and the garish expressions of the cows on the Carnation cans made me wonder by what Medici means milk was condensed. I shivered. I dampened. My eyeframes slid down my nose and through the very top of the greasy lenses I saw Zaire planes circling, pulsing like fireflies over the extravaganza squatting in its own chimerical mire. I bit my fingernails. I swigged the last of the 7-Up, now a flat liquid the consistency of spit, supremely swishable but absolutely unswallowable: if only Hickey’s cabana had a dirt floor. I requested a highball glass. He gestured to the cupboard—Get it yourself, I’m tuckered—and I got the glass, and behind Mr. Hickey’s back did what had to be done: speeeeew, just like Ali on the corner stool in Zaire, cup under bloody mouth. Ali being worked on by Angelo Dundee, a doctor who operated without instruments, closing gashes with whispers and Vaseline. Ali glaring and biting his bottom lip as he did during interviews, mocking the rubes who believed they could destroy him. Ali aching, angry, not through— “He’ll answer the bell. Right, Mr. Hickey? Won’t he?” The old man said nothing, peeling cellophane from a Tiparillo box with the needy tenderness of a tobacco fiend—undressed the box, really, tugging a red strip, lifting off the flimsy blouse above it and sliding down the skirt below and placing both garments next to the ashtray. In the ashtray already were nine plastic cigar tips, each with a dark shag of ash protruding from the fat end like rotten incisor roots. The sucked narrow end shined like bone, hollow and faintly smudged by Mr. Hickey’s kisses. “Ali will answer the bell,” I mumbled. Mr. Hickey lifted an open hand and turned it over twice, as if to say—ech, that might not be so good, a kidney punch can cripple, saw it once at the Muscatine County Fair, Sugar Stevens laid out flat. He inhaled. He exhaled. The smoke twisted into awful midair faces—contorted mouths and noses and ears not unlike those of the foam-rubber store mascots mother often pointed out to me as role models. Her fondest wish was that I become a penniless unwashed and/or deranged poet like all those bleary angels pictured on the wanted-poster cover of The Little Treasury of American Poetry (mug shots of Walt Whitman and gang), but epic poems like “Song of Myself” did not come easy, and if I failed to produce such a masterpiece by age eighteen, then, well, then I should do the next best thing: don a cheese-wedge costume and wave and smile at passing cars with an eighteen-inch rubber smoocher while suffocating under twenty-eight pounds of orange foam rubber. “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Mr. Cheddar?” she chirped. “Sure,” I said to her, and promised myself: Never never never, I’d rather feed myself to the rollers of Lock and Dam 13. I wanted to be fancy-free like Ali. Stable and reliable and as well-provisioned as Hickey. Safely free—if such a thing was possible—orbiting absolutely untethered around a Kelvinator provisioned with pimpled 7-Up bottles and salmon loaf. “Heavens,” whispered my host, without a following “to Betsy.” His oyster eyes disappeared into their deep shells, the bald head fell forward so it was possible to see the dent marking the spot where he had been dealt that knockout blow by a swinging boom on a Coast Guard ship. Dead-tired, my neighbor, not dead—his yellowed Arrow shirt undulated with shallow yet intent breath. I left that old sea lion sleeping, made my way to the window, rubbing a peephole in the steam. The moon glowed down on our backyard trash—the boxes of all sizes, the bags, the cans, the bottles, the circulars, the Pennysavers, the junk mail, the paperbacks, the newspapers and slick magazines stripped of valuable Chas. Addams cartoons or sex-advice columns or sage quotes for businessmen and nincompoops like us to memorize and flaunt. The light was the hue of adhesive: it made me want some glue. Glue enough to put the tons of garbage together, build a Watts tower of trash that would cast a long shadow to the Mississippi River like a phantom tributary. I had to find a way to make use of the stuff of our existence—low as it was, worthless though it appeared. Because it was not without value. How could we be nothing if our lives were woven entirely of the tatters and shreds of America, the undeniably beautiful? We were . . . something. We belonged, somehow. The nation was not just the best in its people but the worst in them, too. It was about clinging to ideals like Mr. Hickey did and losing them like we did each day, and Mr. Dankert, also, with his jokes about Polacks, and Mr. Major with his wife-beating—every generation figuring out its own new way to squander, or utilize, the tremendous gift of freedom. The pane turned glossy with my breath, then paler . . . white as the translucent leaves of a humid jungle closing in, bringing Sanka birds and Lipton lizards and Folger Instant Insects, and in my chest suddenly there was a rustling that was not breath, it was a cabana patron in a frayed tuxedo, flipping through movie stills—photos of Erroll Flynn and Greta Garbo and Glenn Ford and Leo Gorcey and Abbott and Costello and the Bride of Frankenstein with the four-foot hairdo. She was the love of his life, really, he had dressed like a groom to see that movie and then cried when the lights had gone up. He had run out of the theater and past the harmonica-playing beggar, past the legless fortune teller, climbing the glittering ridge to reach the night behind Cuban casinos, there with the rotting heaps of lemons and limes and rats and the moldering discarded villa furniture. He blew the fetid kisses of last resort, blew kisses to the rats, the bats, the gamblers, the prostitutes, the sportswriters—Robert Markus, Dave Condon, Jerome Holtzman—and more kisses to the poppy sellers, the Siamese cats, the dogs, the dead fish, the ace of spades and the piano players and the palm trees, and . . . “Benny, come here.” Mr. Hickey had risen, was waving me over. On the floor burned a Tiparillo. I rushed to him—no heart attack and no dream, better: the five-band radio. News crackling over the receiver. “TKO by Ali. In the eighth round. Foreman came out tired, hands low. Ali went at him, swinging—a right, a left, the champ fell. Hit the canvas. Whipped. Ali fooled the kid into punching himself out. Calls it ‘rope-a-dope.’ A minute ago, in the press room. Rope-a-dope, rope-a-dope. Again, here in Zaire, it’s Ali! Ali. Ali, everyone! Ali wins! Ali’s done it again!”

 

FEAST OF WORDS II: RBC INTERVIEW OUTTAKES

Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. Here are more outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller

Q. In the book, every family member seems so separate from each other. How does this happen in a crowded house?

A. Eight people in a three bedroom home. You would think everyone would be close but the fact of closest quarters–and no room for privacy in the physical sense–causes each individual to create a mental shell to curl up inside of, to protect whatever can be protected. There was in that wretched house a constant sense of panic bordering on the absurd, breeding the absurd. That doesn’t lead to the sorts of interactions that naturally develop relationships. So what you had were harried or hysterical interactions continually and not any open, free exchange of thoughts or feelings. “Sharing” seemed liked the worst possible thing that could happen because once you let something out in a house lacking private spaces it would be there for everyone to utilize in any manner they wanted to, and that was scary. So we burrowed and burrowed and burrowed into our brains or–alternately, ran to a neighbor’s house or lost ourselves in sports or partying or other activities to relieve that growing sense of despair and isolation amid a mob. In the chapter “The Reinvention of Ice” and also in the epilogue I comment that brothers and sisters were blurs that raced by. Out of loneliness and love and curiosity we sporadically tried to grab each other, reach and hold each other…but there was really nothing that we gave each other to hold on to. We were all spinning fast, on our own singular mental and emotional tracks, out of control, out of luck, yet with this endless frantic sense of trying to move ourselves forward to some elusive better place.

Q. Also every family member seems to harbor these frustrated, but inescapable, artistic ambitions.

A. I think this gets back to the junkification question and the fragmenting of the family core. That hope of dredging from the wreck some kind of restitution and sense. Art is about freedom, and art is about synthesis, and the ideal of art is one that forever appeals to the traumatized, and rightly so. A second chance is to be had there, or seems available. And a tribute to the strength of that appeal is that it existed even in children who were confronted daily with tragic results of parental art worship. My mother never being able to quote accurately poems she loved, and my father’s dusty shelves of self-published novels no one would ever read. The art pursuit for these adults was darkened and shadowed in the extreme, but STILL it remained very clear to we children why they refused to relinquish the dream of making art. Art was in fact their only chance left to have a synthesis, to gain a firmer grasp on their shattered reality. There would be no other way. They were people who wouldn’t seek medical help. They did not have the money for it, and did not have, I think, the understanding of what it would mean, say, to have the support of a professional in their darkness. They had always been so alone. But solitariness is innate to the art pursuit and art beckoned, in part, because of that. What was hardest to see, and what was most ridiculous at times to see, was how they had fingered art as something good that might help them and yet didn’t pursue it seriously. It devolved into those poems sloppily warbled in a parked car with a dead battery as if Dylan Thomas might get us home! It became that moment when my father asked me to take his decades-old writing to a local writing group to read instead of my own fresh writing. And because of that lack of seriousness, that hope of art, unrealized, forever dangling, only served to deepen their confusion.They wanted it–the art cure–to be easier than it ever could be. And there just seemed to be no way inside them to accept the fact that things weren’t going to be easy–that they weren’t going to get the break they felt they had longed deserved. By break, I guess I mean, incisive sentences and stanzas pouring out like sweet wind. The other wind poured from them: sour. So a genuine love of art devolved into the hollow and bitter gestures. I get this garish image of someone who is drowning and who is thrown the life-ring, and who actually touches the life-ring but then chooses not to cling to it, but rather to lazily put their elbow on it and to rest their head on the elbow. The drowning man, the drowning woman, not clinging to the life-ring! they are sort of, you know, just touching it, not letting it float them, thinking about maybe letting it float them, as if they were not going to drown in a few seconds, as if they had all the time in the world to decide whether to survive. That sums up house extremes of lassitude, of self-neglect. Daily displays of dolor amid crisis drove me, at one point, to post on my bedroom door a sign reading OFFICE HOURS 3-5. I felt all this work needed to be done, and fast.

Q. In the book, your parents seem almost jealous that some children are taking paths to escape the troubled home environment…

A. There can be a desperation, a panic so blinding…that it causes it to you work against the interests of loved ones. A lot of this was understated. Neither parent would would outwardly reject a success a child had, but there was a sense, very thick in the home, that the world outside our walls was a foul world of materialists and elitists and that deep involvement with it was polluting. We were told that on the way to school, warned. And the grain of truth in that idea became the boulder in the living room. We had our fine disaster we were used to! Why trade it for the bigger one of America in the 1970s? Watergate? Greed? Why become a conformist-sheep-to-slaughter? Everything gets turned backwards and sideways, sometimes, in families beset by shame. It was the case in my family that that happened. There was always a sense of you know: we’re suffering, but we need to suffer right here in this room to fulfill our destiny. We CONSIST ONLY of our sense of helplessness, sadness, and the doomed aura those feelings spawn. The dreary equation made each week seem like the climax of generations of ruin–made each trip to Kmart feel like it might be the last. And the death in the air was, in an odd way, as vigorous as hope. It was a massive shadow, a pervading feeling of grief, a long snaking echo of loss, and it ran like a dark river over every frail object in the house, out the doors and over the city like a direction we must sail in, never divert from…

FEAST OF WORDS I: RBC INTERVIEW OUTTAKES

Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. In the holiday weeks to come I’ll be posting tasty outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller

Q. So how many sections of the book were published as stand-alones originally?

A. They all were. I started with dozens of short initial sketches in the early 2000s and then the first finished piece (“Bix and Flannery”) gets in print and thereafter chapters appeared in places like AGNI out of Boston University, Raritan out of Rutgers, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review. Ecotone. The Normal School. It was vital to see what this material looked like on the page and these journals offered me that chance to do that, and to experience the vital process of editing prose that at times can be ungainly in the sense of everything being all…immured? or innured? I think I just made that word up. Innured? Manured? No, no. [Laughs.] All put together in delicate layers: that’s better. I can’t stress enough how vital the journal publications were…they gave me the confidence to continue on with the experimental nature of the project.

Q. Some Urban Iowa essays are still coming out, right? At a reading I attended of yours at KGB Bar you handed out copies of “Cinema B.C.” which is a piece that appeared in Raritan, I believe.

A. Right, Raritan. That one was on drive-in movie theaters and my family’s relation to them. And also the local neighborhood movie theater and the movie palace of the sixties and seventies. That’s not in the book. I like that piece. It’s an interesting extension of the themes in River Bend Chronicle.

Q. What Midwestern writers do you connect your work to? Sherwood Anderson? Hemingway? Bradbury?

A. Eudora Welty is the south but the ways she depicts the complexities of her community really resonates with me. That is, resonates universally, I think, with anyone who grew up within an environment that at least had a reputation for being rural if not being actually rural: a town. And when you grow up in the Midwest, Winesburg, Ohio is something you deal with. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is another work that takes the approach of creating portraits of a community to form a chorus that represents something of society’s murk of conflicting agendas and histories. For years and years I considered Our Town to be a Midwestern play even though it’s set in New Hampshire…and partially this is because in my mind it’s very connected to Spoon River Anthology which preceded it as a vocalization of many disparate personalities and their stories coming together to create something bigger, and far richer, than the individual elements. In sum? I liked just about IT ALL. I read as much as I could hold when I was young. I was just a “book hugger,” as some people are tree huggers, and I’m still a book hugger. I will be in used book stores, probably buying old copies of Winesburg Ohio as long as I am around. Books that have lasted you can always learn something from. It’s important to read new things but also there’s nothing wrong with going back and really looking at these books that have endured and trying to figure out why–what in them resolved the riddle of how to make art.

Q. I would like to hear just a little more about “junkification” and “idyll” and the juxtaposition between those warring concepts in the sub-title.

A. [laughs] Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I think the book is so much about tension. Tension between wishes and reality. Tension of being from Iowa but rarely seeing corn and cows. The tension that is just naturally part of living in a large family of eight loud people. “Junkification” naturally emerged from the matrix of the book crashing energy and depiction of familial and societal wreckage. And “idyll” came along soon after, given my attachment to classic verse when I was a kid. I mean, you know, Dickinson and Whitman and even Ginsburg…these writers were very alive to me, huge. Vachel Lindsay’s another. All romantic in diverse ways…or at least they epitomized my burgeoning romance with literature and its possibilities.

Q. And the form–no paragraphs–could you describe your aims there?

A. I needed to fill the pages but not clog them with familial mess, and that was really one of the core artistic struggles. To create a sense that is often missing in books about messy subjects–a look of the mess, and the sound of the mess, and the shapeless shape of mess! A sense of vagary, of moral, mental, emotional confusion. I wanted to replicate the fierceness without clogging the pages with so much that readers drowned. The challenge was to communicate the sense of swirling chaos while also keeping the narrative going somehow, chugging along. And there are a number of ways to accomplish that, I discovered. With the sentence rhythm. By picking four details instead of putting all twelve in–the twelve harassing my mind. People will look at the book and say “but there’s hundreds of things mentioned! people! places!” Yet there could have been three or four times that amount. And what did not get into RBC resides in sketches and drafts in my poor file cabinet. I mean the book represents about 25% of the writing I’ve done on my hometown.

LAST OF THE CAMELOT BABIES

Vowels sloshed in her jowls. The early sun speared the taffeta of her tattered dress. Then her tone completely changed. She whispered that I had watched JFK’s funeral with her in the apartment on Bridge Street: casket soldiers flags John-John Caroline Jackie, the blanket that swaddled me enveloped by the dirge of gray ceremony, caisson, bugle taps.

River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, p. 160

RIVER BEND CHRONICLE GLOSSARY, ENTRY #7

GurUPed

Definition: grr-uhp-id, verb,

1. Frightful collaboration between massive indigestion and deep depression.

2. When a B-move blob meets a B-movie blob coming through the rye…

3. To make a low note sound high during a musical performance.

Sentence:

He gurUPed, gurUPed, a combination burp, hiccup, grunt. Each cough was the tolling of his lungs, and when I just could not listen to the Father Death Suite any longer, I tried to slip away and got caught. “Going to visit Hickey again? Are you?” (p. 213, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa)

RIVER BEND CHRONICLE GLOSSARY, ENTRY #6

Digs

Definition: noun,

1. Stale-smelling rented room where a humble writing club meets on Thursday night in the Quad-Cities.

2. Small house or apartment the club member heads toward after a post-meeting snack, the breaded Pork T and/or finger-dewing onion rings at Riefe’s Diner,

3. Upset earth of new I-80 real estate developments glimpsed on the drive home.

4. Drawer where manuscripts rest peacefully after criticism and revision, awaiting the next reader.

Sentence:

For a quarter Writers’ Studio members could purchase a bottle of warm cola from the club treasurer, John. Few did. When better “digs”  (as Cozie put it) were eventually located in Davenport, the beverages were left behind for the next thirsting tenant. (p. 27, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa)