I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a colour photograph of God Almighty — and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable.
What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Bennington College Address (1970)
Something compelling and sad about that life. Kurt. Born and raised in Indianapolis, (1922-2007). Iconic. More than Slaughterhouse Five.
I remember the reading, at UT-El Paso, my first year in the English graduate program — why that, and I was working for newspapers, had a language gig, one-on-one, in Juarez with a Mexican engineer working for Packard Electric. I was deep into writing stories and a novel. Lots of cross border ruckus stuff. Drugs and some other cross-the-tortilla-curtain smuggling. That was October 19, 1983. Two feet from fame.
It may have just been a coincidence it was a Homecoming event, but he was there, speaking to graduate students in a classroom. Then after the reading, a party. The obligatory after-reading-party.
Wine, whisky, tequila. Kurt was looking for Pall Malls, and I had two packs ready — cheap cigs from Juarez. I brought a bottle of mescal, with the worm, and we talked — me, Vonnegut and two other folk. But he and I talked face to face. I had no fear, no compunction to put anyone on pedestals, and we talked about Dresden and some of my life.
I grabbed Dixie cups, threw some lime wedges into each one and poured me, Kurt and the two other people shots of the agave drink.
These guys and gals are many times inquisitive about the people who parachute into their lives — young people, like myself. Twenty-six and with a donkey cart full of stories already. I had family who survived that bombing in Dresden — in fact, my Canadian mom, divorced from my German father, had the sugar, salt, flour and grease ceramic flower containers that were buried for safekeeping in Dresden. They survived that bombing.
Vonnegut never survived that role he played as a captured US soldier picking up the carcasses of the dead in Dresden. He was deployed to Europe to fight in World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse, schlachthof fünf (5). He survived the allied bombing.
We’re talking several days of heavy bombers from US Air Force and RAF, up to 1,350 aircraft in total, with their payloads ready for factory, neighborhood, family and town — 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices. Like all UK-American bombing, a firestorm ensued, which destroyed more than 1,600 acres of the city and more than 25,000 were killed with so many more wounded, and yet more psychologically scarred.
Kurt was one of those who never recovered. His book, Slaughterhouse Five, took years to write, coming out in 1969. It is an anti-war book. I saw him again 20 years later, in Spokane, at a reading and then, the proverbial party afterwards. Pall Malls he still chain smoked. This crowd was a bigger crowd, and I remember having that chance to go over to him and rejiggering his memory. The party in one of the faculty’s houses in New Mexico. Two horses and the fields of giant green chilies growing. And the bottle of worm-blessed mezcal.
I know this seems narcissistic, but the guy remembered me, recalled that night, and the drinking of the agave fermented elixir. He asked about that mezcal again. I repeated that I had just come back from Mexico a few years earlier, and spent time in Oaxaca where there are thousands of acres of agave plants (200 varieties) grown for tequila and mezcal. I told him about how the curanderos and even the narcotraficantes use the liquor in their ceremonies and baptismals, as in vetting their sicarios in the drug runners mafia. Hired killers.
Some of what we talked about went back to El Paso, and then he kept asking me about my life in Mexico, and the booze. He wondered why this time I hadn’t brought a bottle of the mezcal with the gusano (worm) sunk at the bottom. I told him that tequilas were becoming trendy and boutique brewed. I said that mezcal was becoming popular too, thanks to the marketing of it in Mexico on the international stage.
He told me he recalled being really inebriated, and that he had some crazy dreams. “No hangover in the morning. I so wanted to call you to let you know you were right. The dreams and the lack of headache.” He laughed hard, smoke pouring out of his mouth around bedraggled teeth.
His memory was jarred, and he laughed at something he remembered out there in El Paso. He liked the wild west aspect of the town, and the good Mexican food, and he liked the mix of people. Almost all the students who listened to him were of Mexican descent. The department — English Department — wasn’t 87 percent Latino (like the town), but we did have a few in our ranks. The school itself drew people from around Mexico, Latin America and Africa. Engineering. Nursing. Mining. Not many documented or undocumented immigrants were rooting for their children to go get a useless degree in English literature or creative writing. For the most part. In Spokane he was railing against Bush and Cheney. The neocons. He was only a few years from his untimely death.
He and I talked intensely (as intensely as Kurt could be because he always had that raspy laugh, like a two-stroke lawnmower engine choking down, barely hanging onto a spark). He laughed a lot. But when it came to Bush and war, he was serious. He talked a lot about Bush. He asked about El Paso. He asked about my own threadbare travels and even more threadbare writing (paid publishing) career (sic).
I told him the Mexican saying — “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también; y si no hay remedio litro y medio” — For all bad, mezcal, and for all good, as well; and if there is no remedy, liter and a half.
He asked how the hell I got from Mexico and El Paso to Spokane, to Gonzaga. I tried to squeeze in as much as I could before our talk was overcome by hangers on, the groupies. I told him that even now, after 20 years, I was still teaching as an adjunct, and that I was still organizing part-timers in a union. I also told him I was fiddling around another degree, a masters in urban and regional planning. He knew who Jane Jacobs was. The two of them lived in New York, and Kurt was also a fan of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He too was against the Robert Moses’ project to kill the Village, with the Lower Manhattan Expressway.
This all is percolating inside after watching the Weide documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. The life of this man, and the life of his family, is laid out, but Robert Weide had an unusual relationship with Vonnegut — more than two decades of friendship. Lots of letters back and forth. The project about this man’s life. Weide was a fan of Vonnegut in high school. He became a filmmaker, and he wanted to capture Kurt’s life in film. This too took Weide a lifetime to produce. It’s a compelling piece, one that is about Kurt, about his failings and his features, about what his kids have to say about Kurt the dad. The ups and downs and ups and downs of his literary life. He was obsessed, and he was almost always a writer.
In so many ways, the movie is about a man out of his own time. He was too old for the Love and Peace Generation, but they adopted him with his iconic books held deep in their souls. Many Vonnegut fans were fans, having never really read his work. I’ve read six of his books, not all of the ones he wrote. I was happy about his books, but I wasn’t obsessed.
Watching this flick, I have a deeper regard for the man, for the country he believed in (one I never believed in) and his world which was big and large on one level, but in many ways, very finite and small. He was a New York and East Coast guy, and he was an icon, a guy who actors and painters and celebrities went to. In his presence, he was a simple guy. I never thought of him as literary. I have been in the company of many literary folk, poets, novelists, journalists.
This is why I adore the time I had with Kurt — limited, two feet from his fame, and now part of the fabric of my own tattered quilt. My life. Failures, mostly, in the literary sense. And this is still stuck in my craw, but I am more resigned with that fact. Timing, disposition, vision, limitations, focus, and a dream. His background is so different from my own. His parts to his whole so different than mine. I’d say nothing we have in common. Nothing, really, but writing, or the knowledge that that is a private and profound thing — to write, to make up and to be a journalist too.
In the documentary, there is a real loneliness that reverberates in this guy’s life. Watch it if you can. About a time long gone. In the context of now, too, with Nazi’s in Ukraine, with the American ghostlands, all the same actors he railed against with the Bush Family and the wars. But, a man like Vonnegut, while immense on many levels, still believed in a lot of goodness in people. Even those in politics. He held a belief that someone was good, something was good about Clinton, and this was before Obama. I can only guess what he would have thought about that charlatan, that war criminal.
They all are. And, now, seeing the propaganda machines in the USA, around the Western world, in the UK and EU, and down under, in Australia, it must be said that the same criminals who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they are the same ones fomenting war and hatred with the psychological operations. With the corporate-legacy-mainstream-commercial media part and parcel of their slick Goebbels-Edward Bernays lying game.
Amazing to see the script flipped, and the USA supporting Nazis, and the complete revamping and rewriting of history. Putin as Hitler: What a fucking sad time making that comparison. Sick, Russia lost 27 million defeating the Germans. Putin remembers, and he never knew one brother who died in World War Two. Relatives killed and wounded. What a creepy country, USA, and it is also my mother’s birthplace, Canada, that is creepy. My grandparents from UK, Scotland, that part of the world = creepy. And, well, those Germans, what are those countrymen saying about Putin? Hitler and Putin? It makes no sense. My family was forced onto the Russian front as German conscripts. My grandfather was a pilot in World War I.
Talk about a sick bile in my throat.
Slaughterhouse Five, and the Nazis, and the Allies. One in the same.
Imagine the time I could have spent with Kurt if I had had the chance to pull him aside, take him to Chihuahua, spend a week with him in Mexico. Imagine the education I would have gotten, and the one Vonnegut would have gotten.
Sometimes that slipstream comes from a place of mythology, a dream, some biscuit of exceptionalism. All the soured lies of history. But Vonnegut knew that. He wrote about that. Kids in high school were assigned those books. Breakfast of Champions. Cat’s Cradle. Mother Night.
Each of his poems puts a chink in the armor of the war makers. Robert Bly’s Friday night appearance at SFCC will be part touchstone for peace and part riling-up of the audience to bear witness and take action.
Bly, a preeminent American poet whose 80-year-old voice and intellect have helped to sculpt an important vision of literary art and cultural reclamation, will speak as part of Spokane Falls Community College’s “Lit Live!”
While Bly is a sought-after voice of reason and lyrical charm, his poetic pulse has been stimulated by a life alone, working far from the rarified atmosphere of college or university settings. His roots are in Mansfield, Minn., and in the furrows of hard-working immigrants where his reverence for land and people germinated.
Translator of such great poets as South America’s Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Antonio Machado, India’s Ghalib, Spain’s Lorca and Jim & eacute;nez, and Norway’s Rolf Jacobsen and Olav H. Hauge, Bly’s output of articles, essays and criticism is matched by his more than 40 books of poetry.
Enwrapped in solitude, Bly spins ruminations shaped by other cultures, other poets — as in “Meeting the Man Who Warns Me”:
I dream that I cannot see half of my life. “I look back, it is like the blind spot in a car./ So much just beyond the reach of our eyes, what tramples the grasses while the horses are asleep, the hoof marks all around the cave mouth…/ what slips in under the door at night, and lies exhausted on the floor in the morning.
Also slated for the Music Auditorium stage on Friday night are four male drummers, pounding animal skins as a tribute to “the wild man” in Bly’s Iron John. His 1991 book examines the dichotomy between Savage Man, who is both wounded and inflicts wounds on earth and humankind, and Wild Man, the shaman-healer, Zen priest or woodsman. In Iron John, we have a book about men and the lost energy of visions, fairy tales and the male drumbeat of power and depth. It’s a book of healing and reaffirmation of soul.
Bly also helped redirect the creative surge of Modernism’s influence on poetry by unraveling his words and lines into what Victoria Frenkel Harris has called “incorporative consciousness.” Bly believes that the poet or creative thinker must go “much deeper than the ego … at the same time [becoming] aware of many other beings.” In a sense, he believes that “leaping out” of the intellectual world and into what we intuitively hold as our own realities best explores the paradoxes of two worlds: the world of our psychic pain, and the world in which we must adjust to observing the rules.
Bly came to prominence during the Vietnam War era — a time that tore at the psychic integration of American culture. He recalls how controversial his work was then: “Most of the English teachers in the universities hated our doing ‘political poems,’ as they were called. That still happens,” he recently said about those heady days of the ’60s. “When I’m at a reception at a university these days, an English professor may come up to me and ask: ‘How do you feel now about those poems you wrote during the war?’ They want me to disown the poems. I say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t write more of them.’”
Bly, along with David Ray, created the group American Writers Against the Vietnam War. The first important protest volume was A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War (1966), edited by Bly and Ray.
In one of his poetry collections, The Light Around the Body, Bly cast a beacon of hazy light upon the symbiotic relationship of poverty and racism and the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
But now, in 2006, with the stink of Abu Ghraib and Fallujah still enveloping Mr. Bush’s war, Bly speaks with singular impetus in his recent work, The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War. “The invasion of Iraq is the biggest mistake any American administration has ever made,” he says. “The most dangerous and greatest confrontation is between twentieth-century capitalist fundamentalism and eleventh-century Muslim fundamentalism,” he writes.
For aficionados of the poetic form, The Insanity of Empire embodies both Bly’s disdain for immoral governments and Bly as an the artful practitioner of the ghazal, an Arab poetic form:
I don’t want to frighten you, but not a stitch can be taken/ On your quilt unless you study. The geese will tell you/ A lot of crying goes on before the dawn comes.
SFCC’s literary publication, Wire Harp, and the endowment for Lit Live! will not be the only beneficiaries of Bly’s incantations on Friday night (50 percent of the gate goes to the endowment). Conscious Living — a local business that creates events including the annual Celebrating Body, Mind and Spirit Expo and A Psychic Affair — is partnering with SFCC.
As a reminder of Bly’s continuing relevance, consider that he’s an anti-war activist of long standing. In the Dec. 9, 2002 issue of The Nation, Bly was one of the first to beat the earth drum against the impending war, in his poem, “Call and Answer”:
Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days/ And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed & r & The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting?/ I say to myself: “Go on, cry. What’s the sense/ Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out! See who will answer!”