© 2012 James Beach
The object in question was below us on the carpet. To see it I tipped my head forward until I felt gawky. A paperclip, a shiny triangle of packing tape, an assortment of pebbles and twigs tracked in, a bit of yarn unraveled from a mawkish quilt thrown over the chair by the writing desk. “There,” she said again. Squinting, I followed the invisible line from her fingertip to the corresponding area of nubby, coffee-stained and dusty carpet. I fell into a crouch so I could rest my elbows on my quads and better examine the floor. My calves burned from the weight— I learnt long ago to listen and wait. After a while she emitted a petulant wheeze and, holding oxygen hoses out, from underfoot, stooped at the waist to retrieve a burr the size of a pea prickled with spikes, arid brown and casting a shadow against the delicate parchment of her palm. “What is this?” she said. “What is it?” I said. She called it a goathead.
After that day I saw plenty of the thorny omens, perhaps tracked indoors in the soles of my mountaineering boots or in the crevices of the footwear of any household staff or visitors. Outdoors in the front yard I anticipated finding a bush or small tree blooming or gnarled with them. Trouble was, I couldn’t find the source, couldn’t find where the burrs originated, where they grew, whether they were once green and beautiful or if they were always thorny, tossed up as prickly seeds of Satan’s brambles. An internet search of “goathead” netted only this: heads of cattle, pig and goat in Brazil; Mesopotamian art and architecture; the mythological Pan, a shepherd with human head and torso, the legs, ears, horns of a goat. Maybe it was colloquial, that term for the little vegetables, something said casually here and there and anyone beyond the region would be clueless as to what it meant, as was I. (How superficial, then, as the burr, when positioned on end and stared at, looks much like a goat’s head in miniature, its center mass ugly like an enlarged virus or bacteria strain, its rapier-like spikes jutting from where the horns, ears, and a devilish beard-point are, on the genuine article.) Eyeless, it anyway embodied a definitive presence.
My charge, an elderly author named Carol Carroll, once very beautiful and sought after, was too preoccupied with feeding her sickly career and her sickly shrunken frame to bother too much with the goatheads, except when they “jumped up” and nestled betwixt the gnarled alabaster toes she exposed in her Birkenstock sandals, as that one in question had apparently done. Not that they injured her; like toothless fleas they would pester and bite lightly before tumbling under furniture or between the many boxes of files beside her bookcase. Her finances were such that a maid was undoable, and even me, employed as well-paid editor/transcriber, was leaned upon to do such menial tasks as preparing a dish of canned pears or cutting a chicken thigh a certain way or nuking a refrigerated cup of coffee-with-milk, and when she would point at, ask me to cull, the goatheads, I did so willingly. She was of course teaching me to write.
That she had flown so high in popular culture and was now grounded, housebound, wings clipped, tethered to an oxygen tank and allergic to or annoyed by half of everything outside her front door, was why she both resented and loved anyone who remained under her roof as “employe” [sic]; it made her difficult to live with. She offended most all of us employes — she had a steady staff of nine, including myself, a midwife, and seven nurse-maids (only one was certified, with a quickie CNA cert.; the midwife heading the “medical” staff once attended an unaccredited school of midwifery). A sticky affairs lawyer, a nutty psychologist neighbor who charged her for therapy sessions in-home, a sketchy accountant, and a hard-to-contact physician-on-paper rounded out the group she liked to call “friends,” though I doubt anyone but myself as a fledgling writer, or the head of the nursing team, the midwife who lived right next door, and possibly the lawyer who she was in debt with, would stick it out without pay. Even I pondered keeping up a devotion, despite the opportunities and education that working with Carol Carroll could and did provide. As a mentor in the field, she taught me too much in too short of time with too few formal instructions to even be believed; she died and was cremated six months after I began working with her on her publishing projects. Some months after that, Carol’s ashes, in a bag, in a white, unmarked box in the back of her bedroom closet were a shocker, viscerally, and I believe some of her teachings may have seeped into me then — posthumous teachings — via the remains when I happened upon the box.
Carroll’s published works include poetry, novels, nonfiction and satirical essays on pop culture, plus a journalistic essay on the nascent poetry scene in Vancouver, written just prior to her heyday. Her heyday happened three decades ago, her income fair enough to keep writing fiction and poetry for many years. She wrote to please herself, with an audience in mind, which kept her from being more popular — she preferred the fringes. Her esoteric popularity anyway kept her published, reviewed and read for those decades surrounding her heyday. What possibly ended her profitable writing career prematurely (and this is all subjective deduction and guesswork) is that she had published a novel about faculty affairs at the university where she occasionally taught, a moot point. She fell into a sideline, picking and peddling antiques, after that. That the tides of commerce or academia brought in other trends in writing (simpler prose, for one) or if the gov’t ousted her and her burgeoning contemporaries from the upper tiers of lit for their radical approaches to teaching, creativity and the arts, well, that is moot too. For years her souring feisty attitude, worsening health — she puffed cigarettes like a kiva smokes piñon logs — and intensely vivacious and often abrasive demeanor were also factors, say surviving friends and relatives. Yet this seems irrelevant to me, in today’s context, since what lasts long after the personality is gone is the art created by the person. My contention is that, because she was a woman in a man-dominated arena such as poetry and fiction (mind you, this was fifty to thirty years ago, and the tables have turned completely around since then), and because physical beauty and the glamour of being young intelligentsia fade fast, Carol Carroll maybe got old, too old to keep up? Or am I reaching for answers or overgeneralizing? There is more to the story of her decline. In literature, as in other disciplines of the arts such as music or dance, the better and more influential may often offend and cause jealousy to rise, especially in wannabes and ineffectuals, if not among contemporaries. In-clique fighting and ousting by one’s peers or superiors are common enough in any social or academic, even business, circles. Her outrageous social, sexual, religious and poetic reputations may have gotten the better of her. In person she may have been too much to bear, which is another impression I tend to get when I contact any of her old peers online. On the page she’s a darling but a good writer often can lie so well on the page that the ugly aspects of the person never show in the output… Take Sinclair Lewis (debased snob) or Roald Dahl (cranky brat) or Dorothy Parker (libelous slut), or any other creative genius; they’re likely going to rub some important people the wrong way. Celebrity demands integrity not, but art does demand it. Rock stars and movie stars and gallery stars were and still sort of are, to a large degree, entitled to behave contrary to what society would ordinarily demand of its higher-ups. This keeps them interesting. Although, any celebrity personality that acts out, speaks too freely, is browbeaten offstage. Or the celebrity personality is a recluse, like Pollack and Salinger and Dickinson, Proust perhaps, Mozart surely, as hermit archetypes trying to avoid the snobs and brats and sluts, and to retain a sense of being free… at home alone. Which is where Carol wound up, despite her gregarious nature.
This sickly woman described and the celebrity author too, however discrete, were one and the same. As a successful, beautiful person, Carroll was a forking from the myth that a likeable piece from a writer will mean the writer is likable in person; in the same breath, a proof contrary. Plus she was debased, and cranky (and, as perhaps a causative agent, too decrepit to be libelous), and barely ambulatory, on her own and alone save for her employes. This was, I heard time and again, from her few remaining friends, her own doing. Her undoing was her own doing. In the first month her psychologist leaned in one night to tell me that turning sixty was abominable for her. By the time she hit her seventies, she’d alienated herself from most of her friends and colleagues, as well as her only offspring, a gay son, an achiever, who was estranged. Yet hers was the price of extreme giftedness, of having so much plain to the eye in her world that occasional shock at stupidity in her staff, in loved ones, in strangers and peers would bring about a reaction in her that was interpreted by the offended as a sudden assault on them and a terrific insult. This confusion or misinterpretation around her motives persisted even if the assaulted and insulted were only a few points shy of or over her mighty IQ… Still, there is more to her story. Her foibles and attritions intensified as she grew older. Much of what was once a mere worry mushroomed in her mind and she became terrified of: no oxygen, heart failure, state care, being alone, the superunknown. Her terror could be boundless. As could her love and intellect. Doors unlocked day and night anyway, as triumph over fear and trust in, faith in, something larger than herself, as long as her friends were there in the house too.
Her writings hardly missed a beat, and she was as sure on her words as any PhD of etymology or scholar of linguistics, frequently finding within her mental- or emotive- scape a strange word or unfamiliar phrase that turned out to be not only correct but also a truth, as accurate as it was faithful. Often foreign words could only capture the mood or rhythm, the “caesura,” of her intention, and she liked to mix in Latin with her French and German, a little Greek and Spanish, none of it italicized and so therefore often a puzzle to the uneducated or unprepared reader… this, alongside some Olde English, or British English, and questionable punctuation, and the propensity to employ poetics learned during her avant-garde poetry phase in the early 1960s, was what could put the dazzle in her brilliance. As if she needed it explained! To her, the critics, the students always misinterpreted her work. Her contemporaries I assume understood her, as I assume to understand her. The simple complexity of each paragraph, especially in her later works, made it such that very little editing or omitting could be done on my part without destroying what was — it was from her, my elderly charge Carol, housebound, with emphysema, ostensibly caused by smoking too many cigarets, that the concreteness of literature became evident. It was hard stuff, and somehow nearly fully formed as it came flowing out her mouth; a cabal her muse possibly, or her puppeteer, and as I transcribed, her spoken words hardened beneath my fingers and adhered to the keyboard, monitor and the annals of lit, the eschewed halls of academia anyway claiming her work more fully, in her mind and mine, long after she’d gone.
The phrase Everything Zen, if examined, unbiased, sans judgment, she taught me, would reveal a tiny everything. (Pop art and Buddhism “saved her life,” she once said.) One look at a random page of her text told the whole story — sort of like the way a hologram can be separated and still retain the whole image, her text! Often a glance could draw the reader in, the care taken to put just the right edge on, the proper spin on, a universal idea turned surreal or a bizarre plot turned everyday. With her work, a second glance was mandatory, and only after several perusals did whatever caused that immediate connection shift to reveal something even more astonishing or permanent.
Carroll had an entire shelf full of her own published writings, which was a dream of mine that she’d accomplished for herself. Her bookcase took up an entire wall of the living room, which she’d converted into her study and office hub. She had a shelf of stuff by colleagues, another of Asian tradition, pop psych and mind-expansion mixed with physics and the est and Zen philosophies of her era, telekinesis and mental telepathy aside the types of mundane titles a teacher has most of, colleges gone weird and hyper-assorted educator-bent wastes of space even to her, as her enthusiasm for reading was limited by then to reference materials, her own writings and rewritings, the occasional news article, work-in-progress by employes such as myself, and books by friends. “What’s of value in lit?” I say now, to myself. It’s smoke and mirrors, art.
At the end, she hated dope. Her wisdom of the decades culminating in a distaste for whatever drugs she classified as such, probably marijuana, of which she had been notably fond; possibly coke, probably acid and the other hallucinogens; surely heroin and the opiates. All Of It, would be my guess. At the end, she hated lots of things, including doctors’ and physicians’ pretension, general stupidity, concept art, generic or lazy thinking, bright colors, tardiness, barking dogs. Dope helped along (also causing the deaths of) friends, poets, artists which made it double-sided and too risky for her at this life-stage. Dope made and destroyed otherwise brilliant careers. In the counterculture substrata, the wings of intelligentsia adjacent to academia, she felt at first that drugs needed a voice and a proper place among the Modernism that was replacing Victorianism at campuses and in media all over the nation; she was most comfy, most at home in the counterculture. Got a hold of, bent the attentions of cohorts in academia. Growing pot in a Brooklyn garden an enticing idea to reminisce on in an email... Then, in a letter that I found archived, she’s “…swacked out on african pot brought as love gift,” experiential and stimulating in private to a fellow poet. Dope, especially in excess, in theory, is a common thing, leveling heredity, intelligence, know-how, skill, class, race, money, sex and sexuality — an irony the stuff of sophomore insight, a necessary evil, present, culpable and thankable, lovable. Broadening. Parallax. Qualities. As loathsome for its narrowing and single-minded gentle takeovers, of the ordinary and making it unusual, as for turning vitality into lackadaisical ineffectualness. Some more know less. Judging by her shortest fiction, she’d tried most drugs and been entangled with a few for a number of years. Yet in person who can accurately judge another person? Is the page immortal? Cursory errors and other vices of miscreants like Carroll and her cohorts shut up each facet of a war as easily as openness and honesty invite dissidence.
Wince! She could walk, at first, when I met her. Several months later terror over the idea that if the power went out she would have no oxygen brought in the workman who unhooked her air to test a battery intended for emergency and who may have ultimately killed her. Cardiopulmonary stuff, she cried; bloating hands, a crippling, was what we saw. Poetic justice? Within a week hospice was called by a visiting medical professional who seemed trained in murder, a pseudo-humanitarian and neo-criminal whose breath stank like hard liquor and whose black pressed business attire and set hair fit the cinematic personae of an assassin. Pain, sure, Carol was in lots of pain. And she took her loathsome morphine willingly, as escape, this dope a stigma to anyone on a deathbed, her moments of flight regimented too, her wanting more, her edge-of-earth predicament realized less than the bliss her staff knew meant edge-of-heaven. (One dope-using nursemaid put flakes of pot in the liquid morphine, I noticed but only later realized, months after throwing it out as contaminated junk; a kind, simple gesture from a dopey helper, an employe who only wanted the wasted-thin woman to eat!) After she took to her bed and took to her morphine I had some downtime with which to read text other than what was on her plate, a collection of short stories in galleys and on her computer endless prolix emails and that lengthy introduction nearly complete.
No holidays for the working writer, is what Carroll taught me about the craft. But I gave less toward the end of the job, knowing the born-again Christian midwife would fill in for me, while I was skipping off trying to decipher the crystals at the bottom the beaker, aware of running from Carol-the-dope on the deathbed morphine and craving a smoke when edgy. When present on the job with her work I was quick but occasionally faulty as I edited; we did have the time to rough things in. Specifics were left to me and whoever else was to create a fuss or offer input, with her being ash, soon thereafter (nobody else has come forward, yet). After hospice set up in the house, Carol was bedridden (the nursemaids took care of her bedding and bedpan, her washing up, her meals, from then on). I worked with her several hours a day at bedside, me perusing and refining her manuscripts in the other kitchen while she took little naps between fixes. (As her bookkeeper and accountant, I had another reason for turning down so many days that I might’ve worked: she had barely enough money, on her loans and what was coming in from an old friend, to support nursemaids round the clock; if I had gone to work any more frequently she would have been hard-pressed to pay everyone their share.) As time wore on, as her condition worsened, and as she began to trust my editing and writing skills, she allowed me more leeway with the manuscripts, although I rarely deviated much from her original words. Before hospice, she would more often than not put me in my place if I questioned her. Yet my respect for her grew as I learned.
An antique mirror, hung in the ordinary shadows at the end of the hall by her bedroom, caught us in such a way as to tell me to not pit myself against the devil, if only I could see that pending… She was delicate and whimsical, I dwarfing her physically, during those earlier walks from the kitchen to her bedroom while I held her parchment palm… Now I can reflect us, in that mirror. How I followed obedient down that shadowed hall but could watch myself and her watching via third eye surely, petulant with her gait, and me planning my reading time while stepping free of the oxygen hose beneath our feet. Can I write, then, now, on her tiny feet (“I’m Asian!” the little [ex?]Jew once spouted in either senility or jest [and so might we all be, thinks me, if Intelligent Design stems from primitive Japanese anime, and Buddha smiles by the hundreds beyond the magic founts found in certain prized fungi])? Can I write, then, now, on her perfect proportion of bone and also of face, the perpetually close-cut thatch of thick white head hair, then: a tangential memory, a digression here on a gay stylist I met in town who had once trimmed her hair but refused to return, he said, because of the air hoses getting in way of the scissors, but I of course knew, it was her energy…
Can I write here in detail of the earthy hand-sewn Woodstocky clothing she wore, subtly reminding the reader now of the Birkenstocks, or shall I limn a new image of her in her pale blue tunic…? Or could I patch in the title-thread of the essay here, with me chance stepping on one of the scapegoated goatheads, boots off, in only thin socks, saying: wince!, the metaphor if not the allegory being a thorn burrowing in the flesh…?
Instead, I insert a foil, a goatheaded survivor who also crept up ahead, a writer years ahead of most contemporaries, a writer years awaiting brains of college students and their professors to catch up to his abstractions and light. Of critical clout and adrift in esoteric public-love for his imaginings anew: the novel avant-gardist William Gaddis. So who’s read the sum of the novel J.R.? We get the gist. (Like Nin, he liked to drop limn thought essential by sticklers of old school narrative prose in favor of sporadic poetic limning; we get instead a smattering of star-points and -dust, pragmatic in its brevity yet large in scope visually [— as mod painters might cube or make pointilist a portrait, if that makes sense].)… Beside the experi/mental fiction for which he is (in/)famous, Gaddis wrote a good many essays as a “serious scholar,” form as familiar and tight as any essay lauded in trad academia. Gaddis was and is an untouchable with huge conceptual leanings that required more than a lifetime to flip intelligently from inside to outside.*
*Whether my charge admired or ever read Gaddis is moot, her fave writers being a list exclusive of him (or Nin, or even Lewis and Dahl or Parker, for that matter); my reference here to his “Agapé Agape” spins on an inclusive bent on a philosophy of giftedness...
The work of geniuses who die before completion of personal agenda contain parameters set as an arena for words which can only come from the seeker, though we who survive always try to color it in… I’m turning over “Agapé Agape” now, Gaddis’ note on the analogy between a (once/then-novel) player piano music roll and a human life span. A precursor to the computer, the player piano — a harbinger of the mechanization of art and the artist, yet it’s all surface here, still a form-essay, to show off and so on, a satire. Dreams on? We all have them. Killing a slew of would-be pianists, in favor of pre-punched holes and steady pedaling, the player piano was as much a bane to music as was MTV and its lip-synching beauties on screen. Sophistication or tin-cup-monkey madness, that mechanical invention? We intellectuals believe we know the answer(s). Yet we have then the scores of clippings and outlines, hints at a draft, promised handsful of inciteful doses, on tangential topics: religious science, sensory error, drugs as aesthetic experience, emancipation of women, player as operator. Automaton est!
My charge, as she took hospice, finished her personal agenda insofar as projects on deck that were realized and nearly actualized. She was readying her last roll for the player piano in those last weeks. We had an hour or less a day with her awake and aware and ready to work, me perched on stool below her bed at side. Capable, she was, as I assume she thought me. Much smarter than she, I was, were the inciting words offered me after hospice and morphine softened her. Yet I told her I was not as smart as she and she accepted that. I still believe myself to be slower than Carroll. Yet her intelligence could be considered subjective. Being at times astrological in her considerations, she trusted my Capricorn sun to hone, restore, invent and destroy any critics’ assumptions regarding her work. They were all wrong, to her. She processed them and they were always wrong about her intent and her substance. She liked many of them anyway, quoting reviews seldom, and consistently, the phrase coming to me now being “this virtuoso has put the mystery back into love,” printed in an esteemed New York venue. Other ideas percolating inside her staying inside her, whatever the piano could play was played and whatever it could not play overlapped and was written to another roll and then stowed in an oblong box for her visit next. Each book of hers shadowed, nearly imperceptibly, to most of us invisibly, with pale hands over seeds fallen on the regions of synthetic commerce intent on growing things lesser than she or her contemporaries would permit, and lit, as decent, fruitful, challenging or ameliorating enough to merit a read.
During a rewrite of this essay, I sought advice from a cohort of the star subject. Widely published and whipsmart, esp. on editing, he told me to bust up the concrete blocks I’d poured, in favor of graphs that are easier, and file the gunk from my trickiest sentences. To get published, I complied. Tilted a few mirrors, blew some smoke. Set lines of dialog as individual paragraphs, then reset them as chunks of prose, since the subject would appreciate the original form. “Let her out of her machinery a little more,” he suggested. I shrugged in ignorance, as I was not sure if she ever showed me her self outside of her machinery, or if she had another self discrete. Next he cast doubt on any mention of Gaddis. Know I had to keep Gaddis. Gaddis is the unknown element, the Element X. To finish, the old cohort said, “Be sure to give us a dance and a flower at the end.” Right off I’m recalling the fiasco with the Web site designer, a feminist who balked at my request for yellow roses (“they’re cliché”) even though the site was a memorial to a poet whose favorite flower was the yellow rose… Anyway. My dance now is wilder and freer and for this I owe her a service and that service is perpetual attunement to the dance of creation and that I on occasion join that dance and appraise her dancing, forgiving a wince if a goathead gets underfoot in the profligate danse macabre.
Finale, as a term in literature, constitutes more than an intellect-driven conclusion. The Carroll that I crossed lives with and feared and respected would surely deem the preceding ’graph mesmerizing; yet good fiction, she might remind me, facilitates an emotive riser. What else to finish with then than my packing-taping her files to be archived and sending out her posthumous books to a motley crew in hopes of garnering her a star to the end? (Or, to be intentionally droll, to quote how the Swedes wore paperclips in support of the Jews during the Holocaust, then refer the reader back to my first ’graph?) The question as to who Carol Carroll was must already be answered in her written materials… But can anyone capture their own essence (or another’s) on paper and ink? And if not, if mere mortals are not godlike in that respect, but we fall for illusion and half-truth perpetually, what ever became of Carol’s essence that sought so desperately for immortality? Here some existentialism: Does essence precede form or does it emerge with form or even after form takes shape? Was Carroll involved in the occult or did she merely write about it occasionally because in reality none of us can escape occultism, as it lies ubiquitous in our culture, especially in the forms of mysticism, myth and transcendentalism? For she was above all an articulate being born of the calamity of this society, and might be remembered as only a commentator and reporter on her scope of progress through this dark murky world.
Gibberish to some, endearing to others, these final ’graphs will suppose wonders out of bounds of the grasp of most writers, including myself. The enormity of Pan can only be imagined, rather than encapsulated in letters or, as the case of the future may be, digital screen. The goathead of this essay is only a thing, an item used to entrance the reader with a spooky netherworldliness… Bunk, when dissected in this fashion, it lies about not breathing, a burr tracked indoors on the sole of a shoe from some pesky plant reproducing in the boulevard. And there are far greater things than concept/metaphor/symbol that exist to absorb a reader, indirectly Panlike things such as these: A startled flush of starlings, sent out of their tree for a pedestrian to cower from is simply a horror film trick, jangling the nerves of the viewer yet when it happens in life, what is God or the director suggesting? Beware, proceed with caution, laugh at the cliché or turn and run another direction? What’s scary to some on the page or onscreen is frightening to all in the flesh and most of us have no quick wit with which to cope with occult phenomena. The fastest way to rattle a “believer” in life is for God or the Devil to throw, in rapid cycle, unexpected things to expect: During the witching hour, put out a werewolf, thirteen feet in height, snuck in behind the back to snarl in slowly staggered film-like sound-bytes, so terrifying that the confronted knows one look back at it would mean certain death; put a practitioner of black magic in the mix, someone to place the voodoo dolly found beneath the porch, a half-roach generating on the soiled back in exact relation to where the finder’s got a new lump (popping opaque goo, if squeezed later) and a memory of the night it was surely placed, those three echoing knocks on the door at midnight; put in a few neighborhood ghosts that like the truth, voicing “people live here” when a passerby peers too long at an empty home; then put into motion the passing of raw talent from bone-dust to the urn-holding aspiring writer, adrenaline carrying the secret talent stuff to the core.
Old Ouija boards gathering dust in the mind put fun in life once, a long time ago, as I surely know, before adulthood swept away the games and God or the Devil (and some say they are one and the same) put out their showpieces to draw on hasty seeds sewn in frivolous youth. Carroll herself offered to me the world and the underworld in such fashion as to suggest high art an offshoot of the occult itself and to deny her the privilege of living after death through her works seems more of an atrocity than it in reality ought to be; the living carry along the craft of excess as well as any text, and if the public is ambivalent or finicky about her it deserves to be; meanwhile the university archivists bury the relics stories below the surface of the earth ostensibly so the works will survive in climate-controlled rooms to be studied at a much later date…
In memorium: If a yellow rose bulb outlasts its thorns it’s either pressed in a book or composed of magical stuff... The barbs persevere to draw blood, yes, to protect the gem of life even after death whilst its petals produce a much more enigmatic recognition in the senses, of something more alluring, than just this.