Happy 90th birthday to Jack Kerouac. Without whom, i'd probably
still be a public servant.
hard as it is
for me to believe
there was a time
before kerouac’s books
existed for me.
it must not have
of a time,
or at least it was
that i don’t care
to dwell on
what a banal set
i prefer to think
that i was born
that the moment
that one afternoon,
blowing off classes
blowing off food
blowing off the sun
to read on the road
was the first time i learned
and to see the world
around me as it was,
as it could be.
and it would only
come to pass
that through kerouac’s books
i knew that my life
would have to change.
the sensible ambition
had to go.
so did the common goal
of upward mobility.
friends would have
to fall by
and that the pen
and the word
would be all that
could rely on
to get by.
and no amount of practical
could change that.
from the second
in the library
and opened that book,
i knew that i was
that i had found the light,
other gods have helped
along the way
bukowski, fante, steinbeck,
and henry miller,
to name a few,
but kerouac set it all
off for me.
he buried the first eighteen
in his first paragraphs
and gave me life.
and this poem doesn’t even
begin to thank you, jack,
great ghost of
for giving me some soul,
my beautiful loneliness,
that one gray october day
at the kerouac exhibit, new york city
immortality comes down to words
trapped behind glass cages
and holiday shoppers ogling
your drunken sketches of heaven.
i am told to stay off the glass
while trying to peer into your dead eyes
hoping to catch a piece of that glint
they always talked about you having.
instead i move on to the photo
of your last home, orlando, florida,
the one where you hemorrhaged fame
and alcohol and blood in,
and the hospital where you finally met
was it all worth it for this?
an old gap ad displayed?
your name in flashing green neon?
a banner outside the new york public library,
but only until march 2008?
hip kids and aging boomers
still loitering around one book?
after all, dostoevsky’s genius isn’t
owned by a football team,
puskin and proust are free to walk the streets
and no one lugging around a macy’s bag
is trying to fondle chekhov’s old shoes.
perhaps an exhibit is the wrong place to think
about missing you, and the great deepening void
of the word.
so we move on out and head down toward
west 20th street,
down the quiet narrow blocks of red-bricked buildings
and the wind coming from the hudson river.
in a 9th avenue bodega, we buy two tallboys
and hide them in cellophane,
as we drink in front of 454,
looking at gardenias in a second floor window,
wondering if that’s the apartment where
all your gods collided and the pain began,
or if maybe it was one floor up,
the one darkened by the falling autumn sun.
you’re not jack kerouac
in a memory of mine
i had been drinking since 10:20 in the morning.
it started with this bit of vodka i had left,
and some orange juice.
then there was a small bottle of champagne
that an old friend of mine had given me as a gift.
and still there was the orange juice.
my brother and i finished them both.
feeling good, i walked two miles
to the nearest liquor store,
where i bought a pint of southern comfort,
which i began drinking in secret along frankstown avenue,
and then less suspiciously in the back of this rusted-out camaro,
a friend of my brother’s was driving at the time.
we went down to the ghetto
and bought 40’s of malt liquor,
and drank them in the parking lot to the pink floyd album
dark side of the moon,
an album that none of us were really big fans of.
i was feeling even better by then,
on top of the world,
so i put on oasis and everyone in the car belted “wonderwall”
as we weaved through suburban pittsburgh streets,
toward this basketball court near the allegheny river,
where i dribbled the ball three times, vomited,
and promptly passed out.
when i woke my brother’s angelically blonde girlfriend
was stroking my hair, and telling me it would be all right,
and who knows how she got there,
but there is really nothing better than waking from the pits
of drunken desolation,
into the arms of a smiling blonde.
somehow they got me home,
and once there i vomited on the street,
right in the middle of a wiffle ball game these kids were playing,
and i blacked out again.
when i woke the second time, i was a mess of sweat
i was on the bathroom floor
in my underwear, cradling this acoustic guitar
i’d never really learned how to play.
my mother was hovering over me.
she was red-faced, crying, and in full realization
that her eldest son was falling into the boozy pit of failure
that had so far consumed so many in our tainted line,
since they’d staggered off the boat
from germany, scotland, poland, or other points
further west in europe.
before my mother left me on the floor
to my twitch and writhing gloom,
she looked down at me and shouted:
“i don’t understand why you keep doing this, son!
you’re not jack kerouac!”
who, i suppose was, and still is an idol of mine.
and i remember her shutting the door,
and me rising to the stained commode again.
the bile rising. the sin rising.
and just as i made the toilet to vomit, i thought:
“you’re right, mom. i’m no jack kerouac.
jack kerouac lived and died with his mother
in some sad pact of care taking.
she was his saint.
me? if i ever get up off of this floor again,
i’m packing a fucking bag, and it’ll be the last time...”
but then the rush of puke and death came.
the used up booze burned my nose.
the vodka, the champagne, the whiskey, the malt liquor,
and the great big good time on the suburban pittsburgh streets,
they all came flowing out.
and i forgot what i wanted to say to her.
but i did remember how the acoustic guitar
got inside the bathroom with me.
my brother had put me to bed.
and i got up trying to prove how straight i was to them all.
i was trying to be noel gallagher.
i was trying to be a great rock god, or a golden, strumming poet.
i was trying to be something better than i knew i was,
or how i was destined to turn out.
and the only reason this goddamned memory came to me
is because it’s a beautiful september saturday in america,
and i am eleven years beyond that moment.
beyond twenty-two and stuck at thirty-three.
i am gray.
my head is in the toilet again, and i am vomiting up
another round with booze,
trying to figure out just how goddamned deep the rabbit hole
has gotten since that time,
and what in the hell i’m going to have to go through
just to begin to dig myself out of it.
at jack’s grave
i always feel
like i just missed you
if we go to one of the houses
that you lived in
the apartment where you wrote
on the road
if we find one of your old
frisco or new york city haunts
i like to think
that we’ve just missed you
that you were just at the bar
in a red flannel
with a notebook on the table
shouting, red faced
talking brilliant gabby-gook
pushing your black hair back
on that french-canadian head of yours
piercing the room with your sad eyes
or maybe you’re taking a piss
and i think that i’ll just sit here
and wait eternal
restful and content
like walking down your shrouded streets
on october nights
daydreaming the soul of the nation
jack, i know i’m being a child when i do this
i’m being hopeful in my own way
but it’s been forty-one years
and the heavens haven’t spit you
back to us yet
i’m laying down next to your grave
in hot lowell, massachusetts
my brother watching the blue sky
my wife and sister-in-law
snapping pictures of me
coming here has taken me too long
it’s taken me thousands of miles
to find myself and this piece of home
i am helping ally run paper and pencils
over your name to preserve it
but i don’t know where i’m going
to hang it in my room
we are fixing the debris around your grave
adjusting a small maroon buddha
putting the cigarettes and joints
back into perfect rows
leaving tickets to paris subways
and poems given to us by friends
we no longer have
at the base of the faded granite
you honored life
and i finally have to accept that you are gone
i am thinking of roads and rivers
of mighty veins stretching down the back of america
spools of highway and interstate
of apple pie in diners that no longer exist
like lowell isn’t really a mill town anymore, jack
like america isn’t what you painted her to be
i’m at the end of the illusion
but it’s all right
you and i
we’ve always been good at pulling the wool
over our eyes
seeing what we want to see
it helps paint the picture
it always helped us to vomit out the words
those precious words, jack
those heavenly, pooh-bear, holy words
are what it always came down to
despite the reality
what it still comes down to
those rocket words that you could never hold
in for too long
the ones i’m suddenly finding hard to spill out
on this hot, brooklyn morning in late june
forever your disciple
mosquito bites from a new hampshire carnival
sprouting up all over my body
another morning in america aching over the ocean
like a poem
like a novel whose first words hit your tongue
then unravel on into the infinite