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Thoughts on Kerouac's On the Road

"I'm reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," my mom said to me about a year ago on the phone. We were having one of our weekly phone calls. My mom was on one extension and my dad on the other, in their home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The three of us discussed the books we were reading, the films we had recently seen and the revelations and ideas that had dawned in our minds since our last conversation.

My dad expressed doubts that Zen and the Art would have much of an impact on a sixty-seven year-old reader like my mother. "I think there is a window of time," he surmised, "during which, if one does not read a certain seminal work of literature, then the potency of that work is lost and the reader will remain unmoved. You have to read Zen and the Art in your 20's or 30's in order for it to really open doors in your mind," he added.

I glanced at my books where I have a shelf dedicated to my friends' and family's "Top Ten Favorite Books." The spine of Kerouac's On the Road implicated me. I winced with regret that I had not read On the Road in my 20's or even my 30's. I asked him if he  thought it might be too late for me to read Kerouac's On the Road. "Maybe," he replied, "may be."

When your loved ones are gone, you will you pursue their ghosts in the things they loved and if they loved books you will pursue them in books, which is why I fervently exhort you to request that your book-loving loved ones compile a list of their "Top Ten All-Time Favorite Books" and entreat them to put some thought into it, which is what I did eleven years ago. Four of those of whom I asked and received such lists have now passed away.

So, five days ago I plucked from my book shelf what was definitely one of my dad's "Top Ten Favorite Books"* and dug in, even though the potency of this book may have theoretically expired for me.

If I'd read On the Road in my 20's, I would have written a feminist critique of it. I would have focused on the women in this novel, namely "Dean Moriarty's" abandoned wives and the mother of his children. I would have reflected upon the inaccessibility of safe and legal birth control which left most sexually active women in the late1940's with little choice but motherhood and denied them beat mystical detachment, and free-wheeling adventures "on the road" in search of "valid values" and chance to discover their own identity beyond the confines of motherhood. There would have been much haughty disdain for Kerouac and Neal Cassady.

In my 30's I would have written a spiritual critique of On the Road. I would have focused on the author and Cassady's relentless yet empty search for spiritual fulfillment and authentic values. I would have insisted that such things can never be found in the carnal pleasures of drugs, alcohol and the flesh of prostitutes. I would have posited that the continual motion of Sal and Dean's travels were in reality a running away from their own consciences, and a running away from the truth that lies in every human heart. There would have been much haughty disdain for this story.

But I am not in my 20's or even my 30's (shocking, I know). So here is what I have to say about it now:

It took me a good 60+ pages to get lulled into the rhythm of Kerouac's prose, his shambling, staggering, reeling, rollicking, raggedly stoned raptures. In this decade of my life I am more inclined to focus on what is of redeeming value rather than lambasting that which offends me.

I found Kerouac's writing to be lyrical, ecstatic, and astonishingly beautiful. At times, I grew weary, yes, and just like being on an actual road trip I grew impatient and exhausted and wanted to get to the blasted final destination (the end of the story).

But beyond the writing, there are many revelations for me in Kerouac's On the Road. Now is and was the exact time in which I was supposed to read this book, the exact time in which Kerouac's influence is at its most potent for me personally. Not my 20's and not my 30's but now.

The revelation for me comes from reading the introduction, written by Ann Charters, the only biographer that Kerouac co-operated with. In this introduction, Charters reveals how much Kerouac struggled to get this story, the story of Neal Cassady and himself, on the page. He struggled with how to tell this story. In an initial draft he used Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel as a kind of template. He was dissatisfied with the result. He tried imitating Theodore Dreiser's style and again he was not happy. Finally he decided to forget all that horseshit and write it as it happened by using first-person narration and a confessional style. The story began to fly onto the page, or "the scroll" I should say. Once he made the decision to write it as it happened, it took him three weeks to essentially nail it.

This was a revelation and a gift for me. I have been struggling with how to tell The Story I have to tell. There is a trend in the literary world that is anti-narrative and anti-confessional. This has made me an extremely self-conscious writer. First-person narration and a confessional style is what comes naturally to me. I have been blocked by this trend, I have been unable to take my essential story and perform some sort of trendy bullshit with it. I want to write it as is happened. I feel as though my dad, via Kerouac has given me the green light to do just that.

EDIT -  I've just consulted his list and On the Road was not one of his top ten favorite books, but one of his "honorable mentions."

Wild Roads

Yesterday I finished reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself when she was twenty-six years-old, reeling with grief from her mother's untimely death by cancer. I began reading this book six days after my mother found out that her breast cancer has recurred, this time in the bone of her mid humeral shaft.



I didn't know what the prognosis was with my mother's cancer or if it would even be treatable when I read the first chapter of Wild in which Strayed describes her mother's swift demise by this same scourge. It seemed to me that by reading about Strayed's loss, the universe was preparing my heart as gently as it knew how to say goodbye to my mother and torrents of tears fell from my face as I ate the words describing Strayed's grief.

A few days later an Orthopedic Oncologist in Indianapolis told my mother her cancer was treatable and five days later she had surgery in which they "scooped" out over 90% of the tumor and inserted an 8 inch titanium rod into her humerus bone.  The remaining 10% of the tumor will be zapped by radiation. For now it seems as though we have postponed the day on which she will, "cross the river," as Strayed would say.

A couple of weeks ago one of my dad's best friends, Morris, rang me up. He was calling to check up with me and see how I was doing in the months after my dad's sudden passing. I had just been on the phone with one of my best friends, Beth, who confessed to me that she did everything my father ever told her to do: she read Kerouac when he told her to read Kerouac, Vonnegut when he told her to read Vonnegut, she saw the Grateful Dead when he told her to go see the Grateful Dead. I relayed to Morris that she was a more obedient daughter than I was and that I had not yet read any Kerouac. He was shocked to hear that I had not read any Kerouac, almost as if some type of DNA test should be conducted to confirm that I am indeed my father's daughter.

So, last night after I finished Wild, I plucked old Kerouac's On the Road from my bookshelf and began doing what I should have done twenty years ago. It is strange to move from a book about back packing to a book about traveling by buses and cars. It feels like Kerouac is moving too fast and missing so much, crying forty miles outside of New York on his first day of travel because it's raining and getting dark. Really, Jack?!? Ms. Strayed did not cry until she'd hiked 513 miles from the Mojave Desert to Crater Lake, Oregon, until she had lost her boots and four of her toe nails turned black and fell off, until her shoulders and hips had rubbed themselves raw against the weight of her "Monster" backpack and crusted over with an elephant-like skin.

Ah, I tease you Jack. But it is a strange sensation to go from Strayed to Kerouac. Although I am only 50 pages into On the Road, I feel as though Kerouac has given nearly nothing of himself when compared to all the naked grief and sin Strayed pours out on the page to her readers. 

My mother gave me four of my dad's personal journals and this morning I leafed through them a bit. His writing is barely legible. I can rarely make out a full sentence, but I did stumble across a passage in which he refers to his friend, "Rizto" and confessed that he was fascinated with Ritzo in a manner that can be compared to the way Kerouac was fascinated with Neal Cassady. Do we all have our Neal Cassadys? I had one, and some day, God willing, I will write the story of how he rattled me to the core and altered the trajectory of my life.

Ars Poetica | Czeslaw Milosz

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

That's why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I've devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.

There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

-Czeslaw Milosz

In Blackwater Woods | Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Sacrifice

This sacrifice is brought to you by my father's sudden death on Feb. 18, 2012.

Please, make it count....... 

rock shadow box

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Twitterpated

We were spinning wishes in the phases of the moon that night when our burdens dissolved into a pool of liquid mica. You said divine rebellion is in the air and the darkness is ripe with receptivity.

We escaped the ravages of the Americans and you kissed all my wounds with the way you looked at me.

I brought you Spanish amber and orange blossoms, swept the rain from your porch, and threw flammables on your stars. Your wings were fractured stories that glowed moss-green in the night. In the morning my soul unfolded in concentric circles.

When you fell into a fever I undertook a vigil for forty days and forty nights at the tomb of St. Isadore, where the trees wept openly. I poured antidotes into the well, as the archangel instructed me, and watched your heart swell with joy.

Christ is a prism, you said, the universe is dressed in drag. Currents of light were pulsing all around you. Your tears were infinite mandalas. I had never seen anything so radiant. From then on we lived a life free from apocalyptic decrees. It looked like this:

an orange curtain blows back in a breeze, on the window sill a small terra-cotta vase with a woman's face sculpted into the side holds a single tiger lily. The walls are white. A gentle light, soft as cream flows through the window......

She Comes and Goes.......

I sent a livejournal message to my sister tonight......she has been dead for seven years.  

I also sent a message to lj support asking them to memorialize her livejournal account......her time on lj was brief. I read her posts over and over again.  She is always just beginning to feel the bump of her unborn child within her. She is forever eating Atomic Fireball candies, defending Texas and listening to Phantom of the Opera. Her mood is eternally "mellow."



I'm a blubbering mess now. No response is necessary.

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Some Assembly Required

Since the dawn of the square root of pi, many couples have longed to count among their progeny a holy fool. Holy fools are widely revered in such countries that house ornate churches and perform elaborate rituals praising those who appear to be mad, but in truth have attained the highest state of purity and blessedness in which poverty, disdain, and dishevelment are embraced as a means to great spiritual riches.  Holy fools, such as St. Xenia of  Petersburg, the cross-dressing homeless wanderer  who wore her dead husband's army jacket and ordered everyone to call her "Andrew," are are desired as offspring due to the most assured belief that the bearers of such a child shall also receive eternal gifts.

Until now, there has been no clear instruction on how a holy fool can be sprung from one's loins.  But tiny, mystical Buddha's inhabiting the grains of sand on an unnamed beach in California have revealed in 18 easy steps how you too, can conceive a holy fool: 

Step One - Fold concentric mandalas into your DNA.

Step Two -  Apply swelling stars to the dough of your soul.

Step Three - Shake a bowl of protoplasm gently until it ripples out into infinity.

Step Four -  Lamb yourself, thrice.

Step Five - Wrap six feathery sibyls with symbols of affliction until a butterfly is sacrificed to the monarch.

Step Six - Wait 750,000 years.

Step Seven - Attach the tokens of feckless ecstasy to the balanced spheres at each ledge.

Step Eight - Heap sunken languages into successive layers of kindness.

Step Nine - Tremble before God.

Step Ten - Kiss the Zohar deeply.

Step Eleven - Give yourself over to the heaving abstraction of melting cellos.

Step Twelve - Clump caged hermits into the fray and insert the sloshing continents into the implied syntax.

Step Thirteen - Collapse into yes.

Step Fourteen - Heave a horde of paleontologists into the dead emperor's tomb.

Step Fifteen - Pulse until the reckoning is blue.

Step Sixteen - Kenotically alter the course of the hushed resolve until catacombs emerge from the spiced marble.

Step Seventeen - Cleanse the sky with spruce fur.

Step Eighteen - Repeat step thirteen until gazelles appear on the extinct horizon.

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Open Topic

We were born on a prayer wheel suspended between the Hoodoo Pillars. Our hearts fluttered like beautiful twin omens, our legs were drawn up to our bony chests. The midwife examined our webbed feet and the loose skin behind our necks and pronounced us bird-headed dwarfs. Our eyes were deep reservoirs of things not yet plead.

Our mother was a nun who ran away from St. Isadore's monastery when her belly swelled with sea salt and ether. When we were born, her heart unfurled like a blanket and she wrapped us in her cashmere love.

We warmed ourselves on the terra-cotta earth, digging for milk and coral in the night. We ate pine nuts, chipped mollusks and kale scavenged from the butter caves.

We slept like phosphorescent starfish, clinging to red-faced pinnacles in the desert rain. We dreamed of spiral occlusions, of tender fish hooks, of sea snakes drifting in the wind.

We woke to an impalpable dawn and secret skulls in the sand.  Beardless flycatchers ached for luna.

This was the time before the birds began to die, when sea shells could still be found in Utah, before the world unhappened.

We were the bird-dwarfs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. We flapped our fragile wings in the limestone amphitheaters, sang songs to our gods, and danced for our mother and the terrestrial archangels.  We were tiny shamans in a whirlpool of rock spires.

We were born to tell you this: The opening blooms at death. We have seen it. We wait for you in the rainwater mazes.

Sticks and Stones

My father was a walking stick with a walrus tusk for a head. He was marred by beavers and plucked from the banks of the Missouri river.

On a Friday night in Omaha in 1961 my father found a freckled red jasper stone at the YMCA community dance. When he held her up to the light, the iron ore bands in her heart formed a family of small sea turtles.

When they married, he rubbed his walrus tusk on her smooth jasper surface until a milky blue opal named Catherine was born. Pure as the driven snow, she embodied her mother's patience and temperance. If you held her up to the light, you could see scree and tallus reflected in her depths.  

For five years, mineral solutions and calcium carbonate dripped from my father's walking stick in the cavern of his existentialism until a stalagmite was formed. By her own tears would she grow into Dorothea.

Three tears later, a bluish crystal named Karma was unearthed from a hidden paradise. When the light shined through her just right, you could see two trilobites in her soul.

We are all in a shadow box on the wall now, waiting for the younger sticks and stones in the family to awaken to a curiosity about their family origins. Waiting for them to pluck one of us from the wall and wonder who we are and where they come from.



  Two Guys from the "Sticks and Stones" found object sculpture series by my dad