A Literary Series


The first time I heard The Grateful Dead was on KOMO AM 1000, and I was hooked at age nine. It’s an improbable origin story since KOMO was usually the source of Sonics games, news, and Paul Harvey, but it’s true.

More recently—today, in fact—the Dead were on satellite radio, a whole channel just for them. Am I the only one who didn’t know this already? It’s not the same as CDs, of course, but it’s still pretty great.

What I like about the Dead isn’t esoteric or anything. It’s pretty plain. When you hear them, it sounds like they’re just taking their instruments for a walk. There’s a breeze, sure, but no serious wind… nothing that smacks of effort. Just the sun and clouds working out the temperature the way a kid works out which stick to float in the river next. What I mean is they show us that it doesn’t have to feel worked on to be arrived at.

Take Jaws and Jurassic Park, for instance. Obviously the animatronic T-Rex and raptors look more believable than the shark. It probably helps that the dinosaurs’ electronics didn’t have to keep working while submerged in water. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park, despite this advantage in mechanics, feels so made, so much like a movie. And Jaws doesn’t, at least not to me. Jaws feels like we’re there ourselves on Amity, or swimming in the ocean surrounding it, or on the piers in the harbor, or slopping chum from a bucket while we’re rockingly seasick and breathing diesel fumes straight from the Orca’s squeezebox engine. We’re in the dining room with Hooper at the Brodys’ house. We’re the people Quint keeps laughing at then singing “You Fair Spanish Ladies.” We’re the overwhelmed deputy holding up a hand-painted sign while the scene on the street is a crowd of greedy bozos blitzing the shelves in the bait shop. Nothing, and especially not when Quint recounts the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, feels manufactured or difficult, though according to Spielberg, Scheider, Dreyfuss, and others—I’ve seen interviews—it was an ocean-sized strain of a movie to make. I believe them. But it sure is easy to watch.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some teachers like that too: Jim Taylor (Rogers High School) and Tom Campbell (Pacific Lutheran University, the PLU Lutes; short for Lutherans, though also that In-the-Beginning instrument given to us by Hermes, I think, when he scooped out a turtle, added frets and strings, and invented the bardic tradition). What Mr. Taylor did was teach A.P. English to teenagers, somehow revving us up about Heart of Darkness, J. Alfred Prufrock, and writing character analyses, all without appearing to “teach.” He didn’t treat literature like a can you pry open then dump out the can-shaped answers, and he didn’t act scripted. No, it was more like Wallace Stevens’s line in his most anthologized poem: “Let be be finale of seem.” Mr. Taylor never had to seem to because he was being it. And Professor Campbell was the same. How he taught Advanced Composition (ugh) through the thunder-noise of McChord Air Force Base—it’s practically next door to campus—I don’t know, but he did it. Not easy, not easy at all, though he made it look that way.

I like poems that pull off this same kind of magic: Made Things that Seem as Unconstructed as a Forest. Take Anne Sexton; wow, can she do this. Check out some of her stanzas in “The Ambition Bird”:

So it has come to this—
insomnia at 3:15 a.m.,
the clock tolling its engine

like a frog following
a sundial yet having an electric
seizure at the quarter hour.

The business of words keeps me awake.
I am drinking cocoa,
that warm brown mama.

I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.

It is my immortality box,
my lay-away plan,
my coffin.

All night dark wings
flopping in my heart.
Each an ambition bird.

The bird wants to be dropped
from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge.

. . .

He wants to fly into the hand of Michelangelo
and come out painted on a ceiling.

. . .

He wants to be pressed out like a key
so he can unlock the Magi.

. . .

He wants, I want.
Dear God, wouldn’t it be
good enough to just drink cocoa?

. . .

Hoist the Sistine Chapel and that’s some serious ambition. Send the Magi out on stage and the stakes aren’t small. But calling cocoa “that warm brown mama,” now that’s what I’m talking about.

And speaking of keys, there’s “The Story of Keys” by Richard Garcia. It’s like the Grateful Dead meets origin story meets the bow-legged grace of Charlie Chaplin. If you want some extra-credit happiness, click that link.

The ending is perfect as is, I know, but to Garcia’s list of anythings that can be a key I’m going to add a lute. Hermes used his (ours too) to entertain Zeus and con Apollo, and he did all this, if I remember correctly, on the day that he was born. That’s some pretty genius work without looking like either. My cat has that skill set. Anne Sexton had it. Jaws bit it in half and became it. And the Grateful Dead? They put it to music while seeming to be surprised that they knew what they were doing: “Oh, oh, and I wa-ant to kno-ow, how does the song go?”

That’s from “Uncle John’s Band,” bardic and unpackaged. It’s a song like a sunlit river trading stories with the wind.



Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney.

Photo of tie dyed sheet by Simmons B. Buntin.

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