Milton Acorn enters with a book under his arm, a cigar in his mouth.
In the elephant's five pound brain
The whole world is both table and shithouse
Where he wanders seeking viandes, exchanging great farts
For compliments. The rumble of his belly
Is like the contortions of a crumpling planetary system.
Long has he roved.
....And he leaves such signs in his wake that pygmies have fallen
And drowned in his great fragrant marshes of turds...
This is how I first saw him. Bellowing out this chant of his autobiography. Scrunched over, bundled into the front of a room full of over-eager students and old, well-bitten poets.
I met the poet under orders. I was told to get him into town so he could buy a new pair of glasses. His had been stolen, so he claimed, last night after his reading. Someone had robbed him of his eyesight. So we shuffled about the parking lot at the base of the blue mountains looking for a vehicle. Finding none with keys, we jumped an orange Volkswagen that I knew and rattled our way down to the shoreline and on into town.
I was robbed. Stolen from me in the night by a common thief. Ah, the common thief. The common man. And why would he want to steal from me, huh? Me! A poet. What have I got that I wouldn't give freely? I have nothing but my words, my songs, my blood, and "I have tasted my blood too much to love what I was born to. . . . I have tasted my blood too much to abide what I was born to."
He was not the most hygienic poet I've met. But that day it was the smell of the earth that clung to the trapped air in the small car. It was the musty smell of sawdust, of well-oiled planners and jointers, of chisels wrapped in chamois, and of sour piss from last night's cheap sherry. He wrenched a cigar from his breast pocket, flayed it of its plastic wrapping, and jammed it into his mouth. Stabbing his finger at the radio's volume knob thinking it was the lighter.
They were a good pair of barnacles. Clamped onto my head like shark's jaws.
He was the first Communist I had ever met. Perhaps the only real one. He was a ruthless champion of rights for those that have none. And he kept his grip on this bone long after the marrow had been sucked from it. Long after he could string coherent sentences together. Long after his money ran out and the whiskey turned to cheap wine until both were gone. But first and foremost he was a writer. Nay, he was a poet. His words left on the page the only witness to his soul because he was unable to swear his love in life.
Acorn reads poems from book.
An untidy room
is my heart
, because I can't bear to sweep out
of any man
; and the parts left in
are attached by cordy
things that straggle
over the threshold, so I
can't shut the door
That is Milton Acorn. And that is how it started for me.
The People's Poet, that's what they named him. Crowned in the smoky front room of Grossman's Tavern there on Spadina. All the poets that we now know to be poets were there. Al Purdy. Atwood—she's famous now. Eli Mandel. Even Irving Layton showed up. And Acorn was their choice of a poet for the people. And who would know better of this than a bunch of poets because the people don't choose poets for themselves anymore. This was no reception with cakes and coffee. There were tables full of draft glasses, cigars clamped in jaws in blue homage to his trademark stogie, and a bunch of drunks who had decided that year that the 1969 Governor General's Award for Poetry had been given to the wrong person, for it was not to Milton Acorn.
When Eli circled my neck with that medal and pronounced me the People's Poet I was the poet for those people. I wore that simple piece of tin, hand-crafted in a Canadian Union shop, for months without end. Ah Grossman's was never the same. A bunch of bar navies piled into their seats, Gooley serving us up drinks all night long, and this is what they gave me. This is . . .Now, where the hell is that thing? I'll blow that thief's head off with a bazooka.
Then it all broke down. He had lost it. His poet's medal was the first to go. Then his body. But for Milton both were stolen.
But it was my medal. My medal from the people. If I lay my hands on that shit-sucker I will have his heart on my plate. Twice now. I was robbed of one medal before it was even in my hands. Someone had me all lined up for the Governor's Award. A bunch of Can't Writes decide what they like and then hand it all over to some sorry ass supreme patriarch, the head of the Queen—Ha! Now that's the way it should be. Like Bloody John the Baptist on the bloody platter they should serve the head of the Queen and all her representatives.
They didn't give it to me for this book, I've Tasted My Blood. It is a damn fine book and they walked away from it. So what do I do now? It's the money. I don't need the fame. Don't want it. I need the money. 10,000 dollars is a lot of cash, you know.
Knowing I live in a dark age before history,
I watch my wallet and
am less struck by gunfights in the avenues
than by the newsie with his dirty pink chapped face
calling a shabby poet back for his change...
All I am left with are these words, and they can never take them away. Instead, I give ’em away. Hey You! Here, have the poems. You can take any of these words you want, and this, by the gods, will remain my Notice of Copyright: "These poems may be used free of charge by anyone serving the cause of Canadian Independence and the cause of the working people in any country." They no longer belong to me. They are for the people. So go on. Take ’em! Just as long as you keep Canada free from the Yanks. Just as long as you use them to snip the bloodless veins that surround a capitalist's heart. Just as long as they keep their lazy language to themselves, south of Brock's monument, and on this side of the War of 1812. People think that I'm angry all the time. Well, they are right. I am angry. I'm furious at the way the governments of this land toss the hard work of a thousand hands aside for the piece of ticker tape and a pinch of gold. The price of gold. A joke. What a devilish plot those crass pigs have shitted out. Squatters in their flimsy towers of granite and gold. I defy you. I defy you and your self-appointments. And that is why I am angry. And that is why I am drunk to hell.
In addition to the fact that I lost my job for a nosebleed
In addition to the fact my unemployment insurance stamps were just one week short
In addition to the fact I'm standing in line at the Sally Ann for breakfast of one thin bologna sandwich and coffee
In addition to all that it's lousy coffee.
He never gave people much room. He was able to crowd someone walking across the prairie, such was his world. I saw this raggle-taggle mop of red hair across the wide Spadina intersection. His thin arms usually akimbo were now flapping about in all directions trying to grab a corner of my eye.
Adams. Adams! Where the hell are you going? Get over here. I need to talk. Adams. Now that's a good name. The First Man.
A few hours later we would pour ourselves out of the Silver Dollar, a few draft to sober us from the gallon jug of red wine he had poured all afternoon from his hotel bathroom, our heads full of his cigars and each other's stories with nothing much to do but go the Crest Grill for a platter of Frenchy's greasy eggs and home fries. Stumbling across the street, staring down the traffic. Drivers sternly confirming that what they beheld was a couple of drunken swillpots not knowing nor caring about the poetry of our drunkenness. "Adams, buy me eggs," he snarled, his laughter rattling to a salacious guffaw over whether it was the chicken or the egg which laid the First Man. "Buy me those eggs and start me up again." Somnambulant on drink we slid into the Crest. Nobody stared and yelled here. Those that knew him saw themselves in his poetry. Those that didn't recognized the pain on his face.
I've got quite a face, thank God
for smiling or scowling;
tho the smile doesn't earn me much
(so knowingly innocent
and forgiving of all
they bewilderingly find themselves to be
people wonder what they've done
and edge away from me)
: but the scowl—that's different!
especially when I stick a cigar in it.
If they have any plans
for bringing me crashing down on it
They give them up. Either way
no one believes in the puddle of mother's milk
that almost floats my heart, or how
the miracle of a human being's existence
disarms me. I guess I see enough evil
as it is, without it being tossed like acid
into my eyes
—the way most people get it.
His images were more fluid now, awash in a sea of drink, cut adrift from the moorage of sobriety with only his passion for the right words in the right order to chart his course. Globs of potato hung off his checkered shirt. "Make sure they are PEI potatoes, Frenchy." His hard and bloated belly stretching the buttons to the ends of their tethers. His feet flipping out in front of him when he walked, the unstable and shuffling amble of a drunk betraying his steadiness as a poet. Later on, I would see him on the street. Walking as if he didn't trust his feet to rise to the challenge of keeping his balance. Then he'd stop. Dead still wherever he was and just stare straight ahead. His face like stone. His eyes unflinching. Spittle on his chin. He'd start muttering, his tongue and lips clamouring over his words, trying to spit them out. Then loud sharp words meant to slice through the mediocrity he saw around him. I was seeing for the first time the withering flesh as it wilted away from me.
Now I will tell you, Adams, why I am in love. I'm a poet. A poet! What a sweet word. What? Did you take me for a fool? An old sot who simply careens from moment to moment, breaking his heart and emptying bottles, all for the sake of "an experience"? Do you think that I need to do that? That my eyes don't see enough as it is?
Only a Recession
two days long,
sitting happy before
a plate of beans,
I delicately slit
each kernel with
let my tongue run
twitching with joy
across the texture
of the meat.
From his boxed room in the Waverly Hotel he preached. He coiled himself in his chair like a rope and started to speak his stories. I perched on the edge of his cot and I inhaled them.
Let me tell you, First Man, what this is: it is shouting love and then writing the poem. I see these things around me and I have no other choice but to write them down before they escape.
You growing and your thoughts threading
the delicate strength of your focus,
out of a clamour of voices,
demanding faces and noises,
apart from me but vivid
as when I kissed you and chuckled:
Wherever you are be fearless
and wherever I am I hope to know
you're moving vivid beyond me,
so I grow by the strength
of your fighting for your self, your life.
Acorn tosses book down on the floor, clamps cigar between his teeth, exits.
July 04, 2008
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