Carnivalesque Mayhem of Exceptions — Two Poems from Mark Halliday
LIKE IN SOMALIA
You’d better explain again about the mortality thing. As regards me, I mean. It’s not quite coming across, I’m afraid. You’re saying that I’m not the great exception, that there can’t be an exception, that the generalization holds in all cases. I realize you’re trying to be logical. It’s just that I’ve derived so much satisfaction from noticing exceptions to so-called rules. Life in my observation has been this carnivalesque mayhem of exceptions — some of them awkward or dismaying, but many of them exciting or delicious. So that’s where I’m coming from, orientation-wise. But I’m not denying the validity of what you assert as being, you know, the truth from your perspective, accurate on your terms. I’m sure it does apply in some areas. It’s just that nothing is quite convincing me of the relevance in terms of myself. Not to be conceited or anything, you know, but there is a loophole in every net, and I’ve always known myself to be the odd fish in the river, the frog that jumps the other way, the monkey in the tree over here rather than over there where all the chatter is coming from. No offense! If you want to explain your idea again, feel free. I’ll listen again. It’s just that I sort of see your lips moving but the words turn out to be strangely muffled. Like a bad connection. You said something about how the heart stops beating, and the lungs stop breathing. I don’t question it as a concrete fact in many, many situations, like in Somalia, or Haiti, or much closer to home. I saw my father — I was there — I saw that he went from asking for some cookies to just breathing very slowly, very softly on the tired old bed, and then when I looked again — when I looked again there was the stony quality — I saw that, I have seen that — a man turned into that strange thing, that stone — but still it seems an extreme leap to go from that, to infer from that — I mean there would seem to be a kind of arrogance, no offense, a kind of overreaching of so-called logic when you try to stretch the point and push me into that big dreary and frankly rather banal category! Okay? But still, seriously, I’m not just shutting you out, I’m a learner type of person, so if you have something to tell me, hey, give it to me straight.
BEING NOT HUGH
When I visited Hugh in San Francisco in 1974 the air of the city was blue-gray. We schemed to get through a day spending not more than seven dollars each. I was twenty-five, yet in memory more like twenty; Hugh was two years older than me, two huge years. Hugh accepted the modesty of fate. I walked with a bounce of unfocused energy. Hugh walked with irony. He hoped to develop a romance with Stephanie though he didn’t conceal the thought that it would be an experience only within beige limits as Stephanie was plainly not a source of endless joy, she was humorous but not wild, she was skeptical and faintly disappointed, but maybe vast joy was a myth anyway, maybe it was a tinsel illusion sold by movies, and the life to accept was the tolerant shuffle and hustle of the mildly humid tilting streets in the blue-gray air and the narrow comical angular apartments and the meals of cheese bread with olives and peppers. Stephanie liked to hear Hugh’s opinions about movies which he formulated with a kind of burlesqued difficulty, he conveyed how all descriptions turn out to be maddeningly imprecise, he liked evocations of the absurd strangeness of being alive at all, he liked the implication that meaningful success — in a career, or in art — is impossible, or so near to impossible that the possibility was tiresomely funny. Traffic went phush phush phush along the sloping streets and conversations slowed toward silence until someone had an idea about dinner. Hugh accepted the obvious extreme smallness of The Individual, the individual who drank California merlot trying not to doze over Robert Musil. My mind hummed trying to decide how I was different. One day Hugh bought the new album by Stevie Wonder, “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and he accepted it as a big indication that life was good or at least desirable, and I was alarmed because I had never focused on Stevie Wonder and didn’t know how to locate him in relation to, say, the Rolling Stones. I was impressed and I wandered humming in the blue-gray air intensely considering how I was not Hugh, how I wanted to believe in vast joy and transcendent confirmationand how I would need to write a book and experience passion with Rosie back home or if not Rosie then another woman and soon.
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Mark Halliday is a Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University. His books of poems are: Little Star (William Morrow, 1987), Tasker Street(University of Massachusetts, 1992), Selfwolf(University of Chicago, 1999), Jab (University of Chicago, 2002), Keep This Forever (Tupelo Press, 2008), and Thresherphobe(University of Chicago Press, 2013). His critical study Stevens and the Interpersonal appeared in 1991 from Princeton University Press. He co-authored with Allen Grossman a book on poetics, The Sighted Singer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). He has published essays on more than twenty contemporary poets since 1996. See his previous poems in Okey-Panky here.