Saturday, March 25, 2006

In the Midst of Russian Literature

Recently, in the mail, I received a poem from Allison Baxter, daughter of a good friend. Allison knew I had a passion for Gogol, the Russian language author who was in fact Ukrainian. I guess Allison, as a student of Russian authors at York, and as a poetess, sensed my literary beginnings and my probable trajectory (tragictory?).

Here is what she wrote:

A short Poem
by Allison Baxter

In the voice of Akaky from Nikolai Gogol's "the Overcoat"

A need for compassion, for human love
A need for acceptance from beyond and above
I'm an awkward man and was an awkward boy
I'm the object of ridicule, somebody's toy

I earned my way up with my new overcoat
Finally there was no frog in my throat
It was too hard to achieve and now gone in a flash
The once ridiculed boy was even thrown a big bash

They think I'm gone, but I'm still here
Some can sense that I'm very near
I stayed for revenge to regain my pride,
I will achieve my goal and walk with great stride.

Just at the point at which I received Allison's poem, I had been blogging this:

Wouldn't it be nice to get out of hell, if just for one day?

To get out of the life of Akaky Akakievich, that famous fuzzy-eared dweeb in the Nicholas Gogol story, Akaky Akakievich, whose name is somehow reminiscent of a familiar substance.

Joe Turd, I suppose, would be the modern equivalent.

Akaky Akakekievich, the kaka man, hobbling from park to dumpster, still hopeful that one day the sun will shine on him and he will finally publish that great sprawling novel that took thirty years to write and another ten to try and market.

And after thirty years, this constant poverty.

Not even enough to drink.

Yet something shone alongside the dumpster on this bright day.. Brown bottle. A closer look. No question. A forty-ouncer, half full. Bailey's. The best. And Akaky feeling like the worst. He plucked forth the bottle, so conveniently lying between the dumpster and a beige firebrick wall. He would not be seen. Just Akaky and his new glass overcoat to shield him from his awful self.

One day. One day out of hell, out of the hell and misery of the self, cast off and thrown among the reeks and wrecks of life, the Kallikaks with whom he often drank when he had money.

He was, most times, concerned, above all, over his words, the beautiful words. That was all that counted, the beautiful words. Now isn't that just like a writer? He'd really had no other choice.

In youth, the broken fingers on his left hand--he just couldn't catch. The broken bat where he'd struck the softball too close to the handle, The speaking, perhaps, of English in a Ukrainian household, and getting slapped for it. Man, did he ever know about being Akaky Akakievich!

The mooniness at the technical university. Yes, yes, they are trying to teach you broadcasting, turn the inside out, education is a bringing out, your words and gestures now outpointing and not towards the self, no shrinking violets here, you will become an extrovert. Cue that tape.

Torture that poor old LP with your scratchy needle. Sometimes you need to be an asshole in this business. A yappy asshole if you want like that really weird guy with the ironed hair on Entertainment Tonight.

Well, it worked. For a while, it worked. He had been on television. He had been on radio. He had been Michael Coren. Yet the unpublished novels. Like Michael Coren.

Now he just wanted to get out of hell, his personal hell for just one day.

Reentry wouldn't be too difficult. He had his friend, the glass overcoat. First the immediate past. The Imperial Pub on Dundas Street. Rattan walls. Hastily-wiped Formica. Goldfish floating around in an aquarium built into a wall. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Akaky imitating the goldfish. Was there anything like old-style Canadian draught?--gone now; just the Molson swill left.

The crony from the temporary employment agency. "You're such a downlooking guy, Akaky. You always look down at your beer before looking up and speaking, and then you sound so much like Justin Trudeau. Kinda soft and insincere.

"I'm screwing up, even at Employer's Overload. They can't stand me. I can almost feel it. I'm going to get fired."

"Ah, Akaky. It's impossible to be fired by Employer's Overload. It's the very bottom. They need you around. They need me around"

Parallel universe, here in this time warp, the pub. The first stage of getting out of the vortex of hell and up into the inverted cone of purgatory.

There had been a wife. Children.

Farmhouse. Chickens. Now emasculated somehow. Castrated and alone. But there had been the Imperial Pub. Oh yes, the Imperial Pub.

Hoary old Kallikaks, Sportin' Life dudes. Ladies and Escorts. "Why do you drink?" Akaky asks his Kallikak crony. "Extreme anxiety. Can't hold down a job. That's why I'm with E.O. Extreme anxiety. Get drunk on the job."

Akaky knows what that's all about. He knows the old drunk has found the promised land. The promised land. Out of hell if only for just one day.

Akaky took another drink. Time travel. Parallel universes. And so easy, and so legal. Twelve beers or this a good Bailey's that God had somehow given me. The little match girl, but this time not with a box of matches to ward off the cold, but a half-full forty-pounder of Bailey's.

Here they are, back again, the way things used to be , the wife, the children, the paradise regained. This is where you came in. This is where you had left it. You are back. Like in the I-Ching. Just because you have thrown it away does not mean that you can't pick it up again. You are home.

Once you had been a scientist.

Quantum mechanics. You live your waking life in kind of a Christ-like state, the moment where you are between the dead and the resurrected, and the disciples are warned not to touch you. And then you are arisen through the sacrament of the twelve bottles. Or a full bottle of Old Bailey.

Cagier this time, more careful, but arisen.

Malt does more than Milton can.

To show the ways of God to man.......?

More of the imagined talk from the imaginary drinking buddy. "Alcoholics drink because there's something there. It is not a sickness. It is a state of mind; smokers the same. These are the jewels I have to offer you," says the Kallikak..

"I'm telling you this because you seem depressed, and damn it, I like you," says the Kallikak.

Why shouldn't he? I am no aristocratic Juke. I'm a Kallikak too.

No powdered wigs in my family, Franz Joseph soldiers all. And I am now a Main Street Soldier, a Kallikak degenerate. And ain't it fun. Need to get out of hell.

Out of hell for one day.

A little further back into the past.

The evenings of success. Big Man on Campus. You would be talking to the Dean and all the while, people around you would know who the important person was. You had published your first volume of poetry and everybody had noticed. The papers were full of it. This is so great. I am king of the world. If only I could divorce my wife. The false- heaven state. The delusion.

Snapped into the present again.

Today, you are finally out of hell.

The snap had been achieved.

You've got the half-full liquor bottle. You have your overcoat. Like Voltaire’s man falling off the tower, you know how good it will feel. And with what is left of your sense of humour, you hope it will last.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Search for Willie Nelson

The dream had to be put aside. Family starving. You'd taken the job as copyeditor and headline writer, poet of typography, zippy headlines produced in a seconds, somebody else's copy polished to a tight sheen, every word counting, as if there were a paper shortage.

At least that was more or less the job description. Desk man, or sub-editor as they say in the U.K.

Last person to see the copy before the mighty presses rolled. You processed the copy and wrote the headline; writers did not write their own headlines. There was the matter of advertising already dummied in. There was column width and depth. There were instances where you only had one column in which to write your head, so you'd use three or even four lines in that narrow space. Oakies did not like a movie about their town, so in those days you wrote:


Oh you had to be good. No fuzzy-eared Wordworths here. Speed and accuracy was the shibboleth.

Except that I was neither speedy nor accurate. And I had a big mouth and an ego the size of Newfoundland to boot.


Me? The published poet, short-story prizewinner, former Toronto Star man?


The music playing in my head, out of Charlie Brown: "Who me?"

"Yes, you!"

He's a clown, that Charlie Brown.



Wife is pregnant again.

Buck up, fuckup!

I had initially quit my job at The Canadian Star Weekly so I could finally write that great novel. Ran out of money; ran back to what was by now called The Canadian magazine.

"Think I'll pass," said top editor Gerald Anglin.

Sure as hell can't go home again.

Over to the Toronto Telegram. They needed headline writers. I had a rep. I was soon in.

But you have to work nights to put the paper out in the morning. Two a.m. And three a.m. and four. Always working in the wee hours. And you had to be brilliant on demand, sleepy or no. These were the days before serious barbiturates. Mind spinning in the morning. Impossible to sleep. I drank.

Walking into work at three a.m., still half drunk. Actress June Havoc having an up-and down career. Head editor, or "slot man" wants an eight column headline, 36 points high to explain the story. You set HB pencil to paper.

"Havoc an apt name for showbiz game."

"Good," says the slot man. "But can you keep it up?"

I couldn't.


You go back to the university. "Yes, yes, we can find a job for a recent graduate. But a mature man?

Things were so bad that at thirty, I was seriously thinking of going back to my faculty advisor. At thirty?


Catch Thirty. Here you were in your twenties, brilliant, you thought, bulletproof. Instant publishing for anything you wrote. Catch thirty. You'd already burned yourself out.

It was now that you had to pay for all those superiorities, the newspapers and magazines with so much of you in it, the yearbook, the student newspaper, the literary magazine.

Catch thirty. Like the -30- journalistic ending for a written piece.

"You've dug your last hole, Mole!". At least that's what had happened to a plug-ugly character in MAD magazine.

Now the novel has drawn you back, back to the cashing in of beer bottles, Mac' milk jugs, painting furniture for your mother-in-law. Hugo the Yugo, who owns the apartment complex, wants his money.


Then sudden, unexpected relief.

The mother-in-law wants to go to Florida. She is a little ill. She has no babysitter for her Florida vacation.

Does a cat have a tail?

I would be her constant companion, confidante, bottle-washer, bum-boy. My wife too, offered her services. And wouldn't my little boy like a Florida vacation?

Leonardo Arms, the famous condo in Fort Myers.

Gulf wind wafting through the white stucco penthouse.

Going shelling in the morning, shopping for momma-in-law at Winn-Dixie. Dolphins jumping up and down as your drive over the bridge to Winn-Dixie.

What a marvelous way to screw up! Did I know what I was doing when I let my life just float away?

Wife and chubby-chucks doing fine. Momma has big bucks. We suddenly had big bucks and a new station wagon to drive (Mother-in-law had to get around). Hey, this was just like downtown! But better.

Sharp stinging sense of inferiority all the same. I had been fired. I took it personally.

Had to make amends. Put pen to paper, did some golf course story and what do you know? Published in the Reader's Digest. I had killed the incubus, but did not yet give it a name, so it really stayed down there, tamped-down but ugly and accusing all the same. Deep down, you are a fuck-up. You are a turd.

Well, here we were, living the life of millionaires on Mommy's money.

And yet, deep down, I was a turd. I knew it, mother-in-law knew it; only my poor wife didn't know it.

Losing at Scrabble (some editor!); Losing at board games. A duffer at bridge. Piss-poor swimmer at the dive club.

Oh sure, it sounds top-of-the world.

But I was a turd.

Late at night the twelve-pack to feel like a kid again, the twenty cigarettes. "You're turning alcoholic baby," says wife.

I know. That's because I'm a turd.

Can not snap out of the lassitude. The worm gnaws away. I needed a karma mechanic. I prayed for a karma mechanic. Head of the household going mad. What shall we tell the children? My mother, though highly intelligent, as are most crazy people, had once been institutionalized. Like mother like son? Catch Thirty. You who have enjoyed life and sampled some of its pleasure, will die. And not only will you die, but you'll die crazy.

What will we tell the children? Well, at least I had bred out. I married someone as far from my gene pool as possible.

My mother, once she recovered, said, "Your son is lucky. He is a troika. Three ethnic groups in one. He will do well." He did.

But the search for the karma mechanic.

The more I drank, the more I seemed to disappear up my own aperture.

And then finally, the karma mechanic.

Would you believe it?

Willie Nelson.

There was that long-suffering, almost angelic face on the TV screen. "There were seven Spanish angels in the altar of the Sun. They were praying for two lovers, in the valley of the gun." Well, I had certainly considered going out and buying a gun.

But the life story, Willie Nelson's life story. The sleeping in laundromats, the whiskey bottles piled up, history of family anxieties, divorce, orphanhood. And there he was, bright and angelic on TV, singing his life song and On the Road Again.

The snap had somehow been achieved. Suddenly I was free. And sane. And on the road again.

Back in the station wagon, back up 75 towards Detroit and Toronto.

I was going to take on those goddamn towers, write my book and bring the house down.

Time to Start a New Meme

Over at, webhost Aaaron Braaten has declared, "Time to Start a New Meme."

"This time you put your name into The Internet Anagram Server to see what words can be arranged out of:

1. The name of your blog.


2. Your full name.

Then tag as many people as you want.

Be sure to post a link to your results, or at least the ones you found most interesting.”

Well, here's a few I came up with for Creative Writing:


Must be my passion for ABORIGINAL PEOPLE'S TV, especially the rock music and Beyond Words program hosted by Doug Proulx that gets me into all the Aboriginal associations--it's the only TV worth watching in between CBC newscasts and really crummy drama and fear-factor type brainless crap...I will leave out American Idol and Canadian Idol, both shows great (I used to be a professional musician and can really identify).

Anyway, A RECTIVE GRIN WIT is sort of fascinating, as well as A ERECT IRIVING TWIT--hey, I use oysters and not Viagara!

Now here is what I found for my really Irish moniker, Ivan Prokopchuk:(And happy post St. Paddy's day, y'all.)


I'm going to sue Internet Anagram Server!

About the closest to this was my wife at the time who took Ivan Prokopchuk and anagrammed it into:


What's in a name, you ask? Well, your results could sure as hell be surprising.

I tag:

Tattered Sleeve
Anonymous (Doubting Thomas).
Dazzling Dino

Sorry guys, but I owe Aaron a favour, especially now that he has reposted my magnum opus on his site, LIGHT OVER NEWMARKET, chapter by chapter.

Good guffaws over your results. I really cracked up, of course, when I went to get mine for Creative Writing and Ivan Prokopchuk.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Snapped continuity

Snapped continuity.

Pockets of angels.

Pockets of Boticelli, his quirky, almost cartoon-like rendering of all the stations of Hell.

"In the middle of the journey of our lives.."

Intermezzo del camin du nuestra vita...

Boticelli, perfectly capable of rendering angelic beauty as in that Venus-on-the-halfshell so reminiscent of Toronto City Hall, and then doing a complete 180- degree turn and illustrating Dante's hell for us. And what a proper hell it was, out of all the materials of the 14th century and a little beyond, into our present time. Was Urjo Revell thinking of Boticelli when he designed our city hall? Hard to say. From the beginning, in l964, they said that Toronto's new shell-like structure was ugly, even down to the turd-in-the plaza of Henry Moore. But look at that plaza now. Finnish furniture elevated to high art. Ikea with a whole lot of Boticelli thrown in. It is beautiful.

Ah, we ourselves are starlight, are golden. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

I once took a page out of Joni Mitchell's book and produced a newspaper column whose standing logo was "Both Sides Now."

Oh the arrogance of it, thinking, at 34, that I had seen it all, had figured it out, that I'd been through hell and would be able to write the guidebook. Saw myself as a savant and started a column in the local paper.

At least, my young fool's notes were carrying the house. I had succeeded in cobbling together other people's material and making a living at it.

Other people's material.

Well, there was Woodstock. "Come with me, my friend, I'll show you another country", yes, Jefferson Airplane with Gracie Slick fronting, and Janis Joplin:

"Sittin' by the window
Lookin' out at the rain...
Seems to me like a ball and chain."

And then the aw aw aw aw Please! She seemed to be having an orgasm out there, right on the stage. Just a little piece of your heart now, baby.

It's a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack. All this time, I've been trying to write a novel. Yes. Weren't you?

Master Jack trying to be nimble at the typewriter, writing the great Canadian novel, f*cking it up, wife saying you picked a hard thing to be, writing the only thing you know and even at this you are failing. Jefferson airplane on CHUM FM. Artistic failure. You mean I am not in their lague? I am not an artist?

The saved-up joint lit up, hoping to get that sense of omnipotence and creativity back and it is not a good stone. Not even with the chelm. Three years go by. Same problem. "You are fucking up, baby. Looks like you'll have to go to work for a while."

I get work as a rock critic. I am still wearing the suit and tie they told me to wear at our "I think-I-can" technical university. Old school tie, yes, the beanie, almost.

Frosh all my days. Trying to be hip, trying to be cool. In blazer and slacks. Electric Circus, Brower and Walker rock shows at Varsity Stadium, an old haunt. Philosopher's walk, remembering some of the hazing at Trinity College. Poor kid with the beanie still on, carrot in his mouth, "Eat that, you queer." Preparation for life, yeah.

Well, they did prepare me for life. Trinity was sort of a finishing school for me, my mainline trade being journalist. Fellating the stars.

I finally got some paisley and beads and went the whole rock columnist routine. Here and there I would affect Riddler outfits, Batman, Superman, the five-inch high-heeled boots. Granny's. All our imitations of Studio 54. I had fantasies of meeting Margaret Trudeau.

And suddenly the bubble burst. The Toronto Telegram sank, and so did I.

Like many another screw-up, I retreated to my cottage to write that great Canadian novel. I huffed and I strained. It laid an egg.

Back to the journalism, back to the column I had titled "Both Sides Now", back on "boogie street", for I was making money again, and the next thing you know, I'm at the Toronto Sun with my scrawls and life is good. Except that I had screwed up the novel.

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world...I seemed to have
lost my soul, first to rock'n'roll and now to something like Neil Young's father--journalism. I was not an artist, just a moon reflecting all the stars, here and there mooning them out of sheer envy.

The standard artistic trick. Drive your family away. Find a garret. Become the novelist you were meant to be.


Snapped continuity.

You reach for heaven, try for Beatrice among the stars and you end up in hell. The separation anxiety kills the creativity, your biopsychic intensities overcoming your proof page, the bottles piled up, the alcoholism, the shame of rehab.

And the question is asked, did he, did he deliver the goods?

Yes he did. But it was like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The project was finally completed, but it had been moth-eaten, and finally chewed upon by sharks.
And there was all this snapped continuity, what they had been talking about in the Sixties and Seventies.

I had finally gotten the snap. Where the hell is the rest of me?

"Major Tom to ground control..."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ragamuffin of the Flowers

Depression is catching, like cancer.

That's right, you heard it here first, folks.

From me, MD of the Rain Forest shickle-shickle with the rattles. I am a closet West Senegalese and lover of the music of New Orleans, Dr. Longhair and Oscar Brown Jr., and when I feel really down, the poetry of French manic-depressive Charles Baudelaire. But first Oscar Brown Jr.

I heard an old ragman
Out making his rounds
Comin' right down my alley
Making sorrowful sounds.

Crying 'rags and old iron' and pulling his cart
I asked him how much he'd pay me for my broken heart.

I asked that old ragman
How much he would pay
For those big empty promises
you used to make

For a second-hand lovelight
That's lost all its gleams
And a couple of slightly used
second hand dreams.

'Rags and Old Iron
Rags and Old Iron
All he was buying
was just rags
and old iron.

How much in agreement are the poets.

Sin and soul.

Oscar Brown Jr., his broken heart his Broadway failures and his jazz.

Charles Baudelaire, master of forlorn sentiments and his diabolical masterpiece, Flowers of Evil. Flowers of sin. Flowers of the devil. Walking the streets with his whore, the coquette embarrassed, like a U. S. attorney general by all the naked statues around.
I'm poring over all the old pictures of dead black musicians who did so much to advance the cause of civil rights, and also long-dead Frenchmen who may have set civilization back 200 years, but started a new literary form all the same. And they all seemed to get it from Edgar Allan Poe, that poor bastard who suffered so damnably and still managed to start all of our modernism and the very first detective story, charmingly titled "Murder on the rue Morgue."

Bob Dylan:

Don't put on any more airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they'll really make a mess out of you.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Not for nothing does Green Day continue to produce hits.

I walk alone
the only road I've ever known
I walk alone.

Giacommetti and his striding figure, stripped bare of illusions.

Existentialism puttied large..

Shelley and his broken lamp.

Diogenes in the wrong end of Athens, the thieves having stolen his lamp. Depressed. Yeah.

In the old days, people would get the blues.

Today, Valium and Prosac make short work of depression, up until these horrid drugs eat your brain.

For the memories of you
Are no longer sweet.
I just wish he would haul them
Up-down the street.

Rags and old iron.
All he was buying
Was just rags and old iron.

I have been accused at different times of having the mental processes of a Chinese person, though I am so white I come snowdrops.

There is the I-Ching:

Before completion
If, just before completion
The little fox
dips his tail into the water
Nothing will further.

So all you depressed folks, get your tail out of the water.
Up on the bank now, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
No more depressing blogs.
Cajun and Chocolate
No longer dirty words.
"We are a family...”

Chief Gall, Crazy Horse, Mandingo, Confucius. Play that funky music, white boy.