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 to.be 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.