Poetry from Richard Downing
followed by Q&A
History Dream #18: Anne, Anne, Anne, & Norton.
- for Anne Cecil, Anne Vavasour, & Anne Hathaway
It seemed odd to be signing his name inside the cover of his book.
He clicked the pen once and the nib projected
far enough out
for writing. Another click and the nib retreated
into its plastic shell.
Uh, Mr. Shakespeare. Bill. If you’d just sign it “To Morey, my biggest fan.”
I’ve got some more shopping to do.
Click. Out. Sorry. Sorry. He began the inscription.
M...o...r...E...y, the man corrected.
Oh, E y. Yes, you did say that, didn’t you? A few loops and swirls
and “Mory” became “Morey.” Bill closed the book
and handed it to the man eager to resume his shopping. I hope
you enjoy it.
It’s not for me. It’s for my uncle. He’s the reader in the family.
Said this got four stars in the New York Times and that’s good enough
for him. The man slipped the book into an open plastic bag. So
it’s good enough for me.
Click. In. At least someone is going to enjoy it. Shakespeare forced a smile.
A shrug. We can always re-gift. Know what I mean?
Bill was afraid that he did. Yes. Next.
She stepped up
to the table. This is a thrill, truly a thrill,
Please, call me Bill. Bill liked what he saw.
Oh, I couldn’t, Bill. She giggled. It appears I can. I’ve read everything
you’ve written – Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Othello –
Timon of Athens? Bill was basically a nice enough bard, but like most of us,
he could have a bit of a mean streak.
I’ve read almost everything you’ve ever written. A half smile.
Even the poems.
She presented Bill with his book: The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edition.
Bill paused to read
the title. He was not one to collaborate
and he wondered who this Norton fellow
Anne whispered, I bought it on Amazon. I hope you don’t mind. She leaned
in until he swore
he could feel her breath on his cheek. No one goes to bookstores anymore.
Then she laughed and acknowledged the modest line
behind her. Unless you’re here, that is.
Anne, – Click. Out. – what shall I say?
Anne slid him a small piece of paper, a note:
Anne, I love you,
I thought about having you leave off the “Shakespeare.” Too formal.
But then it wouldn’t be worth as much on eBay. She winked
and lightly touched his hand.
Bill laughed, copied the note onto the title page,
then noticed the ring on her finger.
Yes, I am. Married. Is that a problem?
Bill quickly raised his eyes from the ring and slid the signed book
toward Anne. Do you have a twin?
A twin? Anne laughed loudly, holding her sides in a self-embrace.
Oh, Mr. – she paused and remembered – “Bill.”
Two sisters but no twin. Then her smile disappeared into a pause
as she patted her stomach. We had to get married,
do you know what I mean?
Bill nodded that he did. The modest line behind Anne had grown even
Anne brightened. He’s a Bill, too. But nothing like you. He’s younger.
Once again she leaned forward. And he’s the jealous type. Typical black
male. Shakespeare grimaced. But don’t worry.
He doesn’t know I’m here.
And he can be moody. Probably because he works all the time.
She disguised her voice, deepening it to a man’s: “Got to get ahead
any way you can these days,” he likes to say. “Move up or move out.”
Bill found himself taking notes as best he could on the back of Anne’s note.
Did I say moody? I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I come home and find
he’s blown his brains out. One day he is, the next day he isn’t. Then
she whispered: It’s a father-
son thing. Isn’t it always?
She sighed, more resigned than sad: It’s an old story.
Shakespeare nodded. Yes, indeed. They’re all old stories.
Anne took the pen from Shakespeare’s hand, retrieved her note,
wrote a phone number beside “Anne,” and handed pen and paper
back to Bill. Click. In.
Don’t worry. It’s my cell. I’ll leave it on vibrate. Click. Out.
Anne pressed The Norton Shakespeare against her breasts. You’ll call
Bill felt himself penning and editing the line before he spoke it. “Alas”
didn’t make the cut: Yes. I will. I’ll call you, Anne.
Anne gave him a full smile and planted a grand kiss on the dust-
jacket of his book.
Then I’m off. She turned to leave,
and extended her hand:
Is that my pen or yours?
History Dream #8: Wounded Knee
As a general rule, this is not how it’s supposed to work. Patton
fingered the ivory-handled revolver he wore at his waist. He felt
he should be shooting at something; after all, this was the movie
version of himself. Something flying would a fitting challenge.
But all around him lay Indians, already dead. And,
as best he could tell, these were not movie-version
Indians, who would have been fine to shoot, especially
in mid-war whoop then falling from panicked ponies
into South Dakota dust and celluloid history. Patton
slapped one fallen brave across the face Just in case.
Might snap him out of it. The Indian looked to be sixteen,
maybe twenty. Hard to tell with them. Especially
when they’re dead. Germans, now they were a lot easier
to tell apart. A few palominos circled a burning
Panzer tank. Patton lit a cigar in the flames. Blew smoke
rings up and over the scene. A PFC with an arrow
in his shoulder (movie version) told Patton the bodies
were mostly Paiutes, with some Sioux mixed in.
All dead. Of course Patton was right in his assessment
of the battlefield. The private pointed out a particularly well
decorated body: This one was their version of you, General—
Chief Big Foot. Chief Big Foot’s head lay on the corner
of a white flag, feathers and blood covering much of the middle.
The other corner was still in his left hand. Except
his flag’s the wrong color, Private. Above
where the private and the general stood looking down
the Ghost Dance had already begun: the renewal ceremony,
the prophet Wovoka’s vision enacted by doppelgangers
of the fallen now rising, replacing the white man
in the movie version yet to be shot.
These lean apparitions circled Big Foot’s half
brother, Chief Sitting Bull, who sat cross legged,
eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to Patton beneath him
and the general’s orders to clear the area, to bury the dead
quickly in a large common grave. We don’t want
some Goddamned foreign disease. The private jumped
right to it. He, too, wanted nothing to do with a God
damned foreign disease. Sitting Bull was now high
in the sky, his dancers escaping both flames and time.
A well placed shit would take both soldiers out,
he thought, one final human act. He began to shift
his seat in the sky.
But Black Elk knew better: That is not what the Ghost
Dance is all about, the medicine man whispered
to the man around whom the others danced.
And fecal matter is not a part of our ascension.
The Black Hills were now far below them. Two
uniformed figures had faded first to dots, then less.
The one with the fewest stripes spoke to the man
with the most: How shall we mark the grave?
A well shined boot ground the General’s cigar
hard into the dirt.
Just plant a flag
and be done with it.
Richard Downing is active in peace and environmental movements all the while trying to remain a realist. He has won the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Peace Poetry Award; Writecorner Press’s 2010 Editor’s Award; New Delta Review’s Matt Clark Prize; and New Woman Magazine’s Grand Prize for Fiction. He has poems in a number of literary journals and anthologies. His chapbook Four Steps Off the Path is a YellowJacket Press 2010 contest winner. He has a PhD in English and a dog named Annie (see picture).
Q: “History Dream No. 18” has the tinge of nightmare, the author trapped at a signing table in a bookstore. Is there an autobiographical element?
A: I do have a touch of claustrophobia, so that may have leaked into the poem. And I did have a book signing for my small press novel, The Waking Rooms. No nightmare tinges, however, as I got along well with both people—(I did say it was a small press novel).
I’m consciously anti-autobiographical in that I try to examine characters who are very (emphasis on “very”) different from the person I perceive myself to be.
Q: Can you discuss how you came to work on the history poems, and how these poems might make a larger work?
A: First let me place the convolution warning at level orange. Here goes: I’m highly suspect of people with answers, particularly of people with the answers. History (which itself is quite fluid) has too many examples of persons eager to impose their realties on others. Depending on your particular place/time in history, I’d advise anyone who is or has been or will be Indian, Jewish, female, black, 3/5’s black, a 1 percenter, yellow, gay, disabled, short, nearsighted, Palestinian, poor, ill, lumbering, a poet, Muslim, Christian, bald, an atheist (you get the picture) to take the advice of Monty Python and “Run away! Run away!” At least until my History Dream poems spread openness and tolerance across the land; these things take time.
The History Dream poems exist to allow the experience of shattered time and space, the experience not of linear time but of continually overlapping time, of the arbitrary over the fixed, of possibilities. Shakespeare just happens to be in a bookstore, Patton at Wounded Knee (it could just as easily have been the Crusades or the Battle of Maldon). My hope is that readers sense the freedom inherent in unsettled settings that deny the black & white of learned expectations (historical and otherwise) and, instead, promote grey—the color in which openness and tolerance best exist. Placing a rigid character like General Patton into a fluid/arbitrary time frame is meant to contrast sharply his dehumanizing acts with the open experience allowed the reader.
In a quieter way the allusion to Othello in History Dream #18 implies the unfortunate results when any single perspective dominants a relationship. #18 also promotes openness by embracing mystery. The three Annes of the title (Hathaway, Cecil, and Vavasour) represent the (possibly) ill-starred wives of Shakespeare and—speaking of mystery—of Edward de Vere, the man some feel actually wrote Shakespeare’s works. That a fourth Anne may be hitting on Shakespeare in a modern bookstore adds another layer to the fluid reality that is our relationship with Shakespeare.
Other poems in the History Dream series place God on Wall Street, Magellan on a Carnival cruise, Jon Stewart attempting standup at the Continental Congress, and Donald Trump at the Tower of Babel. Each poem in its own way tries to embrace tolerance while exposing frailty.
In terms of form and structure, I view the poems as genre free; they owe much to the short story, to the novel and to drama. Some in the series—though not nos.18 and 8—are footnoted in ways that blend satire and parody with academic writing. By attempting to be all things, the History Dream poems become free from any one thing. In this sense, form is theme.
Q. You’re planning a dinner party. What historical figures would you invite, and why?
A. I would invite Jesus if we could talk man to man (plus, I’d ask him to cater the event). Jack Kerouac makes the list because he’d probably need the meal. Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver make the list as a way of saying thanks. Queen Victoria for the façade of civility and in hopes that Kerouac gets her drunk. Mid-career John Coltrane for the music and for the chance to fulfill his spiritual quest (Coltrane sits next to Jesus). A random serf from the Middle Ages to remind us of what we have and of how lucky we are to have it. He gets the doggie bags.