Monday, June 25, 2018

from the orchid thief | assembled poem

a tall guy, skinny as a stick,
pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome.
he is missing all his front teeth.

passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs

the posture of al dente spaghetti
the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games

the late-sleeping, heavy-smoking, junk-food-eating, law-bending type
folding virtue and criminality around profit

a shrewd bastard


"swamp" and "orchids" and "Seminoles" and "cloning" and "criminal" –
I arranged to go down to Naples to see if this ball of paper might bloom

New York, the dead center of winter.
In Naples it was warm and gummy.

a frayed Florida bungalow

"When it rains here, cars start to fly."

the creaking of wooden benches
the sound of some guy in the front row gunning his throat


the Fakahatchee Strand
the Big Cypress Swamp
the Loxahatchee
Big Cypress
Hollywood is the most urban of them all.

a beautiful spruced-up golf course
grass as green and flat as a bathmat
hedges precision-shaped and burnished
the whole thing as civilized as a tuxedo

Miccosukee Indians
Buster Baxley
Vinson Osceola
Chief Billie, James E. Billie
John Laroche:
"I'm really on the side of the plants.
I'm a shrewd bastard.
I could be a great criminal."

Styrofoam mountains
actual furniture
a talk show about how to keep pet snakes and iguanas happy
Carpet-Marts and
Toy-Marts and
Car-Marts and
the turnoff for Alligator Alley
dreamy-sounding Florida towns like
Plantation and
Sunrise and
Coconut Creek and
Coral Springs

Laroche was encouraged by both the palm fronds and Chief Billie's panther

Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe,
Then I find myself in Florida.


"I really have to watch myself
especially around plants."

tough, rubbery leaves and
long, loopy vines

enormous tropical trees
with pimply bark and flowers the color of bubble gum

Peruvian odontoglossums
Cryptanthus, a genus of Brazilian bromeliad
a spectacular six-foot-tall Anthuriaum vietchii with weird, corrugated leaves,
"a gorgeous, gorgeous son of a bitch"

spiral juniper bushes
cracker roses
confetti shrub
teddy bear palms
"weird-ass vegetables"
spinach that grows on vines
African pumpkins that can be trained onto trellises
carrots that grow in pots
Chinese fuzzy gourds
yard-long green beans
pink Zairean hot peppers shaped like penises
"Screw wax myrtles!"
"Screw saw grass!"

Live wild or die.


a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out
an onion
an octopus
a human nose
the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear
Mickey Mouse

"Orchids appeared to have been modelled in the wildest caprice."

One looks like a monkey.
One looks dead.
There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men.
Some look like the results of an accident involving paint.

The genus Dracula is blackish-red and looks like a vampire bat.
The texture of human flesh.


Orchids grow slowly. They languish.

seeds blown from South America to Florida
will drop in swimming pools and barbecue pits
and on shuffleboard courts and gas stations,
on roofs of office buildings and on the driveways of fast-food restaurants,
and in hot sand on a beach and in your hair on a windy day,
swept away or stepped on or drowned without being felt or seen.

"They are hot and moist in operation,
under the dominion of Venus,
and provoke lust exceedingly."


Polyradicion lindenii,
the ghost orchid.

Polyrrhiza lindenii
the Fakahatchee's ghost orchid,
looks like a ghost but has also been describes as
a bandy-legged dancer,
a white frog,
a fairy
"They look like a man,
like a woman,
sometimes like an austere, sinister fighter,
sometimes like a clown who excites our laughter.
They represent the image of a lazy tortois,
a melancholy toad,
an agile, ever-chattering monkey."

"Should one be lucky enough to see a flower,
all else will seem eclipsed."


thirty thousand orchids belonging to a man in Palm Beach all died.
He began what his family called "a downhill slide."
He was arrested for attacking his father,,
then for firing a sixteen-gauge shotgun into a neighbor's house,
then for carrying a concealed knife,
and shotgun.
"It was the death of his orchids. That’s where it all began."

Live wild or die.

drowned on a collecting expidition on the Orinoco River
fell to his death while hunting in Sierra Leone
lost while orchid hunting in Panama
died of dysentery in Bogota
murdered in Mexico, killed in Madagascar, shot dead in Rio Hacha.
died of fever in Ecuador, gunned down by locals in Brazil,
vanished without a trace in Asia

Live wild or die.

eaten by a tiger
drenched with oil and burned alive
vanished into thin air
walked for fourteen days through jungle mud and never was seen again
fever or accidents or malaria or foul play
trophies for headhunters
or prey for horrible creatures
flying yellow lizards
diamondback snakes
stinging marabuntas
other orchid hunters


On my first walk in the swamp
I saw oaks and pines and cypress and pop ash and beauty-berry and elderberry and yellow-eyed grass and camphor weed

I saw strap lilies and water willows
and sumac and bladderwort,
and resurrection ferns springing out of a fallen dead tree

The Fakahatchee Strand
hot and wet and buggy
cottonmouth snakes and diamondback rattlers and alligators and snapping turtles andpoisonous plants and wild hogs and things that stick into you and on you and fly into your nose and eyes

bright red and green and shaped like fright wigs
some were spider-sized, some were as big as me
sheeny leaves
like a crowd of animals, watching everything that passed

heavy sweet smell
standing water
stillness and darkness and thickness
trees sweaty
leaves slick
whatever isn't wet is blasted

a carpet of lubber grasshoppers so deep
the variety of squirrels
the number of charred Model T's
the crackling of the gravel paths
the mumbling of leaves in the wind, the squeak of doors
the abstract tropical animal sounds of ticking and cheeping and crying
like sounds inside a covered bowl

The light was flattening out

"The place looked wild and lonely.
About three o'clock it seemed to get on Henry's nerves
and we saw him crying,
he could not tell us why,
he was just plain scared."

The air has the slack, drapey weight of wet velvet


from The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orleans
which she expanded from her piece in the New Yorker entitled "Orchid Fever"
January 23, 1995

Monday, June 11, 2018

tolkien : on campbell and williams

Key complicating factors in the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were the influence of Charles Williams and Roy Campbell. When viewed as a love story (however platonic), Williams and Campbell clearly play the role of interlopers, and the ways that Jack and Tollers read these two men and respond to them so very differently provides some of the irony and complexity of the story as it played out historically.

My play has prompted one friend to dig in and read biographies of these four men, and of the Inklings as a group. Here are some thoughts I sent him.

You won’t find a lot on Roy Campbell’s role in the Tolkien-Lewis friendship, because his involvement with them was very brief. I included it because I think it is very telling, and I think highly significant - it’s the first evidence I’ve seen of Tolkien beginning to perceive Lewis as anti-Catholic, which by the time of Lewis’s death had become a virulent (and I think unfounded) conviction. Here’s all there is about Campbell’s interaction with the lads, from the letters of JRR. You’ll see how closely I stuck to the events of the two encounters, apart from the fact that I separated them by months instead of only a couple days (and put some of the content into an invented intervening scene).

Oct 6 1944: JRR Tolkien to Christopher
"On Tuesday [Oct 3] at noon I looked in at the Bird and B. with C. Williams. There to my surprise I found Jack and Warnie already ensconced. (For the present the beer shortage is over, and the inns are almost habitable again). The conversation was pretty lively... & I noticed a strange tall gaunt man half in khaki half in mufti with a large wide-awake hat, bright eyes and a hooked nose sitting in the corner. The others had their backs to him, but I could see in his eye that he was taking an interest in the conversation quite unlike the ordinary pained astonishment of the British (and American) public at the presence of the Lewises (and myself) in a pub. It was rather like Trotter [an early name for the character later renamed Strider] at the Prancing Pony... In a few seconds he was revealed as Roy Campbell (of Flowering Rifle and Flaming Terrapin'). Tableau! Especially as C.S.L. had not long ago violently lampooned him in the Oxford Magazine, and his press-cutters miss nothing. There is a good deal of Ulster still left in C.S.L. if hidden from himself. After that things became fast and furious and I was late for lunch. It was (perhaps) gratifying to find that this powerful poet and soldier desired in Oxford chiefly to see Lewis (and myself).
"We made an appointment for Thursday (that is last) night [Oct 5]. If I could remember all that I heard in C.S.L.'s room last night it would fill several airletters. C.S.L. had taken a fair deal of port and was a little belligerent (insisted on reading out his lampoon again while R.C. laughed at him), but we were mostly obliged to listen to the guest. A window on a wild world, yet the man is in himself gentle, modest, and compassionate. Mostly it interested me to learn that this old-looking war-scarred Trotter, limping from recent wounds, is 9 years younger than I am, and we prob. met when he was a lad, as he lived in 0[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street... Here is a scion of an Ulster prot. family resident in S. Africa, most of whom fought in both wars, who became a Catholic after sheltering the Carmelite fathers in Barcelona – in vain, they were caught & butchered, and R.C. nearly lost his life. But he got the Carmelite archives from the burning library and took them through the Red country. He speaks Spanish fluently (he has been a professional bullfighter). As you know he then fought through the war on Franco's side... it is not possible to convey an impression of such a rare character, both a soldier and a poet, and a Christian convert. How unlike the Left – the 'corduroy panzers' who fled to America (Auden among them who with his friends got R.C.'s works 'banned' by the Birmingham T. Council!). I hope to see this man again next week. We did not leave Magdalen until midnight, and I walked up to Beaumont Street with him. C.S.L.'s reactions were odd. Nothing is a greater tribute to Red propaganda than the fact that he (who knows they are in all other subjects liars and traducers) believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him. Even Churchill's open speech in Parliament left him unshaken. But hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C of E – so deep laid that it remains even when all the superstructure seems removed (C.S.L. for instance reveres the Blessed Sacrament, and admires nuns!). Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered – he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it). But R.C. shook him a bit....."

I believe the best-rounded source on Roy Campbell himself is Peter Alexander’s “Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography,” which not only makes clear Campbell’s, shall we say, lack of veracity (show in this excerpt, for example) but also does a good job celebrating his real accomplishments.

"The Campbells' most immediate need, once they had settled into their rented rooms [in Barcelona] was for money... He had written 20,000 words of his autobiography before leaving France, and now he raced to finish it, writing the last chapters stanidng up against a bureau so as not to fall asleep... He padded the book with any story he could remember, adapting the anecdotes of friends into autobiography, and giving himself a leading role. Few of his stories are imaginary; fewer still are entirely accurate. For example, his stories about boating on the lagoon in Durban, being chased by a python or being nearly drowned by the tidal bore, are true enough – but they happened to his elder brother George, not to himself. A tale about kidnapping dogs in Cannes was taken from a book of reminiscenses by JB Booth. Another yarn, of sailing a drunken doctor out to Bardsey Island in a storm, was the genuine feat of the barman in the Ship Inn in Aberdaron, the Welsh village in which the Campbells had lived immediately after their marriage. In most of these tales, Campbell figures as the sort of assured, devil-may-care man of action he would so much have liked to have been, the sort of man he felt his father and brothers would have admired. Of his poetic achievements he said virtually nothing. This became the pattern of his myth-making; he seldom boasted of things he could do."
Peter Alexander, "Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography"

As for Williams, the was no authoritative biography until Grevel Lindop’s 2015 “The Third Inkling”, which is a marvel of scholarship and readable writing - though he doesn’t actually devote a lot of pages to the Tolkien friendship. I corresponded with him prior to the release of that book, and while he confirmed my sense that perhaps Tolkien’s qualms about Williams (esp his involvement in the occult, and his relations with women) didn’t really flower until after Williams’ death, Grevel did feel it would be legitimate to incorporate them into the play, simply due to the timeline coherence required for the stage. They were real enough issues; there’s just no telling when exactly they materialized, and no point keeping them out of the story just because the actual timing was probably different. The other thing worth reading re: Williams is “Letters To Lalage,” his correspondence with a young woman during his Oxford / WW2 years, which makes it clear that Tolkien’s misgivings were actually very well founded. In earlier drafts of the play I had scenes showing the Williams-Lalage relationship, but they pulled the play off-centre and I cut them (along with many, many other scenes!).

So pleased you’re digging into the ground of these fertile fields. These are fascinating, and great, men!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

naomi shihab nye | valentine for ernest mann

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


It begins to seem that I am a man of snow, and I am beginning to melt. A desperate feeling; soon there will be nothing left of me, melted away. Then the sense there is something prowling about, circling me; a tiger perhaps, or a lion. Something wild, and terrible, and I must protect myself. Which becomes the sensation of being trapped, encased in something. Stiff, and tight, and stifling in the summer heat. A suit of armour? And I realize I am being given a choice: stay as I am, imprisoned, armoured against Whatever was stalking me, or shed it all, and stand naked, freed, the summer breeze on my skin. Free – but not necessarily safe.

So. Unbuckle the armour, and be shed of everything safe and familiar. Or keep it on. I chose unbuckling. But was it me choosing, at all?

from the beginning of the Addison's Walk scene in my play "Tolkien," derived from C.S. Lewis's description of his Headington Bus experience found in "Surprised By Joy."