Sestina: The Cleaners

Back when I was writing poetry more or less full-time, I loved to experiment with poetic form, both organic and received. As a boy I once wanted to be an architect (until I realized you had to learn, you know, math). I’ve never lost that interest in structure.

As visual artists are fascinated by the structural intricacies of, say, fractals, I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which language works; how letters represent sounds and join to form words, then larger syntactic elements, then even larger structural constituents until lines, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, and so on create the massive architectural units of a poem and a novel.

As a poet, I found great joy in writing in (and ringing changes on) forms as disparate as sonnets and their minimalist siblings, word sonnets, and their maximalist cousins, sonnet crowns; gloses; ghazals; villanelles; pantuns; and so on.

One of the forms I found especially compelling was the sestina, a form dating from the twelfth century. It’s a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotating in a set pattern. The envoi contains the six line-ending words, often in a proscribed order.

There have been some great sestinas written by poems such as Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney, to name just three.

Besides its elegant complexity, one of the things that fascinated me about the sestina was the almost hypnotic repetition of line-ending words that gave the poem a sense of obsession, even of being trapped.

When I sat down to write my own sestina, I drew on my experience as the manager of a movie theatre in Birmingham, Michigan, many years ago. (The theatre was the Bloomfield, if anybody remembers that; it has sadly morphed into a parking garage underneath a gym.)

Bloomfield Theatre, Birmingham, MI.

Every night, a young married couple came in to clean the place after each day’s showings. It was not a pleasant job, and the young man–Ricky, his name was–seemed perpetually angry; his wife was mostly silent.

I decided to write a sestina in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife. It seemed to me that she was trapped in a bad marriage with a volatile man who didn’t appreciate her, and the sestina with its restricted order of repetition of words would be a good correspondence.

As I started to work with the poem, I quickly saw that the woman was trapped in more than just a bad marriage. I tried to reflect that.

I was chuffed that this poem won the Grand Prize for poetry in a literary contest put on by the Metro Times in 2005. It also appeared in my chapbook, New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Press, 2007).

Sestina: The Cleaners

Every midnight when we leave our small room
in the boarding house basement where we stay
beside the lumberyard in Hazel Park
we drive to Birmingham, to finish
the night inside an empty theatre. We clean.
We pick up what the rich leave behind. 

Stuffing the car’s back seat, behind
Rickie and me, our supplies leave no room
for a passenger. Mops, gallons of Mr. Clean,
Windex, boxes of urinal cakes that stay
in my nose all night, polish for the brass finish
on the front doors — these fill our life. We park 

under the marquee, in the “Do Not Park”
zone, while my Rickie leaves me behind
to unload the car alone. When we finish
our work in the morning, every rest room
will be spotless, the long lobby will stay
as we leave it, sweet smelling and clean 

until those who hire others to clean
their own homes come and treat this like a park
where they can throw trash anywhere and it will stay
where it is until Rickie and me follow behind
to pick up after them. There is no room
to even walk in the auditorium after they finish 

dumping the tubs of popcorn they never finish
while they lounge at the movies. The greasy floor is clean
when Rickie stops mopping, while in the Ladies Room
on my hands and knees I carefully park
the stiff brush against the toilet that some behind
sat on like a throne and hope my dinner can stay 

in my belly, my canned macaroni and cheese will stay
where it is till the tile is scrubbed when I finish.
Now is when I want to scream, now crawl behind
the stall partitions on the floor that is spotlessly clean
and rage against Birmingham and Hazel Park
and curse my life that has so little room, 

curse this narrow stinking room that will finish
my dreams, make me stay on my knees and clean
in an endless “Do Not Park” zone, forever left behind.

©️ Donald Levin 2007

The F-Word

 

Last week I had lunch with a friend who had just turned 71, my own age. We talked about the absolute bizarreness of being 71, and shared thoughts about what future might be left for us. Afterwards, we went into his music studio (he’s a piano teacher and gifted and accomplished pianist), and I noticed a book by Kinky Friedman on his bookshelves.

71e4pSXoaDL._AC_UL640_QL65_If you don’t know Kinky Friedman as an author, you might have heard of him as a country singer. He named his band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys; one of his big hits was a parody of “Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” called “Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso.”

As you can tell, Kinky is not a serious, straight-laced kind of guy.

But he has a series of terrific, hysterical mystery novels that I read and loved. His detective is a former country music singer named “Kinky Friedman,” who lives in Greenwich Village and hangs around with a group of friends whose names are the same as the real Kinky’s real group of friends (Ratso, Rambam, and so on). The books are rife with Kinky’s brand of wry, post-modern, satiric humor.

I remarked on this book on my friend’s bookshelves, and we started talking about his library. When I took a closer look at his shelves, I noticed they looked a lot like my bookshelves—albeit his were a lot neater than mine. We shared the exact same taste in authors . . . there was Last Exit to Brooklyn, there was Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Updike, Solzhenitsyn, and many, many more books that I also owned.

On its face, this wasn’t surprising; after all, we were very similar, my friend and I, with similar backgrounds and life experiences.

There was even one of my own novels on my friend’s shelves, along with a book by his brother, who had written some historical mystery novels published in the 1990s by St. Martin’s Press.

My friend described his writer-brother as an alcoholic failed writer, and holding his book in my hands I said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a failed writer . . . Half the people in this room are failed writers!”

We both laughed. But like Kinky Friedman’s books, it was funny in part because I was being deadly serious.

Like most creative people, I’m never more than half a step away from the phantoms of failure. Too often I feel their cold breath on my neck, their ghostly arms holding me back.

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In my friend’s studio, in view of all these books from authors whom I had once devoured as a young man, and whose works so influenced my own intellectual development, the specters arose again. With our lunchtime discussion of aging fresh in my mind, I told my friend, “This makes me feel nostalgic for the time when I discovered all these writers.”

Thinking about it later, though, I understood that what I was actually nostalgic for wasn’t the young man who had yet to discover these great writers. Rather, it was for the future that young man imagined . . . a future as a writer, a future that lay ahead, open, waiting to be lived, containing a sense of promise that I remember hoping for and in an important way relying on to get me through the difficult times of my youth.

An as-yet unfailed-in future.

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On a visit to New York City in the 1970s, when I was in my twenties, I went into the famous Gotham Book Mart and wandered around practically open-mouthed at the literary life that storied store represented for me, with stacks of books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Kerouac, Graham Greene, Dos Passos, and other classic works of fiction and philosophy from America and Europe, as well as what was then the cutting edge of the literary life . . .  . Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, John Barth, John Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, and others.

Even now, so many years later, I remember thinking, “This is the life I want to live.”

Except in the end I didn’t.

Today, as I contemplate my gathering senescence, that future I imagined exists only as a nostalgic memory of possibility, not as a remembered past.

I tried. I paid all the dues you’re supposed to pay, including collecting rejections by the score, along with enough acceptances to keep me going. And then, in the early 80s, a hotshot New York agent agreed to represent a novel I’d written. He was the real deal, and I thought it was just a matter of time until I broke through.

Except in the end it wasn’t.

After three years of trying to place it, the agent regretfully sent the manuscript back, saying he couldn’t do anything more with it. Nobody wanted it. He didn’t want it. And he turned down the novel I’d written in the meanwhile.

I was crushed. That final rejection was it for me. I’m not meant for this, I thought. I failed.

I left imaginative writing behind. I became a writer, yes, a professional, earning my living by my pen (or word processor, as the case may be). But what I wrote were speeches, grants, newsletters, annual reports, video scripts, and everything else you can think of for hospitals, government, and businesses as big as IBM and GM and as small as one-man computer start-ups.

A body of accomplishment, to be sure. But not as a writer, with all that had represented for me. I was good at knocking out speeches on the AIDS epidemic in New York City, but not writing novels about the moral life of the universe.

It was impossible not to agonize over why I failed. Lack of talent hit me like a pie in the face, of course. Some have what it takes, some don’t; I was the latter.

Other explanations arose the more I thought—and agonized—about it . . . explanations like bad luck (another agent wanted to represent that early book but she died before anything could happen); ambivalence about the end goal; a prideful unwillingness to do the kind of sucking up I perceived I needed to do, and the concomitant lack of a mentor helping me along; the need to earn a living; a low (and lowering) self-image that wouldn’t let me consider that I actually had what it took to find a place for myself in the world where I wanted to live, along with a pathological shyness that kept me from promoting myself more aggressively, a dangerous combination; perhaps an abiding timidity that kept me from screwing my courage to the sticking place when it most mattered.

Perhaps ultimately a combination of all of those.

Whenever I felt the urge to write imaginatively (which, by the way, was relentless), the memory of having failed so spectacularly stopped me. Nobody wants what you have to say, my inner demon insisted; just stop already.

During that time, I wrestled almost constantly with what success as a writer really meant. I tried to pinpoint what it was that I had failed at.

Eventually, I became a college professor, and, a decade after I stopped creative writing, I realized I needed to start again. The pressure to create grew too insistent to ignore. After all that time, I was still smarting from failing as a fiction writer, so I began writing poetry, which I hadn’t failed at yet.

And then to my surprise, people began to publish my poems. One poem won a prize. Then I wrote and published some short stories and one of them won a prize.

Finally, I tried my hand at another novel, and wrote a series of mystery novels. I just published my seventh. I published two slender collections of poetry.

So am I a success? By some measures, yes. I kept at it; I didn’t quit; I started back writing again, itself an act of both defiance and liberation. I  became an independent author and took the means of production back into my own hands.

By other measures, no. I published all the novels myself, under an imprint I created, which meant no authority has validated me as a writer (Mystery Writers of America doesn’t even consider me a real mystery writer); the poetry is published on the Internet and tiny journals, with the books from two miniscule presses, neither of which even exists anymore. Reviews are few and far between; my work is invisible to prestigious reviewers. Despite my best efforts, each novel I publish sells fewer copies than the one before.

So am I a failure?

That question will never go away. I always tell people it’s the work that matters, not the sales or the reception, but secretly in my heart I know I don’t believe that. I think most creative people don’t. 

Everybody knows Shakespeare’s lines about there being “a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” What often gets left out is the end of the quotation: “omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Even now, I’m not sure I ever saw that tide. If it came in, it feels like I never took it.

I won’t say the voyage of my life has been bound in miseries—on the contrary, it’s been extraordinarily fulfilling in a variety of ways. But looking backward, as I was doing in my friend’s music studio, face-to-face with the reminders of a future that was as yet unfailed-in—it’s impossible not to fear that my life as a writer—the life I had wanted to live—has been bound in the shallows. And that I’ve been spent my time splashing around, near the beach, while others are out in deeper waters.

“Our doubts are traitors,” says Shakespeare. Unfortunately, they are often our best friends, too.

Several years ago, I was thinking about Bob Dylan and his own journey. We like to believe that talent will out, and so his fame and fortune were inevitable. But I started to think about what would have happened if, by some combination of misfortunes, he had never made it. I wrote a poem about that, which binds up some of the ideas I’ve touched on here. The poem imagines an alternative history for Dylan. What if he had never made it when he moved to New York, the poem asks.

What if all the breaks had gone against him? 

What if he had failed?

 

At the Red Lobster in Duluth, MN*

He left behind the frozen landscape

and empty mines of his upper Midwest home

to head east, for New York City

where he heard it all was happening.

At every stop on the way to the Port Authority

he jumped out to grab a smoke

and check on the heavy battered Gibson

riding in the luggage compartment

beside his big suitcase. In between

he took in the fields and crossroads

on the freedom highway of the vast country.

 

When he landed in the city

he walked happily down Eighth Avenue

through the smells of pickles and pizza

to locate himself in a railroad flat

on the sixth floor of a walkup

where he shooed away rats on the stairs.

Most nights he made the rounds

of the folk clubs in the Village

singing in his rough raspy voice

the songs he had written on the backs

of invoices from his father’s store.

Nights when he wasn’t singing somewhere

he spent soaking in the tub

in his kitchen and dreaming of the future.

 

But the gigs got shorter and came less often

and he started getting to parties

after the important people had left.

The record company stopped returning his calls

and one day a club owner told him, “Kid,

I’ve seen it all, and you just don’t have it”

just as his money ran out

and rather than ask his father for more

he took the A train back uptown

but not before leaving his guitar at the Salvation Army

on Spring Street at the corner of Lafayette

and twisting his harmonica rig

into the shape of the state of Minnesota

and dropping it in a trash can on the street.

Though his friends begged him to stay

he jumped on a Greyhound back to the north country

where he learned how to cook

or at least defrost and reheat fish

at the Red Lobster in Duluth.

 

He gave up listening to music at all

though occasionally lyrics formed

unbidden in his head

as he stood over the big stove

turning flounders that smelled of butter.

He hummed these secret tunes to himself

growing old behind the cries of the servers

clamoring for their orders.

 

*A version of this poem was published in Shaking Like a Mountain, March 2010.

 

So Why Mysteries?

[This week’s blog post brings back an oldie but a goodie from a few years ago. Enjoy!]

When I give people my elevator speech for the Martin Preuss mysteries (“This is a series of mysteries etc.”), one of the questions I often get is, “Do you have a background in law enforcement?” After I tell them no, I was an English professor and before that a professional writer, their follow-up question is often, “So why mysteries?”

While I understand the question comes out of genuine curiosity, I also suspect it has to do with the stereotype many people have of an English professor who wants to write the Great American Novel. And mysteries, of course, as “genre fiction,” don’t qualify.

What I typically tell people is a condensed version of the truth: I’ve always been drawn to the mystery form, ever since I was a little boy when I would make up my own episodes of Dragnet. There is a vitality in the mystery that I find more compelling than in “literary” work, which tends toward an interiority, dare I say pretentiousness, that is for me less interesting.

(Sorry, I can’t keep myself from using those quotes around “literary.”)

I say that’s a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

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When I was young, I had my own high-fallutin’ literary pretensions. The authors that I read, the ones who were doing what I thought of as the real heavy lifting of literature, were the novelists . . . Tolstoy and Jane Austen, James Joyce, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Bernard Malamud and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write what they did: serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and I prepared for that life in the usual way: took an English degree, read widely, and so on. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about (a story for another time) and no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, at the time my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in my family. It was not a pleasant time.

During summers while in college, I had a job as a movie theatre assistant manager, and when I graduated, my summer job turned full-time; the miserable, alienated college student became a miserable, alienated theatre manager. I took refuge from the disorder of my life in the seedy darkness of movie theatres at night, and in clean, well-lighted libraries during the day, trying to write but also relearning how to read for enjoyment again.

I found myself going back to reading the kinds of books I used to love: mysteries and detective stories. I discovered a world of new authors. I read through Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and especially Ross Macdonald. Except I wasn’t reading them for the mysteries or the puzzles, which didn’t interest me, but rather for what I needed at the time: some notion of how to live.

To me it felt like the detectives in the books I read were virtuous in the old Elizabethan sense of confronting and controlling experience. They were good men and women struggling to live well in a corrupt world, facing down the turmoil and tumult of that world—much as I was trying to do with my own life . . . except they were succeeding, unlike me (or so I felt).

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When in the 70s I came across the works of two Swedish co-authors, Maj Sjoval and Per Wahloo, I knew I had discovered something else that was important about mysteries. The authors of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals, Sjoval and Wahloo had consciously set out to use the detective novel format to comment on changes in their society. I realized that, far from being fluff, good mysteries could have as much depth to them as the most literary novel—in addition to being enjoyable, energetic reads. (The name of my main character, Martin Preuss, is partly an homage to Sjoval and Wahloo’s detective, Martin Beck.)

The more I read, the more I saw that good mysteries were novels of personality; great mysteries, said Henning Mankell, the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, were novels of society seen through the lens of crime. I saw how mysteries could be a powerful form for personal as well as social transformation.

Many years later, when I again started seriously writing long works of fiction after a long hiatus (yet another story for another time), mysteries were my natural go-to.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, and baser instincts seem to reign, we are badly in need of transformation.

We need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. If we’re going to survive, we need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

Writing mysteries is a way for me to do that. It allows me to enter the mind and heart of characters under the stresses of crime and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world—and, ultimately, our own.

The great crime writer Don Winslow asks the question in his novels, “How do you live decently in an indecent world?” Mysteries help give me and my readers a way to test the tentative answers to that question that Martin Preuss arrives at throughout the pages of my books.