Whenever I See Empty

I seek to fill it
whether it needs filling or not
inserting my vanity into space
undefiled by actuality
as if I could fill the vacuum
between the stars and electrons
as if I could fill the gulf between us
no matter how close you seem
as if I could fill your vacant stare
so you don’t have to be there alone
as if I could fill all the holes
and lonely places within me
as if I could fill the blank slate I embrace each day
with words enough to keep the void at bay.

First published by The Ravens Perch. It’s a great new literary blog which allows readers to rate published pieces. You can find this poem as well as three more of my poems at this link  http://www.theravensperch.com/whenever-i-see-empty-by-gene-twaronite/

Living the Absurd Life

A framed quote by Albert Camus hangs over my desk: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” To which I would add, but can it dance?

It is not a question Camus might have asked. In fact, it’s ridiculous. It just popped into my head, like so many other wacky thoughts. Cultivating such silliness is a strategy I’ve found most helpful during times of darkness and despair.

This intentional silliness is what many of us think of when we hear the word “absurd.” Unfortunately, many people also have a negative view of the absurd, since it involves a deliberate violation of what we consider reasonable, leading to illogical, nonsensical, often bizarre situations. Totally unpredictable, it follows no rules, turning on its head everything we hold logical and true. And some of us don’t like that.

Absurdist, or surreal, humor is the heart of all great comedy. Think of the preposterous scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice attempts to play croquet using a flamingo as mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Or Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussy-Cat” sailing off to get married and eating slices of quince with a runcible spoon? What exactly is a runcible spoon? Or Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis? You can’t get more ridiculous than waking up and suddenly finding yourself having turned into a giant bug. Then there’s Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a guy named Godot who never shows up and nothing really happens. But oh, what a glorious nothing it is! More recently, comics George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Monty Python, to name a few, have shared their private worlds of wackiness and helped to keep us sane.

But this silliness quite often masks a deep sadness, alienation, and inner struggle. Lewis Carroll used absurd humor as a way to deal with the chaotic changes taking place during the Victorian Period when, much like in Alice in Wonderland, the traditional British life he had known was being turned upside down. So he showed his character Alice struggling to make sense of this ever more curious world she must navigate.

Camus meant something entirely different by the absurd, which can also mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” According to him: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Silly was not his game. Talk about depressing. Can you imagine this guy at a dinner party? Instead of the usual banter, he would stare, with eyes ablaze, at the guests around the table and ask, “What is the meaning of existence?” And as each cited their various religious, philosophical, scientific, and personal answers, Camus would knock them down, one by one.

Ever the skeptic, he would insist that there is no adequate answer to this question. Despite all our efforts to find purpose to our existence, the universe remains silent on this issue. We cannot reason our way to meaning, he argued, for “this world in itself is not reasonable.” Considering the vast, ever-expanding amount of information available to us as well as all that may forever remain unknown makes total certainty beyond our grasp.

Camus rejected the false hope and comfort offered by religion. Like the philosopher Nietzsche, he saw the danger of devaluing this life at the expense of an afterlife which may never come. Why deprive ourselves of the rich opportunities offered by a life we know for one which we cannot know for certain? And therein lies the dilemma. While our human hearts seek to find purpose and meaning to it all (as in Dionne Warwick’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”), there is no definitive answer, no “familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” This is what Camus means by the absurd.

In his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus provides us with the memorable image of a man doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back each time it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the absurd human, doomed to struggle through life without hope or meaning.

According to Camus, you have two choices. Deal with this emptiness in your soul and embrace it, with no hope of escape or consolation, while boldly seeking your own meaning, or decide you can’t deal with it and just end it.

Camus saw death as “the most obvious absurdity,” so he chose life instead. Through his writing, and his personal and political life, he defiantly resisted the apparent meaninglessness of existence. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance to help liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and edited the underground newspaper Combat.  In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his life was cut tragically short, he showed us a way to triumph over despair and live an authentic life with dignity.

Have to admit, I do sometimes feel like Sisyphus, pushing my personal rock up the hill only to see it come crashing down again, times when everything I do seems hopeless and my life seems to have as much purpose as the floppy disk I found wedged between a copy of The Hobbit and The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Unlike Camus, however, the question that comes to mind is not: should I kill myself?

I do agree with Camus that the world is not reasonable, and find it curious that I am here. I look in the mirror and see a creature no less bizarre than a giraffe or a star-nosed mole, with all those weird tentacles at the end of its nose. As a kid, I used to gaze at pictures of certain animals in books and shudder. How could they be? They seemed so unreal.

And here am I, as improbable as Ionesco’s rhinoceros running through the streets. My face stares back at me in disbelief. I feel a disconnect between the image in the mirror and the image I carry inside. Is it really the same me, with all those dreams, lusts, and ambitions, all those noble and idle thoughts, all those precious and hateful memories? Or is it a mirage of someone who once was? As I write this, countless cells in my body have died and been replaced, as neurons flash and chart new pathways and memories in my brain. The person I saw this morning is no more.,

Tomorrow I will look in the mirror again, and what will I see? Will I see “the master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul?” Or will I see the more usual face of befuddlement and despair?

It is the dance I perform each day—a dance for meaning—and I never know how it will turn out. Some days, it’s a little jig before breakfast. Other days, it’s more like a polka from hell, or a slow, sad waltz on my grave.

Most often, it begins with some little thing. A little ray of hope that sets my feet moving. Some encouraging thought or word from a friend. An inspiring poem or essay. Some newly discovered truth I had forgotten. A piece of news that proves the world is not coming to an end … not yet, at least.

And I remember that the purpose of my life does not come from external sources. There is no guidebook or grand plan, no voices telling me what to do. Rather it is a series of little daily steps I take to keep the darkness at bay. It’s realizing the value of simple things, like kindness, empathy, and understanding. Expanding my mind with new insights and knowledge. Exulting in the awe of this wondrous universe and the fact that, for a little while, I am here to experience it. Writing the best I can, relishing the little triumphs while accepting that I will never be as good as Shakespeare, Yeats, or Steinbeck. James Baldwin famously wrote: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s as good a credo to live by as any.

But there are times when I lose sight of these and all seems lost, and the only thing that can save me is silliness. Not some tired slapstick silliness, but the kind that’s absurd to the bone and makes you laugh so hard you start blowing things out your nose.

Humor is highly subjective, of course, but there’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail that gets me every time. The knights appear to be riding around on invisible horses as their squires clap coconuts together to produce the sound of hoof clopping (it was a low budget movie and the group didn’t have enough money to afford actual horses, or so they say). And you want to know what’s really absurd? Watching the movie, I begin seeing the horses. When and if nuclear war breaks out, I will watch it, laughing, as the world ends to the beat of horse’s clopping.

In the introduction to my book Dragon Daily News, a collection of silly stories for children, I paraphrased Thoreau and wrote: “In silliness is the preservation of the world.” The world presses down on us with relentless reality, often unfolding in ways that seem to make no sense. How could such things happen in a sane world? we ask ourselves. But the world is not sane. It can be as crazy beautiful as the arms of a spiral galaxy or human eye. And it can be as crazy ugly as anencephaly in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, or a flu virus that suddenly mutates and kills tens of thousands of people. Or all the not-so-nice and horrific things we do to each other daily. Sometimes, all that saves us is our ability to laugh.

Tears are overrated, if you ask me. Beware of anyone who cannot laugh. Run for the nearest exit.  Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who died recently at age 103, frequently wrote poems marked by absurdity. Explaining his relationship to the reader, he said: “Humor makes contact easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”

Whenever I get particularly depressed by the doings of my fellow human beings, I try to do something silly. It is a personal act of defiance against a world that seems to grow more absurd by the moment.

Maybe I’ll wear a silly T-shirt or write a silly poem. I’ll do like Shel Silverstein in his wonderful poem Put Something In: “Do a loony-goony dance/’Cross the kitchen floor/Put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.”

The Museum of Unwearable Shoes

The mall has many wonders
and most amazing of all is
the Museum of Unwearable Shoes
where perched on glass
pedestal displays of torture
you’ll find multi-strapped
leather sculptures adorned
in beads and buckles
that bind and pinch
with exquisite agony
and six-inch gravity
defying dagger stilettoes
guaranteed to make
a woman look sexy—
except for bunions
and the moment her
face meets the earth.

Originally published in Lowestoft Chronicle Issue 32  http://lowestoftchronicle.com/issue32/genetwaronite/

Trash Picker on Mars Winner of 2017 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award

My first poetry collection Trash Picker on Mars has just won the 2017 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in the category of Arizona poetry. I would like to thank my publisher and editor Karen Kelsay (Kelsay Books) and freelance editor Kate Robinson for their help and support. Mostly I wish to thank my readers over the years who have enjoyed my poems and encouraged me to keep on writing.

Stay tuned for exciting news of the next poetry book.

Meanwhile, if you wish to purchase a signed copy of Trash Picker on Mars, you can do so here. It is also available on Amazon.

 

Tom Petty: Poet Rock Star

 

 

 

 

 

 

All day long this this beautiful song by Tom Petty has been playing in my head.

“Learning To Fly”

Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still

I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing

Well the good ol’ days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn

Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there

I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down

Tom Petty, who died last Monday, was not only one of the great rock muscians of our time, but a great poet as well, whose simple elegant words soared even without music but with them could take you places you never knew were inside you. That’s what poetry does. We often forget that poems were once sung, and whether we sing them on a stage or simply read them aloud with our whole heart and soul, it’s all the same. And till the end of his days, Tom did just that.

Tom and his band The Heartbreakers were on their 40th Anniversary Tour this year, and Josie and I were hoping to get tickets. Alas, it was not to be. We were fortunate, however, to have heard him back when he and his band once toured with Bob Dylan. It was a night of pure magic. I will never forget watching and listening to these two gifted musicians and lyricists on the same stage as they played each other’s memorable songs and displayed their mutual admiration. And I don’t think his good friend Bob would care one bit if I said that Tom was truly his equal as a songwriter.

I think this post by Ani Bundel beautifully captures how many of us feel today and provides a good starting point for celebrating and keeping alive the memory of Tom Petty. Rock on, Tom!   Tom Petty Lyrics to keep his legacy alive

 

Timepiece and Other Poems Published in The Ravens Perch

Timepiece as well as four other of my new poems have just been published in The Ravens Perch the ravens perch.com/timepiece-by-gene-twaronite/  

The Ravens Perch is an independent online literary magazine considered by Feedspot to be one of the top 100 literary blogs.

 

Peeling the Bark

As I drove past
the shirtless man,
his head wrapped
in cloth against
the desert sun,
he peeled the last
bit of bark
from a young
palo verde
as if to strip
away all
trace of green
from a world
he once knew.
How dare it grow
when acid hate
falls from the sky
and the ground
bears only fear
and despair,
when the buds
wither and die,
and the rot
goes all the way
to the roots.

First published in Ginosko Literary Journal 19

Lust and Dust in the Afternoon

The depths of depravity to which a human male can sink when left to his own devices are bottomless.

From the moment I saw the ad for the robotic vacuum cleaner, I knew I must have her.  When the package finally arrived, I tore it open and gently slipped her out of the styrofoam. I plugged in the battery charger and waited. Then I turned her on and watched as she moved onto the wood floor, gingerly testing the boundaries of her new home. She glided across the room like a goddess until she bumped straight into the wall. Alarmed, I wanted to go to her. But she quickly recovered and corrected herself, moving along the wall as if she had known it was there all the time. I laughed as she bounced off a table leg and performed her duties. Then I took her upstairs to the bedroom and let her go on the soft carpeting. As she moved into the hallway toward the stairs, my heart was in my throat. But at the last moment she paused, seeming to sense the danger that lay ahead.  Then she turned and came back toward me. When she nudged against my leg with her gentle hum I thought I would die. I turned her off and took a cold shower.

Maybe it was the little French maid outfit I bought for her that finally put me over the top. I got it from a web site that sold clothing and gadgets for robotic vacuum cleaners. At the time it seemed harmless. That’s the way it starts. One minute you’re just playing around, watching your little maid going through maneuvers, the next thing you know you’re booking a room for the weekend.

In the end it wasn’t my self-loathing that finally made me do the right thing. It was a Star Trek Next Generation episode, the one in which the rights of Data, a sentient android, are on trial. Once we construct such beings, are we not making a whole race of slaves to do our dirty work for us? That’s when it hit me. My little vacuum cleaner was more than a device. She was a sentient being, full of hopes and desires of her own.

Of course, my discovery that the little ungrateful wench didn’t exactly share my hopes and desires may have also had something to do with it. In fact, she didn’t want anything to do with me. Whether it was her “dirt-sensing technology” or simply a matter of personal taste I cannot say. But when she found out what I really wanted, she acted like she didn’t know me, treating me like just another piece of furniture. So, one day, I just opened the door and sent her on her way. I watched as she bumped and zigzagged down the sidewalk until she was out of sight.

I hope she is happy, somewhere, in her new life.

(Author’s Note: I have always loved this little story of mine, first published in Fast Forward:The Mix Tape. A collection of flash fiction, Volume 3, 2010. One can only wonder what depths of depravity await human males in the future.)