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Notes from open land
by Wendy Lewis

Falling Monkeys

My shoulder rested somewhere between life under the sea and the architecture of science. Eye of the Whale, Shark!, Fur Seal Island and King of the Fish only a vertical oak divider away from The Physicists, The Emperor's New Mind and The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The dust jackets of Genius by James Gleick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who also wrote Chaos, were amorously pressed together. I was here for poetry.

Folding metal chairs had been set up amidships in Magers & Quinn on Hennepin Avenue for the Friday night event. The lighting was typically horrible. I always loved the creaking wood floors and mismatched carpeted areas, the slight aroma of mildew, heads bowed in the aisles, but the buzzing fluorescence from high ceilings always casts an unnaturally bright, annoyingly green hue to these holy rooms. A modest lectern had been positioned behind a microphone stand in the front. I took a seat in the fifth row back and listed into the bookshelf on my right. I was tired from a long workweek and was content, even under the brutality of bad lighting, to relax. I removed King of the Fish from the shelf and began reading about the demise of the salmon population on the northwest coast until a long time acquaintance took a seat behind me. We moved quickly through the obligatory catch up conversation, which happily leapt to politics and current events. The last statement made before the bookstore owner approached the lectern was how greed and religion continue to fuck up the world. I slid King of the Fish back into the shelf.

The room, which had been empty when I arrived, had filled beyond the capacity of available seating. Upcoming events were mentioned before introductions were made and the first of three poets took her place. The PA system was poorly adjusted and did little to enhance the speaker's voice, which sounded hooded and dark but somehow pleasing as if we were all underwater. She began with two metaphorical poems about the current "war" in Iraq, the second of which was quite good. Then I began to drift. I let my head fall against the bookshelf and closed my eyes. I went dreaming off the edge of the American occupation in Iraq into a corridor, which opened out onto a bright, pristine lawn groomed for croquet where elongated monkeys were dropping gracefully from trees and moving slowly around the yard as if they owned the place. A voice offered me a drink and then, there was applause. I jumped and uttered something unintelligible out loud. The woman sitting next to me shifted in her chair instead of looking at me.

Juliet the Poet, whose published manuscript had recently been released in lovely trade cover, stood and walked to the lectern. She gave opening comments and then began her reading. My ear was well attuned to her familiar voice and I snuggled once again against King of the Fish and floated on the current of her rhythm. Her painterly images would swell and plummet, make gentle and abrupt turns, rise up and circle. She read of personal and global failure, loss and redemption. She read of longing and confusion. I thought about the chapbook I had purchased of hers more than a decade ago and how I'd fallen in love with those tiny, dense poems. I thought about the time we'd spent since then getting to know each other; hashing out life and love, philosophy and politics. I thought about the disoriented call she made to me from the North Shore where she was in writing retreat when the Twin Towers were hit. I'd lost track of how many books she had given me, how many words and ideas we had exchanged and dissected over tables, land mail and email. We had dinner after the reading and caught up on the random detritus of each other's lives but in the end, I always know her heart most intimately through her poems.

Weeks later, I parked in an expensive downtown lot and walked across the street to The Dakota Bar and Grill on Nicollet Avenue. Billyboy, with whom I made a recording in 2000, was in town playing for a couple nights and it had been too long since I'd heard him. Gazing over the black and white landscape of the empty grand piano on stage, I sat pondering the infinitesimal possibilities within one octave and what his fingers would elicit when he touched those keys. Billyboy is an American history buff, and when he isn't rendering his haunted version of an old war-era song, he'll weave swatches of that same Americana into his improvisational themes from the civil and world wars; hymns, victory songs, drinking songs, love songs. I was thinking about how myriad artists over the ages have chronicled the struggle of humanity as we have traversed this earth with the best and worst intentions. I thought about how our personal and interpersonal foibles magnify into national and global tragedies which we never escape repeating. I traveled for the rest of the evening with no desire of navigation or need for gravity within his dark interior theatre - the oblivion of being everyone, no one, everywhere and nowhere at all.

On May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on a peaceful anti-war demonstration at Ohio's Kent State University from a range of 270 to 390 feet. Four students were killed, one was paralyzed and eight were left wounded. The violence shocked the nation. Immediately following, Neil Young penned the song Ohio, which would instantly become the anthem for an entire generation giving voice to millions of unheard American citizens who filled the streets, playing its part in affecting the course of history.

This week, I watched Neil Young interviewed outside an LA studio where he had recently completed his hastily recorded Living with War. The controversial title on the recording which has the media abuzz is Let's Impeach the President and the bobble-headed, cynical beauty queen reporter would accuse him of "just trying to sell more records". He laughed dismissively, shook his world-weary head momentarily, and quietly resumed his effort for more than sixty percent of unrepresented Americans. I wondered if I was naïve to think that even in the 21st century, a timely creative export could fill vacant mouths with dissent, fill the streets with protest, fill our consciences with the truth of our own violence, greed and shortsightedness - at least for long enough to give us another chance to fuck it up again.

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers