“What the story tells itself when there’s nobody around to hear it.” Kenneth Patchen (Painted Poem)

I’ve been rereading The Collected Works of Kenneth Patchen. It’s one of those books I’ve had for years carrying from one place to another, north to south. He is a poet of a range that doesn’t seem possible in my current world. He, more than any poet I might have named, influenced my poetic aesthetic as I was growing up. He was sort of my patron poet in the same convoluted way people realize other people’s dreams or wear zodiac charms. Not that Kenneth Patchen and I had any connection beyond being born within thirty miles of one another. I confess to not being initially crazy about his poetry. There are other Ohio poets whose poetry is more quickly attractive, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Richard Howard, James Wright, or Rita Dove to name four. But I found uncanny similarities with Kenneth Patchen in his tastes: jazz, politics, self education, John Cage, visual poems, bondage to the working class ethos and a vision of rebellion and protest as a dialect of salvation. He died when I was nineteen; I was an anonymous fan of the idea of Kenneth Patchen.

My Kenneth Patchen was an anarchist ghost I needed to abandon, or at least recognize and address as one of the secret relationships I carried in my subconscious. Like that singular Sunday my father took me to the Butler Art Institute.

We looked at the hand blown, pitched glass bells and George Bellows “Stag at Sharkey’s”. Today I still guard and cherish a lemonade set of etched amber glass with musically toned glasses and keep boxing in a kind of religious communion with my lost Ohio home. One hot afternoon I was running in Memorial Park in Houston, when to my amazement I discovered I was running alongside Evander Holyfield. We stopped in the parking lot and briefly chatted. I told him how my Dad, who had died that winter, thought Evander should throw left hooks to the body more when he was “inside”. Mr. Holyfield said he was sorry about my father’s passing, and would try to take that advice to heart. I felt more relief and spiritual connection delivering that message from a dead man to a professional boxer than I ever did in church. That seemed more about being part of the mystical body…even if it was a hint about thudding it under the ribs.

Perhaps it was growing up alongside the violence of steelmaking that bonds me to that psychic landscape. We still classify historical ages by the substance of their tools, stone, bronze, iron…I was born at the end of the unionized  steel age. One of the earliest known hot worked iron objects was a dagger found in an Anatolian tomb from around 2,500 BC. It was made of meteoric iron, i.e., iron extracted from meteors. Until the discovery of mined iron ore, all iron came from meteors, we get the name iron from the Etruscan word “aisar” meaning “ from the gods”. Traditionally making steel has been a semi-divine, cruel and secret art (consider poor Hephaestus). The subcontinent of India has a history of ironworking that extends back pasr 1,500 BC. They developed a method (now lost) for producing the Woolz Steel famous in classical antiquity as being more valuable than silver or gold. Woolz Steel was traded and used throughout the Levant to produce legendary Damascus Steel. The Damascus Steel was the even more legendary patterned curved sword wielded by Saladin against Richard the Lion Heart in Sir Walter Scott.

By 500 BC iron metallurgy was known by Celts, and in Britain and Northern Europe. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to suppose that the myth of Merlin, the alchemical magician, and Arthur drawing Excalibur from a stone, or Siegfried miraculously re-forging his father’s sword under the nefarious direction of Minne the Dwarf obliquely reflected the mysteries and costs of the human relationship with steel. One of Patchen’s early poems “Orange Bears” speaks from a childhood gift of rarefied kindness from those workers who used to be called ‘mill hunks’ when such jobs still existed.

The Orange bears with soft friendly eyes
Who played with me when I was ten,
Christ, before I’d left home they’d had
Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs
Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting
Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped
Out, and I went down through the woods
To the smelly crick with Whitman
In the Haldeman-Julius edition,
And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail
Into the cover—What did he know about
Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal
And the National Guard coming over
With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?

I remember you would put daisies
On the windowsill at night and in
The morning they’d be so covered with soot
You couldn’t tell what they were anymore.

A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!
“The Orange Bears”

Our Father wasn’t in Heaven, he worked shifts in a Bessemer Furnace.

The treatment of steel workers has been cruel in both legend and reality. From Hephaestus explusion from Olympus to Minne’s attempted assassination of Siegfried, through the strikes, private armies and National Guard battles, to their slow industrial dismemberment by depreciation and pension raids, the men who made steel have been a suffering fraternity. A brotherhood of indescribable labor, betrayal and rebellion, gave making steel a consciousness of what was near the essence of men and what would always be denied. That incredible array of humanity who walked through the gates at Carnegie, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Republic, ARMCO, US Steel all carried shattered parts of the Nothung Sword of Siegfried in black lunch boxes that they had to re-forge as the shards of an absent father’s work. The myth and the opera end in blood and fire for all and then the destruction of the known world ends in freezing and abandonment…like February along the Mahoning River.

Mills were like an unrecognized childhood trauma, or rite of passage. They were deep, and mattered.  How much did it matter to the aesthetics of my imaginary patron saint Kenneth Patchen? Or other poets who wrote quietly living in the shadows of the then dying mills like Frank Polite, E.G. Hallaman, Andrena Zawinski, Jim Villani and his famous Pig Iron Press ?

Consider Patchen’s predecessor in the Mahoning Valley, Michael McGovern, the Irish born “Puddler Poet”. McGovern, a Youngstown steel worker published Labor Lyrics and Other Poems in 1899. He wrote these lines to read at a rally to support the Homestead strikers:

…Send forth the words on spirit wings
That wealth no longer shall maintain
In this free land its petty kings,
With armed thugs to guard their reign.
With justice in this noble fight
Wealth’s private armies we defy;
With votes as weapons wielded right,
The cause of labor shall not die.
“Labor’s Cause”

When I grew up I played tennis and met girls at Homestead Park, a public space named in solidarity with the victims of the bloody steel strike in Homestead, PA at the Carnegie Works in 1892. The United Steel Workers Union Hall was a few blocks from my parent’s home. I had a summer job at Calvary Cemetery where every two weeks I cut the grass in the section with Michael McGovern’s grave. It had a tall granite tombstone with an epitaph:

“Just place a rock right over me
And chisel there that all may know it
Here lies the bones of M. McG
Whom people called “The Puddler Poet””.

A puddler was a steelworker who worked with 2,500 degree molten ore. I can’t think of many other poets so invested in a job as to meld it into their poetic identity. Later I spent a couple of years working in steel and aluminum mills. It was wild and gloriously dangerous work…at least when I was young. But what I saw in the soaking pits, slamming onto the rolling table, or shoveled up as burning scale was only the corpse of the dragon. By then the hellish struggle of steel work had been abandoned in Youngstown leaving a shrinking population, permanently unemployed workers, and neighborhood bars on nearly every corner that used to cash paychecks on Fridays given over to serve cheap liquor to a steady parade of variously mangled men.

How can you unlearn the rage of a place like that…and how can you not try every day?

With increasing rarity “The Deer Hunter” shows up in rotation on one of the cable stations. Parts were shot around Youngstown and I always watch for the scenes of the working mills and what I can convince myself are scenes of my hometown. It almost seems like an obligation, like New Yorkers watch “Law and Order” to identify the locations. Except, of course that NYC hasn’t disappeared (and well it shouldn’t since many of the girders that support its classic skyline were hot rolled in Youngstown mills). Like a nostalgia for childhood trauma, the film is magnetically horrible, but so precious we keep it locked in the deep embrace of ourselves. My late mother, who hadn’t seen a film in a theater since “The Sound of Music”, saw “The Deer Hunter”. “It’s about suicide.” she offered in her telephone review from her perennially smokey den on the Southside, “and living with suicide…like everybody in Youngstown”.

A proletariat life is a life of concrete values, the minutes of working class life are calculated by dollars and down to parts of cents. The Labor Relations Board can furnish you with the cash value of a severed finger, a lost eye or prorate paralysis. Human beings sell their bodies for a contracted time, after that transaction the rest of their life becomes secondary. In wage slavery, the wage is relatively inconsequential, slavery is always the consequence. Men in mills frequently loved the work, but hated the job (as opposed to the salaried supervisors in short sleeve white shirts in the tiny air conditioned boxes who hated their work and the men who did the work). Labor Unions bargained for money, pensions and a certain amount of safety, but what they symbolically negotiated was the illusion of humanity…that a worker had human rights and his ownership had limits in some unread clause of the contract.

If you count my 48 hours as a Teamster, I’ve been a member of four different unions over the course of my working life. The bitterest union disputes I witnessed had to do with shop rules and whose job entailed what activities. I only heard whiskey tales about the “Little Steel” strike, threatening scabs, lock outs, or “wildcats”, but I felt the powerful sense of kinship in the rebellious “No!” Rebellion appears so near to freedom as to be indistinct walking the picket line. One of the signature experiences of our current age is that restless, adolescent seething, stalking away…obstreperous refusal for an ethical principle…or perhaps it’s the loss of that capacity into marketing focus groups and manipulated images that fuels our anger.

In some ways that collective anger was what I was hoping my conceptual Kenneth Patchen could clarify for me. He might poetically calm me, change me and my history into something more spiritual and open than shattering mills, a filthy mill town and a constellation of lost promises and bars. I hoped that his writing would bring, if not philosophical order, an understanding mirror, or at least a level of respect to the proletariat chaos that ebbed and fell around me. Of course he couldn’t quiet me, that was hardly his job.

Besides the early trauma of steel mills Patchen had his own struggles, pacifism during World War II and the wars beyond, a continually deteriorating back injury and lifelong poverty. Nonetheless he continued writing and protesting for human dignity in a defeated world. He published his first book in 1936 and continued writing until his death in 1978. He is a member of the generation of poets like W.H. Auden, Muriel Rukeyser, Josephine Miles or Edna St. Vincent Millay whose work is constantly being ‘rediscovered’ and lost. He collaborated with John Cage and jazz musicians including Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Charles Mingus to set his poetry in musical recordings and extended the language and evocation of American poetry into new American forms. The Beats as well as modern popular artists like Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are indebted to his experimentation. The extensive body of his work is a shifting amalgam of poetic and visual forms all at once political, mystical, surreal, ugly, clever and humane. He expects a hard day’s work from his readers. He owned little and left much. Like the Orange Bears, he withstood an abusive world and gave away kindness.


Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010



“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)


“There is no angel that is not terrifying…”Rainer Maria Rilke

Over the last few weeks I’ve traveled around Northern New Mexico for fresh vegetables and cheese, to haggle for rugs and for a sort of spiritual companionship. Here in the Jemez Valley, where I frequently stay, there is plenty of reliable religious fellowship. This village contains theological multitudes; parishes, congregations, cloisters, bodis, rabbis, wiccan circles, agnostics and secret pueblo religions. I have friends and acquaintances who are shamans, healers, former monks, nuns, aged priests and artists. Prayer and meditation are serious parts of their life, as are moderation, tolerance and other civic virtues suburbs hint at, but seldom possess. I appreciate the fact that they let me alone.

The Dali Lama seems like a genuinely nice guy who wears brown lace ups (size 7 ½); the Pope doesn’t appear particularly nice and wears red slip-ons (size 11). Most religion seems like that to me.

I have empathy, but little sympathy for the hypocrisies that abuse the good intent of religion. Dying is lonely; I appreciate the desire to have fellowship in passing. These days I really don’t pursue as many communal sacred diversions as I once did. Nonetheless I’ve been turned away on the road to Billy Graham’s Eagle’s Nest and asked a pilgrim’s entry to a variety of shrines, retreats, sanctuaries, kivas, mosques, and paid my admission to others.

I keep going. They’re like poetry—extravagant and often sincere.

In my life now everything seems sad, serious work, even play and pretending.
Yes, I recognize my tonal symptomolgies of depression, anhedonia, dysthymia, anxiety, insomnia. I’m intimate with the litany of our modern sadnesses, and the legends of their cures. I’ve passed being fifty and avoided suicide and other age appropriate disasters; my psychological state is of little concern to anyone. In deed I’ve reached that level of venerability as to endure periods of seeming invisibility…which aren’t without a certain disconcerting charm. Increasingly I feel shunted off to less vivacious groups. So increasingly I force myself into singular travels. Long drives across a desert, a solo hike in the forest, or a few weeks alone temporarily restores my sense of independence, but I know none of us are mavericks for long.

But as I have since my youth, for adventure I pursue ideas I don’t feel comfortable with…like angels.

This summer I’ve been searching for angels. Not like a cable television documentary or expose, I’m merely asking about people who confess commerce with celestial beings. In this part of the world, I seem to find more of them. Although I studied the translations of Jeanne D’Arc’s trial (recommended) and spent hours at the website of a person who claims a Doctorate in Creationism (not recommended), I travel by word of mouth. It feels more seemly that way. Angelic people are easy to ridicule, but that’s not my intention. Ridicule is for the young or clever. I’m merely shallow enough to try to reflect passing images. I loafe and admire my fellow travelers.

South of Santa Fe there’s a place called Stardreaming recommended by my friend Cyrus. You can visit it by appointment for $22. For $3 you can view the infamous Dionysian D.H. Lawrence paintings at the La Fonda Hotel in Taos, $20 for the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, and for $13 at the Loreto Chapel in Santa Fe you can visit the Spiral Staircase miraculously constructed by a legendary traveling carpenter, thought to be St. Joseph. There’s no admission to the Sanctuario at Chimayo and it’s been there the longest.

On the appointed day of my visit to Stardreaming it was blindingly hot and windy. Like a character out of Gide or Paul Bowles I was punctual and overly polite. One o’clock. There were four women on the verandah sipping purified water, chatting and laughing loudly. I announced myself to a bearded man in a field hat. He recalled my name, gave me a map and waved his arm by way of orientation. Feeling self possessed I accepted a self-guided tour, but first walked to my car for water and a broken golf umbrella that would serve me as a parasol. As I was re-buttoning my sleeves a woman reloading her bags into the hatchback of  the rental car parked next to me struck up a conversation. She was from the United Nations. “It’s failed really…and we’re investigating different ways of expanding the ideal…like this place.” We agreed to try to meet at the Taos Inn for tea the next day. I walked steadily towards the Temple of the Stars.

There are sixteen open air temples created by James Jereb at Stardreaming. They are stone constructions limning out various interpreted alchemical or indigenous shapes and labyrinths across a flat desert hillside. Some have required massive labor, some are constructed with rare minerals, others are eidetic and weird. I walked through all of them. In spite of the wind frequently reversing my umbrella, I walked each labyrinth as patiently and as consciously as I could. I listened. The wind chimes were wild. One broke free. At the Temple of the Talking Stones I was accompanied by a butterfly intent on visiting the small blossoms that had grown between the guide stones. Wind gusts bent back the stems and blossoms, but the butterfly held on. One doesn’t ordinarily think of a butterfly as tenacious. At the Temple of the Thirteen Grandmothers I enjoyed the memory of the feeling of my mother. I was grateful for that sensation, and content to leave it. I poured out water as a formal offering of libation…perhaps to the memory, perhaps to close my dreaming.

James was alone in his studio when I returned. He offered me some water and asked me about my experience. As I started to talk, he took out a leather notebook and began writing. I wasn’t clear if he was taking notes on what I was saying, or something else. It was something else. The studio windows were opposite four 4’X 7’ paintings of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. The paintings were a combination of folk art, Eastern Orthodox icons and a trained eye. My seat faced the paintings. James said I only saw the final layer of each painting and there were seven paintings beneath each one. This technique was dictated to him by Archangels and intuition. In a prior avocation James F Jereb PhD, published a book on Moroccan Arts and Crafts with Chronicle Books (They’re the people who put moleskin back into bookstores). James was enjoyable to talk with, laughed  and appeared comfortable discussing any topic I brought up. I brought up angels.

I wept when they told me I had to give up my writing contract. I had a three book deal with a major British publishing house. My life was made. I cried, but I had to do it. They said I would paint and make art in the desert. I wasn’t a painter. I didn’t know about making art. Now Raphael is my agent. He said he’d take care of everything…No that’s your cell phone alarm, they drain the batteries. [reconstructed]

That’s how I knew out interview was ended, my cell phone battery died. I didn’t ask him why angels want to drain cell phones, or why Archangel Michael directed Jeanne D’Arc to restore the French Monarchy only to have it end in the Reign of Terror. Angels are anti-rational. Like religion they serve to permit madness in a rationalistic mind.

That James Jereb can or can’t speak with three Archangels simultaneously, or has a diminished opinion of those forced to channel, or that in his opinion Archangels are sometimes evasive, seemed insignificant next to the obvious manifestation of his sixteen temples. By some direction James came to the New Mexico Desert and materializied his enormous dream. The world his Archangels choose for him is mineral, fallow and merciless. Perhaps it takes a belief of preternatural connection to have the courage to undertake a risk that specific and eccentric. It’s the risk of a creative life, but even art monsters like Picasso or Diego Rivera weren’t directed by their muses to the bleak edges of nowhere to truck rock.

Within ourselves we recognize familiar places that we sense shouldn’t be familiar. We’ve all experienced déjà vu, premonitions, had vivid dreams, felt a deep bond to a stranger, come to a place that somehow spoke to us, or been surprised by an impulse. But only a singular few of us do anything extraordinary with that mysterious information. At best we sift through it like archaeologists finding a false door in an excavation, perhaps we pay someone to analyze the beauty out and leave us with a neurological artifact, or we chatter it away as if it was yesterday’s sports score. These experiences are disconcerting to most of us; they seldom inspire confidence. Instead we’re almost desperate to be relieved by the security of our predictable mundane. We despise digging our ruts, but hate to leave them. Our daily trenches are essential. The structure they provide allow us to walk through our lives dreaming we know who we are and what we’re doing. Like James we construct labyrinths, only interior ones that keep us in a sense of dreamy wander, but return us exactly where we began.

Perhaps it takes a message from an archangel to penetrate all the fear we have to accept to not believe in our own possibilities. I don’t know if James’ Archangels are real, but he is. I’m not sure I’d follow him to relieve the siege of Orleans, but that’s not what he’s asking. He’s only asking visitors to go off to relieve their private sieges.

 And the truth is I asked to visit him.

It’s late, almost too late to begin something, but I’ve been thinking about angels. A friend sent me a remembrance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr of the last century under the Nazis. For some parts of my life, it may take days and false starts and distractions until I can resurrect a context to retrieve information I’ve buried in my memory. So sit with me briefly waiting in my mother’s kitchen smoking a Garcia Vega cigar, wearing a second hand tan cardigan over a buttoned up white shirt and be nineteen for the last Easter I went to church. You can stroke our first real beard and page through The Cost of Discipleship for the paper we’re writing on Bonhoeffer and civil disobedience. Or you can just sip black coffee and wait for my mother to ask if you’re going to church dressed like a bum from down on the tracks.  

Like everyone since April 30, 1945 I had been sporadically searching for Hitler. Not the Hitler identified by the x-ray of his dental bridge, but my personal Hitler, the one who had escaped to the Buenos Aires of my imagination. He was the ugly knife’s edge of pacifism, the sounding depth of Humanism and the fantasy object of untold fictional searches in thousands of disturbing forms.

Perhaps my most excessive is an astonishing film by German director Hans-Jurgen Synberg entitled “Our Hitler, A Film from Germany”. With a 442” running time it took me two days to see it at the Rice Media Center (which in those days had only apropos, but ultimately unbearable canvas director’s chairs).  Utilizing actors, documentary clips, faux documentary clips, puppets, circus charades and Brechtian staging, the film presents a vision of the psycho-cultural freak show that surrounded Hitler,and still surrounds our personal cults of Hitler. The film concludes with an actor haranguing a puppet of Hitler for inventing spiritual death. Prior to that I had merely a few weeks run of “The Producers” managing the old Mt. Adams Cinema and a poorly attended week of  Marcel Ophuls, ”The Sorrow and the Pity”, weighing in at a mere 251”.  For censorous reasons we canceled the engagement of “The Night Porter” after one night, so I’ll just hint at those images in my memory’s Hitler filmfest.

I mention these images because  Hitler was closer to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and I) expected from an angel’s arrival on Earth.

An angel is generally a messenger from a God whose enigmatic will had been disobeyed, and now was in the enigmatic process of correction. With broad ecumenism messengers climb up and down heavenly ladders. In the Christian Bible Adam has commerce with angelic beings after Satan convinces Eve to eat the fruit and angelic constables come for their eviction. In dramatic contrast The Quran describes a prior struggle between Adam and angels, over domination and knowledge, and subsequently Eve is tempted and so on… Zoroastrians had individual guardian angelic spirits called Fravashi. If you are a Bhuddist you might recognize the messages of  Devas. Hindus can be enlightened by both Devas and Apsaras. The list goes on, Elohim, Melachim, Malaikah, Chenrezig, I know the individual names of Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, plus Selaphiel, Jehudiel, Baracheil, Jeremeil and Moroni. Sheraphim, Cherubim, Powers and Dominions were the classification of Angels and Archangels I had to learn in grammar school. This isn’t even begining to consider the angelic in Swedenborg, Blake, Rilke, or Rumi. And these are only the “good” angels.

Human beings have rough formed angels out of clay, depicted them in monumental architecture, paintings, statues, movies, television, plays, songs, operas, turned them into silver pendants, brass broach pins,  figurines, holy cards, and greeting cards. They’re employed to lovingly decorate nurseries, kitchens and Christmas trees.  I recognize most of this as sincere, religious expression. We also have toilet tissue, baseball teams, vigilante groups, bored strippers, snow rakes, tee shirts, copyrighted reading cards, two versions of a sexy crime fighting trio, and drops to remove secretions from dog’s eyes all named after angels. Angel wings decorate motorcycle paraphernalia and debauched angels model the line of Victoria’s Secret lingerie that bears their name.  I recognize most of that as crass, religious exploitation. Should His Holiness come under attack, the Pope retreats to Castel San Angelo; I don’t know what I think about that.

However an over familiarity with this all this angelic information, names, hierarchies and a modern sense of angelic agency seem rampant in the world I’m traveling through. I’m a pilgrim in a world with a thousand convenient petit religions and very little real moral obligation. I can connect you to a person who can get you a callback from the Archangel Raphael with the same facility a twenty year old can find you illicit drugs. It wasn’t always like this. 

When I grew up there were two types of angels, monstrous angels and guardian angels. The monstrous angels had power and proportion like Hitler. When they arrive things happen— frequently terrible things, the demise of Paradise, deluge, fire and brimstone, ends of reigns, death of every first born, Apocalypse. They didn’t bring messages about worrisome investments, finding real estate, or to tweak soul mate dating. Their fiery swords were unsheathed and they were merciless in their work.

The other type was guardian angels…sort of working familiars.  Many of us can remember a lurid religious print called “Heilige Schutengel”. It depicts a kindly fairy-like woman, looking a lot like Glenda, the Good Witch, with enormous white wings hovering as two shoeless peasant children stray across a rickety bridge over a chasm. It’s a dark and stormy night.

I grew up in a time and place when holding a union card was considered normal. Guardian Angels, I assumed were the rank and file angels, not quite probationary Clarence Oddbodies, but somehow from a lesser, dues paying caste. Guardian Angels were celestial security guards armed only with an inaudible whisper. By Ecclesiastical Tradition each of us had a personal guardian angel, but I wasn’t sure if membership applied to all mankind, or just the card carrying members of my specific religion. But the concept that lesser angels might be employed as unionized safety men seemed believable enough. There were lots of bad, dull jobs to complain about in my little city, so I assumed whomever (or whichever, I’m not quite sure about gender versus entity) had the job of guiding my spiritual safe conduct wasn’t enthusiastic about the assignment.

Even in latency I found the idea of constant surveillance creepy. But if I was hesitant about running out into traffic, drinking unmarked bottles of poison, or crossing ramshackle bridges, that was due to the work of my Guardian Angel. On the other hand,  if I carelssly sauntered towards occasions of sin, or committed sins (My precocious literacy had given me categorized lists of sins in “The Examination of Conscience”, so quite early on I recognized I had a full day of work before me.) Sister Ursa told me this made my Guardian Angel cry while trying to watch over me. Something like trying to do your math exercises after a nun slapped you.

At the risk of appearing chronologically inconsistent I feel obligated to discuss Grigori, or Watchers. The Watchers, sometimes called the “ Awakened” or “Sleepless Ones” , have a long and more colorful religious history than mine. In the Antediluvian Age there were by legend 200 Watcher Angels. These celestials fell for women. One thing led to another and before long there was a race of sort of Promethean giants known as the Nephilim [Genesis 6:4].  According to various sources including the Apocryphal Book of Enoch they brought mankind, weapons, mirrors, writing and cosmetics.  However by Genesis 6:5, they were at least partially responsible for bringing The Deluge. This early excess may account for the seeming excessive regulations on modern Guardian Angels.

Because of the exponential fruitfulness of the human race I assume guardian angels must be working on a spiritual/human assembly line, like our maligned social workers. Close the file on one soul, move on to the next, falling towers of files…a certain margin of error has to be anticipated. Maybe they apply for promotions, maybe they have focus groups and performance reviews…I can only guess based on the gifts of the Nephilim. If you have any feelings for angelic beings, please have some compassion for my poor Guardian Angel. Once I got a transistor radio in the third grade, my capacity to hear subsonic suggestions has been twisted by twangs, drumbeats and static.  My antropromorphisized Guardian Angel has changed from the beneficent Good Fairy on the bad bridge, to the worn look I get from Ms.Catar, the office manager at my Sports Orthopedist. ”Fill out the form again anyway…Whudja do this time Achilles?”.

Maybe adults don’t deserve guardian angels…maybe children shouldn’t be on collapsing bridges with or without their better angels. We all have to do the hard work in our own world; it’s not cheap or easy. “…our struggle today is for costly grace.” at least that’s what Bonhoeffer said.