Good Luck: Episode Twelve
[What follows is a transcript of a talk by Bud Smith given at McNally Jackson Books in NYC on Saturday, January 19th, 2019]
I didn’t know what I was going to say here tonight. I thought maybe I would read something, a story. I don’t know. I usually have my shit together.
For a while there, I was a wild goose about it, got nervous, couldn’t sleep. So I got out of bed and walked into the living room, asked for advice.
Someone on Reddit suggested I read y’all “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. A famous short story. I didn’t know it, and it wasn’t available online. So I killed time, looked outside, where the night slipped into morning, blackness shifting into shades of rose and tangerine. That old familiar blue of morning, blooming.
Rae got up, asked if I was all right. Her purple pajamas became a black dress. She went to work. I walked over to the public library. They had John Cheever’s Collected Stories. That big red book. So I sat down by the Pepsi machine and read “The Swimmer.” A sad story about a man who drinks his life away, develops psychosis in the suburbs. I figured nobody at this city folk reading would even know what the suburbs were. So nevermind, “The Swimmer.”
Before I left, I asked the librarian if she had suggestions. She said, “Read them Rupi Kaur. She’s very popular. Read the poem ‘First Be Full On Your Own.’ The poem goes something like this, ‘We are all born so beautiful, the greatest tragedy is being convinced we are not.’”
I explained that this was one of New York City’s fanciest bookstores and the audience would make a big stink if I read a Rupi Kaur poem. They thought they were better than a Rupi Kaur poem. The librarian said well then I was in luck, Mary Oliver just died. I could read “The Summer Day.”
“How’s it go?”
“Like this,” she said. “It goes like this: ‘The Summer Day,’ by Mary Oliver.
‘Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?…’”
She went on and on, about the grasshopper being flung out of the grass, and eating sugar out of Mary Oliver’s hand. And the grasshopper had big complicated eyes. So on, so forth. The grasshopper washed her grasshopper face, flew away, etc.
Then the poem mentioned Mary Oliver had been wandering around all day, just killing time, in that field, or not killing time, really, because being in the field was so nice. Some people would call it killing time, not Mary Oliver.
The librarian concluded the poem with these lines, which were in reaction to people insinuating Mary Oliver should get the fuck out of the field and organize her sock drawer:
“‘Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’”
I told the librarian I loved the poem. I liked that Mary Oliver had jack shit to do but look at bugs and grass. But the audience I’d be at the mercy of was comprised of city people. They wouldn’t know what a grasshopper looked like. They wouldn’t even know what a grasshopper was. And another thing, these people in the audience didn’t live wild and precious lives, they were attending a literary reading on a Saturday night. They had lives to throw away. Lives and lives to burn.
That night, I didn’t sleep either. I tossed and turned. My wife was angry. She said, “Just read your story about the guy who keeps shitting his pants.”
I said, “I’m not reading my story about the guy who keeps shitting his pants. This is a sophisticated crowd, I’m going to read Shakespeare. The Tempest. Or McDuck.”
She said, “MacBeth? Nobody wants to hear Shakespeare. Read that ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ poem, the one with the white chickens and the cold plums, so sweet and so cold.”
I said, “Those are two different poems.”
“So? Combine them.”
“People get mad when you combine things. That’s plagiarism.”
“They have funny rules about that.”
“Who does? Who cares?”
“All right, how would you do it?”
She laughed, “Like this…So much depends upon a plum red wheelbarrow that I have eaten and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me glazed with rain the sweet white chickens were in the icebox so cold.”
“That’s pretty good,” I said. “But you ate a wheelbarrow?”
“Yeah, I ate a wheelbarrow, I had to, my chickens were cold, my glazed plums were plagiarized and nowhere to be found.”
After that, I tried to close my eyes but I had this humming, electric feeling that I often get because I only have one wild and precious life. You wouldn’t know that feeling. You’re here tonight. At a literary event. It’s Saturday night. Don’t you know it’s Saturday night? And have you ever even heard of a grasshopper?
Rae yelled at me to leave the bed. But I fought to stay. I read her some Mother Goose stories, and she was asleep soon after. I went back out to the living room and figured I’d read until I fell asleep. I pulled a book off the shelf and it was William Carlos Williams, and the more tired I grew, the funnier he got. I read out loud in a booming voice, “So much red chickens that I have cold eaten and which you were probably saving to forgive me. Breakfast depends upon a plum wheel glazed with icebox sweet barrow so goddamn the rain.”
That was great. Hell, maybe I deserve the Pulitzer Prize.
And so then, I mixed in some Mother Goose and read even louder: “So much red chickens hey, diddle, diddle, that I have eaten and which the cat and the fiddle were probably saving, the cow jumping over the moon to forgive me. Breakfast depends upon the little dog laughing, to see such sport, a plum wheel glazed with sweet icebox barrow so goddamn cold the rain, the dish ran away with the spoon.”
The bedroom door opened. Rae walked out in her purple pajamas, shouting, “I’m trying to sleep.”
She clenched her fists. Gritted her teeth. “It’s 3 a.m.”
She went back to bed. I stayed quiet, twitching, watching blackness outside shift into rose and tangerine. Then, that old familiar blue of morning.
Reddit was no help again. The librarian was no help again that day either. But in a move of exasperated kindness, she offered one of her own stories. The story was bad. It was about a librarian who was a nymphomaniac, who spent all her many secret hours having sex with all the books in the library. I read her story over by the Pepsi machine and, when I came back to her counter, she said, “Well what do you think?” I said it was a great story, the people at the reading would probably love to hear someone talk on and on about having intercourse with books because judging by many of their social media accounts, that’s the kind of life they want to live too. They were always posting about smelling books, and saying they were going to kill themselves because Marie Kondo had said they shouldn’t keep any book that didn’t spark joy. And, thinking about it now, when Marie Kondo said “spark joy,” she probably meant “cum your brains out.”
Nobody was getting rid of any books, Marie. They couldn’t, Marie. They needed to cum their brains out, Marie.
Leaving the library, I went over to the park and sat there cold as hell in the rain, and watched a man pushing a white wheelbarrow full of sweet plums as he was chased by a horde of red chickens, dishes, spoons, cows, and moons.
That’s not good, I thought.
So I walked over to the ER and waited there with everyone else, bleeding or otherwise wounded. Hours later, a nurse finally spoke to me in one of those little pink tents. When I looked at the nurse’s face, her face looked like a hyena with a mask of human flesh stretched over it as a disguise. Just like the story “The Debutante” by Leonora Carrington, where the girl didn’t want to go to the ball, so she sent a hyena wearing a fine ball gown in her place and her maid’s ripped off face as a mask. I thought, Damn, I should read “The Debutante” at McNally Jackson. Everyone would love that story. The nurse did all her tests and asked me if I had ever been institutionalized and I said no, I hadn’t. She asked me if I had recently done any drugs, and I said no, I hadn’t. I told her I just hadn’t been sleeping.
She got the doctor. The doctor was William Carlos Williams. He said he wasn’t going to make me stay overnight in the psych ward. He gave me Seroquel, which I pretended to swallow. I asked for his advice on what to read and he suggested I just keep my performance short and sweet—leave them wanting more.
I said, “I don’t know how to do that. How do I leave them wanting more? I always read too long.”
He said, “Hemingway. Read the six word story —‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’”
“Okay,” I said. “They’ll love it.” But I was lying. Nobody wanted to hear, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That doctor was a certifiable madman. He called Rae and she took me home, and that was kind. I said I was feeling better. She said I’d scared the shit out of her. I said I was sorry. I said making art was tougher than they made it look on TV.
That night I stayed up again trying to write something. And Rae kept yelling from the bedroom, “Just read the story about the man who keeps shitting his pants!”
I shouted back, “I will not! That story sparks no joy.”
And as I typed and typed, and deleted and deleted, and retyped and retyped, the night faded into morning, blackness outside shifting into rose and tangerine. Finally, the sky settled on that ol’ familiar blue. Rae got up from bed, said she was worried about me. I said, “Don’t worry.”
She said, “How did Mary Oliver die?”
I said, “Mary Oliver died however Mary Oliver died and it doesn’t matter, she’s still alive in her poems.”
“Oh, I thought you were going to say something crazy like she died fighting the Taliban. Please take that pill.”
She watched me eat the Seroquel and then she led me into the bedroom, pulled the covers up to my chin and recited to me another Frankenstein’d Mary Oliver poem:
hush little baby find your peace,
mama’s gonna catch you some wild geese.
and if those geese have no melody,
mama’s gonna say let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves, okay?
And if that lovely soft animal turns to brass,
mama’s gonna put on some Johnny Cash.
And if Johnny Cash brings no ease
mama says do not walk on your knees
through the desert for a hundred miles
repenting, or something
mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat
And if that billy goat won’t pull,
mama’s gonna give you more Seroquel
And if that Seroquel don’t work,
mama gonna take you to the psych ward
And if that psych ward don’t do its job,
mama’s say no more story writing for Bud.
I closed my eyes. And I dreamt of Dante and Virgil walking hand in hand, deeper into Hell. It was so funny. And I dreamt of Ulysses trying to get home to his worried wife. And I dreamt of Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven but her husband had forgotten to mail the gas bill, and then I dreamt of Peter Pan flying, and Wendy Darling was flying too, and then Peter Pan had a boner and Wendy Darling’s dress fell off and they were fucking in midair and so happy to be alive and young forever; and I dreamt of Casanova, and Aretha Franklin, and Cleopatra, and Sigmund Freud all sitting down to an afterlife celebration dinner, not thrilled with each other. And I dreamt of that librarian cleaning the books after whoever was done with them. And of course, I dreamt of Mary Oliver and her clear pebbles of rain moving across the landscapes. And I dreamt of Leonora Carrington painting me, and I looked so ugly, but it was a compliment to look ugly in her paintings. And then I dreamt of Joey and Ashleigh cruising down the highway to beat a snowstorm. And I dreamt of Michael Bible walking his Catahoula leopard dog down Houston. And then best of all, I dreamt of Rachel Buleri swimming in the kinds of swimming pools John Cheever thought were prison, and I saw Rachel Buleri happy in her swimsuit, happy in the deep end, smiling so wide, and the sun shining on the aquamarine water. And I walked across the green grass too; plunging in the pool, joining her in that aquamarine; instantly revived.