Monday, September 14, 2009

Remembering Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll, poet, diarist and rock star died a couple days ago at age 60.

So far the only obit. I've read is this one in the New York Times. A compelling personal remembrance by Stephen Elliott is here at The Rumpus.

It's funny, I spend so many hours retracing and remembering the things I love in terms of art and literature but it wasn't until I read about his death at The Rumpus that I suddenly remembered how my very early, very adolescent writing self was so directly inspired by Jim Carroll. Really, I was thoroughly indebted to him. He mangled my perceptions for the better. He made me believe I could connect whatever I felt the strongest about. I no longer own his books, but I hope to track them down soon. The means to do so, after all, are at my disposal.

As a fellow lapsed Catholic, he was there near the beginning, 6th, 7th and 8th grade, when I first spoke aloud what I wanted to do with my life and when I started scribbling poetry and filling journals. I didn't know if such a life was sustainable but it was the only life that felt good to me. Good and right too. So much to observe, so much to dream and it was all terribly important. People had to know the news. I thought the world would appreciate my efforts even if they went largely unnoticed.

In hindsight it was a very standard way to begin. You discover rebellion, it's like you found a new set of nerves on your body, and you want it to last even when your rebellions become passe and overdone or prove impractical at every turn. Still, my memory of Jim Carroll was that he had combined things in ways that hadn't been done before. It was a curious alchemy of sports and mysticism and drugs and urban Catholicism. His revolt, despite the drug abuse, was sustainable to some degree, at least through words and this was a terrific jolt to all my own illusions. Words would see me through. They were a refuge.

Of course, any adolescent male with pretensions towards revolt and writing will have found something to savor in The Basketball Diaries, his iconic journal of a youth spent doing drugs, playing sports and being a bad Catholic. That combination, perhaps mystifying to some, made complete sense to me, even though I was young, innocent and the only drugs I did were mostly imaginary ones. (Or else failed experiments with oregano, banana peels, hyperventilation and cough syrup.) What it boiled down to with Carroll, I thought, was grace. Searching for a state of grace. That was the Catholic in him, the Catholic in me too. Sinning and rebelling because you had to find the light. And really, beyond that, just the grappling human at the heart of it.

Even now there are scenes from that book, a book I haven't read in over fifteen years or so, that are indelibly inscribed on my memory: among them, of course, some of the sex scenes, but also the time when Jim and his basketball team accidentally did a bunch of barbiturates instead of uppers, or the time when they all when cliff-jumping but had to time their jumps so that they didn't land in the floating island of refuse. In between all those incidents, I felt strongly the search for divinity, and there was always the shadows of an empty church to fall back on when the drugs were too much.

If memory serves, I first read The Basketball Diaries around 8th grade when I was attending a Catholic elementary school and had fallen under the subversive charms of my rogue science and math teacher, "Mr. Cipher", a soccer fan and poetry fan aged 26 or so who drove a red Carmen Gia convertible while wearing headphones. He espoused the joys of the Metaphysical Poets and Jane's Addiction as well as certain erotic peccadilloes that he wasn't afraid to divulge to a gaggle of rebellious yet vestal youths. When we got sloppy on champagne at our graduation party he introduced us to a few Latin terms that I would never forget. He warned me in all earnestness that the enemy of the artist is "complacency." When I asked him had he ever been to an orgy before, he said, "No, Mr. Berger, but please don't bore me with such talk."

"Try not to bore yourself. Try not to let yourself grow complacent, Mr. Berger."

Those were among his parting words.

8th grade in San Diego was a vision of wavering heat over the asphalt and girls with skinned knees chasing me, not amorously but with genuine, if groundless rage. I remember bloodied t-shirts, accidental arson, dirty notes in the margins of my math homework, altar boy antics, youth group fiascoes, Disneyland scandals, barrages of middle fingers and obscene gestures, mild gropings during detention and the beautiful orange syringes of the Bird Of Paradise flowers looking wet and dangerous in the light. I remember the sun-lit grottoes where the saints and Mary stood frozen in ecstasy. I stared at the statues wondering were they from this planet, or another that I could visit sometime soon.

And my friends and I fantasizing about breaking into the nun's swimming pool. And donning the stiff starch of the altar boy, and getting a kick out of the secret passageway behind the altar that allowed for one altar boy to do the work of two or three. And I wrote poetry, riffing on a word I heard from Jim Carroll, stigmata (my very first poem called Stigmata about playing billiards and sneaking schnapps near a glowing pool and being on some one's water bed with the girl I was very much in love with. And she giving me a set of toy handcuffs and asking me what I was going to do with them.)

And then later being "de-pantsed" by my friend right in front of her on the basketball court. I took it in stride. It was part of the larger ritual. It was when makeshift games of soccer and tetherball all made sense when combined with poetry and delinquency. Her name was Katie, and in all likelihood was the first girl I ever had a crush on.

And there was the day of the exploding taco sauce packets and my good friend Tony talking about watching his older brother's homemade sex tape. That was the day I deliberately left a poem near the door of the Principal's office who happened to be an intimidatingly stocky nun who also worked at an AIDS hospice. One of the lines in the poem was: "It is easy to say I'm an exploding staircase/but it is harder to say why I fuck the sky."

The line, I believe, was a variation on one of Carroll's from Living At The Movies, a book he wrote when he was 22.

The principal found it and had someone send for me. I was sweating, covered in taco sauce and a muddy "slide-tackle" had just opened up a scab on my knee. But strangely this didn't seem to matter. With scathing eyes and her capacity for astringent silences, she reprimanded me instead for my dependence on vulgarity, not because it was immoral per se but because it implied a lack of imagination. She did praise me for the poem as a whole, claiming it showed great talent and even greater promise. But before I left I had to rat out my friend or else suffer damaging repercussions. I had already received D's in behavior in three of my classes, even though I was excelling in the actual work. So I had to be honest with her. Not exactly rat out, but spell out for the principal exactly what he had been doing after the taco sauce packets had been detonated.

"Say it, Mr. Berger. He was jerking off, wasn't he?!", she asked.

"Not really, I mean, he was pretending to, yes," I answered, gripping my poem in my hand, my sweaty palms making the ink bleed, my voice shaking like a dying bird's.

You see my friend Tony, on the day of the taco sauce packets, was caught simulating Onanism to a nun. True, the nun's back was turned but still it was the crowning gesture of disrespect and insubordination.

He was caught by that very same Mr. Cipher and later that day, expelled. He would later spend time in jail where he flirted, very briefly with white supremacy. Oh, and before all that, the two of us went to go see Nirvana together with that brother of his, the one with the homemade sex tape.

All of these incidents, typical for most adolescents, has everything to do with my memories, which are surging back to me now in light of his death, of reading Jim Carroll's two diaries but also his poems, collected in Living At The Movies and The Book Of Nods.

I used to swap copies of these with Mr. Cipher during the middle of Mass. He said he preferred metaphysics to religion. The former was more bodily. But what was more bodily that our Savior's body, bloodied and tortured, hanging from a tree? I asked him. I wasn't even being sarcastic. I was still deeply moved by all the weirdness of my given religion. I think he conceded that point.
It may have been him who gave me my first copy of Living At The Movies, I can't remember now.

Later, when we went with him to a San Diego Padres baseball game and he asked us in the 2nd inning if it was "half-time" yet, we talked about Carroll and John Donne's analogous attempts to capture infinity on the page as the game plodded on scoreless through the 7th inning. I gave Mr. Cipher a bundle of my prose poems with the ridiculous title, "Seance For A Crotch," the title having a lot to do with my burgeoning bio-chemical feelings which generally go by the Old English word, "lust." He responded enthusiastically, made me think I was on to something.

I have no idea where he is now. I do know he told me he used to sit in his front yard on a lawn chair and swill cough syrup in the sun.

And later, another time around the same age, I was in the woods with my family. We were staying at a cabin in the mountains. It might have been hot that Thanksgiving. I think there were bright green bugs in the air and black-red trees that slowly leaned down into a chasm. Manzanitas? I think so.

Over a cup of mint tea, I was reading Forced Entries, the sequel to Basketball Diaries and I was high with a fever too, I think. I came upon a getting-off-heroin scene in the book that was the most stomach-turning thing I had ever read. It had to do with an abscess. It was writing the likes of which I had never read before. Brutally visceral. So much so that I ran out of the cabin and threw up over the railing. In some ways, I prefer Forced Entries to the first one but it's hard to say. Forced Entries includes a really timelessly risque scene with Allen Ginsberg, among other gems.

They are both chronicles of a young man's body and soul undergoing a permanent spiritual crisis. And what else have I ever written about?

Carroll's two books of poetry accompanied me as I made the transition into high school, into a more vicious Catholic battlefield where drugs and sex all somehow flew right over my head. For the most part at least. But I largely lived a life of courtly love and innocuous experiments and cafes and books. Adhering to no cliques, but wishing I was a punk poet, I accidentally fell in with jocks and football players and suffered a very mild high school experience. Yet it was when, still under the spell of Carroll's verse, especially his dope-surreal prose poems in The Book Of Nods, that I cranked out poem after poem, most of them for girls or for my friends and begin to think I could keep doing this indefinitely.

In the meantime, I stole my neighbor's pomegranates.

And wrote about it. And wrote more about it.

And most of it goes back to him, to Mr. Carroll.

Thanks Jim Carroll.

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