Letters to an Old Poet.
By Campbell Copland.
“After our conversation the other night, this whole part of myself boiled up from within. A landscape of diverse proportions reared its head where once there was just ocean void, sky on water.“
Artwork by Astrid Oudheusden.
My dear MK,
After our conversation the other night, this whole part of myself boiled up from within. A landscape of diverse proportions reared its head where once there was just ocean void, sky on water. I beheld as if for the first time a panoramic view of my issues, my hang-ups, my shortcomings, and, given you were the trigger, I would be remiss if I didn’t try sharing with you at least a sizable chunk of this panorama:
The wisdom of my father boiled down to three diamond hard words. He repeated them endlessly and would have me say them back to him all throughout my teenage years, when there was a chance of me becoming a fairly successful athlete, like Division 1 type skills, although I peaked way too early. Girls & Drugs held more gravity within me. But of course no matter what kind of haziness you involve yourself with, there’s no forgetting the wisdom of your father – you either react for or against it, it’s an unending reference point to the Self, an inwardly oriented North Star, or inaccessible mountain peak.
Three rock hewn words that’ve been polished smooth from my meditations upon them over the years. Nor do I want to write them out here as if in some dramatic reveal, but: Initiate, Improvise, Overcome.
He was a military man but also a Jew, of the self-hating variety. He often told me he’d been one of, if not the, first Jew to graduate from The Citadel, that prestigious military college of the South. He told me stories of how he was disciplined more severely on a more regular basis than anyone else in his class, basically solely on account of his Jewness. Black widow spiders planted in his boots, surprise midnight workouts, marching the track in full uniform and weaponry under that blazing South Carolinian sun.
Initiate, Improvise, Overcome. All in all, given some of the other wisdom of fathers I’ve overheard throughout the years, and given my father’s overall lack of imagination, I thank him for emphasizing those words to me from a young age.
I kissed my first boy when I was thirteen. His name was James, and he had an almost archetypal Boy of the ‘90s look: brown mop hair, sensitive blue eyes, pale but poreless skin and pouty lips, Englishman type manners. We kissed underwater whilst swimming around in the deep end of Cazenovia Lake. We’d walked down to the pier from his father’s office one summer afternoon, as was a fairly regular occurrence that summer and the summer before, and our kiss wasn’t the result of any sort of tension that’d been building between us or anything, it’d simply occurred to me, almost instantaneously, as I was swimming towards him with my eyes open underwater, and he towards me in like fashion, call it a youthful gravitational urge, but I suddenly had to have his lips on my lips. This urge, I remember, as I was swimming towards him, had first made itself known as a wild knot of tension in my stomach, similar to ‘the butterflies’ of going up and down hills at incredible, uncontrollable speeds. And there was no sort of logical reasoning that I could grasp as to how this twist in my stomach translated into kissing my then best friend, but I stayed faithful to this illogicality, perhaps because it had emanated straight from the body. I grabbed him and I don’t think I gave him a chance to demur my advances before I started kissing him, hard, but he didn’t try to back away. And when we came up for air, we smiled at each other as we wiped the water from our eyes, and we kissed numerous more times that day, but only when we were underwater.
My brother is ten years younger than me, he’s the only sibling I have. I riddled his childhood with so many titty twisters that his nipples, even today, as a full-grown man, have a fucked-up, purply scarred look about them. Because of the age difference I was a default babysitter and my parents took advantage of that shit, let me tell you. From the time I was fifteen (and my brother five) they would often go away for a weekend at least once a month, leaving me a few blank checks to order pizza with and a hundred dollars in cash (which I would use to buy drugs with), and I wasn’t stupid enough to have any big parties or anything like that, but I’d have one or two friends over, and we’d trip on ‘shrooms or drink forties or roll blunts, whatever we could get our hands on (these friends didn’t know who James was and I never mentioned what I’d done with him just a few years earlier, his family had moved away, his father got a job on the West Coast, and I never saw him again after that summer of our kissing).
Much of my teenage years were spent imbibing all different means of intoxication while my brother was watching Rugrats in the other room, and if he tried interrupting us I would flip out on him until I was red in the face, using him as a pretext to court my instabilities of rage, which, as a rough and tumble young man, I was fascinated by the rage I could generate within myself, overload within myself. And this was the context of me and my brother’s relationship for the first ten years of his life. I was a monster to him, uninhibitedly so. But being given that much control over a senseless little kid like that when I was in my late teens (and it’s not like I didn’t express my overall fucked up-ness to my parents, I have no idea what they were thinking) was too much for me. I revelled in the adrenaline of the power I had over him. We don’t really talk that much anymore. The reason he gives is that he doesn’t like my wife very much.
I didn’t kiss my second boy until I was sixteen, and it hasn’t happened since. He was nineteen and about to graduate high school and was thus throwing a party over at his house to celebrate. And because his facial hair made him look like he could’ve been in his forties, he’d always been considered as the purveyor of alcoholic beverages amongst my friends and me. In other words, he enjoyed a certain guru status amongst us, and we were set to celebrate him leaving our ranks in high style.
The night of his party I’d brought with me a few cigars (which I’d filched from my father’s humidor), and between them and the Colt 45s and the Pizza & Wings we’d ordered for dinner, I was puking off his back deck before nine PM. Always too fast with my routes of intoxication. No art of pacing. I was able to make an easy recovery of it however, and kept on partying well into the night, though you can imagine the wobbliness of mind this induced upon my faculties.
By the end of the evening, once the crowd of acquaintances had gone and we were left with our core group, and everyone’s intoxication had taken on a Dionysiac sheen, I remember my friends and I were all sitting naked around a campfire (which was an all of a sudden thing for me, as from one moment to the next I recall chatting with someone on the back deck, sharing my cigar with them, to then being stark naked around a blazing campfire), and we were taking turns making out with this very large girl, who was also a senior and about to graduate. She was beckoning us to taking turns making out with her so that she could discern which of us boys was the best kisser of the group. Mike, the fellow who ended up kissing me later on, during his turn of making out with her, actually began to finger her, right then and there, in front of us all. Though, in spite of which, after a full rotation through, she still rated me the best kisser of the bunch.
And I don’t remember how we dispersed from the campfire, how we got our clothes back on and all of that, but I was then lying in a hammock on the back deck with my eyes shut, trying to fight back The Spins, and Mike came up to me saying that he too wanted to taste the best kisser, and asked me if it that was alright before he stuck his tongue down my throat. I still remember the feeling of his beard against my face, and the sincerity of our embrace, the delicacy of our tongues, but when he asked if he could continue, I declined, mostly because of the nausea I was feeling.
The next morning, no one mentioned anything of what happened the night before, but it wasn’t awkward. Mike made me some Ovaltine with two percent milk and drove us all out to the lake for a swim.
Whew! That’s all for now. Completely out of breath. Thank you for Being There! More soon.
Your enchanted response has prompted more. It continues to spill forth:
Before I met the woman who was to become my wife, I went through a period of over five years without having sex, without having intimate contact of any sort with another person. From my last two years in college all through my time spent in DC.
If ‘island’ were a verb, that’s how I’d describe what I was doing during that time. Part of it was self-imposed and part of it was out of helplessness. Either way, I was unable to compromise how I spent my time, Other People be damned, especially the people I’d chosen to interpenetrate sexual organs with and share intimacy on the lips with. Leading up to my dry spell, all my attempts at establishing love relationships were more and more feeling like wastes of time. The courting and the romancing and the getting to know one another. I could no longer stand that kind of stuff. I was done with the whole ceremony surrounding love (or my teenaged version of it). I resented it more than anything, as it took me away from the real task at-hand, the writing.
For instance, all through my college years I paid the nominal fee to keep a single dorm room and would regularly go to bed at something like seven PM and wake up at three AM so that I’d have the twenty-four hour computer lab all to myself and I could focus on my work the way I wanted to. Reiterating it in this fashion makes it seem surprising that I even had friends at all, but I did. I suppose people were intrigued, and perhaps I fed off of that a little too much. In the end, what I do, I do because I think it will give me the best shot of getting laid without having to beg for it. Though in high school I wasn’t past begging for it, which I’d imagine is a rather common sentiment amongst pubescent teens, but by college I just couldn’t. Not that I didn’t think having sex with a woman wasn’t charged with the bliss of life, I just couldn’t bend myself to the labyrinth of their moods outside of our mingled states. The thought of being forced to tiptoe around someone else’s arbitrarily produced shitty mood superimposed itself on my rush to pleasure. It made me picky and flaccid in equal measure, and without flaunting it I did enjoy turning girls down.
I was always getting mismatched during that time: the people I wanted to sleep with didn’t want to sleep with me, but the people I wasn’t attracted to were attracted to me, and/or some missed opportunity would arise between myself and the people I wanted to sleep with. And around that time, my best friend (Andrew) and I had a clean break of a falling out because he’d fallen in love with me, and I flinched from that love, perhaps cruelly. And I do still think about it, namely in regards to how much I may’ve invited his love.
Just as much as he wanted to convert a straight guy, I wanted a gay man to fall for me, but the fragile confusion that resulted from these Masks of Desire still endure today, long after we’ve put the masks aside. And even though we haven’t spoken since graduating from college, over a decade ago now, I still have the thought that at some point we’ll reconnect. When I travel out of town, to Buffalo or Rochester, or last summer when my wife and I took the kids down to Baltimore for a conference she had there, I’ll walk into restaurants and shops that I’ve never been in before, and I’ll wonder if he’s there, I’ll wonder if this is the point where our destinies reconverge. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve actually spotted him, whether it’s another patron of the shop or if it’s someone who works there, for a second or two my whole body and mind thinks that I’ve spotted him, but of course I’m always mistaken, and for the rest of the day memories from my college years, from my time spent with him, will be looping through my head, and the sexlessness of those five years I spent as if in recompense, for the knuckles and whorls that I’d configured my desires with.
It was during that time too when I was writing the best poetry I’ve ever written before or since, I mean I perhaps wrote the poem that I was meant to write, which ended simultaneous to my engagement with my wife, when I then decided within myself to focus solely on prose from that point forward. Although, when the poem ended, even though I’d made this decree to myself, it wouldn’t be for awhile before I actually started to try and put my ideas and desires into prose stylings. I spent the interim going through an obsessiveness of reading and music listening and film watching, taking notes, copying out quotes and passages to meditate over, trying to ingrain them within me as some subliminal, watermarked jewel.
The inertia I wielded in the finding of my wife and the buying of a house and having kids, I thought I could do Normal and still live the secrets of my life. I thought Normal would never get the best of me, that, given the physique of my human form (the blond hair, blue eyes, etc.) that I could use the precepts of Normal pretty much at my whimsy (as a way to stay above suspicion from objective glances), but it’s a bureaucracy just like anything else, anything else that isn’t my solitude. And given that my spouse was the first person to lead me into their intimacies in what felt like forever, I didn’t know what else to do but not let her go. A marriage is comprised of people who use each other for reasons of normalization, you can hide almost everything of yourself in this pact, to everyone else except your spouse. I make myself vulnerable in my displays of monstrousness to my wife, which are as ugly as they are inevitable. Although it seems like anything I put out into the objective world is quivering with obvious vulnerabilities and thus monstrous, my wife doesn’t know how to handle any of it, either from me or from within herself. No fluency of darkness. Throughout the above mentioned solitude I was ablaze with in DC, I regularly went alone to the Kennedy Center to see Rigoletto or The Flying Dutchman or Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor and I would get all dressed up in a suit and tie and I would buy a box to have all to myself as I watched these performances, and I felt like Walt Whitman, that cosmic loneliness. And then the nights after the Kennedy Center I’d go to the Black Cat on 14th Street and watch Mission of Burma or Yo La Tengo. The trick of my loneliness was that I wanted someone else to be seeing it, to be observing it, I wanted to get credit for it essentially, from a beautiful girl no less, but of course marriage is so much more than that. And I disclaimered and prefaced myself many times over, alluding to my unstable temperaments, my questionable orientations. For our fourth date I took her to the Kennedy Center to see Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major. Emanuel Ax was on the piano that evening and I was very excited (the programmes at the Kennedy Center are rather obvious, easy sells, but replete with solid performers, but yeah, even something by Liszt was rare). I arranged for a taxi to take us there, and had made dinner reservations for afterwards, and she’d bought a new dress specifically for the occasion—our marriage already seemed spelled out in these details. When we got there she asked a nicely dressed stranger to take our picture with her phone, something that made my skin crawl, and from that moment on I knew I’d made a mistake. I absolutely abhorred having my photo taken, and I’d been clear to her about that I think on our very first date (every time I see my photographic reflection I can’t believe how disgusting it looks, whatever images a camera picks up of the objects it points its lens at have only a passing resemblance to the reality of the objects in question, which, sure, makes them true works of art when that power is used aesthetically), but the digital marking of each semiprecious moment with a photo is so instinctual for so many people, and I knew she was a part of that culture, and the cruelty that I felt for her after that moment only shows how little I was willing to compromise myself to find love, something I obviously softened to, three kids later, but I don’t know if softening to it actually helped me to find it. I have basically a whole other interior life that my wife can’t share in for one reason or another, our love is based on the thankfulness we feel when one of us has done the dishes or put the laundry away. Of course there’s the beauty of our kids to refer to, but I’m a much more decadent parent by nature, I expose and she restricts (granted, out of protection), and that runs analogous to our differences at every level of our love.
I share these thoughts with you because you are a part of my interiors. I know by now the physics of my memory and so I know that you will always be in the present tense within me, long after Goddard.
The Blood Pudding – August 29, 2020
Campbell Copland was born in Syracuse, NY, received an BA from St. Lawrence University, an MFA from Goddard College, and currently adjuncts at Cazenovia College and SUNY Morrisville. His work has previously appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Funicular Magazine.