AMERICAN FUGUE


My name is not Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is also not Silas Tomken Comberbach, a name having the same initials. As a matter of fact, unlike most Americans, I don't have three names, only two, but people with three names always sound like murderers to me. How about Lee Harvey Oswald? Or Mark David Chapman? Or John Wilkes Booth, come to that? Sirhan Sirhan is a curious exception, a man who had only one name and doubled it. No doubt a psychiatrist could explain what connection if any this had with his crime. As for me, for a while back there I didn't have much idea who I was at all, but after all the identity crisis is part of the American Way of Life, and I am now happily married to my third wife, Elsa Hopkins Connolly, and living with my second, Eva Kohlrabi, who also has a third spouse somewhere. Eva is a charming woman with too much blonde hair and a bony little face like that of a cat. Perhaps the feline element explains her affinity for poets. At any rate it must have taken a lot of guts to come winding over the desert in her blue Volkswagen and confront Dean Overbird the way she did. The Dean had of course been aware for some time that I was living on campus with the Veggies (officially Associated Dietary Interest Group), one of the many factions into which the students of Desert Greens University are divided for social and residential purposes. Nevertheless, he didn't have much idea who I was either, as I had arrived in a simple blue suit with nothing in the pockets, and was pretty confused about everything except my art. So Eva took it upon herself to sort him out.
    'He is a very distinguished man,' she told him, 'and he is ill. He won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his volume American Rubai'yat, and has twice been the recipient of Guggenheim Fellowships. At present he is living in Los Angeles with his third wife and their daughter. Except that at present he is nowhere to be found, and I have reason to believe that he is here.'
    It was not clear at first how she traced me. In fact she had run into the Antelope Family, a Red Indian Country and Western group whom I in my turn had met somewhere in the desert. I was in such a vague state of mind that the experience of wandering among broken rocks and elaborate cactus trees didn't seem at all out of place, and I remember Ron Antelope standing beside his battered minibus waving a joint and telling me that he'd lived in the desert all his life and couldn't get used to the fact that he wasn't somewhere else. He thought it was the influence of television, which is always showing programs about tough cops from New York or Los Angeles. To me, on the other hand, Ron, his pretty wife who sang harmony, the baby, the blankets, the rhythm section and the vehicle they traveled in were as familiar at that moment as anything I'd seen. I doubt if they realized as they ground on toward Wexler Creek how sorry I was to see them go. Ron, Ellen and the guys, if you read this, I want you to know that our meeting meant more than almost anything to me at the time. I still have the blanket you sold me, which kept me warm at night. Also the carved wooden animal which I stared at on later nights when I was living with the Veggies. What is it? I thought at first it was some kind of wild sheep but the legs are too long. I'm afraid your stylistic conventions are strange to me. but it gave me something to count as I lay in my sleepingbag watching the living green numbers of the clock and waiting for the muttered whirrs of its unexpected and undesigned electrical storms. The clock belonged to Sandy Lorenzo, and he insisted, brightly and reasonably as always, that it observed total silence whenever he used it. It didn't even tick - there was scarcely anything mechanical in it at all. But he's young and always sleeps, so he wouldn't notice. He has no real problems except for being a sort of unofficial PR man and fixer for the Brainchildren (Associated Intellectual Interest Group) on campus.
    Nevertheless, he is a nice guy, and the Veggies are nice girls, too. No doubt I would have had a lot of fun in that situation if I could only have known for certain that I was the one having it. Naturally I could have just picked a name out of the air, e.g. James Milliner Hubbard, one which seems to go well with my stocky, greying, bearded appearance, as noticed by me in a mirror outside Dean Overbird's office when I was going to be interviewed by him after my existence on campus had finally been taken note of. But the odds against any name being the right one are literally millions to one, so that to pick a name was always in practice to feel an impostor. At night I wrote long lists of names, eliminating all of them:
                Aaronovitch
                Abel
                Abrahams
                Abromsky
                Acanthus
                Ackroyd
                Actifed
                etc.
And in Dean Overbird's office we discussed two more - Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Silas Tomken Comberbatch. Sitting on rather than in a new leather armchair and surrounded by shiny new books, as if his image had just been renovated and perhaps years of grime scraped off his genial surfaces, the Dean told me of Silas Tomken Comberbach, the alias which the poet Coleridge had assumed when he ran away from Cambridge, England, and joined the army. Fortunately, his erudition displayed itself in his correction of an officer's quotation from Aeschylus, and he was sent back where he belonged. Coleridge had been a bad Trooper, and had let his musket go rusty. Dean Overbird laughed selfconsciously, and his eyes were sad behind a long and tentative nose. In return for this news, I explained how Sandy Lorenzo had arranged with Barb and Cheryl, the two Veggies who found me sleeping behind a rock and brought me home for purposes of their own, that I should be allowed to give poetry readings in the ADIG main recreation hall, and that the first of these was planned for next Thursday at 8.30, and then he arranged an appointment for me with the university psychiatrist, a man in a small grey suit who seems to be all wrists and teeth, and not always the same teeth either, as he has a smile that can begin in any area of his mouth and never manages to occupy all of it at once.
    'My friend,' he told me, 'you are in what psychologists call a fugue state.'
    A fugue state is a state which characterizes certain types of neurotic crisis, a state in which the subject loses his memory and sense of identity and strikes out on the road for a new life. I remarked that the expression seemed to be a contradiction in terms, as one is either in a state or running away from it, but Dr Jespersen replied that life was essentially paradoxical, and that properly speaking a fugue state was something one ran through, as I had run through part of Southern California and Nevada to get to Desert Greens. He said that I needed intensive therapy, which he would be willing to give if I made an appointment with him in two weeks. In the event this has not proved necessary, as my second wife, Eva Kohlrabi, took me to a sanatorium in Blue Mountain, which I am glad to say turned out to be of the pingpong rather than the electrotherapy type.
    While waiting for this deliverance, or any deliverance, there was nothing much to do except eat stewed pulses and brown rice, marvel at the changes that had taken place in the university system since my day (though at that time I wasn't sure I had had one) and enjoy the hospitality of Barb and Cheryl, who, by virtue of having found me asleep under a boulder one morning when they were walking in the desert looking for edible succulents, claimed certain rights in respect of me which I did not immediately find out about as they were a little shy. I lived in one corner of a sort of communal room where there was much coming and going of vegetarian women. Most Veggies seem to be female, also tall, stringy, pleasant to look at. Once, though, I had a long discussion with a male Veggie, a small boy with a big beard who confided that he'd really wanted to be a Wizard (Associated Magical Interest Group (Western)) but his powers of concentration hadn't been strong enough. He'd tried hard to meditate on the Tree of Life, but wasn't sure what colors the upper branches were meant to be, so kept having to open his eyes and look at the picture again.
    'That fucking pink Yesod,' he muttered, 'that threw me. I thought it was going to be all incense and virgins.' So he found himself among the Veggies where the sex life was assured and the qualifications for acceptance merely dietary. 'I fucked the Qabbalah,' he told me blasphemously. 'You might as well be a Brainchild.'
    The motives which Barb and Cheryl had for bringing me back through the desert and installing me in a corner of that thoroughfarelike room were, I now realize, sexual. One night about a week later I woke from my hardwon sleep to find Cheryl kneeling on my stomach in one of those long Victorian nightgowns with floral decorations on them. 'Hey, Joe,' she said speculatively (it was as good a name as any), 'want me to do you a favor?'
    She undid the zipper of my sleepingbag and started feeling about, keeping her eyes questioningly on my face the whole time. After a while she developed a sort of pleased look. Taking up position around the midthigh region she bent over the part that interested her, and for the next quarter of an hour I have only the memory of her yellowbrown hair swaying slightly and the white cotton shoulders hunched forward and little sucking noises coming from the decoration of my loins. That was all she wanted - she left right after, and the next night it was Barb who came and did the same thing.
    When Sandy came to see me a few days later, I asked him about it. Sandy was elected BMOC (Big Man on Campus) last year for the second year running, and this year he is going for a unique treble. Perhaps he is trying to compensate for his appearance, for he really looks like a Brainchild, with the blue eyes, large head and colorless hair of a twoyearold, and an underdeveloped body to match. He has a deep understanding of the complexities of campus life. His campaign for BMOC last was based on a single letter, as his opponents said at the time. Unlike the other Associated Groups, the Christian Group at Desert Greens was known as United (United Christian Interest Group), an appellation which was calculated to make it a privileged faction. Sandy's campaign against this was backed by many of the Christians themselves, who felt their title was depriving them of the inalienable right to disagree with each other.
    Anyway, when I asked him why Barb and Cheryl felt so strongly about blowjobs, he answered that fellatio performed a vital social function on campus. Sexual intercourse is still associated, however falsely, with notions of pairbonding and the meaningful relationship, while a kiss is just something and nothing. Young people today needed a kind of token sex whose meaning would be more diplomatic than passionate. 'For us, it's like a kind of peacepipe,' he said, 'though naturally we have those as well.'
    I said I had thought maybe they were suffering from some kind of protein deficiency. Sandy replied that in the strictest etymological sense the vegetarian diet is the only radical diet possible. To eat a steak is to exploit it, whereas a bean, unlike a bull, is not a worker but a product. Sandy shows a real sympathy for the ideals of other groups.
    At all events, these formal greetings, for they were little more than that, became an increasingly pleasant part of my life on campus, and I was gradually able to persuade Barb and Cheryl to let some of the others join in, and I found it very restful. It helped me get to sleep when the clock started playing up. And I wrote the girls a poem, which I planned to introduce into my show:

                POEM

                Night falls on campus with its cold
                And desert landscapes of despair,
                That dark discovery of the old.
                Brightness, like Nash's, leaves the air,

                And leaves are all that's left the night.
                They shake between the vacant blocks
                Of faculty. Their springtime blight
                Is just the gnawing of the clocks,

                Is just that time just won't stand still -
                Hold still! You hold me as I lie,
                You soothe the stiff revolt of will
                And drink my straining demon dry.

    All my poems are in the quatrain form. I learned later that I am a Classicist, and believe in order, craftsmanship and the lasting value of tradition. At the time iambic lines in little blocks of abab, cdcd etc, seemed the only facts or artifacts I could be sure of. They had an absolute individual value, as opposed to the relative social value put forward by Eva Kohlrabi in her confrontation with Dean Overbird. 'I need hardly say,' she said, 'that poetry is one of the oldest and most honorable of all the arts. My second husband's work has been published in leading magazines and journals on both sides of the Atlantic - even in The Times Literary Supplement! He has been poetinresidence at the University of the Midwest, and has taught creative writing courses in five states.'
    Dean Overbird, on the defensive against this onslaught, sensed the weakness of Eva's position. 'If you'll excuse me, Mrs Kohlrabi, I fail to see why, even if your second husband is, as you put it, "hiding" on campus I should take any steps to locate him for you. After all, what rights do you have in the matter? Assuming you are like most American women in holding husbands consecutively rather than concurrently and without wishing for a moment to interfere in your private life, surely it is Mr Kohlrabi you should be holding at the moment.'
    'No healthy civilization has existed,' she replied urgently, 'which did not also have a healthy poetry. Poetry is one of the lynchpins of culture. Surely you, Dean Overbird, as Dean of Arts and Sciences at this university, have some responsibility toward culture. My second husband is part of our heritage. He is a big man in the poetry world, and it is my duty to get him back.'


It was dark on campus, and people were beginning to gather outside the main recreation hall. Through the window I could see the orange robes of Hare Krishna monks affiliated to AMIG (Eastern) shining a pale, anonymous colour - notwhite. For the first time in many months, I laughed. They were all coming to see Anon, the man who wrote those jingly proverbial poems about the Western Wind and that kind of stuff. That was me! Inside, the hall looked like before or after a wedding, just blank wooden space. Sandy was going round holding an empty blue plastic bong in his left hand and shaking hands with everybody with his right. After a while one of the Veggies thought of opening the main doors, and the atmosphere improved a little as the embarrassed groups in their variegated clothing moved in. Soon they were drinking, talking and smoking. I moved among the young people, and the space around me moved also. I had the feeling that when I had found the right place to stand the show could begin, but nobody had told me where it was. Suddenly I heard a voice shout 'Order!' and I knew it was Sandy although I couldn't see him. After some muttering, the kids moved back to the edges of the hall, leaving Sandy alone in the center.
    'You all know me,' he said. 'I've put on shows for you before, and you haven't always liked them. No, not all of you. I've put on rock concerts and classical concerts, drama, folksong, anything I could get. Some of you liked it, some of you didn't. Now I've found something I think you'll all like. My friend is going to recite tonight - I won't say my friend Who because he doesn't have a name.' Applause. 'He's going to read some poems which are all he knows. You may think this is just academic and culture and only good for wiping your ass with, but they're the only real things in the world for him. He lives for them.'
    There was a silence which I thought was bewilderment. Looking round, I realized it was respect. They all wished - the neat ones, the ragged ones, the solid ones, the desperate ones, the devout ones and the agnostic ones - that they knew as little as I did. Wouldn't that be something?
    The lights went out, and the author of American Rubai'yat was alone. Then there was a single spotlight on my face, and I saw that the students had closed in again. They stood or sat in groups of between two and ten, close together, sometimes intertwined. As I began to recite, the spot started to move (one of Sandy's ideas, so that I had to follow it, winding among the clustered figures briefly illuminated as part of their heritage passed uttering its dateless words of love and death:

                POEM

                My cherry's branches hide the streets.
                It's mad for love now. Spring is so.
                I reach upon the shelf for Keats,
                Still centre of a world I know.

                My hair is whiter than before.
                My mistresses know less and less.
                Blake's shining world I never saw.
                I have seen gardens, and success,

                But shall not find such trees again,
                though given Homer's sight, or mine
                when I was twenty-one. What then
                Shall my white brain incarnadine

                When alien rhythms pound the air?
                The sidewalk's treasures shall be palling,
                My lovelife trudged into the sere,
                The yellow leaf. And poets falling.

    There was a disturbing silence. In the loud youthful applause delivered with the feet as well as the hands that followed, I noticed that the main door was open again, and as one of the bald men in orange clapped me on the back I became aware of a woman I knew but could not remember, who walked quickly up to me and introduced me to my audience in a clear, nervous voice. Somebody whistled, and somebody else said, 'His mistresses know more and more,' and there was a big laugh. The Dean took my other arm, and they walked me carefully out of the hall. As we were leaving, brightness and levity descended on its occupants. I heard one boy say, 'Never heard of the guy,' and others agreed. 'Where in hell do you find these people, Sandy?' asked someone, and Sandy smiled. That boy is going to make a name for himself some day.

Slightly revised from the version published in First Fictions: Introduction 10
published by Faber and Faber Ltd.
ISBN: 0-571-15201-5




Copyright © Matthew Francis, 2000.




Back to Writings

Back to Home Page