Friday, August 3, 2012

Knowing Neko Case, But Only For A Moment


It was fun to write yesterday about revising a poem. So, let's try it again. This time around I've been asked not to say much about the poem until I've let you read it. Here's a poem I wrote a while ago and gave out to people to read:

With Neko Case at Temple
And if death should smell my breathing
As it passes beneath my window
Let it lead me
Trembling, trembling
I own every bell that tolls me
--Neko Case, “At Last

I sit outside the temple with Neko Case and my dog. None of us are Jewish, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Neko smokes cigarettes. It’s the only thing I don’t like about her. The smoke drifts on God’s own breeze. The dog, who doesn’t smoke (there is nothing I don’t love about her), sits low. She sniffs for scents more mysterious than cigarette smoke. Neko asks the dog a question about death, the tolling bell. The dog lifts her head. Stares at Neko. Licks her lips and yawns. Neko drags on her cigarette and hangs her head as she exhales. Smoke envelops her red hair. I can’t see her face. Sitting between them, outside the temple before which the rabbi now stands, I understand none of it. I don’t know why petting a dog always comforts. I can’t imagine how cigarette smoke sometimes entices me. And I’m mystified by the Torah passages Rabbi is shouting across the parking lot, hands outstretched, glasses shining. I don’t even know why Neko Case is here. Why she curses, butts her cigarette, and disappears. The dog follows her. That, at least, makes perfect sense to me, sitting alone outside the temple under a blue sky and the clouds of someone else’s heaven. 
*  *  *

I added the song quote long after the original piece was written, but it seemed right. Usually I put that sort of thing on because it inspired the poem, but this piece came out of different motivations and I put the song on mostly to explicate things. I didn't feel like I had said it all. I was right.

Reader reaction was mixed. The issue was Neko. I love her stuff and so it was a blast to work her into a poem. But both my wife and one other reader thought she was a distraction.

The more I looked it over, the more I agreed. So last week, I revised the piece like so:

With You and the Dog at the Temple

I sit outside the temple with you and my dog. None of us are Jewish, but that doesn’t seem to matter. You smoke cigarettes. It’s the only thing I don’t like about you. The smoke drifts on God’s own breeze. The dog, who doesn’t smoke (there is nothing I don’t love about her), sits low. She sniffs for scents more mysterious than cigarette smoke. You ask her questions about death, the tolling bell. She lifts her head. Stares at you. Yawns. You drag on your cigarette and hang your head as you exhale. Smoke envelops your red hair. Obscures your face. Sitting between you and the dog, outside the temple before which the rabbi now stands, I understand none of it. I don’t know why petting a dog always comforts. Why cigarette smoke sometimes entices me. And I’m mystified by the rabbi reciting Torah passages, hands outstretched, glasses shining. I don’t even know who you are. Or why you curse, butt your cigarette, walk away and disappear. The dog follows you. That, at least, makes perfect sense to me as I sit alone outside the temple. Under blue sky and the clouds of someone’s heaven.
*  *  *

With apologies to Neko, I don't lose anything by taking her out and I gain a lot. I like the immediacy of the second-person "you" and the way that it's now just a man, a woman, a dog along with the ideas of life, death, and maybe the ever after. Now I can see these things in the piece and understand that they aren't completely there. I have more writing to do, but already it's a more interesting than that. Or it will be when I get busy and write on.