NOTES ON AUTOGRAPH
Edward Tayler, in his Shakespeare seminar at Columbia, came to class one day with a ballpoint. He held it up and said, “What do you get with a Bic pen?” After a solid week of desperate guessing, the answer emerged: you get identity with a pen. You can write your name. We were discussing Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, where a young soldier named Marc conquers the town of Coriolan and is named for it. After his fall from eminence, however, he loses his name and is unmanned, a mere “boy of tears.” A name, and thus a pen, is necessary for manhood.
As Marlowe’s Tamburlaine says of his enemies, holding up a sword: “And with this pen reduce them to a map.”
When my friends Guy and Lori left on a book for my autograph a pen, I was amused by the contradictory hubris of its name, the Pigma Micron 05, with its tiny .05 “micron pigment ink for waterproof and fade proof lines.” A pigmy point for immortal line. Write small, live long. Quills against the cosmos: writers in small.
Another contradiction is inherent in the pen. Discipline creates writing, which in turn conveys freedom, the opposite of discipline. Liberation emanates from the penned-up, tightly-held Bic pen; a pen is a jail, and also the means out of one’s own jail. As Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, but that I have bad dreams.” Dreams, escape, immortality, even libraries spring from the microscopic lines of the Pigma Micron’s archival ink.
Autographs flatter the writer, certainly, often into a kind of conceit. But without reading, there would be no writing. So my drafts reflect an increasing equality, a give and take, between the action of writing and the expectation of reading. A dedication expectably calls its objects charming, gracious, valorous, and maybe some of that name-calling rubs off on the poet.
The idea of a ballpoint pen led to the abstract idea of making and getting “points” from life. The ballpoint of a pen is a kind of seesaw’s fulcrum on which the life of the mind teeters. The universe itself rests on the tip of a pen, freely changing course as our feelings about it change. Newtonian gas laws are replaced with quantum mechanics; our concept of the world changes with the roll of a pen.
Ballpoints are a kind of ball bearing, in which the leverage of the wheel is used like a pulley to make heavy tasks lighter, as the ballpoint pen smoothes the path to points.
Ball-bearings seemed to have an element in them of “bearings,” of directional points. This led me to think of navigation, maps, charts, buoys, and ships in the third version of the poem. In the final fourth version, I expanded on the nautical theme so that it was less sudden, or intrusive.
The metaphor of oceans, or flow, made writing and reading more zen, more an accepted yin and yang than an invidious comparison. Both writer and reader are finding their way, bound up together on the edge of the word, sending out an SOS, looking to the empty sea for direction, and finding it briefly in wind or words. Language is certainly a kind of wind, likely to blow one way as the next.
“Valor, grace, and charm” reminded me of Baudelaire’s “luxe, calme, et volupté” in his somewhat seafaring poem, “Invitation to the Voyage.” So an autograph is an invitation for both the reader and the writer into the shared experience of the book.
When reading a poem out loud to others, I always paraphrase it, to make it clear, before finally reading it without excuses. This is what I might say of this poem:
You’ve left me an indelible pen for my indelible inscription, for my small bout, and yours, with well-deserved immortality.
Our feeble hand needs to use the leverage of a pen to interest the heavens in our tiny lives, to call divine attention to our dedication and our dedications, to our person contour lines, the maps that explain us, the bearings that define the seas of our identities, seas whose seemingly solid foundations stem in fact from our totally vague imaginations, seas that are romanticized by fiction into accepted, if misty, facts, whose comfort-making waves take their connotations from our own insecure need for safety and continuity, the way we plot our own lives around the novels and poems which shape our expectations, the midnight-oil readings and stormy ocean crossings that leave us spellbound, slaves to spelling, the adolescents notions that help us bring our lives into focus, that “authorize” our foaming, spouting youth with the sea scrawls of Bic pens which are themselves just as penned-up, as captive, as our young lives in our parents’ houses.
The poem is revealed in its last lines to be an invocation, an apostrophe, an address to our readers, the gods who take an interest in us and bring us to life. It asks humbly that the rigging of the poem might rope in its audience, no matter how contrived its ideas, as all pompous handwriting, or calligraphy, is simply a random wave on a page, and that the grace and charm with which I would hope to endow my readers would preserve both them and me from premature judgement and encroaching darkness.
My piano teacher, Russell Sherman, once said of my piano, on which he was trying to record The Well-Tempered Clavier, “I had thought it was oceanic, but it turned out to be only streamlined.” This was in retrospect because I had played fairly voluptuous Saint-Saens on our oceanic lives may reveal instead small rivulets, no matter how elegant the subject.
Many words in the poem do double service. “Drift” means meaning and confused direction. “Standing” is holding a specified direction at sea, as well as reputation. “Cast” is an iron mold as well as a crowd. “Contours” belong to topographic map lines as well as handwriting. “Address” means identity, salutation, costume; “spellbound runnings” are run-on spellings as well as mystical sailings; “scrawling” describes both writing and waves curlicuing to shore; “authorized” is both written and permitted; a “captive pen” is a jail as well as a clutched stylus; “pen” is a noun and a verb; “lifelines” are used by saliors and fortunetellers; both a wave and handwriting is “rolling”; the “map” at the end is the signature, the sailor’s map, and the direction made possible by writing.
The four versions of the poem were written over seven days from the 22nd through the 28th of January, 2004, at Tippet Alley Ranch in Colorado.