Nero and O'Hara and Johnson and one of many possible true accounts of talking to the sun…

by on Oct.03, 2012


[Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun is being released this week, so I thought I would write a brief account discussing one of many possible origins for the book. This second edition from Starcherone Books includes new essays by John Bradley, Edmond Caldwell, Richard D. Allen, David Hadbawnik, Mark Scroggins, Michael Kelleher, and myself.]

It is late 2007 or early 2008. Kent Johnson is in Chicago for a reading at Danny’s Tavern and staying with a friend who lives near the Belmont El stop, in an apartment that looks over at Lake Michigan. He is excited about the reading, having with him a group of new poems inspired by a late-night viewing of Fellini’s Satyricon (or maybe it was Caligula: the two films often blur in his mind), and yet he is nervous about it too. The poems, he thinks, might still be too rough, too weighed down by historical references. The morning of the reading, he paces the room, reading the poems outloud and practicing, something he rarely does and yet something he does do today, an act he sees as being one more sign of how nervous he is. The poems themselves are a startling departure. Gone are the references to the contemporary avant-garde, gone are the satirical asides about, say, O’Hara or Silliman. These new poems are strange little creatures, very stolid, almost Lowellian. In fact, yes, he thinks as he paces, Lowell is the secret influence here, especially late Lowell, the Lowell of History.

He makes some coffee, drinks it while standing at the window, wonders about what kind of poet he is becoming and what kind of person he will have to be in order to be that kind of poet. It is a hazy winter day. There are pads of ice on the beach and a light film of fog covers the sand and water. He thinks about how, in his youth, he wanted to become Petronius, who was (and is, though he rarely talks about the Roman satirist) his favorite writer. What would Petronius think of Lowell? Both were insiders, sure, and both were close to power. But could you really compare being Nero’s fashion and festival advisor to being the poet who refused an invitation from Lady Bird Johnson? The Roman had slept with his head on the bosom of evil, and it was impossible to tell from his scathing and lurid writings how he felt about it (and hence one reason for their greatness). Lowell to his credit refused to dine with power, refused to have his picture taken with power. And yet, Johnson thinks, we often know too well where Lowell places his head.

Johnson meets some friends in Andersonville for lunch. They eat Algerian crepes and split a pot of mint tea. Afterwards he walks over to the Swedish Museum across the street, and drifts from room to room, his mind seemingly both too busy and too vacant at the same time, as if some stranger was rapidly whispering strange ideas into his head, ideas spoken in a language that at times sounded like English and at other times sounded like Spanish, but which was, actually, neither Spanish nor English. He drifts further into the museum. He is here alone, with only one worker being around, an elderly woman he waved at as he passed by the window of the downstairs gift shop. He looks at the mannequins fitted with blond wigs, the small huts with faux-stone floors, the trunks with Swedish names scratched into them. Yet what he gazes at barely registers. He keeps imaging Nero and Petronius drinking wine together. Nero is played by John Hurt, who played Caligula in the BBC series I, Claudius, while Petronius is played by an aged Buster Keaton, the gaunt Keaton seen for a few too-brief moments in Sunset Boulevard. Nero misquotes Homer and Virgil, plays his fiddle, dances around in his bare feet, and discusses his intricate and visionary plans for the next orgy. Petronius smiles weakly and nods and pours himself more wine. His blank gaze suggests he already knows what will happen to him, and what, eventually, will happen to Rome.

A guard appears from a backroom Johnson did not know existed, and begins to switch off the lights. He slowly makes his way down the blond-wood staircase. He walks out and hails a cab and gives the driver directions to the apartment near the beach. It is late. The air is dark and snow has started to drift down. As the cab moves through the traffic on Clark Street (which is very narrow, almost as narrow as the streets of ancient Rome, he imagines) Johnson realizes he will not read the new poems that night. No, he’ll try something wholly different, something he has never attempted before.

Over the past weeks, he has been mulling over a bizarre idea: what if Frank O’Hara did not actually write “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”? What if Koch had done it instead, but had presented it as a work of O’Hara’s? The idea occurred to him the previous summer, while visiting some friends in Tucson. He had driven out by himself into the desert one morning (something he liked to do at least once when in the southwest) and had reread part of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, by Brad Gooch. He’d sat on a bench that overlooked about an acre of lunar-like landscape, a spread of land filled with cacti and hairy forms of desert vegetation, and kept thinking about the last lines of the biography, where Koch begins to read “A True Account…” at various readings in New York.

And here is his own idea, an idea that starts to feel more and more real as the cab creeps through traffic: he will stand up without any paper, without any poems, and talk about his love for O’Hara, and Petronius, and speculate on what O’Hara might have been like if he had lived in ancient Rome, and if he had been selected to be one of Nero’s inner circle. Would he and Petronius have been friends, gone to the same endless parties, eaten dates and figs from the same silver plates? And then he will speak about Koch, and his admiration for Koch, and ventriloquism, and how, though some poets might be embarrassed by the fact, all poetry is a ventriloquism of the dead and the damned, an endless ventriloquism. And then, after twenty minutes or so, he will bring up “A True Account…” He will mention it almost in passing at first, referring to his favorite lines, the pun on the name Frank, for example. And then he will take a deep breath, hope that the crowd has not lost interest, and say, “Just follow me along with this train of thought for a moment…”

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Wow, I would have loved to see your “Kent Johnson” give the performance you describe.


  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Pate, love this new genre of criticism. In which you impersonate Bolano impersonating Kent Johnson impersonating Bolano plus some obscure North American poets thrown in just to fill out the ranks of the dead, both zeroed out and unquiet…

  3. Kent Johnson

    Thank you, James, for this highly unusual approach to talking about A Question Mark above the Sun. A series of these pieces, imagining other poets in strange settings, against the backdrop of the far past, would make for a very cool book. Critifiction…

    One thing that is NOT fiction and which you get exactly right: I do get nervous before any reading I give. I hate to read, in fact, and for some dark, self-punishing reason keep accepting, most times, when invited. Now I have two coming up next week in the Chicago area, and I am, very much as in your tale, anxiously trying to figure out what I will say and how I will avoid utterly failing, which I have been known to do. The stage is already set for a major disaster, really, at Lake Forest College, as you will see from their website, announcing the reading here, a quite hilariously errant framing of the facts. For quite to the contrary, I consider myself to be, in person (as many will no doubt agree), “The most *non-charismatic* poet of the world.”

    Here, by the way, is another review that just came out on AQM, for those interested:

    thanks, James. Please consider my book suggestion above…

  4. Kent Johnson

    More mystery in context of vexed experience: I’m informed by the publisher today that the very nice Publisher’s Weekly review of A Question Mark above the Sun has been mysteriously disappeared from the book’s Amazon page. Given history, I can sort of understand why places like Harriet and Silliman would want to be mum about the book, but what could be going on in this case? It better just be a computer glitch!

  5. James Pate

    Sorry to hear that, Kent. Very mysterious, and I hope it gets resolved soon. And critifiction, yes, I like that idea. I think criticism is a form of fiction anyway. Walter Pater was one of the great literary characters of the late 1800s. Adding characters just makes it all the more clearer…


  6. Kent Johnson

    David Koepsell, an attorney and scholar who teaches in The Netherlands, is one of the most respected figures in the field of literary ethics and copyright law. A fascinating Preface by him leads off A Question Mark above the Sun, and he has just posted it in full here, at the site of The Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom.