Issue 30, Summer-Fall 1963
The cell was not a literary cell. It was neither Nabokovian nor Kafkaesque. It was just a cell six feet wide, eight feet long and ten feet high. It contained (1) a steel cot, (2) a ventilating window five inches square, (3) no light, (4) a porcelain urinal and (5) Geoffrey Wolgamot, murderer of college students, whose execution was nigh.
Jeff stood an even six feet. His soles were broad and flat. His toes splayed. His legs ascended cylindrically to an apron of fat. His buttocks were pink and round like beach balls. His navel, breasts, and stomach were no longer lascivious. Fat hung from his shoulders like a poncho. A lattice of blood vessels covered his bald skull. His ears leaped red and pointed from his head like two hard livers. Beneath white eyebrows, two square pits revealed the whites of his eyes. Beneath his pinhole nostrils his rubberoid lips, cracked and black with caked blood, encased two canine teeth, one in the upper gum and one in the lower. His garb was that of the prison, pink denim cut like a mandarin's coat.
He entered the cell with his mandarins shining like a fevered tongue. He must look, he thought, like a great ripe pimple with his white and flaccid head popping from his pink collar. But then his mind returned to normal and he named his world. He named the four walls after the four winds; Zephyrus, Boreas, Notus and Eurus. The wall with the ventilator was determined to be west, Zephyrus, although there was no reason to decide that. Jeff set die urinal against one half of the east (Eurus) wall. On the other half was the cell door with the eleven bars. These Jeff named after the eleven faithful disciples gathered by our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The lock on the door was named Judas. The west wall was covered with tick-tack-toe games in which no one ever won. The south wall was cracked like a geophysical map, with small cracks beginning at the top and running into big cracks at the base. Mountain ranges of plaster seemed ready to fall for a last judgement. The north wall where the cot was chained was the Scoreboard. There vertical scratches in multitudinous hieroglyphs covered the wall in groups of fourteen. The ceiling seemed to belly down in the middle and Jeff called it Hesperus. The floor he named Peru because it had a jagged and irregular rise of cement from north to south. Yea, Geoffrey in his role of the namer of created things gave a name to the very cockroach that nightly walked across his eyelids as it journeyed to the urinal for refreshment. He was hight Tom Jones. Beverly McKnight, Rosabelle Fink and Lascelles Abercrombie were the names given to three mosquitoes that drifted through the ventilator and glided down on Zephyrus, dead, to Jeff's feet. An ant entered on the second day and Geoffrey promptly called him Centaur. Where he went during the following night remained a mystery to Jeff who craved company, even from the beasts of the walls.
But the naming took only, at best, some five minutes. His Jeff hood had reacted positively to the new world that he was in and it assumed control. But what now ? Jeff thought. Jeff absolutely pondered what to do to keep his mind from becoming like his guts. He decided in a twinkling, of course, that what his world needed was what every world must have if it is to be a world; it must have art. But what kind of art? Music? No, he couldn't sing. There was no opportunity to paint or draw. He could not write a novel without paper, pencil and a library. So, within a total of ten minutes he had set his course. His world was named and he would write poetry to prove that even in the vilest of circumstances the mind is still a kingdom. With his world and fate determined, Geoffrey fell asleep. He awakened three hours later, or rather what he thought to be three hours later, in darkness and in pain. The darkness continued, but the pain receded when he unhooked his tongue from his two jagged teeth.
For the rest of that first day, or what he thought to be the rest of the first day, Geoffrey relaxed his wits and exercised his mind with a subject for his poem. He failed; he did not achieve a subject. The guard brought his gravy and bread and Jeff rested. He felt sleepy. At least, he thought, I must write a first line today, assuming that it is still the first day. Again he failed to achieve. Exhausted and with his mind neutralized, he wrote, 'God has left us with our hands in- tact.' But then he looked at his hands, at the warts and scabs, at the cracked and bleeding fingernails, and he belched. A piece of ceiling fell on his head and he wrote, “When I have fears that I might cease to be.” Idiocy, he thought. Being is nothing. He walked to the urinal, stared in and wrote, 'Christ, when I look into the abyss I get disturbed.” He scratched his head and sipped the blood from his fingernails. He licked his plate clean and said with dove-like tongue, “
“Let the beasts in Arcady sing.” But sing what? Sing “at and sol-fa.” Sing “nuts”. Sing “fah la la.” Sing “fah”? Why, of course. Let the “fah” stand at the end of the line like a promontory to be washed away, to crumble down into the watery abyss of the rest of the poem, down into the wet and swelling black ding-dong of ablution. Let the “fah” stand at the end of the line like a promontory defying the colliding elements, like Ushant, like Finisterre, like The Cape of Good Hope, like Cape Horn, like Cape Hatteras, and like all the other capes of this world that deserves the very best from its watery belt. Let the “fah” stand like a captain on the prow of his ship, standing to outface the running blast, the raging sea, the watery clasp of matrimony, the fine foam of ferocious, fierce and fuming typhoons, the hard cold of Boreas' aching blast, the balmy sigh of Zephyrus' sibilant fart. Jeff, you are a man to be contended with. Your tongue trips like the pregnant aardvaark, like the loping doe, like the ruptured impala, like the lesser and greater kudus, like the musty elephant, like the lungs of the long distance runner. What a fine instrument it is die Lord gave to the likes of us for the making of fine phrases. Once more, then, into the larynx. Let the “fah” stand out like a sore thumb, like the dribbled snow, like hands cold as ice, like the silent stone, like a mossy stone, like the bouncing, bountiful, beaming, boisterous, burning, belching, bawling hiccup of the saints. Jeff rested. He dropped his tongue onto his frontal fat. Time to close my little peepers, he thought, and night came on like Burnham Wood.
When he awakened refreshed, purified and flatulant, the day held no fears for Jeff. With his newly found gratitude for loquacity, with his pristine confidence, he could face life and live it to the hilt. With the fear of blackness gone, poetry, the work of his days, came sliding into his mind like bread dough into a pan. On the second day he remembered the first line: “Let belles in Arcady sing fah la la.” Then he remembered that “fah” ust end the first line. The second line must begin, then, with “la la.” Right. And the first period occurred. He meditated the period. What now? It was obvious what must come next, the location of the song. And there is only one place where poetic song can come from, “beside the Hippocrene.” Fine so far. Arcady was emerging—and it must have birds. Jeff wrote, “For birds...” Exhausted and head splitting, he rested, for all was not too well.
On the third day, or rather what he thought to be the third day, he added, “And trees have sucked away the silent words.” At first he wanted “sipped” instead of “sucked”. But “sipped” sounded too literary to him, and, besides, birds and trees do “suck” the waters of a spring. Jeff loafed the rest of the day. He was sated and satisfied. Zephyrus sighed. Bread and gravy appeared.
Lines came more easily now for Jeff in his unbridled Jeffhood. Each day he extended the poem to the extent of his will and strength, viz., one line. On the fourth day he write, “That once told to all the world that raw...” How- ever, it was on this day that he began to doubt his memory. Suddenly overcome with panic, he realized the fragility of recollection. He summed up:
Let the beasts in Arcady sing fah
La la beside the Hippocrene. For birds
And trees have sipped away the silent words
That once could tell to all the world that raw...
He fixed that much in his mind and rested.
The next day, or rather what he thought to be the next day, our heavenly Jeff felt a new confidence. He added, 'Endeavor is the sin of fools. The flaw...” The lines for the sixth, seventh and eighth days were equally easy before a second major qualm made him summarize. At the end of the eighth day he remembered:
Let giraffes in Arcady sing fah
La la beside the Hippocrene. For birds
And trees have sipped away the sobbing words
That once told to all the world that raw
Endeavor is the sickness of fools. The flaw
In all that lust is that these flagrant herds
Forget that forty is no end. When turds
Are dropped in Eden, the eagle dulls his claw.