by Robb Todd
A silver-bearded man stands in the middle of a sidewalk spotted with gum, a bamboo rice paddy hat tilted on his head, and he cups his hands at his waist and asks in monotone: “Can you help me? I’m poor.”
I pull a banana from my coat pocket and hand it to him, and he says, “Everything you need to know about life you can learn by watching animals,” and he peels the banana by pinching off the black spot at the bottom, not by pulling the stem. “I speak several languages, including toddler, and I’ve picked flowers from rhinoceros horns. Every ritual is forced upon us.”
He chews some banana and rubs his cheek with the back of his dirty hand, looks around, stares into shop windows, eyes the pedestrians, yells at a pigeon pecking at a chicken bone, regards the traffic. He rolls up his sleeve, revealing a faded tattoo of a sleeve, and says, “All we know are assemblages—and knowledge isn’t worth shit.”
Gordon Lish, the editor who made Raymond Carver worth reading, once said something similar about the value of knowledge to a group of writers who had gathered around him in a half-circle so he could explain to them for seven or eight hours a night without anyone stopping even to piss why they were so bad at it. That knowledge about knowledge was evident in the writing of other people he published, too, such as Jack Gilbert and Barry Hannah.
“Oh, the state of unknowing,” Lish told the writers. “I don’t even know what I’m saying. If I knew, I probably wouldn’t say it. You don’t want to know. You want to feel. The composition is coming into being. It is always coming into being. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just holding the fucking pencil and governing it. Organize the language so you control the music, change the beat.”
Lish’s shock of hair was the same silver as the beard of the man on the sidewalk chewing the banana.
“Never complain and never explain,” Lish told the writers. “You don’t look forward to what’s next. The answer is behind you. What might come is tethered to the past because you put it there. Bend it, torque it, change it. As you bend and bend, you take it toward a place of jeopardy, to where nobody has bent it before.”
The silver-bearded sidewalk man turns around and unleashes obscenities at a hissing bus. People stepping off the bus do not look back at him and the bus pulls away. He pushes back his rice paddy hat, swivels toward me on his heels and hands me the banana peel. I stuff it in my jacket pocket and he jabs me in the chest with a stiff finger.
“Just look, taste, feel,” he says. “The animal in you is sensed.”
By Gordon Lish
Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Little Island Press
By Jack Gilbert
Hardcover, 93 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
By Barrah Hannah
Paperback, 128 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.