January 10, 2019

Jack Grapes

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MINOTAUR

I haven’t written anything in months.
Sunshine, sunshine everywhere.
I hate the sun, its constancy, its persistence in the face of misery.
I need rain, that hard, dark, pounding-on-the-windows rain.
I want it filling the gutters, splashing knee-high off the sidewalks.
How the hell am I supposed to write anything in all this sunshine.
Driving back from the airport, I take La Cienega through the Baldwin Hills.
Above the horizon, storm clouds belly over the setting sun.
I reach the top of the hill. In the distance, through a gray, misting rain,
I see the Emerald City, looking now like the tarnished pieces of an erector set.
By the time I get home, the rain’s making noise on the roof of the car.
Lori and Josh and I drive over to Borders.
Lori takes Josh off to the kids’ books, I decide to write a poem.
I go upstairs and get a bowl of soup and a book of poetry.
I set my journal to the side and read until something hooks me,
plucks some chord inside my body. A poem by Amazawa Taijirô that begins:

A man walking along the dawn highway
realizes suddenly
the back of his skull’s transparent
like a river of black lead.
In that instant unhesitating
he starts to walk backwards to the harbor.

Then I open the journal to a blank page and write a line.

Here comes the rain …

This is it, I can feel it. I’m gonna get that poem I’ve been waiting months for.
Suddenly, Josh comes running up and drops a book on the table,
almost knocking over the bowl of soup. “Hey, Dad. Look what I got.”
It’s a book called Monster Mazes, and he wants me to do one.
I don’t want to lose the poem I’m about to write.
I think to tell him I’ll be with him in a minute, but look into his face and decide against it.
We negotiate the hardest maze in the book, which takes nearly twenty minutes,
then he decides to go look for another book.
When he’s gone, I open the journal again. But the maze has exhausted me. There’s nothing left.
I look at the line I wrote—“Here comes the rain”—but the poem I had inside my throat is gone.
I see Josh over by the bookcase, his face luminous and open.
I begin to write a different poem, instead. Afterwards, I title it “Monster Maze.”

 

MONSTER MAZE

Here comes the rain (I write),
and my son Josh comes running up and plops a book on the table,
Monster Maze in bold letters on the cover.
He’s got me trying one on the first level of difficulty, where you can perish
if you stumble into a chamber of fire, or fall into a pit of snakes.
Other dangers lurk if you take the wrong path: I could become a welcome feast for rats,
“If you run into them,” he says.
Giant spiders might drink my “last drop of blood,”
and pit vipers will strike with poison fangs the moment I enter their lair.
Every path I take leads to a horrible death.
Josh assures me. “These are really complicated mazes Dad, but you can back up and try again.”
He takes my pen and shows me. “Oh, I get it,” I say, and persevere.
But it’s no use. He watches me, anticipating every wrong turn,
whistling his little whistle when I seem to be on the right path.
But it’s tiring. I just want to go home and watch the Barrera-Morales fight on TV.
“You’re doing good, Dad,” Josh says. He can tell I’m faltering.
The lines of the maze begin to blur. I’ll never get to the finish.
I decide to cheat.
I move the pencil just enough to make it look like I’m concentrating on the path.
With my other eye, I focus on the finish line
and begin to trace the path backward toward the start.
Josh is watching like a hawk now, hunched over the table, his head down just above the page.
He warns me about the Kraken, a terrible monster of the deep seas trapped eons ago
when an earthquake split the ocean floor.
Now the Kraken feeds on stray goblins and other hapless creatures.
That’s me, a hapless creature with bad eyesight and a shaky hand.
The lines blur even more. I feel a sense of despair, some great tugging at my heart.
What am I doing in this maze? Where’s the poem I was going to write about the rain?
It’s gone, and here I am in this stupid maze with nothing but the rapid pounding of the feet
of the terrible Minotaur who detests humans because they remind him
that he was once human, too. But it’s hopeless.
I decide to cheat again. I cross one of the lines and go directly to the path
I know will take me to the finish, but Josh is right there and catches me.
“Hey, you can’t cross the lines,” he says.
“Oh, yeah,” I say, feigning surprise, “ I didn’t notice.”
“That’s okay,” he says, helpful, optimistic, riding the back of my pencil toward certain victory.
It’s taking so long. I plod along, past The Giant Worm, and The Pit of Doom,
until suddenly I’ve reached the level where only the bravest dare go.
“You’re in Level Four,” Josh shouts.
“I can’t finish this,” I tell him.
I’m tired of the whole preposterous journey.
I look at him, hoping for permission to quit.
He tilts his head to one side and gives me that look, his blue eyes full of confidence in me.
“You’re almost there,” he whispers, soothing my frustration and despair,
his face luminous and mysterious.
I have no idea who he is.
He’s a light in the distance toward which I move, every day, closer and closer.
When I finally get there, he’ll be gone, I know.
“You’re almost there,” he croons.
So we’re in this together, my son and I.
I decide to trust in blind luck.
In a final chamber rests the fire-breathing dragon. He is old and his hide is thick.
His only comfort is to rest on the huge treasure he collected in his younger years.
If we defeat this dragon, the book says, the gods will transport us by magic
to the land of mortals, all our treasures in hand.
I look outside for a second and watch the cars on La Ciénega creep forward in the rain,
the rain coming down now even harder.
A hard, heavy, dark rain.

from Rattle #15, Summer 2001
Tribute to the Underground Press

__________

Jack Grapes: “I moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans in the winter of 1969, looking out of my unfurnished apartment at the rain that lasted for weeks. Welcome to sunny California, I thought. I came west because my comedy partner and I were selected to star in a Saturday morning TV series, but familiar story … it didn’t pan out. But I stayed, working as an actor. For about three years, I was still a New Orleans poet. The humidity was in my bones, and I had trouble writing during the day. Too much sunshine. But gradually the city took me over. I fell in love with the freeways. Ask me how to get anywhere, I knew the route. My friends called me Freeway Man. I drove everywhere. Loved the sense of freedom, the feeling I could be everywhere at once, and nowhere. That’s Elay. I’ve been an Elay boy for over 45 years. From Pico and Sepulveda to Western and Olympic. Don’t fence me in.” (web)

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