“Life’s not worth living if somebody thinks he’s in authority over you…
I’m merely one of a huge army, all of whom are bucking the line one way
or another for meat for their bellies… Every now and then one of us finds
the going too hard and blows his brains out, but it’s all in the game, I reckon.
++++++++++—Robert E. Howard in a letter to Farnsworth Wright, 1931
There is the feel of skeletons beneath your feet
_here in this scrubland, brick-box downtown in a busted
boom town in Central Texas, nineteen thirty-five.
_Depression years. Even the sky’s blue steel has rusted.
A Chevy noses by a dust-chalked mule and pulls
_up to a tipsy fence, a gabled house, the home
of Robert Erwin Howard, writer of pulp fiction.
_He steps out from the car and stretches to the sky-dome
of faint dusk-stars, walks to the house. He’s back from Lincoln,
_“A mummy town, a town of bones,” he writes his pal
H. P. Lovecraft. “And that’s not fancy. Every now
_and then some farmer’s plow ploughs up a human skull.”
Even this town of Cross Plains has its skeletons
_and ghosts: a headless woman hauls at something dead
in Bee Branch Stream, and at moonburst the white-veiled lady
_of the park howls, a hatchet stuck into her head.
A big man in a hat, Robert E. Howard loves
_his mother who ignites his love of poetry.
He writes for Action Stories and Weird Tales, a penny
_a word, of Vikings fighting tattooed Picts, of free
dalliance with pirate queens, of cowboys shooting snake men
_down in the deep ways of the earth. Such marvelous crap,
all breasty queens and boxer studs against uncaring
_gods. Such rude, wild-hearted prose. Such racist pulp,
with toothy simian blacks and human sacrifices
_to old gods of the dark. Before he learned to shave,
Robert learned horror listening in the kitchen to
_the stories of the family cook, a former slave.
He lives a haunted life, a life of chicken feed,
_and jerks the soda, brands the yearlings, picks the cotton,
but simmers with wild dreams of being Bran Mak Morn
_or Conan the Cimmerian, not this forgotten
man in a dry dust town. He writes the life of meat
_between your teeth and no damn boss or god above.
Outside the house, the Great Slump’s on and war is coming.
_Weird Tales can’t pay, his life is a blue ruin of
nurses and tapped-out savings, and his mother’s dying.
_The window curtains wrap the dead town up in gauze
while Robert weeps and holds a handkerchief up to
_his mother’s bloody mouth. At last there comes a pause
in the convulsive breaths, and her blue eyes congeal.
_“Honey,” the nurse tells him, “She won’t wake up again.”
As he walks out he feels the bones beneath his feet,
_reaches out a hand as if to test for rain.
The new-hired cook wipes off her hands, looks out the window,
_and glimpses someone sitting in the Chevy parked
out front, someone raising hands as if in prayer.
_Then flash, then thunder. Hammer triggered, powder sparked.
Above the right ear penetrates the bullet, breaching
_his dreaming brain, and leaves again on the left side
of Robert’s head, poor head, his poor, outrageous head,
_whose mind you might have read if you were raised in Clyde,
Needles or Bakersfield, some driveby, roadside town.
_And while you read you weren’t a dusttown girl but Red
Sonya swinging swords, were not some boy who speaks
_too fast in nervousness—a hero, in your head.
Not me. I’m forty-five, no hero. I do think of
_breaking my gentle poet’s knuckles on the pate
of the bad drunk who weaves up in the Hilton bar.
_“I have a glass. I could shove it into your face,”
he says, and weeble-wobbles on his feet, eyes flat.
_“Want me to shove it in your face?” But no. I say,
“I don’t know you. I don’t want to. Go. Away.”
_And the drunk blusters, but he does. He goes away.
So much for sleeping with the queen in silks, for being
_more than a boy from Indiana, though in my head
I felt her jeweled necklace stab my chest, each thrust,
_small gaspings as we bled together in the bed.
My queen was daughter of the janitor and loved
_me just this much: she gripped my face between her hands
and stared into my eyes and said, “You fucker.
_Don’t you dare die, not before I do. Understand?”
Those days we had a joy about the shape of love,
_about the weight of fantasy. And when it ended
I felt my hand bones shift, but couldn’t get a grip.
_The future was a starving child, belly distended,
in a deadland town. Must I live there? I thought, “Just shoot
_me in the head: bang and I’m dead, and no more sorrow.”
But I lived through it till it didn’t seem too much
_to live another day, another damn tomorrow.
And this will have to do for heroism: live,
_although it seems I’m dead already, brain cage cracked
so that the bastard spirit, a small flame about
_the size of joy, breathed in once, then exhaled its last.
I’ll do that, live my driveby life, my haunted life,
_till things shift underneath the earth, until it seems
just dream, all that we were and how you loved me for
_a while, oh sad, oh lovely, oh barbarian queen.
~ ~ ~
Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College and the author of twelve books. His books of poetry include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press); The Golem of Los Angeles, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry (Red Hen Press); Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press); and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (U of Florida Press). He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose, including The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor), The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala), Laughing Lost in the Monuntains: Poems of Wang Wei (U Press of New England), and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman). He is also an editor of several world literature literary textbooks. Among his awards are the Pushcart Prize in Poetry, a fellowship from the California Arts Council, the Poets Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, and many others. Recently, he has been doing multimedia work, working with artist Dorothy Tunnell to make a poetry graphic novel, with artist Alexandra Eldridge to make a poetry deck of cards, and with singer-songwriters John Clinebell and Ariana Hall to put out a CD of original music based on his book of WWII poems, Tongue of War (album to be titled Tokyo Burning).