Jack stared broodingly out the window at the falling snow, and as he did so, he reflected that he himself was like that snow, ethereal and pure, fallen down to earth only to be trampled underfoot by unfeeling, indifferent passersby, ground down into the philistine muck and cast aside in the ditch by people whose only concern was to get to work on time, or sucked up and spat out by lascivious snowblowers.
Why in all hell had he come back to this frosty, winter-desolate city? Only a week ago, he had been in New Orleans, where he had been hanging out for the last couple of months, performing spoken word poetry in sweaty, smoke-filled jazz joints, supplementing his meagre earnings by turning tricks for drunken closeted frat boys in Bourbon Street back alleys (Women he charged half price).
Everything had been going along well enough for a time, especially on the literary front. His dazzling poems of heart-ache and ecstasy, which he would come up with there and then, freely riffing on the madcap flow of the backing band playing improvisational jazz, had the audiences hollering with delight, his words sliding and swelling like liquid silver upon the tossing swoops and dives of the mad free-form cacophony of horns behind him.
“A watchawatchawatcha doin’
Tooooo my heart, baby,
Like a tweedledeedleneeeeeeeeeeeeadle
In my veins, honey
You’re like a druggadrugga
A rush! A rush!
To the head, honey,
TOOOooooo the head!
That was how he would lay it down, and the hopped-up ragamuffins in attendance just couldn’t get enough of it. The trouble came, however, when these jazz-mad cats, many of whom had come from the farthest reaches of the Mississippi delta just to bask in the glory of Jack’s honey-tongued incantations, began complaining that they couldn’t clearly make out all of the words over the blaring of the band. They demanded that the musicians turn it down a few notches, so as to permit a proper appreciation of every inspired metaphor and dizzying phonetic twist. At first the band had obliged, albeit grudgingly, but Jack soon became keenly aware of the resentment that his talent had, once again, brought down upon him. And so it was that, one star-filled Louisiana night, he had packed up his battered suitcase and begun hitchhiking his way up north, all the way to the Canadian border, where he had then jumped a freight train to Montreal.
And now here he was, staring out the window in the apartment of his long-time friend and sometimes lover Larissa, who had agreed to put him up for as long as he wanted, although she knew very well that, given Jack’s incurable wanderlust, that would probably not be for a very long time at all. Larissa was a student at McGill University, where she was majoring in English Literature. She was from a rich Westmount family, quite pretty, if not beautiful, and endowed with enough sense to have long given up on understanding Jack in his full profundity, though she recognized in him the unmistakable signs of true genius.
“What are you brooding about over there?” she called out chidingly from where she was typing away at her macbook across the room.
“Sorry, doll”, Jack muttered, pulling out a bag of tobacco, and beginning to roll a cigarette. “I was just thinkin’…. ‘bout the snow.”
“Yeah, it’s really pretty, don’t you find?”
“Yeah, sure, real pretty, that’s what they all say… just so long as it knows its place, right?”
He made no reply, but only lit his expertly-rolled cigarette, and resumed staring out the window.
“Oh, you!” Larissa exclaimed in mock exasperation, “I give up! You and that cryptical mind of yours!”
She closed the lid of her laptop.
“I’ll tell you what! What you need is to get out of the house for a few hours. Take your mind off things. Listen, why don’t you come along to my poetry class this afternoon, Jack? I think you’d really like it. It’s being taught by Walton McCready, the famous poet, and he’s just amazing! Such a passion for poetry, and so knowledgeable! Plus I’m sure the other students in the class would love to meet you, and maybe hear you read some of your own poetry afterwards. What do you say?”
Jack was sceptical. Other than Larissa, everyone he had ever met who had been even remotely connected with McGill had been a hopeless bourgeois drone, mindlessly parroting the status-quo-upholding propaganda of their fossilized professors, whatever vitality and originality their minds had once possessed now thoroughly evacuated so as to better fit the desiccated academic style of the dusty books that lined the walls of their gloomy concrete libraries. Yes, that was it, they were just like a bunch of dull, pictureless, stylelessly-bound books, all slotted into their little place upon the university library’s endless rows of mouldering grey shelves.
“Endless, fact-filled shelves… Where no one still believes in the magic world of elves…”
Hmm! That wasn’t bad. He could feel a poem coming on. Perhaps a visit to the McGill intellectual graveyard would provide inspiration for a poetical denunciation of the ossification of young minds at the hands of the academic-industrial complex.
So it was that, twenty minutes later, Jack and Larissa were stepping through the Roddick Gates that mark the entrance to the McGill campus. It had stopped snowing, and Jack’s ruggedly-chiselled jaw flashed blindingly in the late-afternoon sunlight. Several of the passing female students stopped dead in their tracks, staring at him open-mouthed, the classes they had been rushing to a moment before now completely forgotten.
They came to Larissa’s class. The course being given was entitled “Issues of Eroticism and Auto-Eroticism in Canadian Poetry”. The teacher, Walton McCready, was a tall, lean man in his early forties, with a very long but neatly-maintained red beard and antiquated-looking spectacles set upon a small pointy nose. He was wearing the standard university-issue tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, paired on this occasion with an olive-green wool scarf, which he left nonchalantly draped about his neck, in spite of the fact that it was very warm inside of the heated classroom.
McCready began by informing his students that, subsequent to their repeated demands, he would be opening the class with a recital of one of his own poems. There came a generalized squeal of delight from the students. Jack, however, stared impassively at the ceiling.
“Do you realize how lucky we are?” Larissa whispered over to him excitedly. “We’ve been begging him to read us something since the semester began and he’s always refused until now! Oh, this is so amazing!” She clapped her hands together in gleeful anticipation.
Walton McCready waited for the bustle of excitement to die down, and then resumed speaking in his thin, nasally voice:
“This is a recent work of mine, which, I have recently had the pleasure of having been informed, is to be included in the annual publication of the prestigious Fredericton Literary Review.” He cleared his throat. “The piece is entitled ‘Communion’:”
“What age-old, solemn rite is this,
Enacted now upon our lovers’ bed?
Weaving together the separate strands
Of our bodies’ amorous recountings,
Reconfiguring our lustful memories
In a joint historiography of the flesh.
As the rules of the ancient, primal liturgy demand,
We set about our urgent task;
You kneel down over me
In a kind of silent prayer
Or pagan idol worship,
A vestal virgin divested of all virginity
Tending to her sacred flame.
And presently I am within you,
And your modulated moans
Recall a convulsive litany of “Our Fathers”
Before erupting into the triumphant hallelujah.
Like a soaring one-woman choir, you…”
But at this point, McCready’s reedy monotone was interrupted by a loud interjection from Jack, his clear voice ringing out like a gunshot from across the classroom:
“I just hope you realize she’s faking it!”
“What?! Who… Who dares?” Spluttered McCready in shock and indignation, his little pointy nose colouring a deep red between his wire spectacles. Among the students, too, several voices now rose up against Jack in strident protestation.
“Not surprising, really, if you’re as much of a bore in bed as you are on paper!” Jack continued with a sneer. “If we fake some applause now, will you get this poem over with sooner too, Professor?”
“Why of all the impudent…” began McCready, striding along the main aisle towards Jack in a seething rage, but Larissa now shot up from her seat and cried out to her teacher imploringly.
“Wait, Professor! I’m so, so sorry, Professor McCready, sir, he doesn’t mean to offend, I’m sure of it! It’s just that, you see, Jack is a poet too, and he has very strong opinions where poetry is concerned. I think what he was trying to say is…”
“O-ho!” snorted McCready in a mirthless laugh, fixing Jack with a venomous stare. “So, we’re a poet, are we?”
“That’s what they tell me,” replied Jack impassively, leaning backwards on the two hind legs of his chair.
“Unpublished, I presume?”
“Unsubmitted”, Jack shot back cooly. “My poems aren’t a bunch of dried up flowers, to be pressed flat and forgotten between the pages of some dusty book!”
The class, which had been loudly inveighing against Jack, now quieted down somewhat as they absorbed the significance and power of his metaphor.
“Ha!” scoffed McCready, “The truth of the matter is you’re afraid, aren’t you, my poor fellow? Because deep down, I think you realize only too well that your so-called poems are nothing but the idle scribblings of a piddling poetaster!”
At this Jack’s jet-black eyes flashed with burning indignation, and he leapt to his feet.
“Alright, that’s it! You fuckin’ asked for it!” he shouted, and reaching into the pocket of his beat-up duffel coat, he extracted a crumpled piece of paper, completely covered on both sides with reams of thickly scrawled writing. “Now, everyone just shut your mouths, open your damn fuckin’ ears, and try to listen! You want poetry, well I’ll give you some damn poetry!”
McCready signalled for the class to be silent. “No, no, let him, let him. This ought to be quite amusing”, he told them with a snigger, leaning back against his desk with his arms folded, already savouring his coming vindication.
Sweeping back his dark locks from in front of his piercing eyes, and clearing his throat with a mock theatricality that drew another snort from McCready, Jack launched into his poem. It was one of his most recent creations, in which his earlier Beat and French Symbolist influences were infused with a new energy derived from the stream-of-consciousness improvisational style he had honed in the New Orleans jazz holes. It was an explosive combination, the full powers of which Jack had only just begun to suspect.
“This is called ‘Garden of Eden Blues’:”
“’I y’am what I y’am’,
Said Popeye to the serpent,
As Adam and Eve
Were fucking God’s brains out.
Bingo bango bongo
Tintin’s in his snowy Congo
Licking the Captain’s heart of darkness.
Buckets of eyeballs
‘The better to see you with, my dear’
‘The better to ball you with’,
Said the Big Bad Wolf,
Between puffs of imperialist tobacco,
As he fingered Bo Peep’s little red riding hood.
I want to be the poisoned fruit
I want to be the razorblade
In the candy-coated apple of your life,
Shred up all your innards,
Just to make you feel.
He finished reading, and in the silence that followed, there could be heard in the audience a number of suppressed feminine moans. Such had been the power of Jack’s inspired words, and such the virile intensity of his delivery, that a few of the girls in attendance had been brought to spontaneous orgasm in their seats.
A few seconds later, as the audience recovered from its stunned rapture, the classroom suddenly exploded into a roaring cataract of delirious applause. Never before in all of the university’s hallowed history had the halls of the McGill English Lit Department rung out with such earth-shatteringly powerful words of devastating beauty and truth, and now professor and students alike began prostrating themselves upon the floor in wild, ecstatic veneration.
“F-forgive me, m-my… m-master…,” was all Walton McCready could stammer out, as he huddled on the floor, clutching manically to a leg of his desk, like a drowning man clinging to some passing driftwood. Many of the students then commenced ripping out the pages from what they now saw as their hopelessly inadequate textbooks, or hurling them against the windows, shattering the glass. A number of the girls began tearing off their clothes in an effort to outbid one another for Jack’s attention.
A few of the students, however, had managed to gather their senses together well enough to think to run and spread the news to the rest of the department. Moments later, practically the entire English Literature faculty and student body were crowding into McCready’s classroom, cramming one another against the walls like sardines in their efforts just to get a good look at the dark-eyed poet messiah. A number of the students had begun frenziedly clamouring for the piece of paper on which Jack’s poem was written, and Jack obligingly threw it out into the grasping fray, which immediately tore it to shreds in the eagerness of each one of them to appropriate it for his or herself. They then began crying out for Jack to empty the entire contents of his pockets, in the hopes that there might be more life-altering poems inside. Their eyes flashed with a mad gleam that suggested they would stop at nothing until they had rifled through every inch of Jack’s person in search of even the smallest scrap of writing, be it only a shopping list or the washing instructions label on the inside of his shirt.
“Jack!” Larissa yelled out, “They’ll tear you apart! We’ve got to get you out of here!”
With Larissa flinging her laptop bag against the crazed horde and Jack trusting to his fists, the two of them managed to cut a path for themselves towards the exit.
In the meantime, some of the students, in the throes of poetry-induced delirium, had begun setting fire to the curtains with their pocket lighters, and soon the whole of McCready’s classroom was engulfed in flames.
In a mad dash, Jack and Larissa raced out into the corridor and out the front door of the Arts Building, and then across the campus towards the Roddick Gates. Only when they had safely mingled in with the crowd that was forming on Sherbrooke Street did they dare to take a look backwards, and when they did, it was to see the whole of the Arts Building lit up in a blazing, towering inferno. There then came a huge rumbling noise, and Jack and Larissa watched as the whole of the venerable old building suddenly collapsed upon itself in a great billowing cloud of fire.
Oh my God! Oh my God!” Larissa was sobbing, “This is so terrible! And to think I was on my way to getting an ‘A’ in that class… What am I going to do?! … And what are you going to do, Jack?” She grabbed him urgently by the sleeve of his duffel coat. “When the police get wind of how this all went down, they’ll come hunting for you for sure! They’ll try to stop you from ever reciting your poetry again. Your writing is just too powerful!”
“Fine by me,” Jack replied, lighting a cigarette, “I write poetry for me, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if other people hear it or not.”
“Yes, but Jack, don’t you see? They’ll lock you up and throw away the key! Oh Jack! You’ve just got to leave town, and right away!”
Jack took a long, meditative drag, staring out at the smouldering pile of rubble that had been the centrepiece of the university campus.
“An enjoyable reading,” he said to himself, “But I guess I won’t be sticking around for the wine and cheese.”
He turned to her.
“So long, doll. I figure we have time for one last tongue down.”
He gave her a long, smouldering kiss, lingering deliciously for several moments, and then finally pulling away.
“Got to go, babe!” he said, returning his cigarette to his lips.
He had been about to suggest they go back to her place for a more proper goodbye, but he decided against it. He wouldn’t want her to her to read too much into it, and besides, he had a boxcar to catch.