a gray day in town; or, the irish poets

IT’S A GRAY DAY IN TOWN today, and I still haven’t ordered firewood for the winter. I keep waiting for the price to drop, but there is no drop in sight, and so I wait and put it off, as I do with most things. At an intersection, I paused to watch a half-torn paper bag float down the sidewalk in the wind, along with some rustling red leaves. There is an old house there that hasn’t been renovated, a grand 19th century ruin, and someone has spray painted an image of a man screaming on it.

On Sunday, I was in Treimani down on the southwest coast for a friend’s birthday. We went into the forest, and he brought along a friend who knows about forestry and what the names of the trees are and how to manage them. Treimani is a peaceful place, and I like that nearby there is a village called Metsapoole, “into the woods,” because I can think of no better name for a village, or the circumstances of my life. We learned about ash trees, and there were a few baby spruces we were urged not to step on. My friend recently inherited his farm, and when we went there, relatives turned up and gave him buckets of potatoes. My friend is different from me; he still lives with his family. In the field there in Treimani, there are mushrooms as big as saucers.

Recently, I had something like a panic attack. I did not know what to call it, because I was never taught words for these things. This is actually a problem for men, naming our feelings. We certainly feel things, we just were never taught what they were. This is why the default emotion shown by men is typically anger. This feeling though I have decided to describe as a panic attack. First, there is a wave of energy that makes it hard to focus on anything else. It can happen after being reminded of something or seeing someone you’d rather not wish to see. There you are, trying to write, and it just appears in the distance, a storm of bad feelings, then swoops in with lightning. I try to ignore it, but to manage them, I go home, lie in bed, and caress myself, rubbing my arms, and saying soothing things. I talk to myself — it’s almost like another person is speaking to me. Then I say, “Don’t worry, this will pass. Of course it will! You’ll get through this, you always do.” 

For whatever reason, thinking of Wes Anderson films helps me to survive these situations. I like to think of Isle of Dogs and Rushmore, I like to think of Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Sometimes I think that I am just one of these characters from one of his films. My life is just a film, and so I don’t need to worry about what happens in the film and should rather enjoy it as an observer. I think of Federico Fellini movies too, like 8 1/2. That one is my favorite. The main character might as well be me, lost in fantasy, memory, reality.

Flying up in the air. 

In a world shaped by external circumstances, in which there are few certainties, and role models are hard to come by, any kind of help I can get is therefore appreciated. One day, I came across an old article about the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who underwent a special procedure at the age of 69 that reinvigorated his sexual appetite, and he spent the rest of his days bedding young radical poets and journalists. His erotic adventures fed his creative output and he died happier, if not a truly happy man. Something about this story helped me to imagine a future in which I was not a dispossessed soul at the whims of panic but one who could enjoy life. Maybe there was another way, the way of Yeats, the way of the debauched and lascivious Irish poets. History might remember them as bastards, but to survive in this cold, cruel and windy world, one has to be a bit of a bastard it seems.

An Estonian version of this column appears in the November 2022 issue of the magazine Anne ja Stiil.

like home

WHAT I REMEMBER about Bari Centrale is the tall palm trees outside, even in November, and the graffitied frescoes of the saints on the walls outside the tall apartment houses. I remember the carabinieri milling about outside the doors, and that smell, that awful beautiful smell of life and filth that is everywhere with you when you go to Italy, and I remember the girls with the black hair and black jackets. I remember the fresh fruit markets, where they sell juicy persimmons, and the roast chestnut sellers. Bari is just one port city, and nobody really goes there on purpose. Italy for outsiders is Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, maybe Palermo. Italy is the blue grotto, Italy is checkered tablecloths, and the singing gondoliere of Venice and famous nude statues. Bari is on nobody’s list. But I have to go to Bari, because Bari is where my cousins live. I cannot go to Italy and not go to Bari. Sometimes I take the train all the way from Rome to get to Bari. Sometimes I fly. In the airport, you can buy mafalda and red wine. For me, it’s like home. 

This is the food I grew up eating, these are the manners I learned from my elders. When someone says the party starts at 2 pm, that means it really starts at 4 pm. When someone says goodbye, they don’t mean it. For Italians, or at least southern Italians, saying goodbye is a lengthy process. It can take an hour for the goodbye to fulfil itself. I forget these things when I am away, but it always comes back to me here. Once an Estonian girl complained to me that she could never live in such a place. “All they do is sit around and eat and do nothing and nothing happens,” she said. I thought, what’s wrong with that? That sounds like the ideal way to live. That sounds perfect.

But what to eat? In the evenings in Bari, you can hear the fishermen in the ports calling out their daily catch. Customers huddle around and go home with some dead fish. Some of the fishermen play cards while they are waiting for clients. In the cafes in the evening, you can buy anything, so long as it is dripping in marinara sauce and stuffed with cheese. In one cafe, you can even buy baked octopus, and see the tentacles emerging from a mountain of sauce, cheese, and pasta. I think at some point, you just have to stop worrying about what you are eating in Puglia. You just have to eat it. There are the small mozzarellinis, and then the large loaves of mozzarella. There are the small cubes of polenta baked in sauce, and then a custard-filled pastry that my cousin Michele calls sporcamuss, “because it makes your mouth all messy.” The dialect around Bari has Greek, French, and even Arabic influences. Phrases and words you learn in Puglia are totally useless outside of Puglia. If you try to speak Barese to someone in Rome, they will blink at you. Younger people speak Italian, but the older people here retreat into dialetto at the kitchen table. This is one reason why Italians in New York and other places switched to English so quickly. They could not understand each other’s dialects.

Down the coast from Bari, there are some real gems and pearls hidden in the coastline. Places that time forgot. Places like Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. Ostuni, the white city. Boats sleep in the harbors. Castles bear witness to the waves and winds of the sea. On the other side of the water is Albania, Greece. Sometimes ships go there. Here you are free to wander. Here you are free from the noise of the world. Here there is always something good to eat and people wave to you from balconies. Here the old men stand around eating gelato, sipping espresso, with their hands in their pockets. Somewhere the tricolore is fluttering above. Whenever I am down there, I always think, this is the place. This is the place that made us. This is where we all came from.

fossora

FOR A BIG PART of my life, this was the woman against whom all other women were measured. Others perhaps wanted the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover girl, on the back of a motorbike, with a case of beer, I wanted this one. I wanted someone explosive and a little grotesque (which invites the remark, be careful of what you wish for, no additional comment needed). I was actually in a room with her in New York, but was too nervous to approach her, but could not help but think, “What’s a nice Icelandic girl like you doing in a place like this?” The new album is really a treasure, like a cache of pirate’s booty, hidden in the back of a wet cave (let’s see how deep we can go with these metaphors). Something genuinely needed these days. Thanks.

the tartu shopping center scene

YESTERDAY, the Tartu shopping center scene. Tartu is the epicenter of south Estonian shopping. When I arrived to this second largest city in the distant year of ’03, the bus station was a mottled parking lot, the “big department store” looked like one of those makeshift research stations at the South Pole, and they were unearthing the land that would eventually host the new “big department store” across the street. The gaping muddy wound in the earth revealed ancient wooden structures that I am sure were thoroughly sampled and photographed. That was always a fun part about Tartu, no matter where you dug, you were bound to unearth a skeleton or two. Now all of this territory has been submerged in capitalistic wonderland of massive billboards showing taciturn models (the square-jawed Viking, the vacant-eyed maiden) in Baltic bling. There is Tasku, Kvartal, and the now “old” Tartu Kaubamaja (Kvartal, the large shopping complex, now sits on top of the area of the “old big department store”). When I am in the new department stores, I feel utterly poor. Where are my shiny new shoes? Why aren’t my pants as nice as those ones? Maybe I should work more with my hair? Perhaps it’s time to buy a car I cannot afford and get a mortgage on a home I cannot afford either? Maybe the beatnik life is not the life. Maybe it’s time to sell out? Who needs poetry when you can binge watch it? If you don’t get paid to do it, then why do anything? Isn’t that what life is, a big commercial, a giant dangling billboard showcasing the sweetluck apparel of the northern high life? And how come, no matter how hard I try, nature wants me to look like a Greek fisherman? I could straighten everything out, but tomorrow I will be just as messy as the day before. It’s been bothering me when I go out recently. I am the oldest person there. Where are all the other people my age? At home? Watching TV? What do they do with themselves at 9 pm? Beats me. Being in Tartu, this university town, one can’t but help but feel ancient. The median age is about 22. I kind of like being around all of those 22 year olds. It’s not even about eyeballing pretty youth, it’s just that, they didn’t live through most of the forgettable things I did. NSync? Who was that? Bill Clinton? Never heard of him. Webster? Didn’t he write the dictionary? They never had to see what happened to the cast of Diff’rent Strokes, and have never heard of Todd Bridges. If they ever heard of 2 Live Crew, it was because of TikTok. Maybe that’s a good idea. Let’s just wipe the last 40 years or so from memory and start over. Sure, a pandemic and war, but, we’re just getting started anyway. Surely things will get better. Everything is new again, shiny, sparkling and new. It’s a new dawn.

a ghost in the machine

SOMETIMES PEOPLE VANISH from your life. People you are close to. People you thought you knew. People you thought knew you. People you trusted. People whom you thought trusted you. People with whom you shared vivid memories. But then, one day, they went away. They did not die. They just erased themselves from your life. They had good reasons, but at one point you looked over, and all you saw was an empty chair. These people are not dead but have become ghosts. It’s a strange phenomenon, how the living can turn themselves into phantoms. Vague and amorphous. Almost tangible. We actually always talk of the dead. We remember the dead. But when a person becomes a ghost, it’s not just as if they don’t exist, it’s as if they never existed, so there is no need to speak of them, and even if you do, it’s as if you are talking to a wall. What difference does it make? They are no longer there. This creates havoc in your mind and memory. You begin to question if they ever existed, or if they were just imaginary. You begin to suspect that you have become like that troubled mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. At some point, you just have to shed them from your own memories, like yesterday’s clothes. You take them off, and they are there lying coiled on the floor. Not only are they gone from your life, but you are no longer you anymore. You have to become someone else. You have to rewrite your story. It’s like one of those dried up distributaries in the Nile River Delta. It used to be there, but it’s gone. Where there was once water, there is now just yellow sand.

before i forget yesterday

BEFORE I FORGET, yesterday, rain in the squares and in the parks, and down the avenues. Rain on the river and on the little street, and outside the Italian cafe, and the new supermarket, the gentrification of the neighborhood complete. Rain outside the music shops, the academic buildings, the coveted high school, and then the incident, and her and all that. I melted away before I even understood anything. Two shadowy figures in the wet. Love-bombed in October. Then I went to the church and lit a candle. I thanked god, and the universe, and all of the terracotta saints. At night, beneath a warm blanket, I was soaked up in the vibration, and again whispered beneath my breath, “Always, always, always.” And so I waited for her, and dreamed of her, and wrote only for her, and all my sands crashed and crumbled away into the sea, and there were only tropical nights after that, sumptuous tropical nights, with palm trees, starry constellations and rich love.

dreadful poetry

THERE MUST BE some way to preserve the peace of the bay, rainy and grey on a mottled motley day, dressed in plaid, dull-eyed, youthful, guitar lines spreading out like nerve endings and memories, lightbulbs, passing cars, raindrops and dreadful poetry. If this isn’t it, then whatever could it be? Sitting, sitting. Waiting, watching. Marimekko prints and tea-soaked reveries. Cloudy glass. The dream of the yawning big ocean climax, the sex that collapses the twilight. The hobo who, asking for warmth, is taken under the dry feathered roof, just so that he can persist and persevere. Reveries, memories of big bays and big bogs and cranberries, owls, and maritime creatures. Feelings of blues and stories of singers. Lonesome. Wandering. Sailboats on the gulf. White triangles, stars, midnight blue, equinox, solstice, hope.

elementary, my dear watson

YESTERDAY, I RECOUNTED to a friend the story of how I once tried opium, but by accident. No one ever believes me when I tell this story. They like to think that a person knows exactly what drugs they take and when, and how, and their provenance, but in my case, it really just happened. I was a senior in college then, and had just returned from a study abroad program in Europe to Washington, which is where I was studying journalism. I had gone to call on my friend Seán who was renting an apartment up on O Street, across from a boisterous gay nightclub. There were many quarrels outside the nightclub, and at night we could hear lovers fighting in the alleyways. There was pure torment down there. It was interesting to walk through that neighborhood if you were not gay, because you might notice some old man looking at you a little too long while he took his dog out for a walk. A funny little district.

Seán lived up on the third floor. He was one of these drug people, people who knew of and experimented with drugs. I was never a drug person per se, but, for whatever reason, I have always had one or two of these characters floating around nearby, hovering in the near distance, the kind of cat who will lecture authoritatively on the effects of indica versus sativa. Even in high school, I had another friend, Beaver, who used to roar up in his car and whisk me away to some field on the edge of town where he would set up his howitzer-like water pipe and implore me to try it. My college friend Seán was one of these experimenters and lifestyle artists, but he also was and is in his bones an Irish intellectual. His walls were lined with the books of Joyce and Yeats. Whether sober or not, he could engage you at the highest levels on the political conditions in Ireland and the history of Ireland. Seán also had a habit of attracting strange characters, like me I suppose. After my time in Europe, I had taken to walking around with a “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and could be seen strolling up and down the avenues of Washington repeating back Danish phrases out loud. Many of his other friends though were of another sordid sort and I didn’t even know their real names. These kids only had nicknames. One was called Scooby.

It was February then and they were watching the Olympics in Salt Lake City. This was the year that Veerpalu won the gold and Mae took home the bronze. Estonia was not at all on my radar then, even almost exactly a year to the day I would be moving into a Khrushchevka in Tallinn. The hash pipe came around the room, and Scooby handed it to me. The first thing that struck me was its odd metallic taste. But there were other factors at play. A cannabis high is different from an opium high. A cannabis high will surprise you a bit, because even if it is strong, you won’t recognize it at first, unless you are a connoisseur, a pure play drug person. You can watch skiing on TV all day long with a cannabis high, and not miss anything. This was different. I was overwhelmed by a kind of gray melancholic sleep, a complete withdrawal of desire. I was on the couch but could not move. There was a glass nearby, but I could not bear to reach for it. I tried to move my hand, but I couldn’t make it move. “Hey, this hash is strong,” I remember saying to Seán as he watched the men ski on TV. My own words sounded faraway, as if not my own. Seán looked up at me through his glasses and raised his red eyebrows with his Irish intellectual eyes twinkling and said. “It’s not hash, man. It’s opium.” Opium? The kind of opium that started wars in China in the 19th century? The kind of opium that Watson caught Sherlock Holmes smoking in an East London den? That kind of opium? Seán nodded. Then the pipe went back around the room.

In a puff of smoke, I had become one of them, the lotus-eaters, dreaming my winter blues away in peaceful apathy. It was a drug that took away not just your pain but everything else. It wasn’t my thing. I preferred psychotropics, something that might help me see things in a new and refreshing light. I believed in a psychedelic world, a world of color and permeable meaning. I am not sure how that day ended, but perhaps with me walking home, listening to my “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and muttering to myself. Now that such experiences are decades in the past, I have to wonder what I was even doing there, how I walked into that scene, how I wound up smoking opium by accident. It seems like a lifetime ago, and my experiences are back there, in the distant past. Those kinds of characters are still floating around me though. They always are. When you are a writer, you make a habit of surrounding yourself with such people and experiences. I just didn’t know that I was a writer back then.

honey

IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

tüütumaa park

I HAD TO GO to the airport to pick up a daughter flying in from Brussels (and there was panic about whether or not she was even on the plane). While at the gate, I was pacing in worry when she called out to me, “Dad. Dad! I’m right over here. God, what an idiot.” Then we had to go back home. All of Europe was arrayed in Scandinavian-style apartment blocks. You know those big yellow brick buildings you see in Stockholm, or Copenhagen especially. “Estonia” was merely at the end of one particularly long boulevard. It was dark and it was raining. When I got home, my woman friend was gone. She had come to see me but I had to leave her alone to attend to my family needs. Apparently, she didn’t have the patience to spend all day, leafing through old magazines. She had worn a special dress for me, but where was I? At the airport? She didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Not even a message. When I inquired after my female guest my other daughter said, “You mean the one with the breast implants?” “Breast implants? I thought they were real. When did she get breast implants?” I was not convinced about the fake breasts. But I also didn’t want to ask. They were fine, firm, very believable breasts anyway. Organic. I understood then that my other daughter was just trying to downgrade her in my mind. It was all about attention, you see. These daughters of mine, they wanted my attention. Another female interloper was just a drag on the attention stock. She needed to be pushed out of the picture. They sure were crafty. The next morning I had to go out with Morris for a meeting at a startup company on the other side of town. It was somehow impossible to get to this place on foot. I looked at the map. It said it was located in “Tüütumaa Park.” The river flowed straight toward the park, and we decided to commandeer a small vessel. It was this ramshackle wooden thing, leaking, but still seaworthy. The waterways were full of great sea lions, walruses, elephant seals. They floated by, big furry masses of dopey fish-feeding mammals. “There must be sharks in these waters,” I told Morris. “Where there are seals, there are sharks. I don’t like it one bit.” The water was incredibly clear, but I saw no great whites or hammerheads. They had to be down there somewhere. It was just so troublesome to get all the way down to Tüütumaa. Why were we even going? To visit another software company? Excuse me, ICT. Who cared anymore anyways? I really hoped that they had a food court down there. Maybe a coffee house that roasted its own beans. Something to make the trip worthwhile.