Christopher Buckley — Rolling the Bones

Nobody does ocean reverie like Christopher Buckley. One moment you’re focused on some fixed beach point or some behavior of the waves and then you’re telescoping out into the cosmos, then microscoping back into the minutiae of a life — often the life of 50’s California. What can I say? I’m a sucker for such movement. I have always wanted to have the stars as my mistress too.

Rolling the Bones is a book, Buckley’s 17th book of poetry, that concerns itself with the vicissitudes of life and repeatedly suggests the question — why have things turned out the way they have? This, of course, is the question on the minds of all good cosmologists, so it isn’t much of a surprise that the cosmos turns up in poems like “Poverty” [Read “Poverty” and Buckley’s commentary on it] where with his guide Cesar Vallejo, Buckley ventures into the luck that would have him possess an ATM card and a AAA Plus card while others stave off an Ecuador-styled starvation. The stars become the “rolling bones” in the fifth section.

The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice—
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On . . .
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class—Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or the Commissioner of Baseball—all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland.

So “playing dice” is the metaphor with which we romp through the book. All of the puzzling phenomenon are seemingly reduced to the probabilities witnessed in a bubble chamber, in a racemic mix of chemical end-products. One begins to have the strange sensation as one is reading Rolling the Bones that God must have really wanted to screw with the human mind by making outcomes not so absolute as partial and dependent on initial conditions.

Buckley chronicles the risks (choices) he has made with his life, and while he disparages a few of them, he generally seems to content to be “here” (the Santa Barbara area—Lompoc, Montecito) and proclaims so in the final poem “Looking West from Montecito, Late Afternoon” where he says

The clouds keep pressing.
I have been here 54 years—
I don’t know
that I want to go
anywhere else

A satisfied life in America? Buckley clearly hasn’t looked at all the ads that come in the Sunday paper. Isn’t American life about wanting more? A faster gadget? A better neighborhood? Simonized Cadillac? He is still dreaming of the Cisco Kid riding down the avenue in a circa 50s parade rather than a gleaming new Nordstrom’s which has sprung up. Clearly if one measured a life in terms of the degree to which it has been realized (rather than some snappy cadre of shiny possessions) Buckley’s narrator would come out pretty close to the top. But since the psychological and the spiritual must take a back seat to the material wealth of a baseball commissioner, Buckley’s narrator is thrust upon the question of how it all turned out this way.

One way to dodge this question, of course, is to dwell in the past. Buckley luxuriates there, unabashed about the nostalgia he pursues. Ordinarily, this makes me feel a little uncomfortable as a reader. I ask myself why I should want to be a voyeur to a poet’s childhood (indeed, when I belong to 1970s Chicago and not 1950s Santa Barbara). However, there is a certain distance that Buckley provides on his past that prevents it from being cloying. Most of the time there isn’t any judgment placed on the past episodes. There is just the anecdote, the memory, the quotation that stands apart from any lingering evaluation of it. It is almost as if the these elements from the past appear pure, distilled, occurring before the birth of the knowledge of good and evil itself. Yes, Buckley’s childhood is innocent, but not completely so.

There is the memory of winos (or tramps, hoboes as they were one known before the sanitizing “homeless”) and the memory of a friend who says to one of the begging crew of winos, “Now promise me you won’t waste this on food, and go out and buy some real rot-gut”.

I don’t know why I so easily sign on to Buckley’s reminiscing. Am I appeasing an old-timer who just seems to let himself fade-to-50s? What do I have in common with his 50s past in California? Of course, the answer is nothing and everything. I have to admit I put on my anthropologist’s hat and try to imagine that older California when I think about the current California, a place that I, as a Midwestern boy, will never presume to have figured out. Amid the crises of capital in the capitol, it is somewhat reassuring to imagine a kind of California that is a distant cousin to the current one. Again, it affords me the opportunity of thinking of the ways dinosaurs might have turned out—if it weren’t for the roll of the bones.

There are a few glitches among the references and reminiscing which should be brought to the attention of a reader. [I normally never comment on such things if there are just one or two mishaps; however, in a book that pays so much attention to resurrecting and reconstructing the past, I think it is important for the sake of authenticity to get these references right]. It is “Voit” not “Voigt” which is the name of a basketball manufacturing company. It is “cosine” not “cosign” which is a trigonometric function. It is “Bertrand Russell” not “Bertram Russell” who is the logical positivist philosopher. It is “Puccini” not “Pucini” who is the Italian opera composer. Most of these did not interfere with the reading (except maybe the “cosine” reference—was there a pun operating here I didn’t get? I don’t think Buckley resorts to puns very often, if at all.] I must presume that these are typos more than anything else. This then is an issue of quality control at University of Tampa Press. Are undergraduates doing the proofreading there?

Throughout his beachcombing, philosophical meandering and nostalgia-waxing, a bit of the surly outsider emerges, and for me this is the bow on the top of the gift box, the little accoutrement that makes one giddy with excitement when each new volume of his arrives. I’m not sure that the turn back in time would be so alluring if it weren’t for the non-conformist attitude that comes through in the present. One certainly gets the idea that Buckley is not the kind of person who has carefully groomed each decision as though he were awaiting a Supreme Court nomination. I like this. No poet should conduct his/her life as though he/she is waiting for a nod of approval from above, an appointment to preside over some kind of heavenly chamber.

Religion plays a no minor role in Rolling the Bones also. God and the beyond is the continual foil in Buckley’s cosmological proceedings. The deus ex machina is invoked as comic relief most of the time. However, there are mentions of attending Catholic School and listening to Reverend Ike on the radio, which bring the high-minded yet wise-cracking theologian down to earth. Buckley recognizes that is hard to ignore the fleshly pursuits of organized religion. And also because he recognizes, through Einstein, that God does not play dice.

What Einstein Means to Me

I don’t give a good goddamn
anymore what anyone thinks,
just like Albert Einstein sticking
his tongue out at the press,
J. Edgar Hoover, and anyone else
poking their nose in, in his famous photo—
how it lightens my reckless and irregular heart
each time I see it.
                Not that I’m
offering any comparisons here,
having received my diploma
in Theoretical Physics from a home
correspondence course requiring
50 years of star-gazing and 500 box tops
from Nabisco Shredded Wheat.
I just admire that self confidence
that says, I’m a free and responsible agent
for my immeasurable will: there’s nothing
left for them to do to me now?
                    And I love
that image of him riding his bicycle
around Princeton in his 60s
without socks, legs splayed to either side
to better glide on the slapdash air,
and his electric white hair shocking the wind,
whose bare-backed imagination
had articulated the invisible
bones in most every particle known
and unknown, who went, over time,
2 out of 3 falls with God, regardless
of the outcome . . . .
                Spit into the wind,
we all know the speed of light, and that
soon enough gravity waves will slip
beneath each one of our doors.
in the day, it took a church key to open
a can of beer and it would comfort more
minds and hearts to hand your neighbor
a comparatively cold one than
to direct him to a numbing chorus
of In excelsis deo, a warehouse of hosannas.
No matter what stellar exposition
you subscribe to, you’ll still find yourself
living in 4 dimensions, unless you see time-
space as one more component of
a ride on a battered light beam,
the unreconstructed bits of a unified field
against which all the odds are stacked,
regardless of who is the rolling the dice . . . .

Oh, yes, Einstein said that God does not play dice when he was referring to the motion of subatomic particles. He didn’t think we lived in a probabilistic universe, that events happen according to percentages. They either are or they aren’t. That’s a fairly harsh judgmental world. Is it left over from a Jehovah-inspired world, one of wandering around in the desert with a vengeful God whose wrath is pissed down upon his followers through the unforgiving weather? This is not Buckley’s world. Buckley’s is a long way from “things happen for a reason.“ One can even argue that in Buckley’s world it is even remotely possible to posit that “things happen” with all the metaphysical swirling that takes place center stage. This kind of wrestling with the big picture has gone out of vogue as well—unfortunately. It is seen as a kind of vulgar excess these days to traffic in anything but the trivial and that having minimal effect, the entertaining. To attempt a metaphysical swipe is considered an act of audacity, bombast. Certainly old-fashioned.

But I say bring on the torch singers like Julie London whom Buckley pines after, especially the image of her copper-red hair on an album cover. Buckley seems to be saying: let’s face it—living in the past is better than living in heaven. That is the ultimate statement. Of course, there is also the possibility of such a thought being the result of too much rich food:

Driving in the Afterlife

If my dreams take me anywhere,
          tel me anything
its that we come to as much confusion
          there as here, should we
make it where ever it is we think we’re going—
          my heart folded up
somewhere like an old filling station map . . . .
It seems that little
woodsy road of childhood is where
          I’ll turn up, standing
off to the side, life’s of afterlife’s traffic
          occasionally sliding by.

And I think I see my grandmother
          in her ’53 Dodge,
a little chrome on its small tail wings,
          and that is all
I have to get around in as I find myself
          behind the wheel,
alone on the wide bench seat, the tranny
          slipping, two three-
speeds jerry-rigged on the floor. Each
          gear shifts as loose
as a stick in a bucket of water, pushes
          along just enough
to get me back to my apartment, empty
          except for a motorbike.
My grandmother’s chalky sedan disappears
          in favor of my Honda 110
with its salt-pitted brake handles and spokes.
          I take a short cut

through the living room of the larger flat
          I was too late to rent
just down the lane—in the French doors
          and out the front
over the Saltillo tiles—the bougainvillea
          clustered like forgotten
names above the doorway. I coast downhill
          on skinny tires
over to the state university on the bluff,
          and amid the cement
slabs, the residual Stalinist architecture,
          I come across a group
of my former students . . . they are still poor,
          and young, in Grateful Dead
t-shirts and Army surplus jackets, still smoking
          those thin, white cigarettes,
like they’re going to live forever. No one
          has a tattoo, or is worried
about going off to war. They are waiting
          for the bus—as unreliable
there as here—scrounging around for a party,
          an art reception, free eats.
I offer bread and cheese, some wine if they
          want to come over
to my cramped place and talk about whatever
          it was we used to discuss
all those midnights ago on the back porch?
          but how do we get there
with my lack of wheels, and do any of us
          really want to go there
now, wherever it is such roads lead, given
          the crowded streets
and the dark coming on so quickly. So
          I can take off on my own again,
and stop in the square at the post office,
          a hole in the wall with
a post mistress who looks like my grandmother,
          and just as nice. I know
enough to want to bring back some stamps
          from that long ago, a post mark,
but there’s only junk mail in my box—off season
          discounts on air conditioners,
carpet cleaners, the cosmetic dentist—which I toss
          in the can as I begin
to roll slowly back to this life like ground
          mist lifting. I don’t think
it’s really my grandmother after all in all of this,
          but I’d better have
some good reason for having her car
          and customizing
the transmission. My mother, who is 82,
          who earlier this evening
at dinner wondered what I thought went on
          over there, as she felt
she was close to finding out—are there as many
          bad, aggressive people?
And if so, why go somewhere as dubious and
          only half as beautiful
as the past you know and carry along, metaphorically,
          in your mind’s glove box?
We were out celebrating my birthday dinner, a dinner
          too rich for us both
which pulled me, at 3 am, from my dream
          and such questionable
transportation to god knows where.

I am envious of Christopher Buckley for many reasons, but mostly because he can step outside and in short order be cruising the beach for one of its many portholes to the outer galaxy. Clouds, waves, spindrift (though not too much flotsam), light and matter conspire as frequent highways to ponder “the big picture” stretched on an epic cosmological frame. I wish I could do the same as I walk out my back door where a romantic cow pasture awaits me. Perhaps I might scale down to the inner workings of E. coli or ponder the path of the ATPs as it leaves the chloroplast. Though once you’ve been through the large intestine of a cow once there isn’t much ambition to go again. Most readers don’t picture themselves wearing an anti-slime space suit hurtling through the bowels of beasts. If such a trip does not appeal to you as a reader, then you shouldn’t pick up Rolling the Bones and rocket through the cosmos as reader-astronaut. This move happens very frequently in Buckley’s work. It happens with so much regularity that some readers may be put-off by it. To me, this move by Buckley seems more like the baseball glove you put on because it feels right and you know it’s reliable. For those who are still bothering to look for the lost Eden, Rolling the Bones will reliably get you there — again and again — and when it arrives, smacking deep in the pocket, it satisfies in all the old familiar ways.

An interview with Christopher Buckley by Chad Prevost in The Chattahoochee Review


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