all live by the blood of our stories. We live by and through the blood of our stories. The blood of our stories, the myths of our dreams. My father lived off that blood for as long as he could and died wrapped in his dreams. He was my father when I loved him and my old man when I tried to distance myself from his whiskey lunatic schemes. And, I will never really know just how much he made up and what was the truth. He liked to talk about my great grandfather, who probably rode with Quantrill, though his name never appears on any of those rosters. He liked to talk about seeing Al Capone get off a train down in the Illinois Central yards and that very likely did happen. And, once or twice he talked about buying John Dillinger a beer in a Chicago speakeasy. Maybe that happened and maybe it didn’t, but the way my father told it, the incident somehow became the kind of cinema I couldn’t get out of my head. Then or now. It just kept coming back in all of my psychic movies.
Later, when we were living in the hotel, I remember a cop coming by to see my father. The cop always carried a silver flask inside his coat. And, he and my father would kill the bourbon contents of it out behind the hotel. After they finished, the cop would motion me over and say, wanna see Dillinger’s automatic? I’d seen it before but I never got tired of looking. My father would take a long drag off his cigaret, flick it into the gravel and say, tell me how you got it, again. Poker game in Dodge City, Kansas, the cop said. I was out there visiting my uncle and one night we all went to this private club, got into a poker game and it was my lucky night. This retired bank guard from Mason City, Iowa, lost all his money and the only thing he had left to bet with was this automatic. Said he was a guard when Dillinger and his gang robbed the bank there. The guard said, I was on duty that day. Dillinger and his boys were on their way out and Dillinger was trying to juggle a bag of money, a Thompson machine gun, and the 45 auto and the 45 just came out of his hand and slid across the floor. I heard him yell, no time, just leave it. Once they were out the door, I picked it up. The head cashier said, you’d better turn that in to the police. I just smiled at her. I never told her it was just the kinda dream I was waiting for. The cop let me hold it.
The 45 felt a lot heavier than a cap pistol. I looked at the cop, said, what did the bank guard say when you put the winning cards down on the table? The cop grinned and said, what do you say when your dreams are all gone? Before I could hand the 45 back to the cop, my father took it out of my hands and stood there awhile running his hands up and down the barrel. Sonofabitch, he said after a few seconds. He had sweat beads forming all over his forehead. Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was the pistol. The sweat beads were starting to run down his forehead when he said, kinda feels funny holding Dillinger’s automatic. Yeah, the cop said. Almost like touching the man himself.
Years later, the first time I saw THE WILD BUNCH, I was reminded of my father, the cop, and Dillinger’s automatic. Near the end of the movie, just after the Battle of Bloody Porch when Deke Thornton removes Pike Bishop’s single action 45 from the dead outlaw’s holster, that scene behind the hotel rushed back into my memory. And, I understood just why Thornton took Pike Bishop’s revolver. It all has to do with a variation of the American Dream. This dream is all too american, but it is also outlaw right to the core. Nobody takes Jay Gatsby’s pistol at the end of the novel, probably because it was probably hidden underneath all his fancy shirts, his handkerchiefs, his ties. That is, if he had one. This form of the American Dream conceals the violent implications inherent at its center. However, Dillinger’s guns are achingly desirable because they are so much an intimate part of his image. Dillinger posed with that Thompson standing in his father’s yard is maybe the all time most famous snapshot of the man. It not only defines Dillinger, but it also defines the whole nature of what it means to be an outlaw in america. The original photograph is most likely a rarity. So, whoever owns Dillinger’s Thompson possesses the total darkness of the man, possesses his black lava burning core.
And, the total darkness of Dillinger is what continues to fascinate me. Dillinger fascinates me the way that McCarthy’s Chigurh and Judge Holden fascinate me. The way that Heath Ledger’s Joker fascinates me. The way that Cagney’s Cody Jarrett fascinates me. The way that Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance fascinates me. The way that Humphrey Bogart’s best bad guys will always fascinate me. Fascinate me in the nightmare and the longing of their rage and desire.
Not long ago I was having lunch with a friend who said, tell me why you’ve been writing about Dillinger for almost forty years. I thought about it for a few seconds and had to admit I didn’t know. It’s not like I’m in love with him. It’s more like I’ve been hypnotized by him, witched into his everlasting dream. It’s like he’s talking to me but every time he says something he has to one up himself and say something else. And, I can’t get away from him because Dillinger might just be the most interesting character in american poetry in this part of the century. [please click on the following book cover if you would like to enlarge the images]
But, that really doesn’t explain Dillinger to me, to my private self. It goes beyond what one critic has called a focused obsession. If Dillinger is anything, he has become part of my exploration into the realm of violence and death. American violence and american death. The Corpse Is Dreaming is my attempt to journey to the underworld of death. I saturated myself with death books to get there. THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, THE BOOK OF REVELATION, THE EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, MOBY DICK, HAMLET, THE BLIND OWL, THE INFERNO, THE WASTE LAND. I wanted to write a death book to rank with those death books. I knew I couldn’t but I tried anyway the way some guys will try to hit eighty or ninety home runs a year the way somebody is going to try to hit in fifty seven or fifty eight or sixty consecutive games so who knows you have to try you have to go up against impossible odds you have to take that shot no matter what and even if you lose you win. As a section of DILLINGER, The Corpse Is Dreaming is unique as a contemporary poem. There is nothing else like it in poetry and the only work that comes close in its final ambition is William Faulkner’s novel AS I LAY DYING.
More than that I wanted to write one of the defining american books, I wanted to write a book that, if it doesn’t exactly explain american darkness, then it does the next best thing and becomes that darkness. DILLINGER, the sum total unfinished epic of it, is an outlaw expression of america at its darkest. Dillinger and DILLINGER, the man, the legend, the dream, and the poem. DILLINGER is the molotov cocktail that I am throwing at god.