pretty much lived on, off, and from the street when I was a kid and I stole lots of shit and the things I loved to steal most were wanted posters right off the post office walls. They were always stapled to a bulletin board near the front door so I had to time the act of ripping one off just right so that I wouldn’t be seen by anyone entering or leaving the building. Usually, the clerks were so busy weighing packages they didn’t realize what was going on. The strange thing about this ritual is that those old wanted posters somehow reminded me of movie stills, guys with guns in their hands, women whose long hair was a long dark slash across the eyes. Some of those wanted men might have been Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney or George Raft wannabes. But, their eyes always seemed a little off center or cockeyed and the expressions on their faces were strangely frozen, maybe even a little grotesque, almost always fuck you. Maybe that’s really why I liked them so much. These were the poses of bank robbers and murderers and they reminded me so much of men who lived from time to time at the Clifton Hotel.
I can no longer recall the names of the outlaws on those posters anymore. Maybe I was never so much interested in their names as I was in what they did, the mayhem they created. It’s very possible that I stole a Willie Sutton handbill without realizing who he was. And, it seems as though I do recall seeing one of John Dillinger nailed on a wall somewhere. Maybe, in the police station where my old man used to hang out when he wasn’t on duty as a fireman. He more often than not had a bottle or a flask with him and he’d pass it around to the guys in the station and pretty soon everyone was feeling good. In those days, liquor was just part of a working cop or fireman’s job. It was the promise and juice of shit going up or going off.
I didn’t know it then but I was going to meet the outlaw. And, the reason I didn’t know it was I was also growing up around outlaws. They were everywhere, electric and anonymous. They were my old man’s friends as well as his enemies. They were the drifters who slid off the freight cars down in the yards. They were the ex bootleggers who had become cops or low level gangsters who ran slots, back room poker games, or hookers in the neighborhood. Yet, somehow stealing those wanted posters was my way of connecting gangster movies to the streets that I knew. The one thing I definitely figured out was the dark side even before George Lucas made it part of the lingo. I met the outlaws long before I wrote my first story. And, many of my early stories were really about outlaws. They were the meat and potatoes of all of my dreams. They bled out in the movies that were always looping around just inside my shadow.
Glenn Cooper reminded me of everything all over again when he recently emailed me of his intentions to go see Neddy Smith who is doing life in prison. Smith is Australia’s version of Dillinger and Cooper had written OUTRUN YOUR FATE: THE STORY OF NEDDY SMITH, a sequence of poems about Smith’s criminal adventures. What Cooper essentially asked me in his email was should he go to see Smith. He knew deep down that he had to go but believed that the experience might be difficult. Going to meet the outlaw is always trouble and suddenly I realized that Cooper was standing at the threshold to the outlaw world and was asking whether or not he should actually cross over, go inside, make blood contact.
Personally, I think I’ve spent my whole life crossing over, making blood contact. I crossed over when I was sixteen and ran with a kid who was destined to shotgun an Iowa sheriff. I crossed over when I used to hang out with kids who routinely burglarized homes in the area. I lost count of how many times I crossed over and back at that old hotel. I had already known the dark side by the time I was twelve. And, in ways I didn’t understand then or totally understand now, I was hooked.
What I told Cooper was he had to go, he had to meet Neddy Smith because by writing OUTRUN YOUR FATE, he had somehow formed a secret psychic bond with the man. He had claimed Neddy Smith as his nightmare twin, his shadow, his dangerous other. The fact is you can’t just simply write a book about a gangster, a desperado, an outlaw and walk away. What happens is you form secret and sometimes deadly alliances with them. You dance in the darkness of their shadows. You die in their fears and rejoice in their violences. I would be willing to bet that Warren Beatty still dreams of being Cyde Barrow and Bugsy Siegel. When you play them you are them. I would put money on the table that James Caan and Al Pacino are still Sonny and Michael Corleone. When you play them you become them dream them you can’t walk away. Ever.
The same thing holds true for writers and poets. Somewhere in his dreams Tony Moffeit is Billy the Kid. He even looks like the Kid. Somewhere in his dreams Kell Robertson is John Wesley Hardin. The interesting thing is that Kell has all the right outlaw moves. Secretly, I have often wondered if he might have killed a man. Maybe in Mexico. And, somewhere in his dreams Glenn Cooper is Neddy Smith. And, somewhere in his dreams Cormac McCarthy is Chigurh, the contract killer in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The reason I can say this with such certainty is that the bargain with the dark side has already been made, there is no going back because this is an archetypal agreement which cannot be abrogated or broken in any way. You are locked into it all the way to the end.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Tony Moffeit engages in gunfights or that Cormac McCarthy is an actual killer. What it essentially means is that the writer or the poet who writes about an outlaw, enters into a peculiar arrangement with his shadow. And, in that blood marriage, in that dance around the homicidal bonfire, he begins to endow his shadow with all of Billy the Kid’s or John Wesley Hardin’s or Chigurh’s deadliest and scariest qualities. In effect, he conjures and creates a special duende that connects with the Kid’s darkest of dark sides. He absolutely is required to do this. Otherwise, his character is going to become two dimensional, a comic book bad guy, a graphic novel creation. The only exception I can think of is Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker. Ledger came very close to transforming a comic book character into a tragic hero. Or, tragic outlaw. Take your pick. Either way, he will always be The Joker.
I’m listening to Kell Robertson read The Gunfighter, a poem from his book A HORSE CALLED DESPERADO in Silva’s Saloon. The voice is thick and slurred with booze but the slow and deliberate way that he reads gives the performance the kind of gravelly sound that the poem requires and this poem is the outlaw soul of Robertson’s work. While he reads, I am imagining the last gunfight in the film APPALOOSA where Vigo Mortenson kills the saloon owner. Mortenson stands across the street. He is calm almost relaxed. We know he is waiting for the gunfight to begin but he is also waiting for something else, maybe death is his gunfighter muse. The way Kell reads becomes a voice over for the film, the killer narrator a film like this needs. It has a bourbon back twang to it and sounds even more natural than music. In fact, it becomes the primary soundtrack for my version of the film.
& if he dies
he’ll shit all over himself
even as you or I
but while he lives
When Kell finishes the poem he steps away and walks toward the murderous dead center of his shadow where he crosses over.
I’m listening to Jerome Rothenberg read Murder Incorporated Sutra from his book POLAND 1931 and while he reads I get a picture of Robert De Niro shooting the fat Italian capo in the scene from THE GODFATHER. The gangster is standing just inside his apartment, De Niro is out in the hall. He has the revolver wrapped up in a towel and it makes me think that this is going to be a massage, the only difference is it’s a death massage. And, somehow I have mixed Rothenberg’s voice into THE GODFATHER except that this is my version now and Rothenberg’s voice builds to a crescendo while the fat Italian gangster is shitting his pants. And, when that revolver goes off, we all cross over.
And, it’s in that moment which is all nitro glycerined with so much murder and heat that I realize this is really what the dark side of america is all about. A contract killing is the partial fulfillment of a national death wish. It’s a down payment, the homicidal coin pressed deeply into the shooter’s hand. The only thing is it has to be reenacted again and again in all of its infinite variations to complete the dark american dream. While inscribing a copy of THE BIG SLEEP for William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler wrote, The genius of America is murder. Chandler crossed over. Faulkner was waiting.
Once you have gone to meet the outlaw, you almost have to claim him. Either you claim him or he claims you. One way or the other, it’s a fifty fifty mix.. Because you can no more disown him than he can disown you. It is a jump over the witch’s broomstick and then the ride to hell.
Sometimes I like to imagine Dostoevsky going to meet Raskolnikov. And R already has the axe and Dostoevsky knows it and he’s getting this strange feeling in the pit of his stomach because he knows what’s coming. He knows that if he creates this man there will be blood on the floor and secretly Dostoevsky needs to have mayhem helongs for it and he can hear R sharpening the axe against the smooth surface of bone.
Imagine Melville going to meet Ahab. The Captain has rooms over a sailors’ taproom where a group of men have huddled around to watch two harpooners throwing bowie knives at each other’s feet to see who can come the closest to taking off a toe. Upstairs, Ahab sits staring out the window at the harbor. He is holding a harpoon fashioned from the steel of a meteor and the harpoon’s blade is so sharp that even its slightest touch will draw blood from the most calloused of skin. And, when Melville enters, he immediately offers Ahab his arm to test the harpoon on.
Consider the strange case of Isaac Babel, a Russian Jew assigned as a war correspondent for The Red Cavalryman to a Cossack cavalry unit. Imagine that when Babel hears this piece of news, he conjures up Commander Trunov who initiates Babel into the troop by placing a revolver to Babel’s head and pulling the trigger six times on empty chambers. Then laughing all the way to a fat piss in a ditch. And, subsequently, Babel has his main character Lyutov carry an unloaded revolver into battle. Babel may even have invented the men who shot him. Murder might just be the most natural fantasy of all.
Over the years I’ve often wished that Joseph Campbell had written a chapter in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES that covers the anti hero or the outlaw. Many of the hero’s trials and adventures can be manipulated and adapted to the outlaw’s quest as well but only with a certain amount of distortion. You have to keep in mind, Campbell was dealing with the archetypal hero, someone who never intentionally opposes the system. Billy the Kid, Don Corleone, Neddy Smith, Dillinger, Jesse James, Al Capone all opposed the system in their own individual ways. And, by opposing the system, they all invented worlds of their own. What is needed is for someone to write THE OUTLAW WITH A THOUSAND FACES, a complete archetypal study of outlaw heroes.
However, we don’t need a Joseph Campbell or a mythological investigation of the outlaw as a variation of the hero to explain the subterranean relationship between the poet and the outlaw. But, it is necessary to understand where the poet fits into this mythos, what his role is in the criminal wreckage and the natural anarchy of things. The poet provides the electricity for a Billy the Kid or a Dillinger to continue to exist. The stories about the Kid will always be with us but it takes a Tony Moffeit or a Michael Ondaatje to give those stories fire, form, frenzy, and meaning. And, by meeting this test, the poet gambles his blood and psyche against god’s blow hole in the void.
Going to meet the outlaw is one of the great archetypal challenges in the history of poetry. It is the big throwdown, the ultimate test for any poet. However, before you set off for that fateful meeting, the thing you need to ask yourself is are you up to it and is the outlaw mythologically large enough to encompass all the stories that you will be required to tell about him? And, do you possess the requisite genius to tell them and survive the telling? If he contains all the dark dreams of the world and you fall head over heels in love with that darkness, then he’s your man.