©1998 A.D. Sullivan
Master of the Universe
The Sun Song
Man's best friend?
No Karma Wheel
rolls on this river,
just the cut of land
along the foot of the mountains,
water, like a snake
twisting down its precarious steps
to the flat meadows
where bloated gulls hang
over perpetual reeds
and fires burn
from the wheel sparks
of commuter trains
coming out of
The catfish move, digging through the bottom mud, breathe bubbling at the surface as they fumble for food, reeds shifting as the push through the reeds.
"You can watch where they go by watching the reeds," one of the fishermen tells me.
It has a haunting quality, as if some invisible Christ were walking across the surface of the water, pushing reeds out of His way.
"Last night those fish was really hopping," the fisherman said, one of the many poor blacks who feeds his family by catching fish, despite the state's claim the Passaic River is polluted. "Those cats is lazy suckers for the most part, and it takes something to make them move, getting hungry or cold, and last night we had a real chill on us, and they sat so long they got hungry from waiting."
A burst of water at the falls makes that fisherman turn, and he points to the gray striped fish struggling to keep itself from rolling over the edge with the gushing water.
"Damned fool don't got no sense," he says, then sits down on a large gray flat-topped boulder to watch. The kids have left their mark on the stone, scratched out names I cannot read: initials of a gang, blood oaths and death curses. On the slanted side, some local teenage artist has painted the relevant segments of the female anatomy complete with indications of what he plans to do if he ever finds a girl.
The sun has warmed the stone, making it easy to sit on, making me and the fisherman seem as lazy as the fish, though the black man talks about how good life is here by the water, how the water has helped and provided for him, and how much he thanked God it was put here. I'm not totally comfortable with this talk of God, thinking maybe the Mormon preachers got here to talk with him first, and I mumble something that makes him frown.
"You don't believe in God?" he asks.
"Not exactly," I say.
"What do you believe in, then?"
I look down at the water, just as I had when I was a kid when I came down here after cutting school, or church, and the water answers for me with its wide expanse of light, silver and blue and brown all at the same time, flush with fresh fish even this close to winter, wind swaying through the reeds making each look like a drunken sailor.
I watch the black man take out his pipe and stuff it with Bugler cigarette tobacco, the warnings of the Surgeon General no more of an account than the warnings about the fish. He puffs and sends smoke out over the water, a free man taking his pleasure.
He laughs, and takes stock as a flock of geese struggles to rise from the water's surface, a honking, flapping Malay that reminds me of young children splashing in a bath tub, too much madness for what needs to be done. They do not fly long, but float back to the surface of the water, upstream, near the bridge, where the popcorn lady is issuing their morning meal, popcorn the primary course, though she gives them other things she can talk the supermarkets out of: stale bread, beans from broken bags, rice and other things. She is the Salvation Army of the river, but doesn't demand her clients pray before they eat.
No one would take her sermons seriously if she did.
And fisherman beside me laughs, as if reading my mind, shaking his head and he takes another toke:
"It's all God," he tells me. "Every damned bit of it."
How clean it is
morning of the rain forest
how lucent the underside of the sealight
thick and silvery with fish dolphin and blue marlin
how Puerto Rico
is lapis lazuli
around your neck my love
letters written in
sun and blooming hibiscus
this is the muted time of which we spoke
passing through glass doors
a room occurs thick with life
but I am remembering a transport of light
in the turquoise and I refuse to close the door.
by Michael Reardon
May 25, 1994
Marcus is dead.
I suppose even a cat's passing needs to be marked, though no gravestone will ever bear his name, many more will remember him but me, Sharon, and Her ex-boyfriend. But animals are people -- despite the opposite opinion held by the masses in general. I'm not speaking as one of the animal rights maniacs that have made hell for cosmetic companies and the Marie Antoinette-types with mink coats. I'm talking about the feelings you get after having known a creature like Marcus for a while. Although I knew Marcus only three weeks, I'd heard his legend from Sharon for years -- on how she found him as a kitten outside St. Mark's Church in Greenwich Village. Her cat Angie had just gone into the hospital for surgery, and there, meowing at people from the cold stone was this orange ball of fir.
It called to her the way most cats do. She has this radar that finds them anywhere. But in this case, this cat seemed to have no owner. Someone figured to unload the poor creature by leaving it at one of the most public of places in New York City. She held it for hours in the palm of her hand, asking people as they came and went if they had lost it. God only knows what they thought of her, but none admitted having known the creature before. This, of course, meant she would take it home -- from which it would travel with her through two or three apartments and wind up over time in an apartment in Jackson Heights. Sharon and Her ex-boyfriend shared the creature the way they did Angie -- after her recovery and moody rebellion at the new cat, and the cats that followed Marcus' arrival: Rocky and Sasha.
One great regret in Sharon's life was leaving the cats behind when she left Her ex-boyfriend. Whether it was an act of kindness (towards Her ex-boyfriend) or cowardice, she still is unclear. But she had spent a good twelve years with Marcus and Angela by then, and felt as if she was leaving her kids behind.
Marcus -- as it turned out upon its getting older -- was not a stupid cat. Space Cadet might fit better. An animal not totally in touch with this world. He walked strangely, and did extremely uncat-like things, often seeing visions that no one -- even other cats -- could see. His was a world of ignorant bliss. He loved everyone and -- eventually after a fashion -- everyone loved him. He was stubborn to a virtue, pushing himself into your lap repeatedly until you accepted and left him there. He often ran after things, bumping his head into doors and walls (the fact that he was born with a pointed head is one of the oddities Sharon still brags about), and often made running leaps to escape into the hall at the Jackson Heights apartment, only to grow confused when he succeeded.
His death nearly came at a much earlier age, when Sharon came home one night to find him dangling from a blind cord as if being lynched. Just how he manipulated himself into that situation is still a mystery, although he often stumbled into this situation or that without clear motive or probable cause.
Sharon missed him and the others terribly, and a few months ago, was haunted by the fact she had not seen them in nearly four years when news of Angela's death came. She hadn't suffered, but old age and disease had taken her. Over the last few years, Rocky had suffered illness, too, but had seemed to come back from the dead through expensive vet treatments. More recently Marcus was hospitalized as well, and saved -- though it is clear now that it was only a temporary reprieve -- a reprieve long enough to see Her ex-boyfriend finally brought t he three remaining cats to us in Hoboken to join the three we already acquired in the meantime.
I won't go into the unusual conflicts that arose from that interchange except to say Marcus was immune to it. He was too strange and too sickly for any of the other cats to want to harm him. Or perhaps just too stubborn to take their anger. He simply went up to each and convinced them he was made of nothing less than pure love. He did the same to me. His breath stinking from rotting teeth. His nose dripping from a viral infection. He climbed up onto my lap and remained there, a perfectly satisfied animal seeking only a return to his love.
And I loved him.
In three weeks he won me over so completely that I cried at the accident that finally pushed him over the edge from life into that quick succession of declines that leads to death. I went with him to the vet. I held him as the vet stuck the needle into his heart -- and live seeped out of him and his shinny blank eyes, a transition so subtle that I still feel the fright of it. But in the end, he slept out from this world with the same blank stare and the same sense of love that had carried him through life. I miss him and wish he could have been saved.
Propped against a slender tree
down where a vestige
of a stream was running
I sensed the vitality of fingers
on the strings of your guitar
their long sweeps stroking
the sleeping warmth of sunlight
too tired to continue longer
The deep red weight
of the earth tones pressed
heavily against the base
of spine, thrilling throughout
the eighth note chatter
of the insects and the full
four beats stirred by cicada
piping of the frost to come
by Barbara Holland
I don't hate animals. Not even this mutt. I wouldn't have let the kids keep the damned dog if I hadn't liked the look of him. Sure, he woke me up, licking my face as the kids giggled. I didn't even know what it was, or where they got it, but had to put up with their constant rant: ``Can we keep it, Dad, can we, huh? Can we?''
You know the routine. You know the look kids get when they really want something bad enough. I thought they would break out in tears any moment, making me feel guilty as hell for not giving them an immediate ``Yes.'' And, as I'd said, I didn't find the creature repulsive.
You could no one had taken care of him for some time. He had a coat so ratty I could have used it to dry my car, and he slumped around the house, giving me sideways glances begging without begging for a new master, pegging -- so I thought -- for someone to whom he could show some loyalty.
``Okay,'' I told the kids. ``But we've got to do this right. First thing we get him his shots,'' a remark that drew such a dirty look from the dog I swear he understood every word, ``and then some grooming.''
You can see the license tag on his collar. All official and everything. He even looks like the perfect pet, doesn't he?
I thought so when we got back to the house with him fixed up to look like a proper dog. Maybe he fooled us all, putting on his best behavior until we adopted him, then: wham! That's when the howling started.
It sat me up in bed, I can tell you that. It brought back all those nightmares had as a kid, about the Russians and air raid sirens. At first, I laughed when the sound came from the yard, the poor creature bellowing from the end of his chain as he stared at the house. I called to him, telling him to be quiet. He saw me and howled louder, until I went out into the yard to pat his head.
``There, there,'' I told him. ``What's all this racket about?''
He looked at me. Looked at the house. Then I got the idea.
``I guess you're not an outside animal,'' I said, released him from his chain, at which point, he darted straight into the house. I had only meant for him to wander around the yard a little more freely. I called him for him to come out. He didn't listen. I raised my voice. He still did not respond. Then, I shouted, only to hear the window of my grumpy neighbor rise.
``You want to keep it down, Wilson,'' he told me. ``Some of us have to get up in the morning.''
For three days, I put that dog out, and for three days, he howled. For three days, my neighbor shouted for me to shut the creature up or he would call the police. Finally, I gave into the beast and let him come into the house.
Then, he became protective. I don't know where he got the idea that we needed protection, but he would not allow any of us out of the house or anybody else to come in. My kids thought this funny, especially considering they would miss school if the dog didn't desist. My wife thought the beast cute. I wanted to kill it, because I needed to get to the office. But every time I moved towards the door, he growled, bared his teeth, and looked every bit as ferocious as the wolves on Discovery Channel.
``This is ridiculous!'' I said, infuriated with the whole thing. ``Who is master of this house, me or the dog?''
``Just pamper him, honey,'' my wife said. ``He'll get over it.''
``And how am I supposed to go to work?''
``Just go out the back door,'' she said.
I didn't like it. But I went, grumbling about it the whole day at work, and thinking how I would have it out with the beast if he tried it again the next morning. I never got that far. I got to my front door, where I found the dog parked just inside. He wouldn't let me in.
I shouted for my wife and kids; the dog barked; my wife and kids came, petting the beast, assuring him I was safe.
``He nearly took Mrs. Grady's leg off when she came over to borrow some sugar,'' my wife told me, drawing from me a groan, as I pictured Mr. Grady -- who had warned me about the barking in the yard -- calling the police to report a dangerous beast in the neighborhood. ``The mailman also told me we could pick up our mail next door from now on,'' my wife continued. ``He won't come near our house with the dog here.''
``That's it!'' I said. ``The dog goes.''
``You can't do that,'' the kids cried. ``You promised we could have him.''
``But I didn't know he would terrorize the neighborhood,'' I said.
``He isn't terrorizing the neighborhood,'' my wife said, strangely taking the side of the kids. ``The dog is protecting us.''
``Protecting us from the mailman?'' I asked.
``So he's a little misguided,'' my wife said with a warm smile at the dog. ``I'm sure with a little love he'll get over it.''
``But will we get over the lawsuits?'' I asked.
``He won't hurt anyone,'' my wife assured me, though from the look in the dog's eyes as I eased by, I wasn't so sure.
Of course, I could have hired a professional to cure the dog of his misguided loyalty, indeed, considering everything, I should have. But at the time, I had no intention of putting any more money into a pooch I now suspected as a transitory guest. I pulled my kids aside and told them to break him of this habit, or I would bring the dog down here to the pound.
``No, Dad! Please don't, Dad!'' they yelped as if I'd threatened to beat them. ``We'll take care of the dog, honest we will.''
``Will you?'' I asked, only half amused by their desperate pleas. I'd heard as much from them over a threat to throw one of their rusty bicycles out when cleaning out the garage.
``Yeah, Dad, honest, we really will.''
So I gave them -- and the dog -- the benefit of a doubt, figuring the next failing would make it that much easier for me to get rid of the beast, and I had become convinced the beast would fail in some other matter, revealing some new flaw in his character as startlingly as he had the barking or his over protectiveness.
A week went by without me being woken up once with howling, despite the fact I insisted the dog go back out to the yard. While the pooch did not get over his protectiveness so easily, his gnashing teeth subsided into rumbling growls of frustration. But what he failed to take out on me or the neighbors, he took out in other ways. I discovered the first symptom of this when I went to find my golf shoes on Saturday and found the tongues torn out and the heel gnawed. I squawked. My wife rushed up to the bedroom to find out the cause, then went white when she saw the shoe in my hand.
``Do you know what these shoes cost me?'' I asked her, waving the ruined shoe in front of her.
``Try to relax, Carl, we can break the dog of his habit.''
Something in the way she said this struck me oddly and I looked at her. ``Habit?'' I asked. ``Are you trying to tell me this has happened before?''
Then, the truth came out. For over a week the dog had been on a rampage, chewing everything capable of being chewed, shoes, wires, rubber hoses, plastic trash can tops -- he'd even put a tooth mark or two into my best smoking pipe, gobbled down pages of my favorite book, and done his best to chew off the handles to my garden tools.
``Someone better break him of this habit,'' I said after hearing all of it, and vowing to be rid of the dog despite my wife's begging. ``I'm not sure I can afford to keep the dog if he continues on at this rate.''
Perhaps, he continued after that. If he did, my family hid the fact from me, so that for a couple of days, I made no more threats. Then, with as big a surprise to me as to the rest of the family, I climbed out of bed one night only to step into something soft and squishy on the bedroom rug. I didn't know what it was until I stooped and sniffed. My howling woke the house as thoroughly as the dog's had previously done the neighborhoods. All rushed to the bedroom, except for my wife who stirred from her sleep and asked what the trouble was.
``This is the trouble,'' I said, waving the dog's debris in a way that threatened to spread the mess beyond my foot and fingers. ``What kind of monster have we brought into our house. What have I done to deserve him doing this to me?''
My kids ran for a wash basin, bar of soap and a bath towel, and patiently cleaned my foot as well as the mess from the floor, begging me the whole time to have some patience, that the deposit had been their fault, not the dog', they had failed to walk the dog that night and would never fail to do so again. But I had already made up my mind to be rid of the creature in the morning. They must have read as much in my face, for I heard them in the kitchen until the early hours of the morning, working up some counter strategy -- which they launched upon me the moment I came down stairs hours later for breakfast.
``Look, Dad,'' they told me. ``The dog's bringing you the newspaper.''
In through the open back door came the dog, folded newspaper gripped between its teeth. I admired the trick, and knew my children had been up all night teaching it to the dog in order to convince me to keep the animal. The plan might have worked had not the dog dropped the newspaper at me feet and run back out, only to return with another newspaper, then another, and so on until he had piled at my feet the newspaper boy's whole morning deliveries for the neighborhood.
Which is why I brought the poor dog here, hoping you could find an owner with a great deal more patience for such tricks than I have. I thought you people could find him a good home. But now you're telling me you only keep these animals for two weeks, and if no one adopts them by that time, you put the creature to sleep. I'll admit the dog has problems, but nothing warranting the death penalty.
Oh, well, come on boy. Let's go home.
And put down that damned newspaper!
This is not a book about animals, despite the thousand petty imitators that had picked up on that aspect of Jack London's work. If anything, the cheap imitations that have graced pathetic animal-lover magazines since London, have managed to take the most superficial and least interesting threats of his books and make them into a so-called art form.
These writers, in their miserable wisdom, look back to London and blame him for their idiocy.
White Fang, like the other "animal novels" written by London, transcends the genre altogether, establishing a metaphor which is clearly lacking in the worked of imitation. London has simply used the vehicle of animal lives to convey a more important human condition centering around around the ability of humans to learn and love.
Yes, the book makes the typical romantic comparison between the wilds of nature and the artificiality of civilization, and shows how monstrous civilization can be in comparison to nature. But this is a simplistic comparison and London manages mostly to avoid the pitfalls his imitators have fallen prey to -- although he had managed to fall into other situations nearly equally absurd.
What London does managed to do, however, is present conflict within the structure of the wilderness as opposed to that which goes on within human social structures.
In the early and most riveting sequences of the book, London shows human kind, helpless to the power of nature, and the fury that a pack of hungry wolves is capable of. But he also shows the kind of organization that wolves have developed with their own natures to survive, sometimes working together when the need is there, other times, seeking better position for survival within those units.
White Fang's relationship to nature, according to London, is straight forward: one needs to kill to eat. But when the poor wolf-dog comes into the more civilized pack of dog-animals, he finds different rules, which are not only more complex, but tend to serve less real purpose. White Fang becomes a social outcast.
"Lip-lip continued to so darken his days that White Fang became wickeder and more ferocious than it was his natural right to be," wrote London. "Savageness was part of his make-up, but this savageness thus developed exceeded his make-up."
In this, London partly blames expectations of savagery to justify the dog-pack's abuse of White Fang, but he goes on to show a more basic flaw within civilization itself, which blames an artificial pecking order. London seems to say at this point that even the furies of the wild make more sense than certain aspects of civilized life.
London, of course, ends up siding with civilization, almost despite of his earlier points, like a political liberal wavering back and forth over an uncomfortable dilemma, saying that a "proper" social order is better than the Darwinian democracy of the wild or the artificial bureaucracies common in civil order. Yet when White Fang returns to London's San Francisco, the novel weakens and loses much of the credibility of its earlier pages. For while each of the previous steps in White Fang's evolution and development is clear and obvious, this turn-about before his journey to the southwest seemed undependable, and unjustified.
The whole last sequence of the book showing White Fang as an acceptable member of society lacks the same contributing factors as earlier sequences. Where White Fang distrusted man -- or at best put up with man as a superior being -- he suddenly allows a measure of love, despite beatings, torture, and continual abuse.
London's finally romantic notion of hardened people being transformed into good by being loved just doesn't work. What is lacking here is the major revelation of wrongness that comes to people who make significant changes in their lives.
White Fang is dragged through these changes, they do not come via honest, internal discoveries. London evades this point by reverting to the tales surface level. Where he once made bold and perhaps accurate statements about human development, in the end he cops out by saying to the reader: White Fang is only an animal after all.
In a way, London has found the key to human development in his animal books, but fails to understand or relate to the reading the real self-conflict that comes to a character when it has time to make a change.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307