Ed Dorn's Hat
Ed Dorn's hat began to show me things, mostly as I slept. I am not exactly sure how it manipulated my dreams, but on that account certainty hardly matters. When I met him in Lawrence, Kansas, Dorn was sitting at a bar, though he was much younger than I imagined—perhaps around forty—closer to my own age now. He commanded a space at one end, a very large and ornately designed mirror reflecting the room. In the mirror I could see a tall Bannock reflected from a booth by a window polishing his knife. I observed this in quiet submission to my surprise, because Dorn had been dead for more than a decade, and Lawrence, Kansas, looked nothing like the Lawrence I remembered from my brief visits there. It resembled, instead, the site of a gothic mystery, more Children-of-the-Corn hinterland than that homey return-destination from Oz. Sad-eyed men and women ordered beers and sodas. Dorn's laughter and ease with these new companions struck me as a sign of some great possibility, some fidelity to experience that I had somehow neglected. Outside it was dusk, and the bar seemed to be moving as though we were on a train heading southwest. Through the windows fat stacked clouds of the plains cast vast shadows over an expanse of grass and creek beds to reveal a most excellent geographic vacancy. I shook his hand. Why aren't you laughing, he said, head back with a kind of movie star swagger, except that he reminded me of a star from another era. It was difficult to understand what was happening, as if anything for certain can be determined in a dream bestowed on one by a hat. He buttoned his black vest, stood, and motioned for me to follow. We departed the train at a destination in West Texas where the Rio Grand joins the Pecos River. He looked into the deep cut made by the erosion of many millennia, and pushed his hat back. Below us green rivers drained into the Gulf of Mexico, sandstone ridges steep and impersonal, while over it the landscape spread densely with prickly pear. Before I could estimate the depth of the canyon, we had entered a black car, driving without a driver into Mexico from Del Rio across the man-made expanse of the Amistad Reservoir. Beyond the bulletproof windshield I perceived only decayed neighborhoods, cluttered yards, rat-infested barrios of despair. Surely I only hallucinated this, but, a moment later, we stopped to find our bearings, and Dorn, with great dignity and keen ritual, motioned for me to have another beer. We talked a while, dry desert air passing through cracked windows. I do not recall what we discussed, though the gentle slopes of the Chihuahua high desert lulled me to sleep. When I awoke the hat greeted me in the light by a motel window in the slow town of Winslow, Arizona. I remembered some trace of the dream, looking out at landscapes through a window that did not move, as if the whole time we were just watching TV. And yet, Dorn turned unexpectedly, offering another beer with a shot of Sauza. Look, he indicated, glancing toward the empty park beside us where a ghost swing hung in the breeze, a redundant creaking of its metal high and pinched in the air. This reminds me of your early poems, I said. "The Air of June Sings," or "Sousa." He looked at me, as if to assess something, emptied his glass and turned to leave. The road we took proved unfamiliar. He claimed we were in Utah or Nevada, some outpost of insignificant charm. But Dorn kept an apartment close by, so we drove with intensity under a brilliant moon, where he brought the car to a stop (it was really just a horse cart on wheels). We stood and followed the Spanish limestone up a winding path to a little unit next to what must have been the most northern limits of the galaxy, a galaxy where Parmenides reigned, whatever that means. Once you get it, he said, there's no going back. Outside, in the plaza of a small cantina, a young couple danced, their bodies pressed tight in a slow and desperate embrace as the Ranchera singer Yolanda del Rio lifted a version of "La Hija de Nadie." Dorn had instructed me to attend to present forms, and that by doing so language mattered only partially. The West, he said, laughing, slides off the vowels of anyone's tongue, but the motives of apprehension extend far beyond, and rant with an awkward physicality. I slept under a blanket of stars in the Utah desert. When I woke I was no longer in the normal world, but in a geographic approximation of it, where objects were fragile, and people wandered with a kind of ghost-like spontaneity I envied. It was suddenly as though all of the dead came here to rehearse the bitter torrents of life that had so weakened them, squeezing their lives completely. And then a limousine arrived, black paint and smoked windows. A chauffeur opened the door to a Hollywood movie director. He wore a seersucker suit, black sunglasses, and he had a pony tail familiar to certain men of the Baby Boomer generation. Dorn, who had meanwhile been preoccupied with a conversation in a corner of the room (we were now in a place of dissident writers, a space that signaled hope to other drifters who happened through it), took notice of the Director, who spoke very rudely to me. As I tried to explain how I had happened into this odd space through the willful designs of a cowboy hat, Dorn sneaked up behind the man who, not accidentally, had a voice like Alan Cheuse, the NPR reviewer of books. Dorn, with a knife polished earlier by the Bannock, cut the ponytail from the director's head. When he turned around, in surprised outrage, Dorn held the banded locks to his nose in a kind of mock moustachio, shouting in a Spanish accent, How was dee moovee? How was dee plot? Deed eet make you cry? Nevertheless, a feeling of normality prevailed and pervaded all vision. Somehow I climbed the stairs to an American poet's house where there convened a salon of the most respected writers of my generation. I found a place to sit on a cushion at the feet of an admired figure who had secured his position at an esteemed institution. Head down, he mumbled into his lap, only there I noticed a plate runny with meat, perhaps an uncooked hangar steak. It seemed as all the writers in the room awaited instruction about the raw flesh in the poet's lap. Someone tapped my shoulder, and as I got up to follow, I glimpsed a tiger outside another window overlooking a literary salon of techno-ironists. Moving quickly down a long corridor I followed the soft music one may encounter in the lobby of a Best Western hotel, the antiseptic scent of cleaning residue lingering on the air. Dorn busied himself drawing a picture, an image of the real world that somehow, in any other circumstance, would refuse such definition, but he made it work. He said, This refers only to what's happening outside. Outside what, I asked. Outside whatever got inside your skull. I listened to him talk. It took a long time for him to say that. The hat had joined us. The view was stunning. And the hat jumped up to get a better look. Someone poured us a drink while below we observed a dozen or more people, black sacks on their heads, lined up against a plaster wall, and all shot dead. In America, Dorn said, such acts are mostly figurative. But the results are all the same. In Latin America, of course, Death accompanies every sage. It became increasingly difficult to move through wide rooms stacked with tables and chairs that reminded me either of the Marquis de Sade's castle or the corridors of an urban convention center. But a celebration was taking place, a seemingly endless party, with hordes of writers pressed up close together. I stretched my legs by a window in the foyer, and through it I could see the ocean. The surf came in and sea lions glistened against a pale beach. But then I discovered that the images came from a television show, and I was watching some PBS special programming with Dorn. We both sipped magnificent cocktails that we had hidden under our coats as we left the party. A band of dissidents, thieves, addicts, and, for lack of a better word, bums made procession along the beach. Seashells dangled over their chests and someone beat a drum. Sand and sea salt clung to their long, dirty hair, and then someone recognized me, called my name: Smith, Smith, he said. A poet, long dead, no one in life had ever read, motioned toward me. Smith, look, I'm marching to the sea. He smiled brightly, more mobile than I had known him in life, and I was proud to watch him go. And there was Lucia, lovely Lucia, bearing an immense globe of light. She embraced me and moved on with the others, commanding a place among them. Come on, said Dorn. We crossed a long parking lot, hot asphalt and sea breeze pressing the air. I didn't expect California, I said. I thought we'd end up in Colorado, or Idaho. Maybe Nevada. Dorn looked at me, turned off the screen. Cold mountain air. The sound of something lonesome and certain creaked through the rafters. Light cut sharp lines through wooden shutters. When I looked out through a slat I saw a deserted town square. It must have been the nineteen fifties. Trash blew in the wind as slowly a band assembled. Someone raised a flag as the men in dusty suits gathered brass instruments to their arms. What sounded like fireworks began to explode before the music began. We ran upstairs to the roof to watch the bombardment, but there we found a bar by the Pacific instead. I bought two beers, and when I turned, Dorn was sitting with a cigarette listening to Luis Aguilar sing "Llorona" just as the ragtag procession of bums arrived to accompany the mariachis. In such instances it is tempting to push the envelope and to shift things and continue down the long corridors and jagged entrances of dream. I possessed a clear sense that I had arrived at some West beyond the West, a pine-scented West of sand before the first people, before any words were spoken at all.