"The Dark Flutes of November," by Meredy Amyx





The Dark Flutes of November

     Every year when I turn the calendar page over to November, my first thoughts are not of Thanksgiving and Pilgrims, harvests and feasts and pumpkin pies, early snow, over the river and through the woods to Christmas we go. I think first of the deep end of the year, the heavy brown and purple velvet draperies of the days drawn against the lowering sky, the soulful music of descent. I think first of the dark flutes of November.     

     The dark flutes of November come from a poem—an old poem, a bad poem, written by Tom the poet. All the verses of Tom the poet were in some way bad.
     Tom's poems were social heretics, blaring their challenge to the established order. It was 1962, and the established order seemed unassailable, but Tom had no fear of windmills. Soon enough, the voices of a great many young people like Tom would rock society to its foundation; but in that year most of the challengers were still writing their college applications and worrying about SAT scores. Hippies had yet to be invented, and Dylan's recording of "Blowing in the Wind" was a year away from release. Tom heralded the brewing storm.
     His poems were literary renegades, trampling the conventions of verse composition by following in the sandalprints of the beatniks, who by then had well-defined conventions of their own. No less idealistic than the poetry of the past, these new verses embodied other ideals and other literary standards. They accused, raved, wailed, and defied using abstract nouns with capital letters and an excess of emotive language such as scream, mad, horror, and despair. They reveled in their own mediocre genius. Superlatives abounded. Oblique phrases and outlandish figures of speech supplied color in a nightmarish Times Square sort of way.
     Tom's poems were moral outlaws, stridently defying or flagrantly dismissing cultural and religious norms of right and wrong. In the homogenized milieu in which I was growing up, common values and assumptions yielded stable definitions of good and evil. Tom's poems resisted virtue not only out of a gluttonous appetite for sin but also out of a zealous application of principle.
     Tom's poems were vagabond mystics, thumbing their way from satori to nickel-and-dime satori in rundown shoes, finding divinity in unauthorized places: spider, garbage, self.
     By the rule books I knew, these things were all manifestly bad.
     Some of Tom's poems were simply aesthetic duds. They were bad in the most unforgivable way: poorly conceived, poorly executed, and poorly typed amateurish crap.
     But they were, after all, the work of a boy. Tom the poet was eighteen. At fifteen I was simultaneously awed, shocked, fascinated, horrified, dazzled, and confused.
     Such is the power of verse.
     The work of Tom the poet jumped the cosmic barrier between parallel universes and entered mine through the normally chaste medium of the newspaper. Tom McInerney was profiled in a column for teens as the youthful founder of a poetry magazine, the Blue Note Journal, which he sold to the denizens of Harvard Square.
     As a junior in high school, I was probably more innocent than the average nine-year-old today. My own social, cultural, and racial environment was all I knew. I was the daughter of a professor of philosophy and religion at a small Protestant college in a suburb south of Boston, in an all-white neighborhood and all-white schools where each of us knew exactly which European strains were in our blood. I wore white gloves to church on Sunday and hats with little veils, spent my allowance on Classics Illustrated comics and five-cent candy bars, and didn't know the meaning of any swear words except "hell."
     Yet in the privacy of my own rebel mind, I had by the age of thirteen begun wondering if everything I was being taught in school, in church, and at home was precisely and utterly true. I was insulated from any evidence to the contrary. But I had been reading beyond the bounds of the library's suggested book list for adolescents, and I had been writing poetry secretly since I was eleven. The search of the inner reaches that it takes to write poetry, any poetry, even angst-laden grandiose loquacious overromanticized self-absorbed precious juvenile poetry in lines of uneven length that do not rhyme, upsets the equilibrium. The mind that has been questing after truth instead of doing homework is a mind susceptible to unorthodox views.
     The newspaper columnist praised Tom's entrepreneurship and his commitment to the literary arts, quoting his scornful reference to the "hip-dilettantes" who grew beards and wrote verse because it was the faddish thing to do. I had never known anyone who used expressions like "hip-dilettante," and I had no idea what it meant, but I was almost abjectly impressed. The very idea of a teenager's publishing a serious literary magazine excited me on so many levels at once that it was as if the universe had delivered this opportunity directly to my welcome mat, gift-wrapped. I penned a formal note requesting two sample copies, enclosed 75 cents apiece in cash, and added $2.00 of my babysitting money to show my support of Tom's publishing venture. And I tucked in a tasteful selection of my own verse, daring to expose my tender creations to his alien but sympathetic eye.
     A few days later, a brown envelope arrived at my home, addressed in messy black ballpoint script, with the return address of "Blue Note." Ignoring elevated parental eyebrows, I clasped it to the breast of my fringed turquoise pullover sweater and hustled it away upstairs. There was nothing of this that I meant to share.
     Along with my sample copies, the envelope contained an actual semilegible handwritten note. Tom the poet had written to me personally, and what's more, he wanted to publish one of my poems—"and not just because you were wonderful enough to send two dollars."
     Not many thrills like that one come in a lifetime.
     The Blue Note Journal consisted of folded and stapled mimeographed sheets produced on a manual typewriter, with crudely rendered line art on the cover. The grotesque, hallucinatory image of a man's face was a disturbing foretaste of the contents.
     This humble though not unpretentious vehicle was about to transport me from the guarded pasture of the Lamb to the savage jungle of the Tyger. In an instant my innocence was blown away like the aureole of a dandelion whose bloom is past.
     Without touching me or even meeting me, and without using any forbidden words, Tom the poet penetrated my intellectual virginity.
     Physical virginity is a natural intact state. Intellectual virginity is a construct of words that conspire to form a reality shielded from disruptive contradictions. Possessing nothing but schoolgirl knowledge and my own vague surmises, I was virginal with respect to a view of the world. Composed of words and the silences between words, my innocence could be seduced and deflowered with words.
     It wasn't that I had never before encountered strong ideas or disquieting images in my reading. Keats and Shelley swelled with Romantic fervor and conviction. Poe teemed with morbid fears and passions. Dostoevsky tormented his characters with unanswerable questions. The standard English curriculum of Dickens, Hawthorne, and Shakespeare delivered murder, betrayal, revenge, and catastrophe to our impressionable minds. The Bible itself was rife with stories of vice and corruption.
     Yet this was something different.
     The underlying assumptions were different.
     Until then, all the reading I had done, whether by assignment or by free choice, subscribed to the same essential morality. Good and evil were clear-cut. Traditional Judaeo-Christian judgment prevailed in the end over every wayward sinner from Huck Finn to Emma Bovary. If a Raskolnikov introduced ambiguities, replacing absolutes with relatives and supplanting altruism with self-interest, he invariably met the doom he deserved.
     Another morality pervaded the words of Tom the poet, a personal compass and social conscience not expressed by Christian Sunday-school notions of right and wrong. Self-consciously bohemian, it celebrated what the uninitiated had hardly dared to countenance, never mind embrace: openness to sensation, expansion of perception, autonomy, the liberated will. Exploration that leapt over the warning signs and dashed to the edge of the precipice, arms flung wide open, shouting with angry joy. Defiance, blasphemy, and simple disobedience. Experience above all, beyond the bounds of madness, heaven and hell. Everything we knew could be questioned, every authority challenged, every truth doubted. Every consciousness could create itself. This morality rejoiced in the breaking of the mind not to make it whole again but to exaggerate and multiply its powers of perception, like the smashing of a crystal into multifaceted shards that will never reunite but will always reflect their surroundings and one another hyperdimensionally.
     Too late to close my eyes, too late to unsee what I had seen, too late to fend off the unprecedented thoughts and sudden realizations and half-formed questions that flooded my awareness, I now took in the voices of my own generation and recognized their language. It was the language of revolution.
     As a diligent schoolgirl brought up in Protestant New England I had been taught to honor revolutionaries. From Jesus Christ to Martin Luther, from Christopher Columbus to Paul Revere, our heroes were those who dared to put personal conviction above conventional authority, and then act on it.
     Paradoxically, I was most faithful to my upbringing in the moment when I cast it off.
     Tom the poet was not the only influence on me in that malleable and impressionable time when the wave of the sixties broke over our safe shore and we were carried away. But he was the first, with his loping gait and scruffy brown hair, his shy smile and soft brown eyes, dressed in worn cords and a brown tweed jacket whose better days had been spent in a thrift shop, carrying a battered canvas backpack stuffed with limp, creased paperbacks and a notebook filled with scribbles in messy handwriting, declaiming his reverence for Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Nietzsche, St. John of the Cross, and Salvador Dali, Gurdjieff and Leary and gods of some other heaven, rhapsodizing over spiritual journeys taken with the aid of substances too new to be illegal, raising aloft gleaming visions of literature as the means of society's redemption on the one hand while with the other he borrowed a dollar from a girl's allowance money in order to buy her a cup of coffee—all unaware, he was the first to corrupt me. To emancipate me. To show me another way.
     The pages of the Blue Note Journal cast an eerie light by which I saw for the first time the stone walls of my thought prison. A red neon sign blazed: "EXIT." Without a backward glance, I exited the safe world that I had been reared and schooled and churched in.
     Somewhere behind me a door slammed, but I was too absorbed to hear it. Never once have I wished to reopen it.
     Every verse but one of Tom the poet is long gone from my life. So far as I know, nothing of Tom McInerney's was ever published, except in the Blue Note Journal. No more than a few kindly souls ever bought the copies peddled on the street in Cambridge by a tall, lean youth, soft-spoken, with a self-effacing manner, who looked like he could use a good meal. Every line of every bad poem is forgotten but this one: "the dark flutes of November." Amidst the overwrought verbiage in ragged lines without proper punctuation or spelling, that lone image sang out to me. That lyric grafted itself onto my soul. The haunting mellow tones of the dark flutes found a place within me that words never touch.
     I set a new course by the light of the neon sign, and somehow it brought me to where I am now. I rarely think about the path I took and how it diverged from where I might have gone. I never wonder if I would have been happier to stay within the lines. I seldom even think of Tom the poet, who came and went in my life for more than twelve years before he disappeared.
     But his words left a permanent mark on November. The song of the season, ever and always, begins with the dark flutes.

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.
"The Dark Flutes of November" was completed on October 17, 2006. This essay appeared in the November 2006 issue of WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers Club.