You Have Given Me the Light

Across the decades, dozens of interviewers have tried to get a grasp on the source of Bob Dylan’s far-out creativity, his lyrics, music, poetry, and his art. The guy is at once tender, topical, absurd, romantic, and profound. Everyone wants to know what his influences are, who he reads, who he talks to, listens to, and who he admires. Whether or not he’s always walking around out of his mind with inspiration.

In her 1978 Rock Express interview with Dylan, Karen Hughes, still looking for a satisfying clue to explain his breadth and depth, asks him, “Do you find that most things come from within?” and Dylan, in one of his usual wandering-shaman moods, simply replies, “Most things come from taking chances.”

Dylan’s philosophy comes up now and then at our Open Voices writing group. We admire writers who take chances with their work. We admire how they explore a difficult subject, try a new vantage point, a new style or genre.

I recently saw my old friend Bart Sutter at the Laurel Poetry Collective Reading, giving his hearty applause to every poet standing at the microphone. He would agree that Dylan takes a lot more chances than the average bloke, but Bart has flung himself into many a new territory with his own writing. He’s an essayist, poet, short-story writer, and playwright. He is the only author to win a Minnesota Book Award in three separate categories.

Wait a minute here.

Some of us mere mortals may not be ready to take the chances Bart or Dylan do. Not this red-hot minute anyway. Shoot, most of the members in my writing group won’t even take a chance and sit in a different chair when we meet. They gotta sit in the same spot month after month. I like murder mysteries and poetry, but I can’t even fathom where I chucked the car keys last night never mind suddenly conjuring up the inspiration to write Bovine Hoof Trimming for Dummies or something, and I certainly don’t hear myself saying, whoa. I feel a screenplay coming on.

As writers, however, I do think we are always taking the chance–regardless of where we are with our writing–that readers will not dismiss our words but be moved by them, and that we’ll reveal a truth or two as Bart does in his poem,

ROCHESTER

My senior year we did Jane Eyre.
Rita Johannsen was Jane,
And I was Rochester.

The way the story goes
I’ve got this crazy wife,
And I keep her locked away
In a distant wing of the house
Because I’m rich as hell.
In the end she burns the house
And burns herself, as well.
That’s how I get to be blind
And marry the governess.

Of all the lines I memorized
I only remember one.
It’s at the end, I’m blind,
And I turn to Jane and say:
“You have given me the light.”
Blackout. Pause.
Thunderous applause.

When I think about it now, I feel
Rochester was cheated, kind of
Castrated, you know? I mean
At first he’s sort of ornery
And makes these sharp remarks,
But in the end he’s whipped
And tied up with his governess.

The audience just loved it,
The way that he was tamed.
I get so mad to think of it
That I’ve thought up
This version of my own
In which, I call it Rochester,
What happens is Jane Eyre
Dies of influenza. Rochester
Is forced to learn to love his ugly wife,
And they’re unhappy ever after

Because women think we’re dumb.
They think we can’t feel anything.

They think that we can’t see
The sneaky way they run things.
But I can see, and I
Don’t hesitate to lie. Say
Some woman lights my cigarette?
I’ll use that line, I’ll tell her:
“You have given me the light.”
She laughs but half believes it,
And half is good enough.

Or say she wonders how she looks,
And I see grey and wrinkles
And feel for both of us.
You think I tell her that?
I tell her: “You
Just look terrific.”

They like to think we’re blind.
That audience believed I was
When I was Rochester,
But I was just pretending,
And they were in the dark,
Applauding and applauding.

This was years ago,
But I can close my eyes
And still see everything:
My parents, sitting separately,
The faces of my friends.
I’m Rochester,
And Rochester sees everything:
Rita’s mouth and teeth,
Delicious little ears,
And how the silver sweat runs
Trickling down her neck.

***

Bart will be reading from his new poetry collection, The Reindeer Camps Friday, June 1st, 7pm at the Loft.

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