It had been an impulse buy, as so many of my books are when they’re purchased on a Saturday after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and we’re wandering around a bookstore. But it was an acquisition I’d been planning for a long time; I have a home William Blake in the den, the Seven Centuries of English Verse anthology I bought 45 years ago for my freshman college Humanities 101 course, so I’d decided that the next William Blake I bought would be the portable kind.
“Let’s go get ice cream!” it said as I carried it past the security scanners and out the front door of Barnes & Noble.
“I’m not hungry,” I said and I wasn’t lying. I was stuffed from a dinner of turbot in a mushroom sauce with some of those sprouts on top that look like . . . short and curlies.
“I didn’t ask if you were hungry,” said the guy who, as Alfred Kazin says in his intro, makes such fierce demands on the human imagination.
“My wife doesn’t want any either, so you’re outvoted.”
“What kind of wimp cares what his wife thinks?” said the man who was a libertine in his own mind, but who proposed to his wife the first time they met when he told her another woman had dumped him. And she said she pitied him.
“Sorry, I bought you, you’re gonna live by my rules.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them, because I knew what was coming next; an anti-commerce diatribe.
“When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,” he intoned, “and Commerce settles on every tree.” One of his favorite gags.
“Bill,” I began, trying to strike a reasonable note, “Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you can say stupid stuff.”
“It’s not stupid, it’s true,” he snapped, more than a little defensive.
“To you and maybe a few other demented types, mainly college professors.”
“Hey–if it wasn’t for a college professor you probably wouldn’t know me.”
“Not true. I read you senior year in high school, in college prep English.”
“Did you have Mrs. Reisgang?”
I held him up to eye level. “How do you know her?” I asked skeptically, wondering where he could have heard about the Mrs. Robinson-like figure who lured me into the writerly life when she singled out my lame, post-nuclear tale of betrayal as the best short story of the Class of ’69.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” he said in a deep, portentous voice, “everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
O-kay. Guess I’d better watch what I say. “You know,” I said, trying to sound a more amiable note, “it really is amazing that they teach you to high school students, not to mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”
“That drughead!” he said with contempt. “I’m Bernie Carbo to his Bill Lee.”
“I’m naturally crazy, I didn’t need to work at it.”
The old innocence/experience dichotomy–nobody rings the changes in that bell tower better than Blake.
“Seriously, it’s a wonder the right wing hasn’t copped to the subversive influence you have on impressionable young kooks.”
“Like you?” he asked, arching an eyebrow skyward.
“Don’t fence me in–the left wing won’t have anything to do with me either.”
“Why not? You’re Mr. Anything Goes.”
“But I’m also obsessed with God. It’s a wonder anybody can get ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?’ and ‘Tyger, Tyger’ in a public schoolhouse door.”
“So if you’re not of the right, and not of the left–what are you?”
“Apparently your reading comprehension hasn’t improved since you bombed the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Read the intro, would ya?”
I took off my glasses–I only need them for distance–and began to flip the pages. “Holy crap,” I said to myself.
“What’s the matter?” my wife asked, her forehead plowed into a little soybean field of concern.
“It says here that William Blake was a libertarian.”
“Are those the people who come to the door on Saturdays?”
“No, those are Seventh Day Adventists. Look,” I said to the book in my hand. “You’ve got to be careful about following unorthodox philosophies in Massachusetts.”
“We burn witches here, remember? People will think you’re crazy.”
The picture on the back cover gave me a look that could have chilled a beer mug to a fine, frosty finish. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Just be careful what you say, okay? I’m already a pariah in just about every social circle my wife wants to join–and some she doesn’t.”
“Perhaps,” Blake said slily, “it’s because you’re too much like me.”
I gulped the gulp that follows the shock of recognition. “Ya think?”
“Don’t go all Valley Girl on me, you’ve already noticed it here, in this blog post.”
He had me dead to rights, so I started flipping through the biographical sketch in my new book. Loner–yep. Printing industry–yes. Self-published books, the mark of the literary crank–on the nosey. Anti-clerical–again, yes. Hates to travel–that’s a oui.
“Recall that at one point I didn’t leave my house for two years except to go out for beer,” Blake said. “What did you do last weekend?”
“I . . . uh, stayed home and wrote. Then I went out to get some beer.”
“And you say I’m whacked. I used to spontaneously burst into song, adding melodies to my poems. You?”
“Uh, guilty as charged. Say, this is getting kind of uncomfortable. Can we talk about something else?”
“Sure–how about our mutually respective unsuccessful writing careers. How’s yours going.”
“Oh, you know. Dribs and drabs.”
A noise like the riffling of pages escaped from the spine. I guess that’s how books snort with contempt. “Didn’t your motto used to be . . .”
“Another day closer to posthumous fame?”
Once again, he knew me too well. “So–I’m just resigned to my fate as a ballad monger . . .”
“I would have said Rhime trader, but that’s just me. I think you’ve been reading my catalogue entry on ‘The Penance of Jane Shore in St. Paul’s Church’–hmm?”
“Where I say ‘If a man is not employed by those who pretend to encourage art, he will employ himself, and laugh in secret.’”