Mark Svenvold

 

Like a Map of the New World:

Dakota Cantonment (formerly Montana), after the Soft Secession

                                                                        --Soundgarden Open Mic Night 


 


 




 


 


 


 


 


 

1.

 

It happens every Sunday at The Dew Drop Inn--

in front of which, like a row of metallic mantises,

a line of choppers, some still ticking with road heat

reflecting the sunset of the current dispensation

                                  from gleaming twin-set engines.

 

The air newly redolent with cut hay and barbecue. 

 

A freight train rumbling past the grain elevator,

which says, in twelve-foot high block letters:

 

SAY NO TO METH---NOT EVEN ONCE!

 

NxT? (Manifest) kids ride Tall Bikes down Main,

sans tires—steel on concrete, sparks flying from the rims,

in front of the Dew Drop. They shout oaths. 

 

This, from a Tall Bike crew, is a sign of war--

a signal that a rumble’s afoot. And the cause? 

 

At a checkpoint down the highway, some townies,

armed & bored (and deputized), stopped a Tall Bike crew,  

“impounding” property--a jousting lance, juggling clubs,

 

        and this--a stuffed toy rabbit, a Tall Bike talisman,

 

which, in the interregnum and by chance, it seems, 

had become a kind of symbol, an accidental meme  

that found a life in different forms: as mascot animal,

as T-shirt emblem, but mostly as a graffiti indicator, 

inscribed in chalk and underscored with lightning bolts

from here to Manhattan and points beyond--

           (Someone said they saw one in Milan).

 

Out here, people found it everywhere, especially 

in places where they didn’t want to find it--

on city water towers, bridges, highway overpasses,

high school football fields—The Bolted Rabbit 

appeared, always in chalk (thus skirting vandalism laws

if not the laws for trespass, if not the nuisance laws

the city councils passed, along with laws that outlawed 

public chalkery of any kind). 

 

                           What point the Bolted Rabbit made

remained unclear—but that, perhaps, was the affront:

 

a little nonsense, broadcast everywhere

 

that said the given world as it appeared 

was only one of many options: 

 

                     that said that someone cared 

enough to make a mark, in just this way, 

written, Kilroy-esque, in nooks and crannies

on the unassuming undercarriage of the world, 

or, writ large, on tanker ships, refineries, 

the recently deregulated smokestacks 

                                            of heavy industry

          --the point, perhaps, to proclaim 

          a monument of thunder-bolted whimsy, 

                                              a rabbitry 

                        that washed away in rain. 

The stuffed rabbit, then, was just a trifling piece 

                           of Tall Bike heraldry, 

but it bent the noses of the paramilitary men

                                     --and so they took it. 

Later, word got out the rabbit had been “crucified,”

a ten-penny nail driven through its head, then mounted,

taxidermy fashion, next to an elk and mountain goat

on the wall of the Dew Drop. Just so, 

                                   (as it always seems to go),

umbrage, sprung from theft and mortal insult 

by one faction, now required an answer.

The Tall Bikes met, they planned out their “attack,”

--and into this The Heroes, Robinson, et al, 

would soon supply their part 

                               to get the rabbit back. 

2.

Into this: against a sky cobalt blue with early stars, 

the air feathered with sparrows, a group of men 

smoke and talk outside the Dew Drop—

bandana-headed grey beards in denim and boots,

wallets with chains that droop from belts. 

They cackle, they point with index fingers

into the chests of the ones they love,

and profusely call each other “brah.” 

“Sorry, brah,” they might say, sticking a shiv 

between your ribs. They’ve combined their freedom

of peaceable assembly with (the D.A. will later show) 

conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute 

a little something, a bit of this, a bit of that, 

just to keep your spirits up, something to keep watch on, 

                      to keep your head on straight 

3.

as you wake up deep inside a predicate—

                                                   an ever-after

in which you’ve made your way as best you can:

4.

--after (this was years ago) the night sky ignited in fireballs,

in billowing plumes, in concussive waves

                      in the ground and in the air;

--after the explosives factory exploded—

                      and why was that a surprise?--

and made the national news, the town evacuated;

--after the toxic disclosures, revelations, law suits,

the company folding, the factory closed for good;

--after the discovery of an underground trinitrobenzine plume,

and so many nitroaromatics in the ground itself 

that, for kicks, a kid could toss a rock onto the slag pile

and watch the rock explode—

--and the feds moved in, and they sold the site

to Rhizome Remediation, an environmental group, 

                                for one dollar—

the winning grant offering an “anaerobic

subsurface-flow wetland and education center”

with a sign that said “The Rhizome Collective Farm.”

Here, Tall Bike kids spent their gap years

rebuilding Western Civ, from the ground up—

i.e., busting asphalt at the former factory,

pealing back the asphalt down to dirt,

mixing dead and sterile soil with worms,

bolstering the biome.

                        Then came the great bloom:

organic gardens turned their produce

into a brand that kept the enterprise afloat.

                        It started with a nanny goat

                        that became a product:

                        Soon, Early Rhizome Yogurt

was flying off the shelves in Bozeman’s Coop Stores. 

The Early Rhizome brand became a darling

with a tag line that contained a remediation joke:

       from toxic stew, to healthy you.

Imagine, then, a munitions factory, 

                       a place where you can still see

smokestacks towering from twenty miles off,

a place where local fathers, 

                       and their fathers worked all their lives, 

(the high school football team was called The Bombers)

       and all of that sold for a dollar

                                   --and sold to whom?

5.

Tonight, it’s just plain bitterness about the world

meets straight-up outrage about the world—

        Chopper Dudes v. Tall Bike kids.

It’s just a skirmish made of words, so far.

Tonight they’ll sing 

       the words of songs already written.

The kids will add some parts (and props and puppetry),

to try to change the DNA that drives the traffic—

They’ll try to make the Bolted Rabbit’s point, 

--to assert a point of contrast or departure 

from the fatedness that governs every song,

even of the gods—the fundamental senselessness 

that even we can sense, the beauty and the violence

of us: a slender product in its simple package,

hand in glove—the fist that sings for love

we call the given. The given thing, its signature

                       in smoke and blood, includes

the mocking notes that everybody sings in hell,

the necessary measures every song must take,

in ringing, even as it tries to un-ring a bell. 

6.

Into this: a white van pulls up along the curb. 

Inside, a trio peers through a bug-splattered windshield

at the Dew Drop--Robinson in the back, 

Marvin behind the wheel in his natty

leopard “driving tie,” dark vest & beard, 

hair combed back. Odegaard riding shotgun.

                          Paulie leans forward 

in his bowling shirt. He stares at his iPhone, 

glances up at the Dew Drop. A balloon 

of silence floats inside the van.

“Fucking Google Maps, man.” 

“This is 120 Main. Says so on the door,” says Odegaard. 

Robinson squints up and down the street,

then nudges in between the two men up front.

The biker dudes stare hard at the van in the sun.

Billy, having sat up, stares hard right back.

“I don’ know, M. I’m not playin’ in no biker bar.” 

Monika turns to him, tilts her head. “The world 

isn’t always what it seems.”

Marvin and Billy give each other a look. 

“Okay, Schopenhauer,” says Marvin. 

                                    “What’s the call?”

“I say we do as we’re directed,” she says. 

Billy puts a plug of Skoal into the corner of his mouth.

“The sign out front says Soundgarden Open Mic Night—” 

“So, we play some Soundgarden,” she says. 

            The Heroes, according to the battle plan, 

will provide a sonic distraction—

             whatever Open Mic Night entails,

while the Tall Bikes assemble forces outside the bar.

“I ain’t playin’ in no biker bar,” says Billy. 

Monika turns to face Billy. “I’m surprised at you.

Where’s your sense of adventure?” Behind her back,

Paulie mouths the words “WUSS” to Marvin.

Odegaard grins, scribbles quietly in his book. 

Billy dips his head down. “I know what you’ll say.

I just don’t have a good feeling about it, is all.”

7.

Every bar’s a cliché that somehow, 

every night, gets sacked and burned,

and sits abandoned through another day

until, with evening darkness coming on,

                       the sunlight turns, 

                       with great precision 

upon a swivel in the heart--as if to say,

with evening darkness coming on,

the heart’s a neon sign that flickers first, 

then flares, like every promise ever made

in every bar: cliché like that, somehow. 

8.

But not for those who find a stage,

                     plug in, choose a song 

and, by way of introduction, crease the air,

pin the bikers backs against the walls,

and flatten them in the hydraulic press

                     of “Let Me Drown.”

When the band brings the song to an end,

there’s a moment of stunned aftersilence--

Billy leans into the microphone,

“Just a little something to say howdy.” 

                                          The place

                                erupts. 

Odegaard, from an empty booth by the stage,

                         watches the band huddle 

like a pitching conference on a baseball mound. 

It’s where he wants to be, in the heart of things,

listening to whatever it is they’re saying—

          god knows it could be anything. 

9.

Marvin, lifting an eyelid in Billy’s direction, smiles.

 “So now you decide to bring it?”

Billy scoffs. “Always bring it, man.

                --and you should talk, anyway.”

“Just knocking off the rust,” says Marvin. 

“Hell, I think you’re trying to impress the Brethren, here.”

“I hate to break up the love,” says Mikey, 

“but I think we just woke the beast.” 

The bartender leans into Billy’s ear.

 “Son, what are you drinking?” he says. 

“Fresca?” he says. 

“You got it,” says the bartender, and off he goes.

“So, now what?” says Billy from the huddle. 

“I say set ‘em up for the curve,” says Marvin. 

“Fine,” says Robinson. “But let’s do some 

major-to-minor thing in the same root.”

“Old Devil Moon-type thing?”

“Exactly,” says Robinson. “Beautiful, stark, chilling.”

“Like a Smurftown in flames,” says Mikey. 

“Yes,” says Robinson. 

“How about Blow Up the Outside World, says Marvin.

 “Oh, let’s do that,” says Robinson. “Perfect.”

“Don’t know it.” says Billy. 

Marvin taps out the tempo on his high hat,

“It’s a 1-4-5 in E minor,” he says. 

“D flat at the break,” 

shouts Robinson, over her shoulder.

“OK, then,” Billy says. “Lead me to the altar.”

10.

In just the way the world will say its name--

so begins the battle—first, of course, with elves: 

an elfish vanguard through the doors,

a green advance that crouches, weaves, and whispers 

through the denimed, bearded thicket of the Brethren,

who do not seem to see the green-leafed among them

or note the musky scent of forest aromatic oils

the spandexed, holly-headed figures trail behind them,

like the woods before a storm. So out of context

elves can be, (it seems) like a group hallucination set

to music of The Heroes, that the Brethren laugh 

                         unaware of an attack.


 

They flirt, they order beer, they offer smokes,

as a flanking echelon arrives behind the elves

in a wave of Pierrot puppets and temple bells.

11.

Then the wave of Pierrot puppets and temple bells

wave their gaunt arms controlled by elves

in harness to the groove the band has made 

(a trance-like rhythmic, atmospheric sound arcade)

to which the Pierrots now beckon to the bros

as swirls of puppet birds fly into the crowd,

and some of the Brethren begin to dance,

while others, laughing, lean back upon the bar

as a phalanx of fairy creatures, their hair piled high

and crowned with antlers, drags a ship’s rope 

through the crowd. They hand out strips of cloth.

They shout instructions: “Write your grievances,

“your secrets, your regrets,” they say,  “your deathbed

truth: the thing you always wished you’d said.” 

12.

Truth, the thing you always wished you’d said,

with its cloth attachments, its secrets, its regrets,

weaves through the Brethren. It stops—someone’s

thinking.  It moves again, the rope no longer rope,

flutters, hand through hand, with strips of white.

The gods, meanwhile, sparkle in the evening light,

but no one needs them. Every now and then,

the gods observe an outbreak of enthusiasm

like this below: the way the wind can rustle in an oak

with soft intensity. The way the fairies, with their rope,

enchant the Brethren out the bar, to see

         an effigy in lath wood, in an empty lot,

where chance and fate get funneled into a form

& set ablaze—and some, for just a moment, set free. 

13.

& set ablaze, and for just this moment one sets free

a symbol with a hammer and a raven—TAROT!, TAROT!

as Goth Girl enters the now (mostly) empty bar, 

walks to the rabbit nailed to the wall, removes it.

“The fuck you think you’re doing, Missy?”

an angry biker shouts. Goth Girl walks out,

holds up the rabbit in the street. The Tall Bikes cheer. 

                             The angry dude shouts, “Stop her!” 

but his voice dissolves into the ballyhoo—

the sparks from rims of jousting Tall Bikes,

the DIY parade, the torch-lit carnival’s hum

& reboot, now, of Western Civ., the how to

and the why of it: the open-ended question

in a darkened age, of the world to come. 

14.

In a darkened age, of the world to come, 

the what that comes, the round that goes again, 

was—for Tall Bikes, especially—a reinvented wheel

and figuration, too, for energy and equity within:

the wheel--as hub and center around which turns

a world awry for nearly everyone, thinks Robinson,

of the sawdust Midway’s raucous grind and churn,

the calls of eco-philosophes to come, to hear, to take in.

 “I’ll be at the lecture on polyamory,” Marvin nods

toward a crowded tent. The boys disperse into

the kaleidoscope. The operative word in DIY is do,

thinks Robinson, of all tarot and puppet-borne alterna-gods.

But how, she thinks, to sort it out, this whirl & hum,

--and who will make it legible, in parable or poem? 

15. 

To Whom It May Be Legible: in parable or poem,

she thinks, in great protests in cities and in towns,

in heroic rants to all one’s Facebook friends,

in withering attacks by TV’s smartest clowns,

we tried, she thinks. We tried, and many cared—

but not enough, she thinks. Across the street,

she sees the Goth Girl, who climbs the stairs

of an abandoned building, Robinson following

up, in darkness, the glow from a smartphone. 

The must and peel of paint reveals a chambered

installation: a crumbling, well-appointed room

right down to the tooth-pick holders, the mezzanine

of Hades: where a hand has touched each thing

                      in laughter, like water over stones. 

16. 

In a wave of Pierrot puppets, then--and temple bells,

truth--the thing you always wished you’d said 

& set ablaze for just a moment--sets free 

                    a darkened age, a world to come. 

But who will make it legible, in parable or poem,

in laughter, like water over stones,

--in just the way the world will say its name?

It’s just the way the world will say its name:

in laughter, like water over stones.

But who will make it legible in parable or poem?

In a darkened age, (the world to come

set ablaze for just a moment), set free

the truth, the thing you always wished you’d said,

say, in a wave of Pierrot puppets, in temple bells. 

17.

Meanwhile (by comparison) nothing too crazy

just the end of the world, maybe.  

Meanwhile the gods overhead in a luxury dirigible.

Meanwhile the gods--real if by real you mean 

complete impunity for all actions whatsoever. 

Meanwhile electing a horse to the Senate

now looks like a lapse of imagination, 

                     or like an act of cinéma vérité.

18.

 

Meanwhile The Brethren and their meth-concession—

Nogales to Phoenix to Helena to Great Falls 

to Pendroy to the Blackfeet Rez clear to Canada. 

Meanwhile, to the Port of Carway, Port of Wild Horse.

Meanwhile the Rescued Rabbit installed on the Barricade 

at the entrance to Nxt? (Manifest).

Meanwhile, on the phone: 

the fuck just happened at the Dew Drop?

 

It’s some crazy Bolshevik free love 

bicycle sideshow that’s taken over the town 

you better come see. 

 

Meanwhile Get this man to a doctor.

 

Meanwhile hold on who are you, anyway?

 

My name is Charles Jordon Odegaard 

and I’m a journalist and this man needs medical attention.

Meanwhile Marvin in tears fending off the dark swirl 

of death into which he’s plummeting.

                    Listen, whoever you are. 

The guy’s done some ayahuasca al fresco, is all.

Get him on that cargo bike, boys—

back to the squat. Lift him up to The Egg, 

                                        to Re-birthing. STAT! 

Meanwhile Marvin (raving) off in the distance, 

the waters of the current dispensation 

returning to their steady burble and flow: 

          kale chips. popcorn with lecithin. Tarot.

19. 

--Odegaard scans the thinning crowd, sighs. 

“I’m outta here,” he says. He thumbs a ride,

Tall bikes stop. (“Hop on, brother.”)

He does. He rides the handlebars,

                        the road scrolling beneath him.

They pass a Bolted Rabbit chalked on a water tower,

the night air almost sticky sweet: “What’s that smell,”

says Odegaard, his nose tipped into the wind.

 

“Nice, isn’t it,” says the Tall Bike kid

who looks like Jesus, fresh out of rehab.

“The trees give it off. Populus balsamifera

 

Balsam Poplar,” he adds, smiling.

“Go ahead. Put that in your article.” 

Mark Svenvold has written about bicycle nomads for Orion Magazine; wildcat oil geology for Fortune/Small Business; and solar power and offshore wind power for The New York Times Magazine. Svenvold’s books include Big Weather about tornado chasers and the culture of catastrophilia and Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, which unravels the bizarre career of a Long Beach, California, fun house mummy. Mark teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at Seton Hall.