Michael, Jim, Tom, Grant: We Have Found Your Desk Drawer!
“In addition to the actual haiku, the entire missive itself carried important details: the matchbook the poem was written on, or the smell of the torn hotel stationery, or the coffee stain, or the postmark, even the choice of stamps. It was all part of the thrill.” —Tom Gilroy, The Haiku Year
Haiku really happen. They observe moments and their objects. They become objects themselves, and generate new moments. Haiku happen when they are written. And they happen again when they are read.
soon to die,
yet no sign of it:
a cicada’s cry
I wouldn’t say it’s overrun with picturesque detail, and “a cicada’s cry” (semi no koe) is a stock element, but I can believe Basho really heard it.
There is something subtle in haiku’s documentary force. Look at this one by Stanford M. Forrester:
There’s no word in it that ties it to a particular time and place—it’s sort of not really a haiku—but it impossibly retains (like the bacteria / which, in the vacuum of space, / persist ) a haiku sense: what we are reading is not a slogan for shouting in unison. It’s a thought born of a certain moment. The poem exists to record it. I don’t know how the poem makes me know that. It’s like magic.
. . . . .
Here’s something that really happened: My sister’s boyfriend Patrick bought a desk from a Four Seasons hotel in D.C. sometime around 2002. (His then-wife was an employee there.) During a move in 2006, he noticed some inscriptions on the underside of one of the drawers—lots of writing, a couple drawings, one full name: Michael Stipe.
2016, Patrick is moving in with my sister Cristin. The desk is old and worn, and Patrick’s thinking of getting rid of it. He tells her about the inscription.
So my sister asked me whether I knew who Michael Stipe was. Yes, I did. Patrick has a desk drawer. Okay. Could I look at it sometime? Sure. Weeks pass. Eventually Cristin came over with cell-phone pictures of the drawer.
It’s not quite a signature, just handwritten, she said. Could these be lyrics? Look:
The radio landscape
colors the room
Leon Theremin’s Ashes
Blown from the speakers
G. Lee PHILLIPS
[drawing of Anubis]
LIFE IS GOOD BEYOND THIS
Stale smoky sweatshirt
covers the lampshade
like a finished party
J. McK. “95”
[drawing of a face]
Okay, first off, they’re haiku. “Gesundheit” is a play off that. G. Lee Phillips is obviously Grant Lee Phillips.
There were lots of objects—clues. Some of them in the haiku themselves—a lampshade, speakers, vodka, tea. Those things wouldn’t be out of place in a hotel room. But the metadata—the date, the authors’ names—gave us even more.
The first question: did Grant Lee Buffalo and R.E.M. play D.C. in Oct. 1995? According to R.E.M. Timeline, the answer is yes. Or: no, not technically, but they were close. The bands played two shows together in Landover, Md., in October. The Four Seasons is 10 miles away.
I went to Michael Stipe’s Wikipedia page and CTRL+F’d for “McK.” I found “Jim McKay,” who co-founded C00 Films with Stipe in 1987. Good enough for me! That’s three out of four. I couldn’t figure out how to identify “t.g.”
I said to my sister, who is an actual police detective: We’re building a case, but so far it’s all circumstantial. We can only hope that one day DNA technology will advance to the point where we can say something with more certainty.
She said: No, it’s not circumstantial; I found samples of Stipe’s handwriting online, and it matches the writing on the drawer.
I googled one of the haiku in full. it returned a Google Books result for The Haiku Year, which documented a year-long haiku challenge among Stipe, Phillips, McKay, Tom Gilroy (ding! ding! ding!) and others. And all four haiku from the drawer were printed on the same page.
I was suddenly doubtful. If the authors had scrawled the haiku themselves, what would be the odds they would land next to each other in the published book? Isn’t it more likely that some fan bought the book at the show, stayed at the hotel, and copied four haiku in a row onto the bottom of the drawer, high on vibes?
But “Gesundheit baby” looks spontaneous. I don’t know.
We looked back at the Google Books preview. The top of the page read, “THE FIRST FOUR / Washington D.C.”
And if that weren’t already a slam dunk, here’s a bit from Gilroy’s foreword:
“Jim, Michael, Grant and I were sitting with the lights off, listening to Clara Rockmore’s beautiful Theremin CD, in Michael’s hotel room in DC on a R.E.M/Grant Lee Buffalo tour. We made a pact to do a haiku challenge with each other (and Douglas, back in Athens, who later roped in Anna) for an entire year. To seal the deal we each wrote our inaugural haiku in pencil on the underside of the desk drawer in Michael’s room. We were off.”
The desk moved from something that may or may or not have been signed by renowned artists to the very site of composition of the inaugural haiku of a year-long project that snowballed into a mass-participation website (back in the heady early days of the WWW) and a book, in which it is briefly a seminal, if spectral, character.
. . . . .
Haiku is the kind of poem you could hurl at something. So I can understand why NASA sent the MAVEN space probe to Mars with 1,100 haiku on a DVD. But it’s strange to imagine receiving a haiku unsuspecting. If the aliens have DVD drives and figure out English, I wonder what they would make of them—telegrams of no urgency?*
I couldn’t imagine it, except that’s what happened to us with the desk drawer.
. . . . .
The encounter with the drawer inspired my sister, who does not write poetry, to take up a year-long haiku challenge. Here are some good ones she’s made so far:
I dislike black flies
No see ums, I can see um
Stickin’ to my head
Thanks for the bagels
Weather outside is frightful
Call the ATF
Today I won a
Free trip to the Bahamas
How’d they know to call?
Grow money tree, grow
Poor, droopy tree with no leaves
Grow money tree, grow
I think that, without the presence of the object, she might not have done it.
. . . . .
We want to try to get the drawer back to the authors. Maybe they don’t want it. I don’t know. I mean, they certainly couldn’t have expected it to make its way back to them. But I hope one of them takes it. I like to imagine the poetry itself exerting an inherent attractive power to reunite the poem with the poet.*
The desk itself is gone, FYI. Just last week, it was blown from the back of Patrick’s pick-up truck and was lost. It was wedged between other pieces of furniture. It was the only thing wrecked. The drawer landed somewhere else and survived.
If anyone wants to put Michael Stipe, Grant Lee Phillips, Jim McKay, or Tom Gilroy in touch with me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re not trying to sell it. We’re just trying to return it.
Leon Theremin’s Ashes…: this haiku appears slightly differently in The Haiku Year—“Leon Theremin’s Ashes / Being blown from the speakers / sparks from a broken conductor”
telegram of no urgency: Poetic urgency is often invisible outside of poetry. Why else would it be so easy to make a poem by quoting a non-poem and saying, “Here, look at this poem I made”? Proper haiku almost abstain from poignancy.
exerting an inherent attractive power: I also like to imagine graffiti-covered walls coming loose from their buildings crumbling dragging rebar on the street in a hover toward the artist’s bedroom window & the words of the ghostwritten speech escaping the mouth silently to honk an air horn every time a POTUS approaches a microphone—some day! Some day!