Art and absinthe

I’d like to buy Jim Dodge a beer sometime.

No, no, not a beer, an absinthe. Yeah, that’s it. I’d like to invite Jim Dodge down from his home in the Klamath Mountains to sip absinthe barefooted in my backyard as a couple of mahi-mahi filets sizzle on the grill. Here’s how I imagine it: Dylan’s voice comes rolling out through the open Dutch door, as I pour the wormwood-infused liqueur into the tumblers. Mr. Dodge produces two homemade absinthe spoons from his back pocket. He places a sugar cube, along with a few ice chips, on each utensil. We hold the spoons over our glasses and watch them drip. The dog barks. The bunny scampers beneath the three-quarter-inch ply propped up beside the dwarf citrus tree. The flies buzz. I begin to tell Mr. Dodge—I mean, Professor Dodge, no, no, er, um, Jim—just how much I enjoy his work.

I inform Jim—legendary author of Fup, Not Fade Away and Stone Junction—that reading the poems and short prose featured in his latest release, Rain on the River, makes me happy to be alive. “But not in Oprah’s squeaky-clean ‘remember your spirit’ sort of way,” I qualify my rather lame praise. No, mine’s a happiness born from the revelation that “money and food and poetry [are] ways to live, not reasons,” as Jim puts it.

Jim’s words are his gift to the world. His life is his art; his words are merely tokens of appreciation. Like he says in “The Work of Art”: “The only essential creation / Is a life that gives you life / Figure you’re doing real good / When all you need is bait and ice.”

I don’t know whether Jim’s a neo-beat, a post-beat or just plain upbeat, but he is one of the few remaining practitioners of a once-proud tradition in American culture. His kind is growing old, but not so easily forgotten. The spirit that propelled Jim’s body: “Not without stagger and swagger / through sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll / that remained fast to its findings when the / bullhorns crackled / Disperse now or be arrested / that buckled numbly at the riot sticks’ blows / yet swirled into water at a sweetheart’s touch / continues to inspire.”

Slipping on my old graduate- student hat, I proceed to tell Jim just what makes his work so damn admirable: “Your work, Mr. Dodge, conveys a spiritualism grounded in the quotidian. You articulate a radical materialism freed from its frumpy 19th-century empirical foundation. True to beat form, you fuse the personal, the political and the spiritual with your words. You have appeased the Young Hegelians, satisfied the Marxists, vindicated the anarchists and undoubtedly befuddled the poststructuralists to no end. I applaud you.”

“Well,” Jim might explain modestly, “it’s like Henry Miller once said: ‘I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans—the poets and seers.’ ”

I thumb through my already dog-eared copy of Rain on the River in search of Jim’s homage to Walt Whitman, “Psycho Ecology”: “Reality is the work of imagination / Imagination, the flume of emotion. / After all the tears and laughter / emotion empties into spirit / and spirit condenses on reality / like dew on a leaf of grass.”

Like Walt, Jim prefers the company of Piss-Fire Willie and Bill Hagerty, men who work with their hands, see with their eyes and feel in their guts. He doesn’t care much for intellectuals—says that, more often than not, they “mistake the map for the journey.”

“And you know,” Jim might add, while watching the final drop fall from his spoon, “the journey is a real trip.”