The East Village

Joe Elliot

The other day I came home from work, opened the
elevator door, and was confronted by a major construction project
going on in the dining area. I must have looked puzzled, because my
four year old ran up to me and said, "It's a machine, Dad."

"Nice job, buddy," was my reply, suppressing my concern for the
monumental disorder that lay before me. Leo had got his hands on a
ball of twine.  The chairs were turned on their sides and tied
together and around the table like a loose cocoon and onto this
structure were tied innumerable trucks, swords, action figures,
staplers, cups, cans, and whatnots.

"Wow, Leo, that's a great machine. What does it do?"

"It doesn't do anything, Dad. Do you want to help?"

"I got to get dinner going. Keep working on it. I bet Mom is going to
really like it."

Leo hardly registered this last piece or encouragement as he had
already returned to a bauble suspended on a string.

Two days later it was in the kitchen. A stainless steel bowl filled
with orange juice was precariously balanced on top of a small pillow.
The pillow had itself been placed on top of a wooden toy, a catepillar
with wheels, which was resting for the moment on the seat of a
highchair. From the back of this toy ran a taut string to a standing
fan at the entrance of my office. A couple of kitchen chairs flanked
this complicated edifice of the imagination.  Leo got down from one of
them and ran over to the fan and turned the knob with no result.

"Daddy, it doesn't work. Will you help me?"

I walked over and surveyed this disaster about to happen more closely.
Leo was beaming happily.

"Look, Leo. The cord's been pulled out. It's got to be plugged in to
turn on."

As we carefully moved the whole contraption back a few feet so that
the plug could reach the outlet, making sure at the same time that the
orange juice didn't spill, I asked, "Leo, what happens when we turn
the fan on? Do we fly away? Or does it produce a big orange cloud?"

"No, silly, It's a waterfall machine."

Apparently turning on the fan activated the caterpillar whose coming
to life would tip over the bowl, pouring juice on to the highchair

"But Leo, there's so much juice it's going to waterfall right off the
tray onto the floor and make a big mess."

"That's the whole point, Dad. Pllllleeeeeeeeeaase."

After an impressive amount of whining and wheedling on both sides I
relented and we agreed on the modification of a long blue plastic
stadium horn and a mop bucket. Leo seemed to like the complication of
additional paraphernalia, and so we manned our positions and were
ready. I turned the fan on low and, as I helped the highchair and the
bowl tip so that the juice would start flowing, caught the spill in
the wide end of the horn, while Leo held the narrow end over the
bucket, which was producing a nice hollow splashy sound as it filled
up. Then, when we were almost done, and I was congratulating myself on
a little successful adult intervention, Leo gave me a quick look and
tipped the bucker over. A wide sheet of sticky juice spread over the

"Leo, why did you do that?" I frowned.

"I thought we were supposed to make a mess, Dad," was his logical

Tape played a major role in the next construction, which sprawled over
the course of a few days from the living area, down the hallway, and
into the kitchen. A tent was achieved between couch and bookshelf with
a string and bedsheet. Pillows were placed underneath. This camping
out area became a floating bedroom when it was attached, with a
spiderlike complexity, to a large plastic boat, with masking tape.
This sticky suspended web began to pick up anything in its way. A
small rubber ball, a plastic knight, a chair, a table, a rubber duck,
the telephone, a photograph from the refrigerator, a half-eaten apple,
and this wide path of taped objects was mirrored on the floor by
pillows that ran out of the mouth of the tent into the kitchen, making
passage difficult and risky. As I bent over to make my way under a
treacherous area, I found the perpetrator of this piece of domestic
squalor at the standing fan looking for the plug.

"Dad, if I turn on the fan will it be electric?" he asked excitedly,
indicating the long ribbon of toilet paper that ran out of the
bathroom, over the cats' water and food bowls, around the kitchen
table, under a chair, and eventually to the highchair which was
attached, as we mentioned before, to the standing fan by the wooden
caterpillar's leach.

"I don't think so. But maybe the air movement will make the toilet
paper flutter."

"That's not toilet paper, Dad. That's a weapon."

"For what?"

"The bad guys."


While this explanation wasn't obvious to me, (Who and where were these
bad guys? How did toilet paper serve as protection?) for a four year
old 'getting the bad guys' is axiomatic.

A few days later I learned from Leo's teacher while dropping him off
at daycare that a large pie-making machine played a part in a movie
she had brought the class to see. This explained the onset of his
machine-making mania. But the more I thought about it the more I saw
there was more to it than monkey see monkey do. Implied in this
activity were all the cogs and levers and wheels of a poetics of play.

To begin with, First of all, the monkey sees but he doesn't really do.
The machines he makes don't work. They're faulty. They are unable to
produce anything useful. They are bad copies of something he saw in a
movie. And yet, this failed intention, the fact that the machine
doesn't work, actually constitutes its beauty. Leo, the artist, is
completely satisfied with the results because he is not concerned
about them in the usual ways. Instead of producing artifacts, the
machine itself becomes one, an artifact of the joy entered into while
fashioning the machine and making up its rules, which he values over
anything the machine might actually do. I am thinking here of
Williams' Danse Russe. The doctor goes into the city to see the latest
in imported high culture, then goes home to his wife and kids in
Jersey and writes his poem, does his own secret little dance in the
middle of the night in his attic study, with total conviction and joy.
It is important to note that the dance, the joy, is "about"
loneliness. When I talk about joy I don't mean the limited kind; I
mean an activated focus that drives the poem, that can disguise itself
as sadness, boredom, disgust, angst, desperation, as well as happiness
or "joy." This almost unemtional quality can wear any kind of clothes.

A corrollary to this do-nothingism, is a tendency of the machine to
block, to keep everything around it from doing anything also. At one
point one of Leo's projects almost prevented passage from one room to
the next, keeping me from answering the phone, getting things done.

This focus on process over product is even clearer in their games of
make-believe.  All their time is spent, -- or not spent at all, since
they are not tyring to get any end point, -- in setting up the
shifting rules of the game. Who plays what role. Who goes first. Who
as what powers. What is the pecking order. And very little time is
actually spent playing the game.

In sum, a good poem is good not because it is a machine that produces
joy in the reader, but because it is a faithful and supple artifact of
the joy that the writer enters into while making it. It's not a ploy
calculated to have an effect, although planting effects can be a sly
or mischievious part of the joyful process; rather, it is a husk,
what's left over, a shell, an indication, an artifact. This
distinction may seem obvious or slight, but the diverging modes of
operations are worlds apart. Thus, instead of workshop comments like
"I don't buy this line" or "You must cut your darlings" or "This is
unclear" or "Show, don't say," all of which are product-oriented,
overly engaged in some imagined reader's response, what he's thinking
about what I'm thinking about what he's thinking about what I'm
thinking, etc. and so, instead of the consumerist model which is all
about making a poem that will produce enough pleasure so that the poem
will be liked, accepted, bought, instead of dieting, instead of these
sad, unhopeful commentaries, we suggest suggestions like "This part of
the poem sags a little here. Go for it. Let it sag more" or "Let the
mess happen" or "Good poems are bad copies" or "Joy doesn't stick to
plans" or "Every poem needs a clunker" or "Poems don't work,

Secondly, if you're not at work, get off the clock. When they say you
have to set aside time to play with your kids, they are not talking
about an amount of time, they are talking about setting aside time
altogether. Abolishing it. What is needed is not a regular schedule of
interaction but a mental and even spiritual adjustment, an entering
into that timelessness where joyful focus can come into play. When I
come home and think I have to do this that and the other thing before
a certain time or Leo has to jump through a certain number of hoops
before bed, I am in a completely different world than the one he is
inhabiting as he makes his machines or the one I'm in when engaged in

Along with time, throw out results. If we are not trying to produce
effects, if we are not trying to make things that are merely
acceptable, then we might actually be in the flow of the task or issue
at hand. Getting the water to spill, following that movement, not
thinking about how it will end up or go, and not worried if it all of
a sudden changes direction or deviates from a plan. As they say, an
individual's life is none of his business. He just has to show up and
attend to the thing in front of him, follow this word to the next one.
Or, on a practical level, it may be harmful to ask how a line or word
works in the resulting overall poem, while it may be more helpful to
ask how this line behaves with its neighboring lines, and let the
results take care of themselves. Get out of the way.

Apparently, the materials are also right in front of us. The
consumerist model imports the other, the foreign, the exotic, into the
realm of the familiar in order to transform the familiar. This
transformation is false, of course, since nothing has been
transformed, just moved around, and the danger here, for the poet, is
an over-reliance on lore and arcan to provide the energy of the poem.
Yet, ther is another model that makes use of whatever materials are at
hand, ordinary household objects, toys, cars, utensils, furniture,
emotional ruts, regular paths of thought, etc., all the paraphernalia
of daily life, and stripping it down, makes it strange and new.
Obviously, the more familiar the material, the more powerful the
transformation and therefore the greater the joy. You've been
transported. Turned on. It's the old joke about the complicated toy
that comes in a big box. The toddler unwraps the present and ends up
playing with the box and not the toy, which is already transformed,
has already played. Or how a stick and some water and a couple of
rocks or dirt can occupy a child for hours. Or think of the magical
quality simple things like stones and lizards and buttons and ducks
take on in Lorca's poetry.

In addition to these formal and materials causes, that is to say, the
idea of a machine and the things it's made out of, there is a kind
liminal cause which allows the play to take shape, accelerate and
adhere. When Leo finds the ball of string and then later the roll of
tape, it's like a giant energizing "Aha!" Now he has an exciting way
of moving around and linking, or going from one thing to the next, or
making a boundary. In poetry, this activator can be formal: the
challenge of a rhyme scheme or the method of a serial poem; but
usually the thread is sonic. The way the words weigh and feel in the
mouthand ear is often what moves the poem forward and holds it
together. A good example of the primacy of this kind of play is found
in Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf. Although Heaney the
'major poet' and 'Nobel Prize winner' no doubt benefitted from the
serious critical attention translating such a canonical text can
receive, not to mention the revenues from university bookstores
everywhere, I suspect his primary motive was play. His tape and string
has always been the pleasures of bog and farm jargon. It wasn't a
career move. He just wanted to muck around in all those old West-Saxon

Volume Ten Index