Ecce Mortis: Epics of the Deep: The Poet Alterkocher

Professor Alterkocher’s office was open to all always — even Summer hours. Room of his own. Read, thought, wrote, dispensed wisdom to The Young.

Plantman met with him one evening after work to discuss his famous new fame. Alterkocher wore his customary suit and running shoes, smoked his pipe. Hair unkempt. Beard-stubble — two days’ worth — gray-white-gray.

“Sit down, sit down,” said Alterkocher out of the pipe-side of his mouth. “Good to see you. Always good.”

“Good to see you, Professor. Long time.”

“And what has my former student been doing with his time?” asked Alterkocher, eying Plantman’s bucket.

“This and that.”

“This. And that. Of course. Of course.”

“I tend office gardens,” Plantman said. “Potted plants of The City. I’m a horticultural technician. I’m Plantman.”

“So you are,” he squinted at the Topiary Techniques logo on my t-shirt. “So you are.”

Short pleasantries, longer silences.

“So you’ve seen that damn movie,” said Alterkocher.

“Yes.”

“And my television debut?”

“Classic,” said Plantman crisply.

“Once Big Media wrap their talons around some artifact…and it wasn’t even Big Media who began the damned thing.  I believe it was some sort of, some kind of comic book.”

“Graphic novel,” Plantman corrected.

“Yes. An illustrated text. Or is it a set of illustrations with foot-notes?”

Plantman shrugged in empathetic ignorance of and indifference to the popular “culture” and its extravagant fads. Actually, he enjoyed Rotious’s work very much.

Alterkocher’s long sigh of a “successful,” beaten man.

“Hmn. So now I am ‘famous.’ All the literate citizens of The Nation have scribbled verse at one time or another, but the actual audience for poetry is roughly 3000 souls. Throughout the entire Nation. About a tenth of that general audience have read my books. That is, before this movie and its concomitant ballyhoo.

Connection is a collection of imaginative possibilities inspired by the data certain marine biologists gathered regarding possible communication among cetaceans. There was no communication between whales and humans in the scientific research. Connection is a work of pure, vigorous imagination, but it has been received by the public — not my regular reading public, who could fit in this room — as both much more and much less.

“My imagined conversation between a young girl and a dolphin is now taken by some people to have been based on truth.  Who could have foreseen such misreading? The long piece, “Epic,” for instance, hardly an epic, though at thirty pages quite a long poem, postulates the “The Great Sperm Epic” passing “orally,” so to speak, from generation to generation through the ages. Tradition as afflatus and boundary of the poetic imagination struggling to both free and contain itself. That this would be confused in some circles with literal truth boggles the mind.

“Yet once the ship is launched, as it were, it is out to sea.  Game over. Fail-safe. No recall.

“That I am placed in the uncomfortable, unforeseen position of ‘attacking’ my own work is painful itself; but to be ignored, to have the myths not only endure but multiply even as the original myth-maker reveals the artifice behind the work, pulls down the curtain on the whole damn show… astounding. As
if they wish to be fooled regardless of the facts.

“I am now, I suppose, the most popular poet in The Nation. Yet I have never felt so estranged from The Nation.  Never so financially secure. Big Media paid me their visit and left their check, a substantial sum, and my small, ten-year-old volume is a best-seller, purchased by millions, if only actually read by dozens. In the great machine of this popular phenomenon I am a minor component indeed, the supplier of an artifact that correlates to the ‘overall,’ the book of verse that all refer to but none read. The book sells so the public may have another talisman, something to hold and keep, show and tell. A souvenir. Along with their Epics of the Deep coffee mugs and t-shirts.

“One day, when this blows over, perhaps Connection will remain on the bookshelves of anonymous homes, and some few anonymous readers will peruse the poems, not knowing anything of this hullabaloo, and appreciate them for what they were intended to be.

“For now, I will enjoy the novelty of being a best-selling author, a somewhat rich and famous man. But this too shall pass. I will return to my old life among my small but dedicated circle of students and readers, completely forgotten by the public of The Nation.

“When I look back on writing the book, I imagine the whales and their insistent songs.  We no longer speak to communicate, merely to shuffle data into the heads of others, to clear the excess from our crowded minds, clean the slate, so to speak.  I imagined the whales with their own language, their own poetry. It is a clear and open poetry, spacious and uncluttered, the kind of language I’ve always dreamed, but never could attain. My mind is as cluttered as yours. I try to write spacious verse, but the mountains of data are too high for a meager poet such as myself to scale. I dreamed of the whales and their space, their depth and calm.  Perhaps that is what this sudden industry is built upon, the industry these “Epics” have become. Perhaps we all share this dream of space and depth that only something other than human, like these mythologized creatures, can deliver to us in our dreams and fictions.

“It is best to allow the public to enjoy their dream while they can, before they move restlessly, inevitably addicted, to the next. I know that not even this whale of a dream will sate their appetites for ‘Something Else…'”

On and on elaborated and exhorted Alterkocher, as in Plantman’s days as a student of Vigor, Advertising, and Ambition. Plantman said little. He had come not to speak, but to listen.

Relaxing in the guest-chair, breathing clouds of Cavendish, listening to his former teacher’s deep, rumbling oratory, the thunderous bardic baritone, was better than TV.  Like sitting by the ocean, listening to waves.  Or perhaps even to the whales themselves.

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