Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Truth Teller," by James Laughlin

The Truth Teller

James Laughlin

As I was walking along the sidewalk

Of 14th Street I encountered a mad-

Woman who, without pause, was talking

To herself in a loud voice, making

Wild gestures as she went along. I

Turned around to follow her, thinking

She might have a message for me, some-

Thing I ought to know about. Perhaps

She was in her fifties, a dumpy

Little person, her hair all in

Unkempt tangles. She was wearing

A bright red dress which must have

Been given to her by the Salvation

Army. Her high sneakers were filthy.

Although I got close to her, she

Was hard to understand. At times

Her voice rose to a shout. Was it

Yiddish, Polish, Italian she was

Speaking? None of those that I

could recognize. Was she echolalic?

Probably she had been let out of

A mental hospital as harmless.

Then I got it: she was cursing

God in very rough language. "You've

Made a fucking mess out of this

Fucking world. No place for us

Poor people to live, nothing to

Eat unless we beg for it. Only

The fucking rich people have

Anything and they don't give a

Shit about us. And the fucking

Police rousting us out of the

Good begging streets, fucking

Bastards the lot of them."

That was the message, and it

Was the truth, a true message.

When we stopped for the lights

At Eighth Avenue I reached for

My wallet and gave her all the

Bills I had. She didn't thank

Me, didn't even look at me. She

Just stuffed the money into the

Neck of her dress and ran across

The avenue, still shouting and

Swearing. "Fucking world you've

Made, all shit, fucking shit."

"The Truth Teller" by James Laughlin originally appeared in book form in his final collection The Secret Room (1997). Laughlin was the founder of New Directions Press, and early on published writers as varied as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and E. E. Cummings, as well as Nabokov, Kafka, Borges and Hesse. He suffered from depression, as did other members of his family; "Experience of Blood" is a short poem about the suicide of his son. Since Laughlin's death at 83 in 1997 a series of his letters to Thomas Merton, Delmore Schwartz, and others has been published. One of Laughlin's most anthologized works is "Step on His Head", a poem about his relationship with his children: Let's step on daddy's head shout / the children my dear children as / we walk in the country on a sunny / summer day ...

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