Monday, December 2, 2013

SWITCHBOARD GIRL ~ Lorine Niedecker

Lorine and Henry Niedecker


I divined this comedy, Dante, before I went in. But I had to have a job. "Like one who has imperfect vision, we the things which are remote from us." O brother, we saw tho the eyes were shot. We had light if not love. We had business.

Nystagmus ("The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling"), the searching movement, combined with 80% vision. You'll have to use a magnifying glass, we can't give you glasses to reach print. Good-bye to proof reading. Good-bye to a living. No! That low, rangy, glass-walled office and plant in the Frank Lloyd Wright setting, clean-mowed acres, tulips, petunias, evergreens—I would apply there. Not literature but light fixtures and pressure cookers. Out of daylight into Wade Light.

I was the September dandelion—forty, female—seeking a place among the young fluorescent petunias. I keep cropping up in the world's backyards while here in America, on all sides they shear civilization back to the seventeen-year-old girl, not yet young shall we say.

I entered the window-walled office of personnel. Or was it a corner of a little theatre? What would the director be like? A properly placed man may expand his influence over the whole of your sight. We met ideally, as strangers do, without prejudice, without violence . . . courteous before the guessed-at depth. All art between us. Will he help me? He is not usual. He moves as in a dance to be considerate. As if to speak, against the room's outdoor backdrop, of Renoir? Of Einstein? Is he the master economist with a sense of the relative value of things? The artist with a sense of needing fewer things? The political observer with a knowledge of electronics? What does he know really, sweetly, by touch?

He said, "You read."

Beethoven: "It is impossible to say to people, "I am deaf." But I said it: I have an eye handicap.

"I wonder if you should . . . we have a switchboard opening. You might try it."

I went in. Lights, polished glass, blond satin finished desks, glossy haired and bald-headed efficiency. Shine. Lamps to be produced. Lamps to be sold. The antique sweatshop base with a new shine. You'll never have to polish this brass, a lacquering process, won't tarnish. This is the lust that will never rust.

The shade by the door, the grey parchment face, cracked in a half smile. Shall I appear alive or let myself be carried along? I suppose man is, the most sensitive physical part of him, an electrical apparatus, switches, wires, etc. . . .How much do I give to Wade lamps? It takes 1028 human bodies to build a star. Purely business.

The girl at the switchboard shouted, "Come in—if you can—it's my birthday, you know. Once a year and at Christmas this happens—nylons, table lamps, candy, help yourself. The bosses, the old honeypots, must like me a little bit, anyhow. Sit down. Let me tell you what goes. They're all good enough guys, family men, church, golf, they're after the business, they'll lay on you, of course."

You see in a place of this kind, she said, the switchboard girl is one of their outlets. They do a great deal of their sweating thru you. You'll make the contact and in haste, also they relax thru you. You're a part of it when their bags are full and you jazz 'em when they're down.

"Get me the Howard Hotel, a single."

"Good, I like to sleep close."

That was Mendau, the burnt-out fuse in the beautiful suit who still thinks he's got something to sell.

"Give me Philadelphia." Give me Europe. I'm waiting, operator, for the Paris pick-up. I'm on wartime Montparnasse, gas mask, phosphorescent heels, illuminated brooch. "What's that?" What does it look like? There they call it what it is.

The Japs: We had neither hens nor eggs. We went requisitioning. A miserable village. On the way back we began to look for Chinese girls.

They don't make 'em as sensitive as geiger counters.

"Goddamit what the hell happened to that call to Lethal Steel? Sleeping at the switchboard?"

"I reported to you, sir, that Dan Blaine will talk."

"Christ if you can't get anybody but Dead-End Daniel—"

"What was the name they wanted?" Somebody by the name of Christ.

Please pass the blood. Human materiel is obsolescing.

As for the work itself, she plays an intricate chess. You gamble with the red and the white and the green, without benefit of spa.

I lost. "No natural aptitude."

Dante? Yes, go ahead.



from ND 13
New Directions in Prose & Poetry
edited by James Laughlin

Lorine Niedecker