Wednesday, June 9, 2010

6.9.2010 - pecanthracite

I'm sprouting gray hairs. Actually, they're white, an opalescent pearly white like the inside of a good seashell. I'm not thirty yet, but there were a dozen or so white hairs growing out of my head this morning when I looked in the mirror.

I plucked them out, at least the ones I could find. When I go gray, it will be very dignified and attractive, but I'd like to wait if I can. I like my original color, and it don't come in a bottle. It is the color of pecans, with a touch of cinnamon, over a base of anthracite. Pecanthracite, if you will.

I've been thinking about coal. Anthracite, once that shit starts burning it will burn until it runs out. There's a town called Centralia, Pennsylvania, that can tell you all about that. A fire started in a mine there, fifty years back -- it's still burning, and it will burn for another two hundred and fifty years, until the coal runs out.

Nine people live in Centralia, give or take. Smoke rises out of giant cracks in the ground, in the roads -- the roads are all closed, the highway shut down and rerouted, and all but five of the houses have been taken away, leaving just their footprints and the ghosts of streets in fields and a new-growth forest. 

We tried to go there once, but didn't make it all the way in. Maybe it was the foreboding of doom, the peril of travel, or the sense of our own mortality, but we had to mourn and then turn back. 
But I've read all about it, as much as I could get my hands on, and looked at all the pictures I could find. I've yet to watch the films, but I am a minor scholar on Centralia.

The town comes to me sometimes, the thoughts of burning earth and smoke belching up out of gaping maws in the ground, nothing left but roads cracking from the pressure of steam forcing its way out from beneath and the empty foundations of people's homes -- these things come to me sometimes with the weight of abandoned dreams.

Maybe I know something about that. A mine explosion blew my great-granddad, William Wagner, away in Muir, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. Killed him a lot quicker than the blacklung that he was carrying around. His wife was named Annie. She stood four foot eleven, had four surviving kids, and spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch. Her middle surviving son was named Mark. They began a window-cleaning operation that got them through the Great Depression. My grandfather met a girl named Nancy, the daughter of a French-Canadian bootlegger, and married her. One of their children was my mother, also named Nancy, which means "Grace" -- and then there is me, Joy.

None of us really turned out okay. There are a lot of ghost towns in our history. Mark lost all his life savings in an investment scheme in the Eighties. One of his sons died early and the other is a raging bastard. My mother, bless her, is always broke and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Me, I don't know, but I'm here alone with a four-stringed guitar and no money in the greatest city on Earth, writing about mine fires while my coal-colored hair prematurely turns pearly white.

My bloodline ends with me, so nobody will ever know where it would go after this, but maybe our poor luck and heavy dreams are like a coal fire that has been burning since long before Centralia, and will continue to burn until the entire seam's burnt out. Anthracite, that shit can burn forever.

- Thanks to Kieran Castagnola, whose correspondences prompted these thoughts to come out of me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


For some reason, I think people often think I'm quite oblique. They're not really sure what it's like in my mind. So I'll tell you where I am some of the time.

I'm standing on the banks of a little river that's swollen with snowmelt and rain, in Cambridge Springs Pennsylvania, maybe 45 minutes away from where I grew up. I'm eighteen years old and I'm skipping class. It's the spring of my senior year in high school, though. I've already figured out that despite what I've been told I can't afford college, and anyway I haven't been learning anything important there for some time.

Opposite is something far more interesting, the remains of a resort built in the 1800s to utilize some natural mineral springs. The hotel is still standing, a mile or so down the road, at least when it isn't burning itself half-down as it predictably does every year or so, but the spring houses have long since crumbled into giant cairns of unwanted rock. One can find them by following the remains of the walkway from the hotel -- the walkway itself is gone but the supports still run parallel to the road, big pieces of stone set vertically into the swamp like a gentrified Stonehenge.

The walkway was to keep ladies and gents of the era from sinking into the wet ground, getting their hems damp and getting bogged down. I have no such reservations. I drove my shitty little station wagon here alone in the light rain on this gray day, wearing waist-high rubber overall boots, thick-soled wellies like fishermen use, and I intend to ford the little river and slog across the field to explore this remnant of whenever.

I've parked the station wagon on the gravel shoulder, such that it is, and am about to walk the five or ten steps from the car to the water. This little river is deceptively deep and it's moving very fast. It's an estuary that feeds into French Creek, where countless small children and grown men misjudge the current every year and turn up later caught in the roots of giant trees that roil past on the way to the Ohio River, if they turn up at all. I'm not a small child but I'm no grown man, I weigh maybe a buck fifteen and the gear adds ten pounds if that much. I will have to move quickly, but not so quickly as to lose my footing.

But I'm not worried. I've always been all right with the water and it's been all right to me. If it takes me, then I guess I go, and either way I'm going somewhere.

Friday, March 5, 2010

blue blue water baby

This is it. My epic poem of staggering brilliance. Hats off to Auguste A. Bondy, Ivana Mikavica, the stars/ghost in the machine/amazing good fortune, and our collective national conscience for inspiring me to come up with it.

blue blue water baby

I had a dream you handed me a shell,
you said, and for a moment time slowed down
it was a lavender shell, it was smooth inside, there used to be a little ol' clam living in there.
I held it up to my ear, like a telephone, and everything went slow and still.
everything went quiet. I spoke to the bottom of the sea, or anyway it spoke to me.

I keep it close to my hand, the perfect shell, an old battle shell with lots of ridges and a smudge of lavender in the smooth inside. It rides with me in my pocket, so I can reach for it whenever I want,
hold it between my thumb and forefinger and caress the valley where the oyster used to live.

I'd intended to give it to you that one time, but then I didn't. You see, I don't mean to be selfish,
but it is the perfect shell. It is a telephone I use to call the quiet, during those times when this is all so much frenetic forward motion,

much like the time that I almost drowned, aged five or six, in an amusement park water-slide. I'm trapped under the raft, the water is moving so fast, either no one notices or they can't pull me up,
and I'm all skinny arms and legs banging against the sides of the flue and flailing at the water and I can't breathe and I'm thinking, This is it.
Right here and right now, I am going to die.

So I just give up, and I let it take me where it's going. There is nothing I can do except wait.
Down, down, and then I hit the bottom and wash out into the calm blue pool below,
and I still can't breathe but finally nothing is moving, my eyes are open and do you think there is sound at the bottom of the ocean?

Other than the pressure bending you into pieces, that is --
But if you could go down there without getting crushed like a tin can, if you could stay alive-and-well,

hang out with the anglerfish and those little plant-animals who live on top of volcano vents waving their riot of tropical color at the pitch-dark --
is it all silence, like the PBS documentaries would have you believe, or does it sound like when you put your head under the water in a bathtub or hold a conch shell to your ear?

Because I know what it sounds like, at the bottom of the sea, and from what I've heard so do you.

I was a born a blue blue-water baby, not breathing, on the cusp day of Pisces and Aquarius
on the shores of a Great Lake. They smacked the life back into me, brought me up quick from the deep dark, and I think that's why
I'm so bitter sometimes -- because they brought me back.

Because I'd heard what it sounds like at the bottom of the ocean. It's quiet. It's slow. It's still.

Though up here, among the quick, we are all either caught in the current or walking a stretch of sand alone,
I have faith that you will continue to walk down this beach, by yourself, in the quiet, with your hands in your pockets and the sound of the waves to keep you company. You will find it, your own perfect shell --

maybe many perfect shells. Fill your pockets if you can, if you feel the need. If you keep looking, keep walking, you will find your own perfect shell, or more than one perfect shell, in fact it will find you

and you will hold it, between your thumb and your forefinger --
you will hold it, caress it, get to know it, the little valley where the oyster or clam used to live, and you will have faith in it.

It will have faith in you too. It will sleep under your pillow like it once slept under the waves. It will keep you company. It will keep you safe. You will find the perfect shell, if you keep looking. If you keep walking this stretch of sand.

And you can use it to call the bottom of the ocean. You can use it to call the quiet. You can use it to call me.

Because I at least find it comforting sometimes to hear you aren't just casting pebbles into an indifferent ocean.

Well, I mean -- you are -- we all are, so am I. But the ocean is never indifferent. And when you heave a bottled message out as far as you can and it washes up down current,
near where I have pitched a chaise lounge in the middle of an expanse of sand and am buried under layers of blankets, alone on the beach
I often find it, crack it open and I think, Ah, how interesting. I shall take this with me later, when I go diving.

Out here it's all just blue blue water, baby -- so you don't need to fear getting drowned.

- joy wagner

Monday, March 1, 2010


I broke a lamp today, and then found myself at The Bottom.

It was a really good vintage lamp, really pretty, tall, made outta amber glass, and I liked it a lot. But I caught the cord or something and pulled it down off the counter and smashed it on the tiles in my bathroom. It made a terrible noise. The breaking lightbulb made a small explosion. I saw it all happening as it happened and I screamed. Then I screamed again, and I cried.

My lamp was in pieces on the floor. I'd ruined it. It was gone. I'd lost another beautiful thing.
So I lay down on my back on the rug and had a good weeping. I wept myself in a circle until I started laughing again. Then I lit a cigarette, and stopped giving a fuck.

See, I'd felt like I was going to break something for some time now. I just didn't know what it was going to be. The anticipation had been killing me. In a way, breaking the lamp broke the tension. And now the breaking was over, so all that was left to do was clean up.

Back in the days when I was living in a van, it was fun to lay down with a jug-o-wine on the full-sized mattress in back, fall asleep surrounded by a ukulele, a banjo, an accordion, my banjolele, a washboard, and one or two guitars; maybe someone would be playing an instrument on the single bed and two people would be singing in the front, but either way we were moving forward and I'd wake up somewhere else, in a new place at a new time. Like magic! Or physics. = the same thing.
But when there is no van involved, and no jug-o-wine either, that phenomenon is cause for concern.

I lost almost the entire month of February. Don't know where that went. I know my birthday happened in there at some point, but barely remember anything except weeping into a margarita and doing my laundry. It's good to have everything be still again.
It's good to find the quiet.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I wrote an epic poem of staggering brilliance. I guess. It's actually just an email I made combined with a conversation I had, but it is stunning the ever-living shit out of people who hear or read it.

It's called blue blue water baby. It wasn't that hard to write, actually, which is why I'm unsure of how to deal with the fact that people love it. I mean, yeah ... it's good. Really good. But it took so little effort to write, it was almost conversational. Which makes me feel like a con-woman.

blue blue water baby, as I just mentioned, was originally an email, and I suppose it was in fact a difficult one to compose. But not out of technical problems, just because I had so much raw material to sort through and it was hard to choose.
Would I write about the time I saw Bigfoot from horseback? The snowstorm and its effects on the social climate in Brooklyn?
Dead Civil War soldiers? General Sherman? My upcoming album about General Sherman? People's responses to my album about General Sherman? Libertarian hippie militias?
The time I scared up a hundred wild turkeys during a solo trail ride? Hanging out in treestands getting high? Hopping trains? The Deep South, the Appalachian Mtns, punk-rock girls, Northern Gothic, the fact that I tried compulsively and repeatedly to drown myself as a child?
The way that I listen to and relate to music, and why that might be so?

While I was debating this, and
reviewing the stream of my consciousness as it flowed by with all of those pretty, crazy ideas in it like flecks of gold I was panning for, I actually experienced so much stressure and press that I saw shit move that wasn't even supposed to move, much less in a way that it would be expected to move.
I was awaiting the G train in the Metropolitan-Lorimer station, and the PA system broke. An announcement about service changes turned into, ''Attention Passengers -- the Church Avenue-bound G train will be nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.''
The sound was a combination of feedback and drone. It was a much lower frequency than any feedback I'd ever heard, but higher than a drone. It didn't so much hurt my ears as make my head feel like a wad of cotton and a fishbowl. nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, and suddenly the tiles -- the yellow tiles with the bumpy grip-tread -- started to move laterally and slide around each other, back and forth. It was very interesting. It lasted for as long as the sound, and then it stopped. Otherwise it would have perhaps been a matter of concern, and I would have had to seek help.

But ultimately, it was a very easy story to write. It ran out of me like water, and then that was that. See, it's that aquatic fixation again. Perhaps I ought to start expanding my horizon, writing about birds or something.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Yesterday was my birthday. I spent it alone, completely alone. Today too, although a package came and someone brought me flowers as well. It was a little strange, a little funny. My weird roommate, the one who traps me in rooms when I can't hear him coming until it's too late, the one I catch watching me sometimes and who goes through my closet, beat me to the door but the flower man would only sign them over to me. Thank heavens for small pleasures.
I don't even like to get flowers.

I am sitting on the edge of my bed, a mattress slung atop another mattress thrown on the floor in a room which is cold and where the walls I painted purple. I'm smoking cigarettes, clove cigarettes, lighting them off of each other to save matches because my lighter is on its way out.

They're the best when you light them with matches,
my lover once said, half-concentrating, as he pressed a match against the flint strip with his thumb, held the flame to the end of his cigarette, his face and his hair lit up in the dark from the fire inside his cupped hands
-- you get that sulphur taste too.

It's funny, but I don't miss him. I don't miss any of them, not really. Not now. Not for some time. I miss the people I don't know, the people I've met once but feel like I know. Like I could know. I miss them. But there isn't a lot of room for missing people. Not a lot of use in it.

There is a Remington shotgun in my room. It's a prop for the Sherman album, for the cover art, and besides I kind of enjoy having a shotgun around. There are times when I consider fitting the barrel beneath my chin, working my toe around the trigger and making like Kurt Cobain -- for that matter, like Sherman, the banks of a river in Kentucky, 1861.
But like Sherman, I don't do it. For one thing, my gun's empty, and I had Joe Crow take the flint out anyway. And for another, now that I'm a mere 364 days away from my quarter-century, sometimes I think about making it to 30. I just might could, if I keep this up.
You know, Conor Oberst did, the other day, and although our troubles have been different -- I've always felt that if he can do it, I ought to give it a good try.