A Busy Day Ahead
So here's a poem about those famous private detectives, Odysseus and Philip Marlowe.
HOMER, FAULKNER, NOIR
"Oh, you are odd, I see."
— Ino to Odysseus,
—Book V, The Odyssey
How the modern noir resembles the ancient noir.
The war is over. Odysseus, adrift since leaving
Calypso, on his way home. Lost in a storm,
he is visited by Ino, former mortal,
now a minor goddess, who, like a Hollywood starlet,
has changed her name, in this case
because her husband was a murderer.
Don't ask. The myths are so complex.
Anyway, she lands on his raft
in the form of a gannet. Odd enough,
even in those ancient days when a seabird might
land on a raft, sweet tangle in her beak
(which becomes a magic cloak), and begin
talking, like a smart-aleck waitress
in a desert roadhouse. But Ino speaks the words
so quietly, Homer barely writes them.
Of every translation I've read, only Rouse
nurses them from the text. Even Odysseus
isn't sure what she says, hesitates,
is seen by Poseidon before he can escape,
and the poem goes on, dark and inexplicable,
like the plot to The Big Sleep,
Faulkner brought in by Howard Hawks
to make some sense of it, to "punch it up,"
and Faulkner makes it better, but more confusing,
until Hawks, watching the final cut, despairs,
and tells Faulkner, who is on his way
to Rowan Oak, to write one more scene and
he'll bring back the stars (Bogart & Bacall)
to film it. And he will, time and again, trying
starlet after starlet in the scene's crucial role,
until Patricia Clarke finally gets it right: It is night
outside a shed in the desert. Marlowe fires his gun,
the smoke licking the fender of his Ford
coupe. Sapped from behind and cut,
we see him, coming-to, captive of Eddie Mars'
wife, who needs to know what Howard Hawks can't
figure out: What has Eddie Mars done and what
is his link to Sean Regan? So Marlowe tells her,
Your husband is a murderer,
and she slaps him, hard,
and walks out of the room. She's all right,
Marlowe says, rubbing his cheek, I like her.
And so does Faulkner, who finishes the scene
at 3 A.M., on the Missouri Pacific
just west of Memphis. He takes a last sip
of bourbon and branch water, kisses the script
for luck, shoves it into an envelope,
and shambles out to find the porter, a man,
shiny and black, who slides around the club car
like St. Elmo's fire. Faulkner tells him
to mail the envelope at the next stop
and hands him a silver dollar. Yes, sir,
the porter says, and at Memphis
steps off the train, drops the packet
into the box, turns and flips
the silver dollar, a coin so heavy and slow
he counts the spins—five, six, seven, then snaps it
from the air, the back of his black hand
beginning to sweat, shining brighter than
the coin it covers. Across the platform, a soldier
lights a smoke and mumbles something
vile, because he is drunk and because
a black man can't have a silver dollar
in the State of Tennessee. What did he say?
The porter misses a step, his skin beginning to burn,
then shakes it off, laughs and gets back on the train.
It is 1946. The war is over. It is the cusp
of the Postmodern Era. The porter knows it is
all aboard this train that is leaving, all aboard
this train that is going home.
NOTE: This poem originally appeared in The Mississippi Review, and won the 1999 Mississippi Review Prize in Poetry. The poem also appears in my second book, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).