<

DREAM OF A CLEAN SLATE
JOHN HASKELL


from I AM NOT JACKSON POLLOCK
reprinted with permission of the author


I am not Jackson Pollock. I should say I am not Jackson Pollock, the famous artist, when he walked into the Cedar Tavern and there was a girl sitting in a booth at the back of the bar and he wanted to go to her. So he did. I should say he started to go to her, but he was feeling a thing he called nervousness, a feeling in his body that he didn't like, so he stopped at the bar for a drink, a whiskey. After the whiskey he was still feeling the nervousness, so he had another drink. But the feeling wasn't going away; in fact it was becoming more intense and distracting and when he tried to control it, by holding it in or down, his body would rebel against him, or against itself, and all he knew to do was have another drink, a whiskey, and a beer to go with that, and a whiskey to go with that, and a beer to go with that...
white He's standing, leaning his elbows on the bartop, and the distance between where he's standing, with his empty glass, and where the girl is sitting, with her dark hair, expands, like an expanding universe. She's getting farther and farther away, and part of him—his desire—goes to the girl, while the rest of him stays at the bar, drinking and trembling. And as the distance between where he is and where he wants to be expands, he finds he's getting farther away, not only from the girl, but also from himself, or that part of himself that would act on his desires. They're not bad desires—they're simple desires—but they're frightening because they involve another person who may or may not like him. He smells like beer and Camel cigarettes and she may or may not like his smell. So he stays where he is, fixed in space, and reacts, not to his own trembling, which he hates, but to the girl, who he sees as the source of his trembling. "Who is she?" he thinks. "She's nothing. She's some...nothing. I'm Jackson Pollock. I'm the greatest living painter in the world." But this attempt to obscure or deny the feeling he doesn't want to feel, doesn't work. He's standing at the bar, with his elbows dug deep into the barwood, watching her, not going near her, but looking at her and waiting, wishing that she would do something, hoping that she would get up and do something to relieve his stupid pain, although it isn't pain exactly, but something like it, and he doesn't like it and he wants her to take it away; he wants her to stop what he's feeling. And she isn't doing it. She isn't doing anything. So he thinks, "Fuck her."

Jackson Pollock dreamed of a clean slate. He tried to free himself from the past so that he could begin at the beginning and paint what he wanted to paint—a thing he called "the unconscious." He said, "The source of my painting is the unconscious," and he wanted to paint, not just about, but with this thing. He wanted to break through to this thing, to poke a hole in the fabric separating him from it, and that's what he did. That's what he painted. Not the hole in the fabric; his struggle was not finding a language to merely describe the hole; his struggle was to tear at the hole and open the hole and go into the hole, and that's what he did. And from there he splattered his paint on the canvas.
white He was attracted to the unconscious thing because he had an unconscious or unknown or chopped-off part of himself. He didn't want it known because he didn't want it taken away. Anything known, he felt, would be taken away. Every time he painted a painting it was taken away by the shit-ass critics and collectors who left him with nothing, except the desire to change what was happening. Painting was a way to change, not only the world, but the way he was in the world, and that's why he cultivated, not desire, but something like desire, something inside of him that would eat at him until either he or the world was different.
white He had a dream I think, and in the dream he walks out of the Cedar Tavern, stands on the sidewalk, looks out onto the street, and the black pavement of the street becomes the ocean. When he turns around the tavern is gone. His friends are there, standing on the pier, drinking and laughing, and they're looking into the water. He looks into the water, and he can see in the water the thing that he wants. He doesn't know what it is because the water obscures his vision, but he knows he wants it. There's a rope coiled up by his foot and he takes that rope and he ties one end around an old wood piling and the other end he ties around his stomach, with a good solid knot. Then he jumps into the water and he dives down. But the water is dark, like night, and he can't see so he has to feel, with his hands, for the thing that he wants. But the rope is too short. So he comes up for air. Standing on the pier he looks around and his friends are taking off their pants. They're putting on swim suits, laughing, their voices far away. Behind them, a seagull, perched on the cab of his Dad's gray pick-up, watches him with one eye. The bird shits, then jumps up and flies through the air. And Jackson thinks, I am a bird, and he unties the rope from his waist, and holding the end of it in his hand, he dives like a bird into the water. With his other hand he reaches out to feel for the thing he wants. But he can't feel it. He can't feel anything. And he hates that. He wants to feel something. He wants to feel the thing that he saw was there. He saw. It was there. He would like to let go of the rope and reach out...

He staggered into the Cedar Tavern. This was 1956 and the girl, whose name was Ruth, was standing at the end of the bar, with her full figured dark hair, looking at him. Lee, his wife, was sitting at a table. He walked to the bar, to a point equidistant between the two women, and started drinking himself into a state of numbed oblivion. At a certain point Ruth walked over, sat on the stool next to him, and began asking him questions about who he was. He wasn't comfortable talking about himself so instead he talked about Pollock, the artist, the greatest one according to the magazines. He explained to her, not his position, but the position of Jackson Pollock after he'd painted his drip paintings. He had discovered this language that let him say what he wanted to say, that let him get his unconscious out and down on the canvas. And that's what he did. That was good. And he continued doing it because it was what the language let him do. He could get his unconscious out and down and with purity too, but sometimes purity is not enough, sometimes you want something more, and he was saying that he wanted more and needed more and needed to be given more and as he told her this, gesticulating with his hands, he touched her lightly on her arm. And he could feel her respond, and smile. So he continued. About how Jackson Pollock tried to find a new language. He'd spent a lifetime making the hole and getting into the hole and now he wanted to get out. But he was stuck. And his old language, which had been a good language at one time, wasn't working; it wasn't giving him the satisfaction or the fulfillment that he'd gotten when he'd opened the hole for the first time, gone into the hole, and splattered the paint exactly where the canvas wanted it. Now he was saying he hated the canvas. And Ruth was rapt, listening intently, absently placing wisps of hair back behind her ear. And as he was telling her about the violence and passion of the man named Jackson Pollock he could see out of the corner of his eye his wife getting up to go, and she was mad, he could tell, and he said, "Hold on," to Ruth and he walked outside to catch up with Lee. They'd been breaking up for a number of years so he knew her well enough to know that she'd be walking back to their room. But when he got outside she wasn't walking anywhere. She was standing right there on the sidewalk, her hands on her hips, right on the corner, waiting. She was an artist and so she had that fiery vein of emotionality right below the surface, and now it was right on the surface, open and flowing, and she was yelling, "What the fuck are you doing to me?"
white "I'm not doing anything."
white "Well you're doing a pretty good job."
white "What?" he said. "What do you want me to do?"
white "Why don't you just forget it," she said.
white "Forget you," he yelled at her.
white That's when she turned and walked away.
white "Forget you," he said after she'd left. After she'd been gone a long time he was still standing there. He was still saying, "Forget you."

Jackson was troubled, no doubt about it, but he had to get on with his life. He staggered back into the Cedar Tavern, and there was Ruth, not at the bar anymore, now she was sitting at her table and he wanted to go to her. And he did. He stopped at the bar and had a couple of quick drinks, but he did in fact go to her table. He sat with her and yes, he was nervous. He felt the thing in his chest that was bigger than his actual chest, expanding under the ribs of his chest, and he felt that he could easily explode. He began arranging the salt and pepper and ketchup on the table. He was hoping she would do something or say something or want some thing so that he could give it to her and get the feeling over with.
white But she did nothing.
white So here was man about to explode and a woman who was quite happy. Ruth was a twenty-five-year-old artist, or artist's model, who still found New York exciting. Life, men, adventure; they were all synonymous for her, and so she loved the Cedar and the famous artists she'd barely heard of, but they were famous, that was the main thing, and the one she was sitting with was the most famous. So she was happy.
white Jackson, on the other hand, was dying. He thought if he would just explode, if he would go ahead and burst into a thousand pieces, it would at least be better than the feeling of wanting to explode, and being unable to. He tried to sit there and live with it, but after a while...
white "I'm Jackson Pollock," he told her.
white "I know," she said.
white "I'm the world's greatest living artist."
white "You don't have to do anything," she said. "Just be yourself."
white "Be myself?"
white Jackson couldn't accept the fact that she could accept him. It made no sense. He looked at her and what he saw was someone who was petite and dark and pretty. He saw someone with large breasts like his mother, although she didn't remind him of his mother. His mother was gigantic. Ruth was not gigantic, Ruth was...smiling.
white "Be myself?"
white He wanted to be himself. He didn't want to be Jackson Pollock the Artist, but it wasn't that easy. First of all there was his fear of what might happen if he would be himself, which, when he imagined it, felt like falling through weightless space. And then there was the chair he was sitting on. He was sitting on a wobbly chair. The legs weren't level on the ground, so he stood up, walked around behind Ruth and sat on the other side of the table, on another chair.
white Ruth, however, continued looking at the chair he'd been sitting in before.
white "Hello?" he said.
white But she didn't seem to hear him. Or didn't want to. Or maybe he wasn't speaking the right language. She was still looking at the other chair.
white "Come on," she said. "Let's go." But she said it, not to Jackson, she said it to the place where Jackson had been sitting, as if she didn't realize that he wasn't there anymore. She was talking to where he once was, seeing the person that used to be there, waiting for him, but that wasn't him.
white "I'm here," he said. "This is me."
white But she was oblivious. She was looking at the old part, the false part, the part he hated. That's who she was embracing. She reached out and took that false part by the hand and said, "Come on, let's go."
white Jackson whispered to himself, "Don't go." And he stopped.
white "Come on," she said, "let's go."
white "Don't go."
white "Come on," she said.
white "Don't go..."
white Finally she took him by the arm and led him to the door. You could see them standing in the doorway, putting on their coats, first one arm, then the other. She was taking him back to her apartment but she was taking the wrong man. "She thinks she's taking me, but that's not me," he said to himself. "This is who I am. Here. This is me."

Jackson Pollock is usually either depressed or pissed off, and now he's pissed off. Yes, he's the possible greatest living artist, etcetera, but it doesn't feel that wonderful. Not to him. Yes, he goes home with Ruth and spends the night with her, but she thinks that he is someone else. So he's frustrated and dissatisfied, and his anger is looking for a target. He staggers into the Cedar Tavern and there's a mirror along the wall behind the bar, and as he walks along the bar, looking into the mirror, he can see Franz Kline, the abstract expressionist painter, and he thinks that Kline is watching him. He walks up behind Kline and says to him, "What? What are you looking at?"
white Franz Kline is a man with a long fuse. He slowly turns around. "Knock it off, Jackson," he says.
white "Fuck you, Kline. What do you want?"
white Jackson is mad and he wants to get madder. If he can get mad enough the feeling he doesn't want to feel goes away. For a while. He doesn't want to be near this feeling or touch this feeling. If he touched it, even with a ten foot pole, he would break down and he can't break down because he's an artist, all-American. If he touched it he would cry and he can't cry so he hits Franz Kline on the top of the head.
white Kline looks over his shoulder but to Jackson's disappointment he doesn't respond. This drives Jackson deeper into his knot—a knot he loves, by the way—a knot filled with frustration, and he's looking for frustration when he makes some remark about the woman sitting next to Kline, some remark like, "Who's the bitch?"
white "Stop it, Jackson," Kline says.
white "Stop it?"
white He can't stop it. He's locked in his struggle and his struggle is with the entire world. Franz Kline just happens to be the person sitting in front of him. He believes he would like to have a regular drink like a regular guy but really he wants to fight. He wants to fight the world, and Kline, knowing this and not wanting to indulge him, turns around on his stool, turning his back on Jackson.
white Jackson, however, will not be unindulged, and he grabs Kline by his thick hair, pulls him off of the stool onto the floor.
white Kline takes his time getting up. He stands, turns, pulls back his arm, and launches a fist into Jackson's gut. Jackson doubles over and collapses between two chairs. Finally he gets what he wants. He's lying on his back in the spilled beer and cigarette ash, and looking up to Kline he says, "You don't hate me do you? Don't hate me."
white These words sound incongruous, like non sequiturs, but if you'd hung out at the Cedar Tavern and if you'd known Jackson Pollock, the words would be very familiar. He wanted the frustration and he wanted the struggle and he wanted the fight, and at the same time he was reaching out. In his own way he was reaching out...

Jackson lived for a while on Long Island, with Lee, near a place called Springs. It was an old farmhouse and they'd been working on it for years. One day she called to him—she was in the bedroom and he was in the bathroom and she yelled in—"Would you bring me my shaving kit." It was a leather shaving kit and he brought it into the bedroom. She was lying back on the bed and she said to him, "Open it."
white He tried to open it.
white "Open it," she said.
white "I'm trying," he said.
white "Open it," she said.
white But the zipper was stuck.
white "I want something in there," she told him.
white "I know," he said.
white "I want something in there," she told him again, so he took a razor blade, cut the leather along the zipper, folded back the flaps, reached in and, "Yes," she said, "That's good."
white He felt some shaving cream in there, and toothpaste, and he forgot what she wanted because she was smiling with her big white teeth in a way he'd seen before. He put the leather kit on the foot of the bed and he must have been smiling too as he spread her spreadable arms and legs and she was pliable, and she was saying the same words over and over. "That's good," and "Yes." She was saying, "Oh yes, oh yes, oh, oh," repeating that "Oh" until it lost whatever meaning it had and became only sound, and the sound had a meaning and the expression on her face as she made the sound, that had a meaning, and pretty soon she stopped even saying the word. It wasn't necessary. She stopped saying "Oh" out loud but she kept her mouth in the shape of saying it. Her lips were silently saying "Oh. Oh," over and over. She was making the shape of "Oh" with her mouth.
white And that was the beginning. They created this thing. It was part of their relationship, a product of their love, and it was a good thing too because it gave them a way of expressing their love, and knowing their love, and it made them close. It bound them to each other. If they were at a party, say, all they had to do was look at each other. One of them would look at the other, make the shape of "Oh," and it was all they needed. They knew exactly what the other meant. So that was good.
white But then Pee Wee died. Pee Wee was the little canary with a flat-top hairdo that lived with them. When he died they searched around and found a nice, level, fairly garbage-free location behind the house to bury him. Lee was holding little dead Pee Wee in her hand and Jackson was digging into the earth with the heel of his shoe at a place they'd picked near a green sapling. He said he didn't need a shovel but the ground was hard so he'd picked up a broken piece of brick and was chopping at the earth with that.
white Then a bum appeared from out of the weeds, a local bum whose bulbous stomach was stained with muddy rivulets of sweat. He stepped up to Lee, who wasn't digging, extended his hand, and as if she had no choice she extended hers and there was Pee Wee, lying on his back, with his little feet sticking in the air.
white Lee and Jackson looked at each other and they both made the shape of "Oh." They smiled because they knew exactly what it meant.
white Jackson said to the bum, "Well, it's good to see you but right now we can't talk. We'll have talk later. Right now we're trying to bury our bird."
white But the bum didn't leave. So again they made the shape of "Oh," and then they knew what they had to do. They ignored the bum. They placed Pee Wee into the hole and covered it with dirt and twigs and pieces of broken glass, and a tin can top that was part of the garbage. With these things they made a little monument for Pee Wee. Of course the bum was still standing there, and the more they ignored him, the more he seemed determined to stay. But they didn't want him to stay. This was a private and personal occasion and a bum was not something they wanted. So they looked at each other and made the shape of "Oh."
white But nothing happened. And because nothing happened they kept making the shape of "Oh." They thought that it would be enough. But it wasn't. But they saw no choice, so they kept on trying. They kept making the face but obviously there was a problem. And it wasn't the bum or the smell of the bum, the problem was the face. But they didn't know what else to do so they kept on doing it, they kept making this stupid face at each other. And they didn't know what it meant, or what they meant even by doing it; but they kept doing it, more and more, because they were feeling more and more separated, both from each other, and from what they wanted to happen. And it was no longer a good thing, this thing they had, it was a bad thing now, like a wedge driven between them, separating them from each other.
white They knew they would have to talk about it and one of them at some point said to the other, "Why don't you stop it?"
white "I'm trying to stop it, why don't you stop it?"
white "Well I'm trying to stop it."
white "Well you're not doing a very good job, are you?"
white "Well why don't you just forget it then?"
white "Okay. Fine. Forget it."
white "Fine with me."
white "Great."
white "Fine then."
white "Fine."
white "Fuck you."
white So Lee and Jackson, in a way, were trapped. They were caught by this thing that they'd created, the thing that made them close. Because they'd created it and it was a part of them, they couldn't just stop it, or kill it, or cut it off. They couldn't just get rid of it, they didn't think.

When Jackson was a boy he lived with his mother and his brothers on a farm outside of Phoenix, Arizona. He was in the house with his mother. She was sitting on the old sofa darning some socks, or sewing, and Jackson was walking back and forth in front of her, stomping his feet across the living room floor. He was the youngest of the brothers and his mother called him the handsomest; he was also the neediest. He needed something right then, from her, and he wasn't getting it. And in thinking of how he could get it he thought of his older brother Charles. Everyone respected Charles and admired Charles because Charles had a talent for drawing. Jackson, motivated by that example, found a piece of paper and a pencil and put the paper on the back of a book and sat down on the hardwood floor, his back against the sofa, and began to draw a picture. It wasn't a representational image of the farm or his mother or himself. It was himself. It was him. He had kept himself in or down or hidden for so long that when he finally let himself out he found he could easily get himself onto the paper. When he finished his drawing he turned to his mother, sitting on the sofa above him, and he handed the drawing to her. She took it, she looked at it, and then she said, "You should draw it out like Charles. Charles," she said, "can draw." Then she handed him the drawing and went back to her sewing. And he took the drawing, but he didn't take his eyes off her. He was looking at her face, and as he watched her face it started to become ugly and mean and deformed, and the more he watched it the more deformed it became until what he saw wasn't her face, it became a mask of her face, an ugly, grotesque mask, and he kept watching it, waiting, hoping that the ugly mask would fall away and that behind it a beautiful face would be revealed. But of course that never happened. There was no mask. The face was her face. It was ugly because Jackson made it ugly because he was mad. And because he was mad he jumped up and ran outside, into the yard. The farm was not a big moneymaker and there wasn't much more than dusty brown dirt and a lot chickens running around, and a few scraggly trees. Another brother, Sande, was playing with a neighbor in the yard; they were pretending to be men. They had a big old axe and they were chopping wood when Jackson wanted to join them. But because he was the youngest one and the handsomest one they wanted no part of his little world. But he wanted a part of theirs. So he placed his finger on the worn wood of the chopping block and dared the person holding the axe to let him in. The person holding the axe lifted the axe so that it hung in the air above Jackson's head and Jackson kept his finger where it was, tempting the person to let the axe come down. And when it did come down it chopped off his finger—the end of his finger—which rolled off the chopping block into the dirt. A rooster came along, pecked at it, picked it up, and carried it away. And that was it. The finger was gone. And Jackson had his proof. There was his confirmation. Look at me, his missing finger would say, and look at what you've done. Look at the life that's falling apart, the drunkenness and the failure and the dissolution, and know that you're responsible. He needed that poor chopped-off finger. He pitied it and protected it and hated it for the rest of his life.

A final dream. He's standing in an open field with a bow in one hand, an arrow in the other, and a deer—the field is filled with tall grass—a deer enters the field, quietly eating at the grass. He places the arrow's notch in the cord, raises the bow, and aims his arrow at the heart of the deer. The deer raises its head, looks out with one eye, and Jackson lets go. He wants to let go. He wants to let go of the bowstring and have the arrow sail through the air, but when he releases his fingers, nothing happens. Nothing moves except the deer, who quietly passes from the field.

Jackson Pollock was bound to fail, but at least he would fail heroically. He'd made his name by fighting the way things were, and when he got famous he kept fighting the way things were, but since he was the way things were, he fought himself. Two opposing impulses dominated his life: the desire to reach out into the world and touch some thing, and the desire to keep that thing away. This was his struggle, and it felt like shit, and to get rid of the feeling he shook his head. That was his art. The paintings he saw hanging in the world were all the same old pieces of shit, so he shook his head. His greatness was realizing that what existed in the world didn't work for him, and then shaking his head to find the thing that did. And certain people, especially the people who paid him money and made him famous, they wanted him, expected him, and demanded that he keep shaking his head. They didn't want to shake their own heads but they were happy to indulge Jackson and encourage Jackson, because shaking head was good for business. And Jackson, in an effort to find something real and solid, shook his head. Which was what they wanted him to do, and the problem was, he didn't want to do what they wanted him to do, he wanted to do what he wanted to do, but because they wanted him to do what he wanted to do, what he wanted...
white All he knew was to shake his head. But it didn't help. All it did was get him dizzy. And he wanted to get back. He felt he had to get back, to something, so he got in his car, a green Oldsmobile convertible, and drove. He was at a point A, on Long Island, and he wanted to get to point B, on another part of the island, so he got in his car. He wasn't alone. Ruth was with him, and she'd brought along a friend of hers from New York City, Edith, and they were driving to a party. Jackson had been drinking that day and was probably driving erratically, and Edith, in the backseat, was screaming for him to turn around. And when he did turn around she continued screaming. He was driving along, one girl next to him, petrified, the other girl in the backseat, screaming, and he was known for being decisive and he wanted to be decisive, and he wanted to change what was happening. He wanted to shake everything out of his head and start at the beginning. But this desire only made him dizzier.
white And when the road made that one particular turn he tried to follow the road. He wanted to make the turn, and have the road and the car and the girls all make the turn together, with him. But the steering wheel, or the road, or he, was not quite right. Jackson Pollock wanted to turn and he tried to turn, and he did, he turned the steering wheel, but the car was going too fast or he turned too slowly or too late and suddenly he was driving along the shoulder, into the dirt, and when the car collided with a stand of saplings he was thrown from the car and sent sailing through the air. As he flew through what seemed like empty space he could see down below him the road. He could see the horizon above that, and the sky above that, and above that a cloud, and the cloud had a face, an ugly, deformed face, and he watched as the face began to fall away. He let it fall away, and for an instant he could see behind it. And then he hit the tree. The tree didn't move so he died. And that was the end. You could see that he was dead, and that the girl in the backseat was also dead. That was the end. You'd have to be looking from some very great distance to see that that was the beginning.