They called him the Polka Dot Man
—so I also picked up the custom—
but what did he call himself?
This was Berkeley, the early nineties;
The Movement hadn’t completely died,
though threatened by tides of cappuccino foam and hair conditioner.
There were still protests, of course—communist, animal rights,
anti-apartheid, pro-Palestinian rallies, and rallies
against the Gulf War—
as before, as now.
But the merchants wanted Telegraph Avenue
—“the interface of town and gown”—
cleaned up, however not too clean:
property should be safe; customers should not
feel threatened—though a certain amount
of general non-standard behavior
was good for business—historical, identifying, in its own way
consumable. The Avenue felt the pressure,
social programs giving way to corporate crackdowns,
as UC executed its plan to retake People’s Park
by planting flowers and volleybally nets:
with their jockstrap arsenal,
frat boys would flush out the undesirables;
the police would intensify a routine
of breaking down the “free” bins
in which people left discarded clothes for the people in the park;
people would then rebuild the bins (though that wasn’t
part of the plan) and the police would tear them down
to find them later rebuilt.
The situation, as they say, escalated.
And people—especially the people in the park—
eventually felt called to action
as if on a grid of legendary actions, where all the moves
were known, yet given life
in the new patterns unfolding.
A woman with a machete and a knife, an anarchist,
even broke into the chancellor’s mansion with a blowtorch
and a questionable cop shot her in the back and in the heart.
This was 1992; people gathered for that one,
even some poets, and rioted (but without
looting: it was a protest). And People’s Park
—where she shared food and shelter
and fought the University—was renamed
after her. But it never stuck; it’s still
People’s Park, the people named it
and custom kept it.
Her name was Rosebud Abigail Denovo;
her parents named her Laura, but she broke
that custom, renamed herself, and fled
the institution. The cops thought she was
crazy. They knew she had a history,
or they didn’t know, that’s why they shot her,
or why they didn’t
not shoot her. (“There was no opportunity
to utilize the dog.”) Her friends didn’t think so,
(“Why didn’t they flush her out with gas?”)
that she was on the edge, though one friend found her
eating pieces of glass for breakfast,
upset he no longer wished
to make bombs.
But the best poet—he said,
“If she had broken into my home with a machete
I’d have shot her too.” He knew
better than anyone
how to make a rhyme
sound wholly natural,
and he kept the hell away
from graduate students.
In the end, her “excessive force”
lost to the cop’s, the confusion
of what happened
now part of the public record:
Denovo, Rosebud. Of the new, soon to flower
—in her desperation and despair,
her anger, her desire to belong
somewhere, her sense of being with others,
of belonging to her commitment, her steady
Pepsi-and-candy-bar diet, sleep deprived
and constantly harassed by the law,
by the streets she fled to and that led her
to the Park she fought for,
where she lived at the center
of a web, the strands of a practical ideal (let people be
in the Park) dissolving in the heat
of her senseless martrydom
as though a rose should shut and be bud again—
But this isn’t
a political poem, nor a Romantic dream.
Because the Polka Dot Man
paid no attention, as before, as then, in 1992;
he was a life-artist, or something, and his name—
the name that custom gave him—
was not a mystery, nor an allegory,
though he wore his origins
like a coat of arms: sweat suits with perfect
polka dots painted on them, upper body
and lower, polka dots of every color, every size.
He was lean, roughly handsome, with a squint
like Clint Eastwood; and he wore a sun visor
like Clint Eastwood on the golfing green, and sometimes
even carried an umbrella open against the sun,
its indisputable midday authority.
If it rained, he kept the umbrella closed
and stayed home, wherever that was.
Under the sun, though,
he would sometimes sleep in the plaza between Wheeler Hall and Dwinelle,
his body laid out in the warmth, on the hot stones,
with his head cool enough under the umbrella
he opened on the ground.
Awake, he’d pace
the square patterns of the inlaid plaza brickwork,
careful to keep on a course of straight lines
and ninety-degree angles, which he otherwise
improvised on the legendary grid—where to turn, when
to continue on the straight path
until it was time to turn.
So that his work, you could say,
was to wear a suit of circles
and trace a path of squares.
He carried himself erect, his dignified gait
crisp, militant even, expressing
delineated intention, but visibly open
to possibility as well. He had style
and something like a subject, a commitment,
his mode; yet one was never quite sure
how he would do it, what path he would choose,
as he chose it, for he did not
know himself. That was his pleasure
at the center of repose. He was never
seen anywhere other
than the plaza, at work
in the web of his tracings, or asleep.
He wouldn’t talk to anyone,
except girls; but from a distance
he appeared capable of great charm,
I could see he possessed what you’d call
a winning smile, of welcoming white teeth.
His program was working, no question,
but what was it?
This went on for years.
In the meantime
I was studying, trying to learn
how to write a line and how to make
a turn, when to circle back, and all
the girls I talked to wore black
and understood the paradigm
of the political unconscious,
and I was getting nowhere.
I was reading Robert Duncan
to open the chain of rhyme
in search of new structures,
a new correspondence for ancient responsibilities;
but I was like an open sheet
in a closed book, a human
faculty without sufficient will . . .
At some point I noticed his polka dots
were changing, opening up
from the center, as if from a gradually
increasing centrifugal force
felt within each dot, as if some kind
of internal revolution were gaining speed.
Each week, a new suit, with a new set of dots
opening further, swirling, spiraling,
as he edged week by week from the center of Sproul Plaza
towards the busy sidewalk crowded with hungry
students forming lines in front of food stalls,
circling around themselves, negotiating the crowd
they were a part of: as if he too
were at the center of a world represented
by a dot, and by virtue of some force, pulled
to the perimeter and yearning
beyond it: till the circles undid
themselves entirely, becoming sets of lines,
some even parallel lines
like equal signs
between shapes, or stories, the present
in correspondence with a future
he was working out, from the center, where he remained
isolated and in control, to the margin,
where people lived more fully
engaged with each other
in the customary happiness of eating modestly and joking around,
the bright colors and patterns of their clothes
all mixing together in the loose weave of the sidewalk.
(This must be a political poem.)
one day, he appeared in a blank suit,
white, without dots or swirls or lines, completely
erased of its former signs; he seemed tenuous
at first, confronting the open
sheet of his own being; then his posture
took the shape of interest, enjoyment, as he spent
the afternoon mingling in the crowded street
bordering the campus; and the next day
he disappeared, as if the rose
should pluck herself
and float away on the current.
No public record of such an act exists,
this private integration, a re-seeding
into the public campo we call the city, in which he calls himself
by the name he’s now known, though none of us
knew it, who saw him each week on his invented stage—
the new life, in flower, having
turned with the existential seasons . . .
Until a few months later
I ran into him working
downtown at the recycling
center: from the outside,
looking through the glass door,
I caught his eye, and he shot back
a look of aloof amusement: it was no big deal,
the new life here, returning redemptions
to a point of origin.
He seemed decked out in a suit
of modest defiance, I refúse
your réfuse, though he leisurely made for the door.
As if I stood in a crowd, waiting
to throw it all away
in the right colored bins, my courtesy and patience
rendered me absurd, out of line. It was my turn
to move, but time
moved instead; and I was still standing there
when, with a curt nod, he opened the door and said,
“Whose permission are you waiting for?”
(reprinted by permission of University of Chicago Press)