A man goes far to find out what he is. Sometimes, at the end of his rainbow (or the end of his rope), he sees only a friendly stranger shrouded in multiple layers of yellow cellophane, someone who wants to groom wire-haired schnauzers for free, someone who calls late at night asking for Gary or Bernard. I’m referring, of course, to the life of Arnold Benjamin, poet and hemophiliac. Born in the furrow of a cornfield, he had a simple, grief-stricken childhood. Even so, he grew like a weed until by the age of 12 he was 27-years-old. He sprang upon the unsuspecting literary world in 1949 with his searing expose of the new counterculture festering in the subterranean gin mills of Wall Street. It was appropriately titled The Confessions of Little Boy Blue, a controversial goose egg, to say the least.
For his carnal frankness, his flaming genius, he was blacklisted by the N.A.A.C.P. and subjected to a barrage of little white lies by the K.K.K. Finally, the Pulitzer Prize Committee managed to have his poetic license revoked. It was a crushing blow. But he’d had worse.
Seeking a total separation from all of mankind, Arnie set out on an Arctic expedition, a journey from which there was no coming back. Equipped only with a satin jogging suit and two quarts of olive oil, he trudged on and on, until at last a cab stopped and took him to the airport. Somewhere above the Arctic Circle, he lost his way. The story of what happened then will never be fully understood. Somehow Santa Claus found him, nursed him back to health, and then just as mysteriously disposed of him. But betwixt rescue and oblivion, Arnold Benjamin wrote his masterpiece.
Of the 2,000 or so poems which comprise the original Santa Claus song cycle, only a few remain. Some scholars speculate that the explicitly erotic nature of Benjamin’s work was an embarrassment that Santa could not allow to see the light of day. It’s possible, however, that the complete cycle still exists, furtively cherished in Santa’s bizarre collection of amorous mementoes. But the more practical theorists take it for granted that the elves found pages of the manuscript to be an ideal stuffing substitute for dolls and pincushions when supplies of horsehair had been exhausted. We should be thankful for the few poems we do have, for they give us a titillating glimpse into the private life of the world’s best-loved fat man. We see his handicaps, his vices, his most complex psychosexual aberrations. Our lives are immeasurably enriched by this unflinching documentation of Santa’s moral and mental frailties.
Also, as we read Benjamin’s work, we are indirectly shown the portrait of a sensitive young poet, a man who never stopped waxing his mustache, a man who, though burdened with more than his fair share of tuberculosis, was still able to joke about. Brave, goofy, inarticulate: he was all of these and little more. But come, let us look at the poems.
The first, entitled “You,” was written during his now-famous Convalescent Period, the first week at Santa’s gingerbread house (mainly spent thawing out near the fireplace). In a morphine stupor that caused him to idealize his immediate reality, transforming red-hot fire tongs into ticklish ostrich feathers and savage vampire dwarves into mere anemic mosquitoes, he wrote these immortal lines:
The sea is a mistress cruel
But worse by twice
Is the northern ice
Where man is a cuckold fool.
No tales do dead men tell
Unless I dare be the first.
‘Twas you disguised as a nurse
Delivered me from Hell.
God works in ways mysterious.
You in red suit
Shiny of boot
I saw while still delirious.
Your armpits smelled like a zoo
But tamed was I by your touch
Ere I reached out to clutch
A beard as soft as the dew.
There is some doubt as to whether “I Dig You” is a genuine Arnold Benjamin poem or not, it being a daring departure from his usual Victorian broom-closet fantasies. The strong Beatnik influence is undeniable, and the bondage and discipline undertones lend irresistible flavor to an otherwise wretched manifesto.
I Dig You
love me daddy
beat me daddy
nothing is too good or too naughty for your baby
kiss me daddy
shoot me daddy
make me feel at home beneath your boot heels daddy
give me candy take my money
throw anything that’s handy at me
but when I send an SOS
send a rescue PDQ
and seal the canteen with a kiss
take careful aim so you don’t miss
you dirty devil
Skeptics also wonder if the following is a bona fide Benjamin. Who can say? Personally, I find it delightful no matter who the author is.
You said it was all muscle, not fat,
But I did not believe you at first.
You ate ice cream like a child
But you ate mousse like a man.
The remaining poems show us a wide range of stylistic approaches. We are given a dash of Shakespeare, a drop of Edgar Allan Poe, and a generous portion of the lesser-known hacks hiding out in the tidal marshes of New Jersey. They chronicle the birth, homogenization and eventual disintegration of a very special relationship. We find ourselves elevated onto an illusory plateau where angels and demons walk arm-in-arm, hoof-in-mouth in a world of unlimited possibilities. Finally we reach the edge of the plateau only to peer downward as though through a beard, darkly. Ultimately, we fall. Reality, we find, is no velvet cushion. And the free lunch we get…is naked.
Beautiful Loser With A Monkey On His Back
When I found the syringes inside your hollow Bible
I realized that the plate of cold turkey in the fridge
Was no joke.
Is addiction the price you paid to be the Christmas angel,
Angel of bliss, angel — of dust?
Santa, how long can you smile with a monkey on your back?
Listen, you old beautiful fool,
Drop it like the bad habit that it is.
Cool it with that monkey business
Before you slip on a banana peel
And break — your soul.
A Word Of Warning
You said all the world’s a stage and now you’ve
Fallen off of it (right into the orchestra pit).
You said it didn’t hurt but I know that on the inside there is pain.
Your heart has been twisted and pinched like a mangled marshmallow.
All it needs now if or someone to put it on a sharpened stick
And roast it over a slow fire. Santa, don’t go on that hayride tonight.
You’ll be sorry.
A Dream, An Ultimatum
Postcards, poetry, bits of yarn with butterflies attached:
Is this the way you woo me? And how so with the others?
Sweet chocolates and lingerie, the best soft-sell forget-me-nots
That silver can afford?
I dreamt of a raven whose beak was wet but whose kiss was dry.
I dreamt of a carnival clown older than the oldest hand-me-down cliché.
“Even I have kissed the Blarney Stone,” he said.
Yes, I dreamt those things and others such
But sended not a ring of rarest jade.
Only withered flowers bent into a question mark.
Canceled checks, unpaid bets, fictitious IOUs,
Bits of barbed wire with skeletons entwined: Is this the way you shoo me?
And how so with the others? Pray tell, my bearded wonder.
If you deny me this concession I’ll hate you to the end of time,
Or until such time as I master Transcendental Meditation.
As hinted here below, some of Santa’s helpers, the gnomes in particular, took young Arnold’s presence as an encroachment on their territory. There were many grim reprisals, but Santa never knew of the bitter conflicts within his tribe. The lonely tears, the savage threats, the sinister studies of chains and fire were all kept secret from the jolly old bugger.
A Melancholy Meditation
Which was does your beard swing tonight?
When last we met beyond the fringe of light
Your lips parted like two slices of unleavened bread
And I became your butter.
Yea, if I’ve turned rancid in your bed
Will you go and seek another?
Is it the toll of time’s fierce tread
That silences the laughter of the dwarves
Or merely the contempt familiarity has bred
(Small wonder with those sawed-off whores)?
Was it the growth of fungus in one’s head?
Pray tell the gist before I die.
The horse become an ass instead,
The beauty mark, a wart in Cupid’s eye?
You went down the chimney of my life
And you went back up the chimney of my life.
You wore but one costume and very little leather
Yet you were many things to me.
When my spirit was broken you were my crutch.
When I lobbied for legalization of a controlled substance
You volunteered as attorney.
When I was hitchhiking across the fourth quadrant on the face of the moon
You picked me up like a heaven-sent cabdriver.
But when I needed help with my arithmetic
You laughed in my face
And called me the square root of zero.
I always knew it would end this way.
Thirteen Ways Of Looking At You-Know-Who (Abridged)
after Wallace Stevens
Dinosaurs ruled the earth
When Santa Claus was but a twinkle
In his father’s glass eye.
As Santa Claus flew out of sight
The alarms finally went off.
The police would find only deer tracks on the roof
And no sign of a struggle.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections,
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The crack of Santa’s whip
Or just after.
In the House of Usher
Seven green applies lie cool and straight
On the windowsill.
Before Santa arrived all was chaos.
I was seeing things all afternoon.
I was drinking and I’m going to drink.
If Santa comes down that chimney one more time
I’ll blow his brains out.
I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus
Of course the title is a lie.
You were always so faithful, so perfect, so unreal,
Such a prissy prude.
When I made a pass your way you played possum
So you wouldn’t have to catch it.
Some joke. I could have loved you.
I would have cleaned your spittoon
Or combed the bugs out of your wind-blown beard.
Anything to be near the maker of toys,
The famous lover of girls and boys.
Some joke. I write these words of bitterness
On every bathroom wall, in every language
That I learned when you threw the book at me.
You didn’t have the decency to say good-bye.
Don’t you know the word?
In Japanese, it’s “sayonara.”
In German, it’s “auf wiedersehen.”
In Pig Latin, it’s “ood-bye gay.”