“Phantom Signs is a magnificent keening for a time before written history “when lines were conceived and spoken in one breath” and gods walked the earth. In this magical time of pre-history, Brady says, poets composed “right at the vortex of forgetting.” Then and now, he concludes, “poetry isn’t written; it is the impression left after everything not a poem has dissolved.” Well, it has to be said . . . or uttered: Brady rocks.”
—J. Michael Lennon
Click the link to purchase this book through the publisher: Purchase Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City
Praise for Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City
“Part high-spirited flash memoir, part nuanced cultural poetics, Philip Brady’s Phantom Signs sparkles with wit and insight. Writing as both esteemed poet and publisher of Etruscan Press, Brady offers incisive meditations on matters grave (the profound joy of playing basketball post-heart attack) and groovy (the poetry scene as it seemed to a shy young poet in the 70s) in prose so luminous it lifts off the page. Moments of memoir punctuate discussions of poetry, which are, in their postmodern perspective on art and life, brilliant and wise. Phantom Signs is a dazzling read.”
—Cynthia Hogue, Scheming Women
“Maybe because he was a changeling at birth or maybe because he died [briefly], or because of other lives as poet, editor, publisher, musician, basketballer, Philip Brady writes like no one else. His is a mind that is restless, extensive, resourceful, and unafraid. He believes equally in the Muse and in the mammal brain, the utterance and the sign, poetry and its undoing. He is able to channel voices from Africa and Ireland and antiquity as well as Kobe Bryant and the childhood hi-fi in Queens. Phantom Signs is a remarkable document that is also skeptical of the document, using the techniques of memoir and novel and song to disrupt the conventions of the essay. He builds his own counter-testimony. Exacting of the word and generous of spirit, this book is a beautiful breaking of silence.”
—Bruce Smith, Devotions
“The Book I Almost Wrote”
An Excerpt from Phantom Signs
I almost wrote a book. I wrote almost all of a book. Nearly every word. I reached the end. I edited and revised. I wrote the book many ways. I wrote it many times. I wrote it in prose and verse. I studied it. I learned almost all of it by heart. I didn’t write the blurbs or flap copy; you’re not supposed to write them, or if you do, you pretend to be someone else. I didn’t decide the ISBN or PCIP or list price. I did not design the cover or delineate the gutters or select the font. I did not choose my name. But of the words conventionally ascribed to the author, I wrote almost every one.
It was a book about a paradox.
A. Writing a book is hard.
B. It’s supposed to look easy.
As Yeats says, “A line will take us hours maybe / But if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching have been nought.”
My book took a long time. It began as another book altogether. “To Banquet with the Worthy Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet” was the working title.
A memoir is especially hard unless you are famous, in which case you get someone else to write it for you, or at least edit. The other problem is that people hate being flattened from three dimensions to two, so there can be issues when you write about living people. They can write back.
Not being famous, I had to write alone. And the people I made two-dimensional were dead or their faces were masked. The memoir was set in a Long Island Police Athletic League boys’ camp. In the summer of seventh grade—which the memoir calls the summer of Item 265—I spent my first nights away from home. The summer was bad. Horrible. Not just the gruel and bugs and sweaty shorts and sandy bunks and endless games of war ball. Adolescent boys are cruel to anyone different, and I was different. As the book says,
My body grilled in Rouse-like sentences,
Elongating while resisting girth
Until the chest caved in and the fingers of one hand
Could encircle a thigh. The ears unhinged.
The cartilaginous right speared like an antler.
The left lobe drooped below the jaw.
Eyelids pinked. Lashes crusted.
The trunk roiled, mapping new pustules.
Bloody pus clotted morning sheets.
These aren’t the words I wrote in the memoir. I’ve lost those words completely. This is a later verse interpolation. But in every version the boys were hideous, and at the time it seemed that this was the only world I would ever inhabit: a nightmare landscape of terror and humiliation. The hoodlums promised that on the last night of camp they would all piss into a bucket and sneak into my bunk and pour the bucket over me. I ran to the camp office and made a collect call to my parents and begged them to come get me. They came. None of this is in any of the versions of the book I almost wrote, because I wanted to avoid dealing directly with those who were still extant. Instead, I focused on the Trojan War, and W. H. D. Rouse’s prose translation of the Iliad. Thus the Rouse-like sentences.
For this paradoxical state of affairs (A & B) I blame Homer. Before he started to “articulate sweet sounds together” on the page, bards rocked and chanted, feeding the voice, and the voice fed the utterance. Or that’s the way I had it in my book. But I wrote the book crouched over a screen with my eyes watering and sudden beeps from Facebook and my right foot going numb, and everything had to be constructed and verified and revised down to the nub.
Besides Homer, there were two other obstacles.
A. I had become a publisher. On the kind of whim that made Mickey Rooney launch movie musicals, I had started, with two cronies, a literary press. Etruscan, we called it, a little dizzy with self-delight. We schemed to use money from Stags, my rich friend, to hire labor while Mooney, my novelist friend, and I would select the books and meet writers and lunch at the Algonquin.
Then 9/11 happened. Bill Heyen, eminent poet and towering anthologist, proposed a book called “September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond.” He wanted to capture America’s first reaction to the tragedy. But Etruscan didn’t, so to speak, exist. We had no distributor or designer or marketers or deal-cutters or editors. We knew about publishing the way foodies know about restaurants: we knew what we liked. But we did have Stags’s money. So we hired a bright-looking lad and rented an office in Chestertown, MD. I was on sabbatical in Providence and had fallen head over heels for a woman 20 years younger and I saw everything as if through a sparkling veil and 9/11 didn’t seem real. So we told Bill OK and he buttonholed 127 writers including John Updike and Erica Jong and Lucille Clifton and Robert Pinsky and he even made up a few writers like Edwina Seaver and Rose Carmine Smith with a wink to Joyce Carol Oates.
Then we contacted a pro named Tom Woll who had made his bones at Vanguard with Dr. Seuss back in the days of three martini lunches, and I met Tom halfway between Yonkers and Providence at a bagel shop on Rte 17 and Tom hooked us up with Mortimer Mint, a Dickensian refugee who made his fortune distributing the Guinness Book of World Records, and Morty sold ten thousand copies and we thought publishing was a cinch and then 8,500 copies came back—we didn’t know about returns—and Stags coughed up more money and bailed us out.
By now I was a full-time publisher and people sent me manuscripts by the hundreds and we had to fire the bright-looking kid for fraud and I drove to the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and rendezvoused with our new managing editor at Hemingway’s and handed over two armloads of files. Suddenly I was immersed in something I had always avoided: business. Now I could confab with my college pals about cost benefit and cash flow, and I learned that you can’t treat employees like students because if students fail, so what? And manuscripts kept coming and I lost a few friends and some sleep and many of the poems were good, but not that good, or all good in the same way: a setting and observation about the setting developing into three or four related observations strung together in a short time span; usually walking was involved, sometimes driving. All were rectangular and they began to look like clumsy interpolations translated from Etruscan and it was mile after loose-stepped mile of chopped prose. Did I say all? Not so. Some were served straight from academic Delphi, where the oracle was deconstructed into semiotic salads only a tower-dweller could digest.
Poems are so enigmatic. Each emerges from some private darkness which publication does not entirely dispel. They are composed of such a paucity of words. We choose to trust their silences. But we approach with caution. No one wants to be taken in by a false poem. An accidental verse. So we screen them the way we screen blind dates. We hear from teachers or colleagues, reviewers and enthusiasts. We peruse the book: the colophon, the pedigree, the blurbs that confirm value with words like “luminous” and “sublime,” the mysterious or catchy titles: Return to a Room Lit By a Glass of Milk, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, Autonecrophilia, The Book of Orgasms, or What Narcissism Means to Me. By the time we open the book and scan the creamy page with its noble Garamond, we are prepared to give each poem what William Stafford called “a certain kind of attention.”
These conditions do not prevail in the publisher’s office. Publishers receive only a brief cover and we must address the draft of the internationally unknown poet without the benefit of context. No private darkness, no magic, and certainly no rarity. There are thousands. They have no reticence. They come, as Philip Dacey says, “so encumbered.”
Reading unsolicited manuscripts mars publishers. Print is limitless. If you are not a publisher, you may have no idea of how many serviceable poems are making their doleful rounds. At conferences or bars or beaches or subway platforms, we publishers pass one another and nod in silence, recognizing the vampiric gaze and slow shamble of the endless scroll.
Whatever their quality and number, these submissions were complete, and so they were better than what I was doing at my other desk, trying to write a memoir. Albert Lord who studied bards in Yugoslavia said that when oral poets learned to write, they lost the ability to compose spontaneously, and I thought that maybe something analogous had occurred and that after becoming a publisher I’d never be able to compose poetry again. And so I scribbled sentence after sentence until I was walled in, and the memoir was on the other side of the wall.
B. I have a love-hate relationship with sentences. I love the freedom and the buoyancy and the way they go on and on, executing a flip turn at the margin. But, they do go on. I compose them only in daylight or lamplight, always alone. They can’t be learned by heart; they can’t breathe for long away from print. They are—or at least my sentences seem—foreign. Sentences have no darkness. They are devoid of mystery. If you think of something that might go in a sentence, you stick it in. Bent on transposing whole cartons of toxic reality onto the page, you get woozy. Like I say, it’s a paradox. So one day I went swimming.
I have a love-hate relationship with swimming. I love the freedom and buoyancy, the reach and kick. I love the glimpse of light when I suck in air, and the black lane lines refracting on exhale. I love the flip turn, and the full-stretch glide two beats long. At the finale, I speed crawl to the deep end and jackknife down to trace the tile insignia, staying as long as my lungs last, letting the rising take me, effortless. But a swimming pool is the place where I feel most alone, trapped in my mind.
There’s no end, no arc. Swimming doesn’t correspond to anything I do anywhere else. Water is, finally, a foreign element which I cannot inhabit.
That October afternoon in 2010 I slipped into the chlorine water and began my regimen. But I got through only four laps when I felt pressure in my chest, and my breath went shallow. Later that day I was wheeled into St. Elizabeth’s for coronary triple bypass surgery.
After a week in the hospital, I spent three months in my rocking chair by the fire, in the living room of our ramshackle cottage looking south on a park in Youngstown, Ohio, where I’ve lived for thirty years. Three decades, three months, three hours of unconsciousness. What matter? Youngstown is not home. That dreamscape has another name. I call it Queens. It’s no Ithaca, my Queens—in fact it now doppelgangs Seoul and Baghdad, as once, in Father’s voice, it was called Galway. Any destination, given time and distance, eludes naming.
At home in my rocking chair in the fall of 2010, I clutched the teddy bear with the cracked heart bib the nurses give heart patients to keep us from tearing the incision. I read, I binged on Netflix, I napped. Many patients, a pamphlet told me, feel depression when they return from heart surgery. But I felt peace. It helped that my wife was home and friends drove hundreds of miles to visit; it helped that I had colleagues to take over my courses and a managing editor to handle business at Etruscan; it helped that the autumn passed almost imperceptibly through the bay window facing the park. Life is good, I thought. And still think.
Then I turned to the pages that had been the memoir. How distant—a world glimpsed through fogged goggles. What matter what actually happened one summer fifty years ago? What matter, this breaking and remaking—wading through sentences that could never be heard at night or out on a walk; sentences that always needed light, and were always read alone?
And then, rubbing my bear’s fur in my rocking chair in the autumn of 2010 deep in midlife, I began to rock. Back and forth, just as I had long ago in Queens in front of the hi-fi, rocking on hands and knees while Father’s Clancy Brothers albums scratched unearthly tunes about a home so far off it might have been Ethiopia. Backward to the sea I rocked, forward into a world of goddesses and fiends.
As I rocked and chanted in Youngstown after surgery and dove deep to the bottom of memory-tracing runes, I began to see that there was no home, no element anyone could own or even belong to, except for a moment reaching for a single line. The reach is home, or hospital bed, and the line is the insignia of yearning. Scanning sentences, I knew that I didn’t want to write a memoir to remake a vanished world. I didn’t want my breath to go shallow. I didn’t want to feel the way I had felt all those years ago with Rouse: knowing something lay beneath, some rhythmic present tense that sentences could only describe or obscure.
So I began my own translation: from sentences to lines. I started transposing history, as Timothy Findley says, “into another key, which is mythology.” Backward toward Queens, forward into the Police Camp, I began to translate my sentences into blank verse—remaking or breaking or making up a life from a great distance—the distance of having been, briefly, dead.
From a page-bound home I rocked to a place where
A child composes the rooftree of a house.
Verse tunes his breath—iamb
Of upturned face, caesura of sinews,
The ache of denouement pricked by a ‘huh’
That triggers the next line. And within,
Angle of toe and knuckle, cant of head,
Each phrase devising its own signature.
In the belly of a house the child soars
Over the mountains and the wine-dark sea.
Every plunge backward meets the thud
Of flesh on bone, spurring the thrust forward.
Heels anchor and the child has learned
To quell time’s surge with oceanic dream.
Writing is hard. It’s supposed to look easy. But there’s a third leg to the paradox: writing isn’t even supposed to look like writing. It’s supposed to seem like utterance. It’s supposed to be heard, or overheard. It’s supposed to appear as if it’s from somewhere else. This is where the book I almost wrote was headed. It was about life before the alphabet, not just childhood, but the eons of myth-time before Homer started to write things down. A time when “eternity brightened the rim of each instant.” Without the alphabet to keep time straight, everything could slide from now to forever and back in a generation or an instant. There was no breach between everything that happened and all that did not. Of course, it’s another paradox to write a book about the futility of writing a book, though in many ways all books are about that. Sometimes I think that the last three thousand years of poetry compose a long elegiac wail for a time when “lines were conceived and spoken in one breath.” And anyway, I didn’t write a book about it. I wrote most of a book.
Years went by, and Etruscan grew and flourished and people kept sending me manuscripts and a few of them I published. Every month I finished a verse chapter. At the beginning of each month I almost drowned, overwhelmed by all I hadn’t written, and by the end of each month I flew through the house. Over and over it happened, the drowning and flying, the rocking and chanting, till finally I was done. And because I had spent a decade reading manuscripts, I knew that this was different. It wasn’t sentences. It wasn’t chopped prose. I even changed the name. I called it, “To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet.” Nearly the same, but different.
I found Broadstone Books and Larry Moore introduced me to Buffalo Trace and the Kentucky Derby and he brought in a genius designer, Laurie Powers, to dress the words beautifully and we all edited and extrapolated and amplified and nitpicked and scoured the net for images and fonts. And one day a UPS box arrived at my house across from the park in Ohio. I tore open the carton and scattered the peanuts and inhaled the new book smell and caressed the gloss. My book. The book I wrote. I thought I’d written all of it. The whole thing. But I hadn’t.
That night I read the words that had taken all those years and had finally broken through the wall of sentences. I read almost to the end, and it was strange because in this beautiful codex the words seemed as if they came from somewhere else and I didn’t remember writing any of them.
Until I came to the second-to-last page. That’s when I found out I had not written all the book. I wrote most of it. Almost all. But on the second-to-last page, in the last stanza, I read a line I definitely knew I had not composed. A line I had never seen.
It was “Fearless fleeing naked toward Roba.”
I knew Fearless. I knew he fled. But Fearless was running out of time into the sea. He was running out of his body; he was swimming, he was almost drowning. Where was this unknown place, Roba?
It’s a paradox to write a book about the way the alphabet walls us into our separate lives; it’s strange to work so hard to make simple utterance.
In the beginning of the book the scrivener admits that his Homeric stand-in, Thersites, might just be an inkblot. Writing is hard. It’s not trustworthy. It has the taste of death. And now it ended in a place I did not know.
I called Laurie and she sent me back a scanned page of the galleys which I had scrawled over and drawn arrows in. And in the margin, among the glyphs and arabesques, there it was.
“Fearless fleeing naked toward Roba.”
Reading it now, as a late interpolator, I think the scrivener meant to say not Roba but “the sea” and he didn’t mean the line to be there anyway, but somewhere else. But there it was.
That night I walked through the house feeling lost and overwhelmed as at the beginning of each month and it was even worse since I was a publisher and had dealt with all classes of screw-ups and had invented protocols and procedures and here was my book from another publisher and it was lost in some place I’d never heard of.
Then Laurie sent me a google map. A map to this place that was invented out of a misread hand. A map showing that Roba is not nowhere. It is a waterway in Ethiopia, where Fearless was always trying to flee to escape the world, and time, and the boys at summer camp whom the memoir never names.
And that meant that the voice that Homer had heard and then silenced when he learned the alphabet and became a publisher, was still whispering, here, in this imperfect text.
Yes. Homer knew those waters. He had tried to swim out of his skin to Roba, Ethiopia. But who knows Homer? In the goodly company of the dead, he sways on a far shore. Truth? History? He is immersed in his own rocking and chanting. He is christened No One. His home, one ancient scroll declares, is called Ithaca. And Telemachus is his father.
It could be Homer was composed only of utterance and he made up his own father. It could be he never had a body. And what if he did? I know now that the body, like the alphabet, is a foreign element, composed of countless microbial beings swimming forever in the dark until the sternum is cleaved and the fugitives are brought to ghastly light.
Between what is called me and what is not, a child still rocks, composing the rooftree of a house. He reaches for Roba, like another element. He sings—I sing—as if this element were home, if only for a heartbeat.