The Thereminist /by : Garrett Caples

Edited by : Giorgia Pavlidou

The Thereminist

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (2013), Particulars of Place (2015) by Richard O. Moore, and Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems (2016) by Frank Lima. He lives in San Francisco.

Garrett Caples

I am seven years older than Andrew Joron was when we first met some 25 years ago. In that time, I have grown old, fat, ridiculous, while Andrew—I won’t say looks the same—he certainly looks older—but he looks just as well as he did at age 40. Imperially slim, full head of hair, the same Germanic frown of inquiry constituting his face at rest, set off at the chin by a dashing cluster of thin white scars owing to a horrific boating accident as a child in Stuttgart. This habitual expression shows to best advantage during Andrew’s performances on Theremin, making him look stoic almost as he gesticulates like a crazed Wagnerian 10 hours into the Ring.

The Theremin was a gift for his 50th birthday; a bunch of his friends, myself included, chipped in for the instrument that Andrew had long admired both for its surrealistic properties—it’s the instrument you play but don’t touch—and for its evocation of the science fiction of his youth. Still, as a non-musician, he was, I fancied, almost intimidated by it, though he began dutifully investigating its sonic properties and occasionally reporting his findings in poetic settings.

Andrew joron

But what changed everything was the return to the Bay Area of our friend Brian Lucas, after a six-year stint in Bangkok cave diving. Brian is a triple threat—poet, painter, musician—and being an old hand at being in bands, he soon had Andy jamming, then playing in a trio called Free Rein, which became a quartet called Cloud Shepherd. In the process, Andrew definitely became a musician, however free or outside. Cloud Shepherd is no more, but like every improv musician, Andrew’s now in a hundred different bands of varying degrees of notoriety. Ostrich Nostril, Man the Fingerguns, Crow Crash Radio, they proliferate like Tribbles; he’s even in one with Clark Coolidge on drums called Ouroboros.

And much like Tribbles, these bands are trouble. Always a deliberate writer, fastidious in output, Andrew has had to relax his literary productivity even further to accommodate these bands, an invasive species in a creative field hitherto devoted to writing. If this is a midlife crisis, it’s an extraordinarily avant-garde one. New Andrew Joron poems appear at ever greater intervals; his publisher curses his apparent indolence, and I sometimes wonder if his friends and I are to blame for having bought him the Theremin, or more likely whether it’s Brian’s fault for teaching him to jam. Have we inadvertently altered the course of literary history by reducing the eventual sum of Andrew Joron books? I myself am perfectly willing to accept a certain portion of his output in Theremin, but will literary posterity ever forgive me?

Well, I’ve got my own problems, so it was only a matter of time before my concern for Andrew’s decreased rate of literary production became a meditation on the related matter of how to turn the situation to my advantage. To wit: some time ago, during one of those speculative conversations two poets might have touching on future projects, Andrew mentioned he wanted to publish a book of prose called Proses. I thought this was splendid, and cheered on the idea, but the fact is he hasn’t published such a volume in the intervening years, and perhaps indeed had mentioned it as a passing fancy, a funny idea rather than a serious endeavor.

It’s funny because it underlines the fact that prose is a mass noun, though frequently placed in opposition to the count noun poem. In truth, one might say, prose is in opposition to poetry, but then there’s no equivalent for an individual unit of prose as there is for an individual unit of poetry. But this essentially grammatical joke nonetheless takes on the air of an empirical one, as if the difference in the way the terms worked somehow reflected the distinction between poetry and prose.

Meanwhile, I myself was contemplating putting together a volume of prose in miscellaneous genres that nonetheless would project a vision of a unified whole, based on the composite that emerged from its disparate parts. An assemblage of poet’s prose where the relationship among the pieces was intuitive or analogical: a story or two, some prose poems, an essay, a florilegium, a bit of memoir, and so on. Proses, I thought, would be an ideal title for such a book, highlighting the poet’s versatility in the matter of writing prose.

Being a poet, I am, of course, an inveterate thief, and the prize was already in my possession; I merely needed to tell my own publisher, and the book would be announced and maybe even printed before Andrew would get wind of it. But even a cold-hearted fucker like me would hesitate to jack a title from my best friend without permission. Indeed, I’d already done this to him once inadvertently and felt badly about it; doing it again deliberately was a bridge too far.

I could, however, simply ask whether he still intended to use it and, if not, whether I could. So it was I found myself driving to his house in El Cerrito on a rare Saturday he wasn’t tied up with one of his innumerable bands. His wife Rose answered the door and told me he was out back in his mancave. As I made my way through the kitchen to the backyard, I recalled that Rose’s name was actually housed within the title Proses and I wondered whether this would make it even more difficult to dislodge from its owner. It’s a characteristically Joron flourish, when he still condescends to write poems; the coincidence of diverse concepts bound together under the same or similar linguistic signs—accidents of chance and twenty-six letters—is one he exploits with at times astonishing dexterity, making us see not the standard collection of puns we rely on, but rather the “sun” rising out of “solace,” the “agent” lurking in “angel.” This rigorous unearthing of the possible connections lying fallow between and within words makes Andrew one of the great innovators of recent American poetry.

The mancave was a large toolshed Andrew had converted into his writing office, furnished with his computer, his LPs and CDs, and a significant portion of his library. More lately it had become his rehearsal space, the ever-present Theremin and amplifier tucked into a corner when not in use. I could hear its high-pitched quavering as I approached, even though he was alone. I knocked and the eerie sound abruptly ceased, replaced by rapid barking from his dog, a Chihuahua/dachshund mix named Tater. Andrew opened the door and greeted me warmly, escorting me inside and offering me a Guinness from a still-cold six-pack awaiting my arrival. Tater trembled with his usual combination of excitement and nervousness. We caught up on various small matters, while Andrew from time to time dipped into a small tin of biscuits and tossed one to Tater, who gnawed on it while eyeing me warily.

Presently I got to the point: I had a prose book to do and I wanted to use his title, at least if he thought he wasn’t going to use it himself. I explained how it fit the book I envisioned to a T, and how it was simply too funny a title to go unused. As I spoke, I searched his face for any sign as to how my request was landing, but I was unable to glean anything behind his Germanic frown of inquiry. At length, I exhausted my storehouse of phrases extolling our longstanding literary relationship, my regard for his poetic genius, the greatness of the title and its fitness for the purpose for which I wanted to use it, and gradually rolled to a halt, with little sense of what his thoughts might be.

After some moments of silent frowning, during which he scratched the small cluster of scars on his chin thoughtfully, unhurried by my raised eyebrow, he said yes, I could use the title.

“I need a favor, though,” he said.

“Anything!” I said, ready to collapse with gratitude. Good ol’ Andy!

“I need you to sign a contract,” he said. He hesitated slightly before continuing. “It’s for a project I’m working on.”

“Right on,” I said.

He turned to the computer and began to make a document. I helped myself to another Guinness while Tater continued to gnaw on his biscuit and eye me warily.

Presently I heard the dry murmur of paper rolling through the printer. Andrew plucked the page out of the tray and handed it to me. It read:

On this 7th day of October, in the earth year 20**, the undersigned purchaser, Garrett Caples, agrees to purchase the title PROSES from its coiner, Andrew Joron, in exchange for the sum of US$ 1.00.


Garrett Caples, Poet


Andrew Joron, Thereminist

It seemed harmless enough. He was clearly on some Bruce Conner, Duchamp type of shit, creating an assemblage of art and documentation. And “earth year” was just like him; he’d been writing science fiction of late, restricting his conventional poetic output further still. I approved of this writing so I didn’t care—it’s like Scheerbart!—though I could hear his publisher groaning in protest all the way from Chicago.

“Sure, I’ll sign this,” I said. I fished a pen out of my pocket along with a crumpled buck.

“You needn’t actually give me the dollar,” he said, sheepishly, but I insisted; whatever the project was, I wanted to be part of it. I pressed the buck into his hand. He looked at it, almost regretfully, then brusquely shoved it in his pocket like an accursed thing.

“Relax, I can spare it,” I said, as I signed the contract. “So what’s this project?”

“I’ll play it for you,” he said, waving his hands in the air like a sorcerer. At this, the Theremin whirred to life, like a ghost in a flying saucer. His command of the Theremin—for he is surely, I thought, among the foremost Thereminists of our day—was so impressive it took me several moments to notice his own instrument was still tucked away in the corner, the amp almost ostentatiously unplugged. It was like he was playing the room, or the room had been wired for Theremin.

As Andrew conducted, or should I say coaxed, the disembodied sounds from the walls, I looked at the contract I’d signed, which I was still holding. I watched almost in a trance as certain words on the page deformed themselves and reformed to the rhythm of his movement. In due course the contract read:

On this 7th day of October, in the earth year 20**, the undersigned purchaser, Garrett Caples, agrees to purchase the title PROSES from its coiner, Nebulon the Categorical, in exchange for the poet’s brain.


Garrett Caples, Poet


Nebulon the Categorical

I looked up at Andrew.

“Who the fuck is Nebulon?”

“It is I,” he said, “Nebulon, the Categorical!”

He pressed his fingers against the patch of tiny white scars on his chin. His face seemed to split in two, as though it were being unzipped. The two halves fell away, revealing another face beneath that looked more or less identical to Andrew Joron, though noticeably greener.

“Behold!” he said. “Nebulon the Categorical!” He aimed his finger at the furiously barking Tater, who similarly seemed to unzip before my eyes. His skin fell away, as though a husk, disclosing a marginally smaller and greener Tater. He stopped barking and regarded me with what seemed like calculating appraisal.

“Does Rose know about this?” I demanded.

Even in the guise of Nebulon, Andrew looked suddenly abashed.

“No,” he admitted.

“I didn’t think so!”

“Silence, human!”

“You can’t silence, human me!” I said.

But it was too late. Nebulon, for it was he, Andrew Joron no longer, waved his hands, and through the ensuing whirr of Theremin a large jar materialized on his desk, bearing an ornate label inscribed with the name Kevin Killian, which had been crossed out while my own name was hastily scrawled above it. Nebulon pointed at the jar, which began to fill with a clear but viscous liquid, like a translucent green pulque. Then, in what might have been the last glimpse of whatever part of his being was Andrew Joron, Nebulon frowned as he affixed a tiny pair of googly eyes to the label. The process seemed to tax his manual dexterity, as though it had deteriorated from excessive reliance on his Thereminic powers.

I started to think I should I leave, but before I could move, Nebulon waved his arms and my ears filled with the most unearthly squall, piercing my temples and sinuses, and I thought I’d go deaf or mad if it didn’t immediately stop. But it did stop, or rather everything went dark and silent for the next several moments. I couldn’t feel my body, but I had a sensation of falling, then gradually my vision returned, blurrily at first until several moments more had passed, and the atmosphere around me appeared to settle into place.

I could see the room, but at a vastly different angle. Nebulon was there, stooping over a prone body that I recognized as my own. The top of my head had been sheared clean off and was floating to one side, yet remarkably no visible gore resulted from this state of affairs. Nebulon waved his arms once again, and my body stood, as though of its own accord, and even at my weird angle of observation I could tell—my brain was gone!

Nebulon reached across my field of vision and grabbed a biscuit from Tater’s tin, which was next to me on the desk. He looked down at me, then tossed the biscuit over his shoulder and into my head, where it landed with a thud like a Tootsie Roll dropped in a plastic jack-o’-lantern.

“Excessive reliance on his Thereminic powers!” he sneered. He gestured grandly and the sheared-off portion of my head reattached itself to the rest. I watched in horror as Nebulon and my brainless body engaged in a bit of small talk before he sent it out of the mancave and into the night. Nebulon closed the door, and turned to me.

“As for you . . . ,” he said. He lifted me off the desk and carried me over to the wall; where bookshelves and LPs once stood were now simply rows of shelves of brains sealed inside labeled jars, some of which were also adorned with googly eyes, which seemed to follow our movements with interest. There was a gap in one of the rows of jars—next to a jar labeled “Brian Lucas”—into which Nebulon carefully set my own. Brian rolled his eyes, and I could somehow feel him say, “It’s worse than when he was in Cloud Shepherd!”

I squinted my googly eyes and could just make out some of the names of inscribed on the rows of jars on the opposite wall. Gerard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Comte de Lautréamont, Clark Ashton Smith, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Friedrich Schiller, on and on, a bewildering array of poets from a period spanning hundreds of years. There were even some of our more recent friends, Barbara Guest, Gustav Sobin, Philip Lamantia. There were other jars, like mine or Brian’s, labeled with the names of still-living poets, but I don’t wish to say whose, for fear of prejudicing reception of their work.

The other poet brains and I can communicate to some degree through our thoughts, and Brian and I sometimes discuss what Nebulon’s objectives could be. That he’s clearly in the midst of a lengthy mission gathering poet brains is undeniable, but what could be the end of this activity? Nebulon doesn’t confide in us; occasionally, he locks himself in the mancave and plays the jars with his distant hand gestures, transforming the entire room into a roiling sea of Theremin noise. But otherwise his life as Andrew Joron seemingly continues unabated, as far as I can tell from my vantage on the shelf. Various bandmates come through for rehearsals, Andrew still writes and still plays conventional Theremin, and he even receives the occasional visit from my body and whatever alien intelligence he has substituted in for my brain. They seem to have a good time, like we always did, and I admit I’m a little stung by this, though not as much as I am by the fact that I didn’t even get my own jar. (Kevin must have died before Nebulon could get ahold of his brain.)

One day my body came by and left behind a book, which Andrew later held up to my jar. The cover said: “PROSES / Garrett Caples.” He opened it to the first page of text, which read:

The Thereminist

I am seven years older than Andrew Joron was when we first met some 25 years ago. In that time, I have grown old, fat, ridiculous, while Andrew—I won’t say looks the same—he certainly looks older—but he looks just as well as he did at age 40. . . .

I stopped reading; I already knew how it ends.

“You don’t,” Nebulon said.

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