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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Stranger Music

Stranger Music

Leonard Cohen

I had never suspected that one could judge the character of a town by the difficulty one has in obtaining a pair of underwear.  It seemed like a simple enough task.  In my haste to pack for a long weekend in Asheville, NC, I apparently forgot to put any underwear in my bag.  I didn’t figure it out until I got up to dress in the morning, and rooted around in the backpack.  What the hell? Of all the weird things I could possibly forget, why underwear?  Going commando for a few days seemed plausible enough in the spring weather, except for contra dancing, when I would surely want something to keep my, er, “goods” from being battered to death on my thighs.  So, no problem.  Asheville is a big town, and I’ve got nothing but time.  I’ll just walk downtown and buy something simple.

Two hours later, I had come up dry and confused.  There were at least five stores where I could buy a hand-woven Nepalese shirt.  Probably six specialty shoe stores, including a place that will measure your feet and custom-build a pair of sandals to fit them.  There were four or five bookstores, three specialty chocolate shops, places to buy beads, places to buy incense, places to buy Tibetan singing bowls and organic dog biscuits.  Three tea houses, four coffee roasters, a couple of skateboard shops, a hand-made drum shop, more vegetarian restaurants than there are vegetarians in the rest of North Carolina.  But nowhere, nowhere to buy a pair of underwear (excepting the high-end lingerie shop, which deals in anatomies significantly different from my own).  Finally, desperate, I went into Urban Outfitters.  Me, in Urban Outfitters!  At least they surely would carry underwear.  The clerk shook her head sadly.  “I’ve been in town for four days now, and I haven’t found anywhere that sells it,” she said.  “But if you find any, let me know.”  One of the other clerks directed me to the “General Store” as my only likely hope.  It seemed like a chance.  What could be more General than underwear?

I walked in, wandered around racks of fishing shirts and waterproof hats.  Finally, I asked at the counter.  Where could I find the underwear?  Hesitatingly, the woman told me, “Well, what we have would be downstairs…”  So I headed down, where there were tents, sleeping bags, kayaking supplies.  It wasn’t obvious to me that there was any underwear to be had, so I asked again downstairs, thinking to myself that this was surely the most that I had spoken the word “underwear” to perfect strangers ever in my life.  The downstairs clerk directed me to a clothing rack near the camping supplies.  There, on a hook, were the only men’s underwear that can be purchased in Asheville, North Carolina.  A single pair of quick-dry, capilene, moisture-wicking briefs with built-in fungicide and three-year warranty.  Sale price: $17.99.

I decided that I could turn my existing pair inside out on alternating days.  I also decided that there must be an awful lot of free-range testicles in Asheville, NC.

Which brings me, of course, to the subject of poetry.  Many years ago, I thought that I knew something about poetry.  I read it, wrote it, I probably even called myself a poet once or twice.  Like so many things in my life back then, it was largely a vehicle for expressing discontent.  I also wrote love poems and some humorous poems, but poetry was so associated with discontent for me that I put it away when I put away the discontent.  I hardly acknowledged the poem for years.  Not the fault of the poem, of course.  I just needed time to de-couple it from teenaged angst.

So I pulled my copy of Stranger Music from my shelf as the first book of poetry that I had read in maybe a decade.  I had recently rediscovered the music of Leonard Cohen, had enjoyed re-learning to play those songs, and had enjoyed the lyricism of them.  There are some beautiful and lyrical moments in the poetry.  But nearly always of the same type.  It’s all love and loss, war and Judaism, being conquered by bad women or no women at all, and some of it is poignant.  But almost none of it is just good fun.  It’s all seriousness, all gravity.  I wonder if Leonard Cohen could write a poem about the difficulty of obtaining a pair of underwear in Asheville, North Carolina.  I wonder if I could.  I can’t remember the last poem I’ve written.  Plenty of songs, sure, but no poems.  So I think I should try.  I don’t know if the undercarriage of Asheville is the right starting point — almost certainly not — but it would be a tough thing to take too seriously, and that’s a good thing.  I like love and loss and being conquered by bad women and no women at all, but it’s all been written.  The freewheeling genitalia of the Western Carolina mountains have not, to my knowledge, been lauded in verse.  There may be an opening for me.