We were living in Spider-Man’s girlfriend’s apartment. The actual apartment they filmed her living in, I believe, in Spider-Man 2 or 3. The walls were painted the same deep moody, muddy brown and sky blue, and the previous tenant, who apparently had experienced an “episode,” left behind dishes the same brown and blue as those walls in the sink and in garbage bags with what seemed like the rest of her stuff. We salvaged those plates and bowls and ate off of them just like Spider-Man and his girlfriend did.
We didn’t take the apartment because it happened to be the one that Spider-Man crawled into after scaling the building. We didn’t take it because of its expansive views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan skies, for the sunrise in the living room and the sunset in the bedroom, or for its perch over the cinema, which when it appeared over spider-man’s shoulder in that movie, rocked with whoops and applause, night after night, I am told. We took it because our previous apartment had toxic mold levels, thousands of times higher than the air outside the apartment, and my wife suffered from repeated asthma attacks and I had four life-threatening sinus infections in six months, and we were growing more and more concerned about our baby daughter’s health. We took Spider-Man’s girlfriend’s apartment because it was cheap enough for people willing to clean up the previous tenant’s mess, to lug themselves and their laundry and their groceries and their daughter and her stroller and tricycle and stuff up the four steep flights to get to it. And, we, unlike most apartment-hunters who wanted the “decorator white” walls to not clash with their couches, found the muddy brown/sky blue walls to be lovely,.
Soon after we moved in, our daughter made friends with everyone in the building, including a clothing-accessories designer who named what became her most popular purse after our daughter, The Maybelle, and her boyfriend at the time, a young struggling actor named Chad, with whom our daughter watched basketball and ate pizza.
Even before we left the the previous apartment, which we had named The Mold Palace and then Palazzo di Muffa, just to make it feel sexier somehow — as if the numerous debilitating effects of toxic mold can ever be sexy, we were coming to this one which we had named The Sky Palace, and it was. There was so much sky out the front and out the back you could just sit in the apartment and watch it change over the course of the day. But, there was not enough room for me to write inside in the early morning hours while my wife and daughter slept. So I started going to the roof, at 5 or 6 a.m., setting up a little writing studio for myself on a left-behind wooden pallet, with a chair and a 3-legged table for my coffee, and all that sky. The traffic woke with the sun and the traffic lights blinked on and off and seemed like part of a train set from up there.
Often while I wrote there, or mostly didn’t write but tried to jump-start my writing (having a child and realizing that you’ll never make enough money tutoring and mentoring young writers to afford to live even in a 5th floor walk-up in Brooklyn) makes being un-distracted enough to write difficult, if not impossible. Not to mention that the mold cost us 90% of what we owned, even all my books, and what we did try to keep for sentimental or perhaps one-day monetary value, my wife diligently hung on wash lines on that roof or baked at low temperatures in the oven to try to rid them of the mold that was making us sick. I called what we endured a Slow Motion Natural Disaster — it had all the effects of a tornado or a hurricane, but because it happened in slow motion, we didn’t even know it was happening. We were experiencing something real and devastating, but nobody realized it either and rallied around us, started go-fund me pages, or even believed it was as serious as we were learning, discarded couch by heaps of books and clothing at time, that it was.
Often when I was sitting up there looking out over Brooklyn just after the sun popped up over the housing projects a few blocks away, Chad, the actor, would come up, see me and politely nod and then go to the Manhattan side of our roof where he did pushups, sit-ups, squats, and stretches, while I worked on old poems, tried to start new ones, and stared at that always-changing sky. At least once, I thought but never said (we never spoke to one another on that roof) — “this poor guy is just like me … I try to find poems and make them happen and maybe one day .. he goes to audition after audition and yet …”
When the weather turned cooler I believe in 2011, I was still struggling to find something. It had been 7 years since my third book had come out, I was in the seventh year of a self-imposed hiatus from sending work out to journals or trying to get readings or doing anything business-related with my poetry (and yet was actively publishing solicited poems, my poems were regularly featured on Writer’s Almanac on NPR, I was in several anthologies, I was receding regular fan mail from students all around the world who saw a poem of mine that Billy Collins included in Poetry180), but I felt I was floundering. It was too cold to sit out in my open-air studio, and it was too expensive for me to write in a cafe, so I moved my writing space to the top step just inside the roof door, with the roof door propped open for fresh air and a spot for my notebook and coffee.
It was there, just above Spider-Man’s girlfriend’s apartment, while my wife and daughter slept, where I wrote something — I still don’t know if it’s a poem or a story … it’s a “something” — in which a scarecrow is trying to start an old motorcycle that the farmer has left to rust in the barn. Only it’s not clear in the poem if the scarecrow is actually climbing down off his stake at night and going into the barn to work on the motorcycle, or if he is just dreaming that he will one day do that. It’s not clear, even if he is dreaming it, or if it is something that the farmer is imagining that the scarecrow must be dreaming about.
I wrote this something straight out and closed my notebook and went downstairs to start the day in the apartment, getting my daughter’s breakfast together, packing her lunch for school. When I came back to it later, I still didn’t know what to make of it, but I typed it up anyway, changing a few things here and there, and thinking that it was an odd, little one-off … a story or a poem about a scarecrow who may or may not be trying to escape from the fields, who may or may not be imagining that he will one day be able to do so. Around this time, Chad the Actor, who I learned was using his full name, Chadwick Boseman, got his first breakthrough part.
The “something” I wrote that day about the scarecrow turned out to be anything but a one-off, I soon discovered. Suddenly, there wasn’t enough time in that little space at the top of the stairs between waking and my daughter’s day starting. When the weather turned warmer on the roof, with Chadwick Bozeman who was soon to become Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall and James Brown, and a few years later THE BLACK PANTHER, stretching and bending, extending and crunching on the other side with the little cinema quiet in the morning sun, I wrote and wrote all the antics and dreams and wishes and regrets of The Scarecrow.
The Scarecrow, in my poems, has a history, or an imagined history. He commits crimes, lusts after the farmer’s wife, chronicles the changing light of the farm, drinks or doesn’t drink with the farmer, is taunted by and taunts the crows, wishes he has a daughter so she could “hug and hug him at the end of the day/until his head just might pop off,” mourns the falling heads of sunflowers. Hundreds of pages of scarecrow poems and stories and apocrypha and guidebook snippets, some now collected in the manuscript the alibis of scarecrows, dozens published in willow springs, Caliban, terminus, and elsewhere. And they are still coming. I’ve tried to turn them off, walk away, definitively declare the end or death of the scarecrow. I even moved onto Ennio Morricone poems, but I soon realized that they too were really about a “scarecrow.”
And I still don’t know what they are. Are they about me? About an alter-ego? Is the scarecrow a consistent character? Is he the strange neighbor who came up on his roof some mornings, not to write poems or prepare for an audition, but to smoke and even set his building on fire once and then passed out on his couch below (fortunately I smelled something burning and climbed onto his roof and put out a fire with a bucket of water and then found him scarecrow-limbed and snoring down in his unlocked apartment)? Or, is the scarecrow just nobody identifiable at all? I don’t know. I keep thinking that I might find out. Or, hoping that I never do.
Is there any significance at all to his being born in the place of one of the iconic superheroes of the previous century and one of the most revolutionary and meaningful new superheroes of this century? Probably not, but it makes a good story: the scarecrow — a superhero whose parents fled the Palace of Mold and settled in the Sky Palace, the accidental near-miss meeting place of superheroes and superheroes to be.
Or not. Is he just a bunch of straw and newspaper stuffed into the farmer’s old clothes and hanging on the stake until he is carried into the barn for the winter and then brought back out in the spring. Dreaming, or not dreaming — capable of dreaming or not capable of dreaming — climbing up on his stake in the morning, auditioning for parts unknown, hoping to jump start an old motorcycle that may or may not exist in a barn that may or may not be there, and riding elsewhere, if there is an elsewhere that the crows somehow go to, when they disappear from view. An elsewhere where there might be an ocean, where there might be something else, besides this.
Denver Butson collaborates with musicians, visual artists, inventors, and performing artists and makes his own collages using found photos with lines from his poems — in an effort to find different ways to get poetry off the page and reach more people. He has published four books of poetry, has shown his work in galleries in New York and Italy, and has been regularly featured on National Public Radio. His poems are in such journals as The Yale Review, Ontario Review, Field, Zyzzyva, Tin House, and Willow Springs, and in anthologies edited by Billy Collins, Garrison Keillor, and Agha Shahid Ali. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his actor/climate activist wife and their daughter.