1. EARLY INFLUENCES
ON CHRISTMAS MORNING OF 199_, Calliope Bird Morath, age seven, slid quietly out of bed, took her father’s yellow, rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses from the dresser, and, perching them on the crown of her head in the manner of the famous photo of him from the cover of Time, crept through the hallway and down the stairs, flipping on the giant-screen TV and depositing herself next to the Christmas tree. The enormous tree was still lit—neither her mother nor her mother’s current spiritual adviser had turned it off the night before—and against the weakening, liquid darkness outside it burned magically with thousands of ornaments, crates-worth of blinkers and Santas, glowing guitars and mini-microphones, gingerbread men and reindeer, snowflakes and Silly String and psychedelic tinsel, some of which had been brought in by the boxload from the garage of the Rancho Santa Fe mansion, but much of which, as always, had been sent by devoted fans.
Despite this surfeit of light and color, however, there was no star atop the tree. Such had been the case for three years, since the infamous "Funeral Interview," during which her mother, resplendent in Donna Karan black, had offered Barbara Walters that memorable trio of anapests: "There shall be no more stars in my sky."
Given the Calliope with whom readers are undoubtedly acquainted, it will be difficult to imagine the taciturn creature who sat before the television that morning—but indeed, this scion of one of America’s most storied families had not uttered a word since the day of her father’s death. Despite her mother’s frantic ministrations, despite house calls from neurologists, psychiatrists, mediums, and exorcists, the child remained mute. She ate what was placed before her, she read whatever was at hand, but she expressed no will or opinion. She came when called, she displayed no signs of cognitive or sensory deficit, she simply had shrunk into the small shell of herself, as though refusing to touch the world around her, afraid she might break it. The widow had privately begun to despair, this second bereavement unbearable, as though the family had been targeted by jealous gods, laid waste for partaking, however briefly, of their fire. Twice abandoned, she wandered the halls of the mansion like a tourist in a cathedral, wondering at the huge and terrifying silence.
The magnificent tree which stood before the living room’s picture windows was an anomaly, a last remaining concession to fame and adoration. After the funeral, Penelope Morath, ne;e Klein, aka Penny Power, had withdrawn utterly from the public eye, shutting all the curtains of the twelve-bedroom Tudor on Azalea Path, removing Calliope from the La Jolla Krishnamurti School where she’d spent many a happy day since her second birthday, and employing a phalanx of tutors and cooks, music teachers and gardeners, nursemaids and accountants to keep the house running and her silent daughter occupied. For months the cul-de-sac was lined with despondent fans, who pushed against the police tape, wept openly and prayed, pleading for just one glimpse of Penelope or Calliope, one instant of connection to help them in their grief. Penelope forbade it. Calliope was not to go near the doors or windows, nor to so much as peek between the slats of a venetian blind. The tabloids were offering $100,000 for a photo of the widow, a cool quarter million for a shot of the demi-orphan.
"You’ll understand one day," Penelope told her silent daughter, then four, as workers hung heavy darkroom curtains in her bedroom. "They don’t leave you anything for yourself. Their hunger is so terrible, you have to give them everything."
She scrunched the mute child’s face between her hands, eyes hot with devotion. "We’re not going to let them do to you what they did to your father." Penelope had seen firsthand the depredations of celebrity, seen her husband’s star come blazing to ground. In her grief, she would all but abandon her own tumultuous career, cupping motherly hands around the small ember of her only child’s life.
"We don’t owe those cocksuckers a thing," she said. "Our bill is paid."
But when that first Christmas had come, Penelope could not bear to break the family tradition. In the six years since she’d met Brandt Morath in the back room of the Casbah, San Diego’s legendary punk-rock club, they had always celebrated lavishly, driving the pickup truck under cover of night out to the forests near Julian, cutting the biggest spruce they could manage, buying whole inventories of ornaments and ordering others custom-made from as far away as New Zealand. Even at the height of Brandt’s fame, and the depths of his depressions and addictions, the family had awoken before dawn each Christmas and gathered at the tree to open their gifts. This day, he had not minded the fans and photographers who’d crept through the bushes, peering in at the famous family in their pajamas*; this one day each year, Penelope determined, she would continue to live according to his example.
On this Christmas morning, Calliope’s eighth, she had awakened before her mother, whose descent was delayed by the aftereffects of the ayahuasca she and her adviser, an Inca shaman, had ingested the night before. Calliope sat before the silent, flickering light of the huge television, trying to ignore both the mountain of gifts she desperately wanted to open and the blurred movements of the small crowd gathering in the cul-de-sac. The front lawn, shaded by an enormous jacaranda, was an untidy shrine of flowers and candles and dew-smeared pastel sketches, photographs of Brandt Morath and his band, burning sage, and a battered, bashed-in guitar amplifier; but the throngs had shrunk considerably since those first months, dwindling to a few drive-by tourists each day, small packs of high schoolers in Terrible Children T-shirts who sat on the curb and smoked pot, blaring Brandt’s music to the neighborhood. (Since the well-publicized incident a year earlier, in which a clearly intoxicated Penelope shocked these teenagers by strolling out to the front lawn, asking if anyone would sell her a joint, and French-kissing a sixteen-year-old girl, the family had had no contact with the trespassers.) There had been a slight upsurge in recent months, due to the strange, tragic deaths of the thirty-nine Heaven’s Gate cult members in a house just around the corner, and the proximity of the two houses endowed the otherwise-patrician neighborhood with the bizarre energy of an anti-carnival, which Calliope would later immortalize in the poem "Sunday on Suicide Row."*
Given Calliope’s legendary impetuousness, her much-reported self- (and other-) destructive tendencies, it should come as no great surprise that she soon found herself unable to resist the lure of the gifts beneath the Christmas tree. But however disorganized and rash her life was later to become, it should be noted that on this morning she set about opening her gifts in the most careful of manners, taking the long pearl-handled letter opener from its accustomed place on the mantel† and slicing ever so gently through the wrapping paper, folding it neatly and setting it aside in piles organized by color.
The gifts, no doubt, were lavish. Brandt had made no secret of his intention to "spoil the fuck out of Calliope," and though he had burned through spectacular sums of money in the months before his death, the royalties from Terrible Children recordings and merchandise were flowing more vigorously than ever, like a debris-choked stream that had needed only the removal of some obstruction to become a mighty, roaring river. There is no way to be sure exactly what she was given that morning, nor how many gifts she actually opened. She gave many different accounts over the years, citing gifts as varied as a guitar once owned by Robert Johnson, a training bra, an eighteenth-century quarto edition of Hamlet, one of her father’s ribs encased in Lucite (Penelope has never denied this claim), master tapes from Elvis Presley’s Sun Studio sessions, and a lump of coal. The one item consistently mentioned is the leather-bound edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience which became her prized possession and which is now housed in the Morath Collection at the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, University of Texas.
She started with the smaller gifts, keeping one eye out for her mother, who still had failed to materialize. Probably she would have gone through the entire pile in due time, had she not been distracted by something on the television, a chance bit of early morning programming which may well be responsible for irreversibly changing the course of American letters. In the context of all that was to come, one might easily overlook what happened that morning, write it off as merely one of many spectacles in a life destined, from the first, to be spectacular. The author would remind readers of the obvious, then: that this was long before Calliope Bird Morath was to become the most famous poet in America, perhaps the most famous poet in American history, beloved to deconstructionists and culture theorists and fifteen-year-old girls alike, long before she would take the literary world by storm with her first and only book, long before the infamous interview with Charlie Rose and the Saturday Night Live debacle, her heartbreaking disappearance and the terrifying advent of the Muse—and long before the shocking, and still-unexplained, Graveyard Riot.
That she was only a seven-year-old girl, unremarkable except for the splotchy birthmark on the side of her neck, her pale red hair, and the deep dimple in her chin that would one day bewitch the masses, captured on the covers of Jane, SPIN, Tiger Beat, Poets & Writers, and so many others, inspiring untold numbers of feverish, third-rate love poems—all of this goes without saying. It is brought up here only to highlight the singular way in which this moment served as both confluence and catalyst, gathering all the strands of genetics and poetics, of nature and nurture and her own formidable will, and propelling her thenceforth into the life that awaited her, the life of a true monstrosity, of Calliope Bird Morath, Death Artist.
Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Foster Altschul
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