Researching 20th century lunatic poet Thomas J. McSheey (1899-1935) has consumed all my time of late, causing me to spend long hours in the library at Stonybrook University – where all his papers are kept. The university also keeps all his No. 2 pencils … in a beer stein emblazoned with the creed Scientia est Diabolus imbibo (Translation: Knowledge is the Devil's drink).
Here is some of what I have come across in my studies:
Pavane pour une Maniaque Poete
McSheey was truly a lunatic. For instance, as an undergraduate student he went on for a score of pages writing about two beloved pieces of classical composition – Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante Defunte – comparing and contrasting their moods and tempos, providing detailed biographies of the two composers, who their influences were, and arguing in great detail the artistic value of their musical pieces to the world of classical music. Until, on the final page, he realized he had confused Ravel's Pavane with Fauré's Pavane, concluding the paper with the short sentence, "Oh, never mind."
Incidentally, he received a failing grade on the paper, not because it was sloppily researched or poorly written, but because he had written it not for a Music Appreciation class but instead for a Modern Sculpture class, leading his art professor to write atop the first page, "What the hell did you write all this for?!"
Not surprisingly, McSheey's failure and subsequent embarrassment left him with a lifelong phobia of modeling clay.
Cow from Uxbridge
Further to the above, McSheey wrote a poem entitled Pavane pour une Insect Defunte, set to the music of Ravel's work, which was an ode to a fly he once dispatched at a summer picnic. The poem climaxed with the lines:
The cursed fly landed on my plate,
right next to my potatoes – mashed,
if there is one thing I truly hate,
so I swatted him – smash, smash, smashed!!
McSheey entered his Pavane in a poetry competition held at a local agricultural festival, winning second place honors. He was runner up to a poem entitled There Once Was a Cow From Uxbridge, which went on to win state honors, praised by the panel of judges as being "so descriptive in its depiction of New England farm life that you can almost smell the cowpats."
One rainy autumn day, as I pored through a folder of McSheey writings, I happened upon a short poem handwritten upon a yellowed piece of paper. The page, which displayed words and stanzas crossed out here and there, showed the process of writing and of how the poet's thoughts moved from earlier drafts to edited drafts to a finished draft … and then finally to a To-Do list. The finished poem reads as follows:
Autumn garden, dead, wilted,
deprived, dejected, deceased, jilted,
killed by a chilling night and a waning sun,
dry, rustling of a corn stalk,
this damn, blasted writer's block
with patience, the torrent of words will at last come.
Nature's seasons come and go,
summer's gardens die and grow,
days and nights travel at their celestial pace,
moonbeams phase from full to new,
worlds melt down in autumnal hue,
to unravel like a ball of yellow yarn,
deep out into the pitch of space.
This final version deviates greatly from the original draft of the poem, which initially began with the lines: "Roses are red / Violets are blue / Actually, they're not really blue / They're more purplish in color, wouldn't you say?"
Incidentally, the page concludes with the following from his To-Do list:
Recipe for Diabolus Imbibo (Devil's Drink):
Mix 3 oz of your favorite hard cider with 3 oz of Diabolus mixer, available at most fine spirits shoppes and at all Witches' Sabbaths. Add 3 oz of bitter made from the mandrake root, preferably harvested at midnight beneath the pale light of a waning moon rising in the east. Garnish with lemon juice, limejuice, apple slices, apricots, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, the wing of a bat, the sweat of a toad, and (now this is really important) 18 whole cranberries – which is the sum of 6+6+6 … 666 … the sign of the Diabolus. Add ice. Shake. Remove ice. Pour into a sturdy, fire resistant cup. Set ablaze. Extinguish. And enjoy … to the music of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 playing on the turntable.