On Being Clever

If you’re over eight years old, you don’t want anybody calling your art clever. Right? Clever is bad. Smart is good, maybe the best kind of smart is so smart it’s stupid. Dumbstruck. Two fish / this is water. Bill, a guy my father hated, out on the roof fixing our swamp cooler in the kind of beautiful July afternoon that gives California the best avocados. And Bill calls out: “Ain’t there just some days you’re glad to wake up?” And my father, talking to Bill through the slats of the swamp cooler, agrees. This is so stupid it’s smart. But it would’ve been clever if my father had said “Yeah, and there’s other days I’m just glad to fall asleep.” Too clever by half. Clever as measurement. Clever as cleaver. Perhaps from E.Anglian dialectal cliver, “expert at seizing,” Influenced, perhaps, by O.E. clifer “claw, hand.” Sammy Johnson said: “This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning.” Clever of me to say Sammy instead of Samuel, to make you think an extra nano-second who I mean, clever doesn’t want to give the other person credit (of course I knew you meant Samuel, asshole), clever means I’m hungry to catch the bus before you. Clever basically as cowardice and fear of intimacy. Right?

Early Eminem is clever. Skittering and bitter, accents on the plosives, rattatat. Clever is the sucker punch. “My name is—what? My name is—who?” By the time you figure me out I’m gone. Shifty-eyed casting for the escape hatch. Clever is the kid you can’t hug. Clever is the refuge of the scrawny. Can’t beat me up, I’m too clever. Fox comes out at night, fox doesn’t throw down in the open. Clever is the wriggle-away, which isn’t to be trusted, clever yourself when you can’t trust. Laughing and wincing at the clever. Clever is the joke that enjoys the violence of humor, the way humor elicits this eruptive shiver. Bark for me, bitches—says the clever. Is humor always violent? Is there a humor of togetherness? Ha ha. Clever is that Lorrie Moore story where there are three pages of Ha Ha. But aren’t all those Ha Ha’s beautiful? Aren’t they also a jail? Clever is to sharpen your skate by making a hole in the ice everybody looks at for a second, and by the time they look up, you’re half-way gone on what’s frozen. Rhyme so fast they can’t catch you. Dazzle. But dazzle like an onslaught of bauble-drabble. Not dazzle like rendering in them a hand-over-their-breath Experience, which is a good dazzle, holy dazzle. Holy vs. holy moley. My favorite football play to run in the old Sierra Front Page Sports Football game was the razzle dazzle, mostly because its skew of receiver routes looked the best. Lines in and out, every receiver and running back a different color. But the most reliable play was when the tight end snuck up the middle for the long toss. I remember that play being called Telekinesis.

Clever when we get a limited turn at the mic. Clever in the comment box, clever in the commentary. Clever as remember me. Not a plea, an imperative. Too scared to plead. Fuggetaboudit. Runnin’ yo mouth. Clever as leaving the g off the active tense. Too fast for that g, bud. Clever as calling people your friends when they’re not. Bud, pal. Wise guy, eh? But this is also a habit of the people who beat up the clever people. Listen, bub. Everybody violent who wants you to know that not only are they going to commit violence against you, it’s gonna be personal. On top of that. That’s what she said. O Michael Scott, you think you wanna be clever, you think you want people to like you and you want to be in charge not only of them but of their feelings toward you, but that’s not what you want. You want love. Plain old. Jim, he’s the clever one, he’s the one with the “winning” smile, he’s the contestant, he’s the one who looks at the camera for approval and comradeship, he’s the one who can’t be comrades with anybody in his eyeshot because he craves the imaginary better-person-always-out-there in the camera, the one who looks suspiciously like his own reflection. He’s the one who has to defend himself with a joke when Pam makes him uncomfortable about the infinity of love. At least Michael wants to talk about how many kids he wants before he dies. Let’s hear Jim talk about death, kiddo. Say what you want about Michael, but he knows that when he leans over the well of love and yells his name, he’ll never hear back an echo.

Clever might be a fun way to pass the time, but it’s not a major accomplishment. “I’m like a head trip to listen to, cause I’m only givin you / things you joke about with your friends inside your living room.” Why is it a hallmark of the clever to make you figure out what the joke is after the clever is gone? Why do people who are clever spend a lot of time making references? Is it clever to be referential? Is it holy to be original? Well of course it’s holy to be an origin, duh. Clever as scornful. I looked at the drizzle out the window, then I looked at my face, and I thought “Smirk-in-residence.” Snark. Onomatopoeia of those words, first the tsk of the hissy S, hiss as in psh or gimme-a-break (cleave me off a piece of that Kit Kat Lever), then the slightest mouth curl to make that k, clever as maximum efficiency of energy. It’s good to be a clever tennis player. Clever is good in games: clever chess player. But art is not a game. Yes, master. Art is life and death. Yes’m. Clever people, ergo, don’t rouse themselves to supplication in the face of the grave. Clever people are too afraid to sign the lease on their own heart. They just squat and hide in the bathtub when the landlord comes over, making shower whoosing noises with their mouth. “Ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to … I lay awake and strap myself in the bed  / Put a bulleproof vest on and shoot myself in the head.” But Eminem got better cuz he got more heart, yo. Heartfelt. Head as the clever master, terrible too, and heart as the humble nun. Or wait, is the head just a terrible master because it won’t shut up? There can be varieties of always on, right? Nothing’s really in the heart, heart’s just Grand Central for blood routes, c’mon, you’re clever enough to know that. Maybe one reason to disable the terrible master is because it’s too full of boundless empathy and curiosity; maybe another reason is it won’t stop snipping. Yakking. Clever as that way certain people always bob their shoulders and eyebrows. Clever as the nervous body taken control of. Clever as the hatred and fear of silence. Clever as the look-over-there-at-that-penis-shaped-banana when somebody tells you they love you but they’re afraid. Maybe, okay, that’s really unhealthy clever, needn’t be that extreme. Or maybe all clever skitters toward this failure, this clever-as-I-can-only-occupy-my-own-awareness-therefore-I-must-be-smarter-than-everybody miswiring of logic, this conclusion borne of loneliness that reinforces loneliness, clever as the unhumble. But the reaction to clever is fear too, oh-that-kid-being-clever-again eye roll. Studies show that nervous body language makes you lose your job. Maybe the bosses don’t fear that the kid is actually smarter than them, but at least that she’s younger, that she’s full of energy, that she has discarded any need for us and has chosen to flail in the Burger King ball pit of her own cleverness, and doesn’t this reveal our uselessness? Clever as the world always there for use, the word always there for usurping, and who needs anybody else when you’ve got this philosophy of utility? Too clever by half. Clever as the claw, clever as the ripper. “Hi kids! Do you like violence? (Yeah yeah yeah!) / Wanna see me stick Nine Inch Nails through each one of my eyelids?” Hello? Your name is what? Sorry I can’t hear you because I’m too busy thinking of a funny nickname to give you. Wait a minute, maybe I should put quotes around “give.” Would that be too clever?