Prose from Poetry Magazine

La Vita Nuova

Jonathan Galassi's Left-handed.

by Frederick Seidel

Left-handed, by Jonathan Galassi.

Alfred A. Knopf. $26.00.

1


In the middle of Galassi’s life’s journey, in the middle of the dark woods, the road forked. Galassi had no choice — and chose — and wrote these poems. You have here the music of civilized decency 
superintending a heart raving and roaring like a lion.

 

                                    As
in those nineteenth-cen-
tury plays where the
roof gets blown off the
conventional house and
the audience is left to
gape at the bare-headed
heroine — him.
                    — From Middle-aged

 

2

This is a book of sadness which describes a triumph. Very little artfulness or coquetry or charm to these poems, though many of them are lovely and some are quite funny. Even so, what you read is often pretty plain, a plain but lyrical account of remembering what had to be lost in order to move on. The moving-on cost plenty and is what made the poems. There is very little in the way of rhetorical flourishes or decoration, and not much in the way of narrative facts, 
either. No filigree, very little poetry, quite plain — but these are 
poems, not straight lines. There is a quiet, careful music. There’s the voice of the speaker, addressing his past, reminiscing plaintively, speaking to his future, telling the story of love that failed and new love that, though absolutely hopeless, transformed and inspired, love that changed a life. Above all, these are poems about a drastically changed life. That’s the costly, melancholy triumph. It’s a book about a shattering triumph.

 

3

Joy! Like a trout leaping silver-shiver from an ice-cold mountain stream into the sunlight! Hooked! That’s Galassi’s book. Have 
I ever said otherwise! The amount of pleasure these poems take in the things of the world, and the special people in it, and the plants, flowers, lawns, lakes, rivers, skies, sunlight, nighttime, cities, bedrooms, people, friends, lovers, lifts off the page. Laughter! Including laughing at himself! Joy!

 

4

Dear Mr. Galassi, you write such skinny poems on your BlackBerry!

 

This world so
golden so un-
reachable this
August morning
with its hills
its tawny stub-
ble fields its
full-crowned
trees its sin-
gle scarlet
branches arch-
ing overhead
as desperate
music pours
from the
speakers is
reason enough
to live almost.
                 — From August

Then there are the slightly fatter ones, because you’re not always on your BlackBerry.

 

on my little terrace
shaded by my little tree of   life.
Early morning summer haze,
coffee after swimming,
cherries, toast.
Time to plant some,
read some, dream some,
time to regret,
to mourn, desire.
Time to be up and about,
friends. I can sleep later.
                  — Breakfast

Sometimes, a poem hears a tune and just can’t stop itself from rhyming (it doesn’t happen often).

 

So much for direction,
for learning and knowing,
for seeking and heeding,
for staying or going.
These were the ways
of the life that we’ve known
and all of this time
I’ve been going alone

and I can’t anymore.
Will it happen this way?
Do you hear what I’m telling
you, softly, today?
Can you listen to me?
Are you right? Am I wrong?
The answer is somewhere
inside of this song.
                  — From Radical Hope

Or look at this haiku of straight talk. Basho Galassi.

 

You talk about my
bad judgment as
if I had any.
                  — Judgment

 

5

It’s time for a love poem out of the man’s vita nuova. I think I’ll quote the whole thing. It’s just lovely.

 

Start with the view, the late
great Empire State Building
soldiering solo in your north-
facing windows with the rough-
diamond city spread-eagled be-
low: how New York is that?
And your stolen Sharon road
sign and Empire State Build-
ing model (a present from
Philip?) your grandfather’s
insulators on the sill and
photos of eerie faces and un-
settled scenery. Here’s your
collection of caps and your
terrace with its tufted prai-
rie grass your little couch
and table and piles of   papers
— surely enough reading for a
lifetime. And here’s Benny
mewing looking for you like
me and your aged Italian
leather chair that’s missing
a button and the garden table
with its pair of folding seats
I bet you never eat at and
your tv on its stable stand
of   books, so many books (I
love that the computer’s in
the kitchen). And here’s your
closet with your cache of se-
crets, your strong box
stuffed with histories and
letters, your scarves and
jeans and scuffed shoes and
“Not A Supplicant” T-shirts,
enough for a team. Here are
the piles of   the poetry that
stings you and your music,
your BlackBerry and the
phone you can’t survive with-
out and often lose, your Fer-
ragamo coat and mittens and
wallet and keys and bag.
Here’s Noah’s shirt and the
golden bed — where are you?
                — A Little Tour Around Your Room

 

6

I’m not going to talk about Mr. Galassi’s line breaks.

 

7

Life is hard. Here’s what’s on the other side of the bed. More bad. And more good. Such sweet air to breathe with this new music. Look! We have come through!

Originally Published: September 3, 2013

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2013

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Frederick Seidel has been called “the poet the twentieth century deserved” and lauded as one of “the best poets writing today”; he has also been accused of writing “sinister” and “disturbing” poetry. Ange Mlinko, in the Nation, described his work as employing “the prosody of atrocity.” Such divisive reactions have followed Seidel from the beginning: his first book, Final Solutions (1963), was chosen by Robert Lowell, Louise . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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