The Green Man

By W. S. Di Piero b. 1945
rumdumb from last night’s shrubbery tryst
exhales soot, fernseed, shoots and vines,
brings his hot breath from the city park’s wood,
saying a song we don’t understand
through the briar and bay leaves of his beard.
And in Philadelphia, 1954,
out of late autumn’s darkening he came,
a junkman lugging a Penn Fruit cart,
straw bristling his face, crying a name.
Or from manholes in other cities,
his holographic ectoplasm greets us
when traffic lights turn green.
Uncover and there he is, membranous
Caliban alone with sewer rats,
or stumblebum Puck, unnameable solids
crusting nails and toes, bringing us his dark.
Or our neighborhood’s soused John-John,
cobra down-at-heel boots skidding
at my feet among the maddening jasmine,
when I grab too late to save him growls:
“I can save you darling pigs.
Behold, behold, and maybe I’ll help.”

The editors of Poetry magazine have paired the following prose quotations from City Dog: Essays by W.S. Di Piero with this poem:

A city bears an identity pressured into being by those who live and work there but also by externally generated forces, by hearsay and expectation. Visitors say San Francisco is “the most European of American cities,” though no one who lives here knows what that means—a certain familiar style, a speed or mood, or its smallness, I suppose, but even these are bell-jar considerations. The actual place has its own respiratory rhythms, and its breath can be vile. For generations city administrations have been helpless to transform a stretch of Market Street that seems mysteriously and irretrievably lost. West of the dolled-up downtown area—Union Square, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s—the street frays into porn shops, grind houses, army surplus stores, and shop windows stuffed with hundreds of knock-off electronic gadgets. Beyond those, despite the presence of a few tenacious upscale restaurants and antique dealers, Market Street feels edgy and crumbly, listing toward skid row.

The man was liquefying before my eyes, his body a runny fuddle of dark bundled clothes and sooty skin. His pud, hanging from open pants, had spread a glistening delta of piss that was almost iridescent in the early evening light. The media this week is making high hosannas to the memory of the recently deceased Ronald Reagan. Great man, great optimist, great communicator. We cling so hard to whatever falsehood will sustain us in our American exceptionalism, that in the media only the odd spoilsport is reminding us that the former president shredded the social safety net and “de-institutionalized” the mentally ill. Images slip and slide. The smiling Gipper, the man with the peacock piss-streak, semi-comatose, a word I learned when my father was dying, his legs in sour bedsheets spread the very same way, as if he’d never stir again, like that Market Street stumblebum, who reminds me of the destitute mother and child whom the hero in Melville’s Redburn sees day after day in a Liverpool alley, until one day he finds them replaced by a pile of lime.

“The Green Man” from Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems, © 2007, used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Prose excerpts selected from City Dog: Essays, © 2009, reprinted by permission of Northwestern University Press.

Source: Poetry (June 2012).


This poem originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2012
 W. S. Di Piero


W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, The Body, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Class

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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