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Journal, Day Five
A few more books by New York poet friends of mine to round out the week. Before I get to them let me offer a correction. In yesterday’s entry I put Hugh Seidman in the wrong school. He studied with Louis Zukofsky at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now known as the Polytechnic University. It was founded in 1854, and is the nation’s second oldest private engineering university.
Calls from the Outside World by Robert Hershon (Brooklyn, New York: Hanging Loose Press, 2006. www.hangingloosepress.com).
Here is another poet whom I’m happy to call my friend, a bear of a man who wraps his arms around life and poetry with plenty of feeling and plenty of laughter. Hershon is one of the funniest, wittiest poets that I know, and he’s also one of those rare ones who can hit you right in the heart. We met years ago when New York City was rife with small press book fairs, and I’m. proud that Hershon and his associates at Hanging Loose Press brought out my new book. Hanging Loose the magazine and Hanging Loose the press are 40 years old this year. Hooray! Look at the press Web site. And to celebrate, let’s look into Bob’s 12th book of poems.
These poems seem effortless, which only proves that lots of hard work has gone into making them. Hershon’s verse-lines seem to float and to coil around each other, taking you delightedly where you don’t know you’re going to go until you’re there, smack in the middle of the comédie humaine. I want to use words like “gusto” and joie de vivre to characterize his work, too. Nothing is lost on this poet, as this poem testifies:
Donna says olives are packed
in tall narrow jars so
all the olives can see out.
It’s not the sort of thing
she would write down, she says
but if I write it down—
and I am clearly the sort of person who
would write it down and in fact
I have written it down—
I should give her credit. Well,
maybe I will and maybe I won’t.
When I enter New York Hospital
to be carved upon by Dr. Fowler,
several people say “You might get
a good poem out of it, Donna did”
as though we were competing for
the most interesting scar.
I’ll show this to her and she’ll hand it
back without looking up. Not finished,
she’ll say. But of course it is.
The poem is about how poets (and olives) see the world—differently than most people, metaphorically perhaps (the olive as eye). It is also a delicious marital dance, with its back-and-forth’s and visions and revisions. (Donna is the poet Donna Brook, Bob’s wife.) That Hershon is to be “carved upon” by someone named “Dr. Fowler” is too funny to be true, but it probably is true.
In Hershon’s world we meet men in chicken suits, men in gray suits at lunch who, caught in a sunbeam, seem divine (“Messiah on Varick Street”), a “Pressure-Sensitive” label over a urinal which reads, “By reading this you have licked my balls” (“A Pressure-Sensitive Label”) and Hershon’s hilarious meditation on it. The killer job is here, too, as in “My Passage Through Grub Street”:
What luck, Marcella, to hook on as an editor
of Dog World after Cats magazine folded!
But take care—this might lead you to the
editorship of Modern Salamander or
Today’s Hippo and when you try for the job
at Hammer and Tongs Journal, they’ll say
Sorry, but you’re in the bow-bow trades,
you couldn’t write about fire and steel.
I speak as the former editor-in-chief of
Hosiery and Underwear Review. I once knew
more about socks than almost anybody . . .
Many of these poems are addressed to friends, a lot of them poets (whose identities I am not a liberty to disclose), and this too tells you about Hershon’s zest for relationship. He talks to them (and to us) in a poetry-voice that is natural, easy, and fluid, without losing the poetry. But as I mentioned, nothing slips past his gaze, be it the waiter who “passes through the swinging / doors into the black kitchen / where a perpetual cigarette smolders / in a tin ashtray just for him” (“The Deuce by the Coat Rack”) or the maitre d’s comment in “Illusions of Paradise”:
Crystal will be your server
said the maitre d’
(And silver my mount to glory!)
This is exquisite word-play, but only if you can remember that Silver was the Lone Ranger’s white horse!
Hershon is a master of memory. In “A Short History of World War II” he speculates that he “will never / be acknowledged as the true / inventor of the Woody Woodpecker / laugh” and in “Ross Bagdasarian” recalls how that co-author (with none other than William Saroyan) of Rosemary Clooney’s hit recording “Come on-a My House” “changed/ his name to David Seville and founded the Chipmunks.” Now who were the Chipmunks? you are probably asking yourself. I know, but I’m not about to tell you that, either!
Even what he barely remembers (a couple of phrases of Yiddish), Hershon is able to parlay into a first-rate poem in “Everybody in New York,” and uses even what is overheard: “The conversation consisting of / thud and fuck you / Something heavy hits the all / A picture shifts / Fuck you, she shouts, fuck you.” (“Neighbors”) Neighborhoods that have disappeared (“The Sun Never Sets on Sunset Park”) lead to some Brooklyn archaeology:
When the anthropologists come
with their teaspoons
finding a new layer every six inches
I hope they can dig up the ruins of the
desperate restaurant which featured
Oh, there are simply too many wonderful poems in this book for me to quote all of them. The last and longest one in the book, “Grover Cleveland High School, Class of ’53,” is the touching, affectionate knockout punch that is so juicy and funny that I won’t ruin it by quoting bits and pieces of it here. You’ll simply have to grab Calls from the Outside World and listen to it from start to finish.
Walt’s Last Stand by Kip Zegers (Kanona, New York: Foothills Publishing, 2005; Foothills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona, NY 14856. www.foothillspublishing.com. )
There’s a marvelous prose text that Kip Zegers has appended to his new book of poems, Walt’s Last Stand, and there’s nothing to stop us from reading it before we walk into the poems. In it he talks about teaching, which he has done at one of the best New York City high schools for over twenty years. The book begins with an epigraph from George Oppen, and Oppen has served as one of Zegers’ poetic guides. “I found in Oppen,” he tells us, “a book of wisdom, a sense of poetry, of writing as a thing-to-do, as something one might be moved to pass on.” Kip’s method is that of infinite patience, at least as he describes it here: waiting, listening, giving out the assignments, watching, listening:
And, in school, we begin a year. We will see what these new students can make of where they are. There is a girl in Creative Writing who will never, not in the two semesters, show interest in any writing but Romantic Fiction. There is a girl who, after a semester of flailing and blustering, says, “Wait a minute, this is scary, writing is hard.” There is the boy for whom writing is a dead end, month after month, until suddenly the story of a love affair begins to leak into his notebook. What he writes is fiction, has point of view and style, and a teacher can tell from what is said in class that the stories are also true, and brave. There is the girl who begins with boring poems and then suddenly shocks and inspires the class. There is the student who discovers Pablo Neruda, and whose writing—already brilliant—takes off. There is the boy full of pain he cannot begin to handle or speak of, and his writing is empty. There is the girl who appears by accident of scheduling and enters poetry cautiously, then writes about a death and has begun the dance with words. There is the boy finding in the surfaces of his right hand, its cuts and calluses, the story of his life. And there is the teacher working on his own time at his own poems.
This is something that I plan to read to my own students in creative writing next month, when we too will begin, across town from Kip. As if this passage of prose weren’t enough of a beautiful poem in itself, Zegers devotes a third of this book to poems about his students. I haven’t seen anything like this before in American poetry, not the breadth or depth of it. This one sets the stage:
It was waiting to pour on 94th Street and inside
I was sweating from five classes. My words
wrung out of me, I’d tried everything
I’d try again on Monday, but this was better
than loading trucks. It was the same sweat,
but kids lived here and I was being paid to be
the grown up. I sat at my desk, Rm. 318
empty but still crowded, chairs warm,
faces gone to subways and the difficult streets.
I was waiting between is and was, moment and memory,
word and echo. full and finished
for the week. Slowly the pale room fell silent.
Outside the hall was sticky with spilled soda.
Thunder coming and rain streaking the glass behind them
two kids stood at a far window kissing,
stood as on a screened front porch
not looking out, their privacy complete.
School house in the rain,
place of chances, second chances, sweat.
It is the kids that Zegers keeps in his eye, who “lean back smiling, giddy, / and exhausted. Then they rise, doors open on a city / that does not even look at them except to stare.” (“Go”) “’I am here,’ is what the young say in poems / and the faces they hold up to view,” he tells us in “Faces.” The girl with the notebook on the subway, “the white page untouched, being touched / with an urgency words begin to shape / in darkness beneath Lexington / as the lit train passes through”—how many times have we New Yorkers seen this on our commute? But there are also the ones that can’t be accounted for:
and in June
he smiled: “Check this. I’ve never read one,
not one of all the books I’ve been assigned.
That’s six years!” Whatever I said back is lost.
What I remember is the eyes
that did not blink away the moment
he was making in his mind.
Finally there is the faith that the students whose names Zegers doesn’t yet know “will emerge like riddles, like potholes,// like felonies, like fresh flowers,/ like new music I will have to hear and hear and hear.” (“I Will Know It”)
The other sections of Walt’s Last Stand bring us touching and beautifully made poems of family and Zegers’ hometown of Chicago, all as praiseworthy as the school poems, but I want to end with the title poem:
Walt’s Last Stand
I walk in with “A Child Went Forth,”
a poem Whitman made
out of the oldest fear there is.
“I found this,” I said,
“When the world
was nothing and the night
and called my secret name.
You can trust this poem.”
These students consider the possibility.
They are, after all, going forth,
even as they sit in a circle.
A girl, a good kid, says, “you do realize
that while we were home reading this and
writing our own poems we could have been
out living, you know that, right?”
And what of Whitman,
who said he would wait for us,
somewhere, underfoot, in the air?
He became his words
that became pages printed
and reprinted. That they might speak
is what they are, and this
is as far as they can go alone.
The poem and the teacher can only walk up to the student and offer themselves. Poetry means nothing unless it communicates, unless it is picked up in that trust. Kip Zegers makes sure every time that his poems will do that.
Inventing Difficulty: Poems by Jessica Greenbaum (Eugene, Oregon: Silverfish Review Press, 2000; Silverfish Review Press, P.O. Box 3541, Eugene, OR 97403. www.silverfishreviewpress.com ) Winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award.
I love the title of this terrific first book. Isn’t that what we do by writing poems, inventing for ourselves the difficulty of getting down on paper what is important to us, of putting it all together? Of course, that’s what we do in life, too, and the notion is that the creation of obstacles, even those that we throw in our own path, enlarges us, strengthens us, liberates us during and after we have passed through those difficulties. That is one of Jessica’s themes, perhaps, as are the vicissitudes of love that take us through a failed romance, into a marriage, and into the birth of a child. And let me quickly note here that she was a student of mine in the late seventies at the University of Texas. We have remained friends ever since.
There are so many dazzling moments in Inventing Difficulty that I simply want to stack up some of them to show what a passel of gifts Greenbaum offers us from line to line. In the title poem she writes that “Perhaps a songwriter’s // responsible for wind’s attachment to leaves, for the inseparable lyrics to earthly beauty we’ve memorized/ before birth and come here with, already on our lips.” Wow! “It’s simple / inventing difficulty. With any five lines on the white page / of morning, I can fashion a skeleton of my world: a woman/ fishing,” she tells us near the end of it, and that life “keeps her inventing both path / and obstacle toward a reunion with happiness.” Isn’t that what we’re working toward, fishing for—some degree of happiness, some quota of bliss?
That bliss is under a cloud in the next poem, “The Yellow Star that Goes with Me,” whose title tells it all in a denatured pantoum whose repetitions of thirst, train, cold, shower, and crammed-in passengers evoke much more than morning rush hour in Manhattan. Sometimes there is a wish that all the complexity of city life could be wiped away (“We Want the Hurricane”), and the next poems record, wistfully, a broken love affair. “With Gulliver in Brooklyn” begins:
In the end I’ve had the life I own,
A massive pattern of imperfections, near misses,
Irreducible complications and debatable accomplishments
Which coerce each other, spiraling sideways,
So that I never know which way, if any,
I am advancing.
“Brooklyn Aubade” gives us a glorious panorama of the Brooklyn waterfront (from the Navy Yard side), offering a kind of consolation for the one who is gone but remembered.
On the “7:46” train back to the Long Island where she was born and grew up, the poet meets her shadow, “an easy stereotype from an alkie bar: / the dangling cigarette and surrounding / firemen, her face shiny as a scar,” a bleach-blonde forty-something “all menthol / and James Cain”: “she was also from these stops—from the family / who lived more poorly, / whose American flag waves / like a keep-out sign above their doorway.”
“Back in the Cemetery” where she once took her lover’s picture,
the oversize angel still weeps
by the stone of Frau Louise Moeller, 54,
and her little Oscar, just one month.
Finally, we are as much like stones as they,
as the marbleized idea
of the eroded bouquet in the angel’s hand,
the original meanings we held for each other
now mottled, smoothed,
devolved into nearly disinterested symbols . . .
I like the playfulness of Greenbaum’s “a, b, c, d, e,” an essay on the first five letters of the alphabet that begins, “If the alphabet is the skeleton for our body/ of experience, how great the burden on // a, already hunched over with all / it carries and anticipates, always // about to announce b, / whose bones, like the whale boat’s / whale-shaped ones, bear stowaways, / then push a belly up to c, / who calls ahead with open mouth / then dashes into echo. . . .” This playfulness and the meticulousness of her description remind me of another Brooklyn poet, Marianne Moore, without Moore’s occasional fussiness.
It is a great pleasure simply to follow Jessica Greenbaum’s eye as it picks out and picks up things. Two of the great rewards of this book are the longish poems called “Blown-Away-Roof” and “After Rereading ‘Notes of a Native Son,’” in which she spies on her neighbors to our delight.
The last three poems in the book bring us to motherhood, and let me quote the final poem in its entirety. Its opening is staggering:
Conversation about Life, After Life
I stretched out against the sky (as you may have done)
and tried squaring my outline with the many points of stars.
My pattern fit the constellations in a general way, like fingers
to a mitten. I cut the scraps created by the disparity
and kept them in a bag beneath the bed. I had hoped to fashion
a chapeau or vest, and appear as my true self when time allowed.
What was I thinking? I have never been able to sew!
Spring, summer, autumn, winter. . . . Each year passed like four
wheels carrying a covered wagon. Once, eating a mango
over the sink, I remembered an unbelievably satisfying
conversationalist—we managed every morsel off the bone
with progressively more blunt, more accurate responses, out-
doing each other in a spiral of pleasurable honesty that bribed
conversation beyond and beyond, to its furthest possible
ending place. With each admission, our green canoes went over
another waterfall, coursing closer to each others’ hearts.
Which we found, truthfully. They were calm and beautiful
like mountain lakes addressing and reflecting the sky
in endless conversation. Our perfect outlines lay on their skin.
I am ready for Jessica Greenbaum’s next book. I hope she is getting ready to give it to us.
A Sail to Great Island by Alan Feldman (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress ). Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.
I first met Alan Feldman in 1966 on the cover of his first book of poems, The Household, published in mimeograph by the Columbia Review Press. There is a skinny, bespectacled poet atop a flight of stone stairs in what resembles a fort-like structure in—where?—Riverside Park? Fort Tryon Park? I still have my copy, and I’m still friends with Alan, whom I met in one of the bookstores on the Upper West Side. In fact, next week I’m driving up to Massachusetts to see him and his wife, the painter Nan Hass Feldman.
This is a poet whose work I’ve admired for years, and I was thrilled when I was able to bring out his book The Happy Genius (the reference is to Williams’ poem of the same name) with SUN in 1978. It won the Elliston Book Award that year for the best collection published by a small, nonprofit press in the United States.
Alan sent me the manuscript of A Sail to Great Island, and I was happy to write the following blurb for it. I mean every word that I say, blurbismo aside:
Feldman has been building extraordinary and deeply moving poems for some forty years now, and it’s high time a magnum of champagne was cracked across the bow of a new book with his name on it. Here is a master-maker who can offer us poems that dazzle us with their beauty as they ride us through the everyday real, or break our heart because they are so imaginative, so true. Alan Feldman is one of the best poets in America.
The “little house” of his book-boat sets sail immediately in these pages, and “keeps turning / to look at things,” much as its owner does:
Could someone invent a really complete camera, for just the time
I’d like to come back to, from time to time,
(“On the Mooring”)
That’s exactly what Feldman does in these poems, and what he has always done. On the cover of The Happy Genius he is a little boy in a family snapshot, ecstatic as he and the rest of the family watch a home movie. I would like to say that all of Alan’s poems are home movies directed by somebody like Frank Capra, full of feeling and memory-images, but maybe better than Capra’s sentimentality. A poet has got to be in love with the world if he hopes to do it any degree of justice in his work, and Feldman’s poetry is a grand project of preservation. He saves what he loves.
“Listening to Keats” is a case in point. Driving along, Alan is listening to tape of some “honey-tongued young British actor” reading Keats that his daughter has given him. The tape triggers memories of Feldman’s mother and her devotion to the British poet:
dead lo these twenty years, once an English major—
weeping for Keats at the English Cemetery in Rome
when I was seven. I could read about it even now in her letters.
Keats, who sounds nothing like me. The mellifluous Keats
unbothered by the whine of trucks on the Massachusetts Turnpike . . .
Holding that wonderful juxtaposition of yesterday and today, the poem ends with Feldman feeling nearer to his daughter and his mother, “My mother, my daughter, and me, / passing trucks, going through the toll booths, // the dead Keats reading passionately, deathlessly.”
Music and memory motivate a number of these poems, including “Pavane,” the next one, the subject being Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess played by the poet’s high school band. In Feldman’s hands the poem becomes an elegy for his friend and band-mate Sue Meyer, who died at seventeen during her freshman year in college:
She must be a young favorite there in the world of the dead—
so level-headed, yet idealistic. If I could write to her,
answering the card with the Japanese print of men in the snow
that I keep inside New Directions 16, a volume she inscribed to me,
I’d begin, Sue, I think of you whenever I hear the Ravel piece,
as though it marks your grave (wherever in Michigan that is).
Maybe the most beautiful poem about music in A Sail to Great Island is Feldman’s paean to the jazz pianist Bill Evans (an enthusiasm we both share):
Bill Evans Plays Never Let Me Go
Never let me go, says the piano,
then the five syllables are repeated
a little lower, maybe more sadly,
or with more acceptance that this plaint
is endless, fruitless, but it is the plaint
of love forever, whatever else changes,
and the five notes always sound different
the way the lover constantly is finding
new ways to ask what can’t be answered.
The piano takes a break to think it over
all around the keyboard, as if it is free
to take a walk, anywhere away from
those five notes, but no, it’s been walking
towards them. Never let me go,
it says cheerfully, tenderly, without reproach,
as if it knows that saying so is its true calling.
That’s a Bill Evans poem I wish I’d written! Its clarity and simplicity are overpowering, and if one knows anything about Evans’ playing, it is all the more wrenching.
Another standout poem in this book is “Contemporary American Poetry, which begins, “When her eye first gave her trouble, but when I did not yet know / this growth would spread through her brain, Mother sent me / Donald Hall’s ‘Kicking the Leaves,’ torn from the Times. . . .” Feldman improvises what he thinks his mother was saying by sending him Hall’s poem:
I will soon be leaving you. When you hear about my death
you will be staring at a blood red leaf against a raw blue
October sky through a film of tears, and you will be
an orphan. The price you will have to pay
for having been loved—essentially without qualification—
by me. I am leaving you now with this clipping,
this poem about leaves from the editorial page of the Times,
which I read daily, always with thoughts of you.
“How I resented this poem,” the poet tells us, “which moved me terribly. . . .” Feldman finds the poem again in the college anthology that he uses, “one that puts old enemies, like O’Hara and Lowell, together / in an academy of poetry of the world to come.” Now, older than the thirty he was when his mother sent him the poem, he understands that “The pleasure, if there is one, is knowing we have the dead / inside us, where they have to make peace, and never leave us.”
Feldman gives us a sonnet sequence (he has been writing dozens of sonnets in recent years), sailing poems, a poem for his daughter’s marriage, a retrospective on the 20th century: “The year I was born the atomic bomb went off. / Here I’d just begun, and someone / found the switch to turn off the world.” I once thought that the best response of a critic would be to quote the entire book if he loved it, and that is my impulse, one that I will spare us both, dear reader.
You’ll simply have to go out and find a copy of one of the best books of poetry published in 2004. It’s not that long ago. There should still be some around.
Thanks to Nick Twemlow, who asked, and Emily White, who put it up for all to see. And, naturally, thanks to all of you who read it!—B.Z.