- the hummingbird’s apprentice
- roadside wine
- counting the stones
- summers ago
- a batch of blackberries
- counting the stones
- grief house
- tough cutting
- on the porch swing
(with my widowed aunt)
- just once
- the lost sun
- evening at last
- where i sit
- aquatic life
- the enormous teacup
- the hummingbird’s apprentice
- the years
- apple, bowl, and book
- far in winter
- december woods
- duck pond in winter
- hunter’s lament
- advent calendar
- music for beginners
- being born
- music for beginners
- the go-round
- counting stones (2)
- going long
- yard work
- black keys
- on the open prairie
- road trip
- dance impromptu, aged 12
- tulle girls
- almost lost in the
- arranging chairs
- in right field
- in darkness
- star rise
- night thoughts
in a time of quiet
- star rise
- the black dog
- guitar lessons
- balance and air
- stealing little things
- bleeding hearts
- the neighborhood peacock
- licking the frosting
- the pillow
- winter nights
- the eat line
- turning forty alone
- breakfast on the patio
- “in the widening gyre”
- three martinis
- the eat line
- the outboard
- the retired sheriff
- bad dreams
- still life with sunflower
- minotaur eyes
- on winning the pulitzer
- the metaphor for ordinary
- ’68 brought the riots
- swallowing castles
- through mullioned glass
- blind feathers
- reading light
- the days
- seeking the fathers
- appalachian spring
- swimming lessons
- the adulterer’s dream
- at the dock
- the bronco
- the busted greenhouse
- the craftsman
- freshening the day
- black rat snake
- a frozen waterfall
- dad’s navy cap
- casting lines
- laundry list
- burning wasps nests
- going bald
- the jellyfish
- seeking the fathers
- seeking the fathers
- coda: persistence
THE HUMMINGBIRD’S APPRENTICE
Gregg Glory [Gregg G. Brown] Under the first stars, there by the back gate, secretly, I Would relieve myself on the shamed and drooping hollyhocks. ~~ Don Justice ...an irritation of pearls... ~~ Emari DiGiorgio
Pull off 71 suddenly, onto a wide shoulder of dust and grass. Yellow loads of honeysuckle weigh down a length of brown barbwire fence like a wave of honey breaking. Excited, splash ankle-deep into the unhurrying surf full of velvety bee sounds, and select one perfect blossom. It is so sweet in the slow afternoon. And, where you've cut your thumb, a thrill of air catches.
COUNTING THE STONES
Our house was not a house until we built it-- Cobbled together like lincoln logs, Pegged, dovetailed by pain, By tragedy Where the corners stain And the past gets lost, frays to fog Surrounding nothing until the house was built. Here, eons flit quick as mayflies--fireflies Flooding summers ago the orange-rusted screens With night light, untouched By tragedy.... Or so we had thought As we looked upon the shining scene, Our faces lit with the glow of new-born bodies.
A Batch of Blackberries
Blossoms along the briars, then waterfalling Berries the barnstorming birds beak up, berry By berry, like jugglers swallowing beachballs, Eating ripeness to the core. We picked And pawed through hooping crooked aisles, picked Pecks and bushels box by box, till the cart up- Ended its gorgeous, uneven load. Hands speckled purple with theft and blood, We said grace in the evening kitchen, Mom kneading, then flattening, the dark pies fresh, Crimping crusts and stabbing little V-birds Neat as her needlepoint stitches Above the hot talkative core of berries inside.
Counting the Stones
Always I count the stones Flagging the mausoleum walls Smooth-bore as a musket barrel To find where Mom is housed. Flowers poof from trumpetlike tubes Screwed in along grey walls; Here errant bees half-drowse Beneath one skylight's encasing blue. My sneakers squeak weakly. I'm almost ready to go home Right away. To sit upright, alone On my red, narrow balcony Until the eerie eaves at sunset Flare tears from eyes they castigate --And I go inside to escape The scattershot dusk.
This is the house that grief built: Mute and shuttered in morning sun, Painted in place, dead end of the street-- A still life dark-shingled with welts. This is the house that grief built: Old closets half-full; old belts, hung ties. Kids elbow the sill, close oil-laden eyes, Asleep in a house asleep in the silt. This is the house that grief built: An ordinary house if anyone looks, Newspapers in piles, the phone off the hook-- Unfinished, uneased from easel and stilts. A portrait uneased from easel and stilts.
Tough cutting the thorny rose-shrub stems Short to fit a pouting vase while mouthy blooms Put their tongues out to the empty room. Your absence pricks, a resisting briar. I suck the blood that comes--to quiet fear, And taste myself what heart to lips may bear. If green thorns toggled must auger hate, Who's to say love's rose is not as great? Tears release from me what would hesitate. Each rose is soft as skin, nodding sure And warm as a love-wiped tear, Close as you yourself once nodded near. Daily we twist stem and stem more twin in love, Cultivate a trellis beside a sunny grove, And train our cultured roses to rise above.
On the Porch Swing
(With My Widowed Aunt)
What I remember most (Beyond the rack and creak) Was how the sun got lost In memories of ghosts.... Her voice had the shake Of wind in a weathervane, Trees isolated by a lake Before the rake of ice-storms. Father gone and brothers, then (As if such conversation were the norm) The dark years of pain Intensest before morn.
I don't know exactly what to make of it. Out in the early frost, a yellowish, dull female cardinal hops, eyes black as coffee, her feathers patchy with winter hunger. She hunches at the feeder as at a fire and snaps whatever bursts from the dark seeds-- then wipes her beak on her stale overcoat and takes off. Just once, I'd like to jump off my porch and out of my own life like that.
The Lost Sun
It seemed dawn was coming out of glimmering black, Like music lifted from a scattered page of notes And a few straight lines to help the lost sun back. No, I don't think the sun particularly like Hamlet, Too much itself, and, so, blinded and lost. I think the end of night deserves its little speeches yet: Here and there a lover's alba, cracked and strained With adolescent rage, a cheater's charley-horse. Song anyway is all of a piece with pain, The vertigo of a wildly spinning top That brings the blood to our fingertips, makes voices hoarse. We want it to go on and on, or desperately to stop.
a middle-aged alba
Lace lifts like ladies' hems Up sunlit hillsides-- Last of the evening chill. A muffled alarm, then Light's beaten Stark along spindly tree spars, Masts of burning bark. Coffeeless, craving, sore Out of sleep's black seas Eyes wrestle to shore, Unsaved-- The tears, the light, the loss.
Evening at Last
There was less there there Than there seemed. Diminishment's The word, maybe, for how Sailboats on the Navesink Butterfly along lemon rinds Of Sol's oracular light. I and my mortality Diminish with the harbor-bay; I remember how tender acne Ached where now I'm grey. All the day I'm left with Feels brief and hot as breath. How half-sides of buildings, at sunset, Darken and congeal-- As if dark rain poured forth From torn gutters, red, and real.
Where I Sit
The quiet accumulates Visibly. Invisibly, I mean-- Like a weight of dirt Deep in the heart, moist. On my lap the embossed album, Bound and fading, of Polaroids. Dad had clambered here, as a Kid, on this ticking porch; Like a weight of dirt, The rocker's metronome, now. Ripples of time accumulate Toward the lake-rock where I sit: Mostly it's memories, the quick Eyes of the dead ones, now. They look at me with all the slow, Awful power of sunset.
All night the hum of the aquarium breathing, the soft babeo of the electric respirator hitched at the back of the tank, the last fish in there a widower. He swims around his sand castle day and night in circles, nibbling flakes of manna that fall in slow gold from a mercury ceiling, spinning like a mad flamenco dancer, gills flaring in aggression displays, rushing the mirrory walls of his life.
The Enormous Teacup
I slip into an enormous teacup broad and smooth as an Olympic pool, simmering, minty and tinted. Faint greenish steam curls my heavy hair as I backstroke toward the regulation diving board white as a horizontal monolith-- I am impatient to be perfect, to lift from the dazzling waters and jackknife and disappear beneath its opaque surface. The tannic tea surrounding me is warm, like blood, like I am swimming in my own blood. I open and shut my body into the flow like a diamond, like one of those origami fortune-tellers kids knead in easy fingers, happy with random answers.
The Hummingbird’s Apprentice
Stand still like the hummingbird.
If only I could stand still like that hummingbird looking carefully into one honeysuckle blossom like a bargain shopper, tipping the small blossom forward until it, too, was bowing. (If only I could be patient, patient!) Just that one, as if those thousand other flowers weren't bursting like gunfire all around-- as if the hummingbird itself had nowhere else to go on invisible wings.
His mind is bright and empty as the sky. His head is shiny too, as are the shoes He polishes each and every Sunday. Life makes sense in the Great Accounting. When, one day, the ambulance arrives To ferry him prone to the hospital, he notes In one corner of an almost clear sky A crow whisking the clouddust.
Apple, Bowl, and Book
Arranging a few, nude things (apple, bowl, and book) on a flat table in the flat light of Tuesday morning-- one way one day, and another way the next (bowl, apple, and book), and pushing his paint against them steadily as sunlight over everything (book, apple, bowl), the painter's irreducible poverty (self, self, and self) intrudes on his objects (bowl, book, and apple) and saves rags of them on a rag of canvas. When done for the day, having run out of evasions, he wipes the sunlight from his sticks with a rag, and drowns them in turpentine.
Tired of my own thoughts I turn out the light watching my wrist disappear with a hairy flicker. There's that afterburn at first, the wire inside the bulb still burning with self-importance keeping me light-blind for forty blinks, and then just as I settle in for sleep, I spot through the window slats that scintillant blue bowling ball the moon.
Far in Winter
I have gone as far in winter as I care to go. Hard frost, harder than a farmer's hands, Is swirling in from far northern lands-- Harder than my dim intent to pace Far afield through empty winter spaces. I have gone as far as wind and feet allow. I have slid alone down frozen hillside lanes, Passed pond and ditch spidered by icy panes, Spyed clouds' unearthly faces blanche as snow. I have walked until all walking lost delight-- Far, far, until clabbered skies blazed skin-white, Indifferently applied as universal night; Too far for hands to reach and rest in touch, Or tell if they themselves are smooth or rough. I have gone as far in winter as I care to go.
I stop and wait in winter's wet mid-night. Snow-dust is sifting on upturned face and pine. A desolate wind sweeps up sleep and haste And confronts me with the waving woodland waste. (How sighs magnify to owls when you are lost!) December owns these winter woods alone: Her zero laughter gives dead leaves a shake, Her cold moan shivers choirs of stunted cones. I weep, and wait for her in secret delight. Slow as the passing of some hypnotic wand, I watch inching ripples of the lead-dull pond Huddle dark waters to a solid field of white.... How one touch of ice turns our world divine! December knows the bones in molten water's core. Knows the ice in water. That tears are nothing more.
Duck Pond in Winter
Now set in winter brown, the old pond in spring Livened these reedy woods gone flat, Scuffily ensconced In frozen leaves that once Greened the summer skies with leafy wings, As if wild ducks in lush squadrons circled it. Yearly a new mother lands and incubates her brood Under a dun feather muffler warm as suns Until her breaking eggs Toddle on webbed legs-- A duck who loves, and whose love does good By being mother to what gold pufflings come. Now, a splotchy Fall has sent them flying Off in maiden flight to scenes uncertain-- To southern ponds Comfily ensconced Beneath balmy constellations.... At home, Her crosshatch nest uncoils, hurriedly abandoned.
Am I to lie ashamed among cattails if, before ducks V away in winter with their rising scale of notes and scattershot choral creaking of wet goodbyes, if I want their small long-nosed faces to stay?
Departure, now, instead of arrival. Dad's Vaulted the ICU's sterile rungs, Where December visitations had dragged us To watch a father drowning in his lungs. Beyond all this stubbled haste of Jersey freezes He's climbed into a greyness of light-polluted stars --Each pin of past light striving to stay sharp And remain named. "Me! Me!" Two nieces Battle beside their first advent calendar--pulpy, Saw-toothed, oversized, glue-glitter daubed And draped with ropes of hopeful popcorn Laddering a stylized Christmas tree. A light-up Star crests dark waves of evergreen, Twinkling as if that battery will burn forever. Every day, two breathless nieces applaud A new surprise behind a hidden door.
MUSIC FOR BEGINNERS
You wake up in a coffin, at night, Sliding downhill one hundred miles per hour. That's how it feels. It's dark, the air sour. There's a vague sense of friction. After Some fumbling around, you discover One box of matches. How many do you get to light?
Music for Beginners
The baby grand, bulbed Like a black, half-cracked Heart, throwing the throb And beat of exposed strings Reverberating.... V-thighed on the long black Bench stuffed with squiggled sheets Of Music for Beginners, Impressionist drips of quarter-notes Arching and arching.... How the swaying metronome Danced (neither slow nor swift), Mocking ambition patiently.... My small thumbs at rest On G and middle C.
At recess we raced to the go-round Painted color-wheel slices of color, Pushed galvanized handrails hard Until our schoolyard world was blurred. Laughter rang out like lightning And wind in our ears was shards And only the circle stood still, and We longed to enter that stillness. Our feet ran out of our shoes, Impatient to rise from the ground.... And in that grace of levitation We each took turns at center, Leaping like flags for the heart --To be the source of all colors, Of the go-round's big pinwheel, the pin-- Skies spinning like carnival art.
Counting Stones (2)
Carefully we counted stones No bigger than their eggs-- We aimed to break the bones Of sparrows Wing by wing. Feeling brave and hurtful Beneath the swinging tree Three brothers formed a circle, Nesting Knee to knee. Though pity shook my hand I took good aim to knock Each sparrow's nest to ground, One by one With careful luck.
Helmet to helmet in the high school huddle tight as a nest of snake eggs, the quarterback said "Count ten and turn around. Trust me." After the snap, everything went silent, the small stadium crowd that surrounds us uniform as a tub of popcorn, silent. Other players grew mute, dull as a blur. I went deep into grass, grass silent as snow, running down a long and lonely plank that narrows as it goes, all life's details shifting off the pounding plank like sand shimmering into silence, my leaps all one pounce of now. I passed line after line of quicklime, looking only ahead, my heart sounding out the seconds to ten, uprights bright as a tuning fork before me, going long.
Leave your yard to weeds one summer, till grass springs higher than your armpits and woodchucks go boldly by right up to the porch. Have dandelion wine in barrels, and violet and primrose stew; cut flowers by bushel and peck: arrowhead, aster and balsam, bayberry, beardtongue and wild carrot like cartwheels of lace. Cardinals and swifts in trees will whistle your days unsilent and saw-whet owls sweeten each eve as switch grass and creeper appear in your sideyard gone over to meadow and downs. Where now you have footpath and pavement, let wildness come up from the root. May shy Adam-and-Eve orchids visit the shadows you've sown, holding hands in forsythia shade-- and where now you walk on owned acres, by August you'll be swimming to noon.
A proposition on the keyboard Comes back inquiring, a minor E, Or resolving major chords, giving thanks. The afternoon enlarges sash and cord, An intimate of misery and of me As yellow loneliness falls and fills my lap. When I look at nothing, I feel adored-- An expansive Narcissus of the sea. I hear only, in my hunched piano's plunks (After the final heightening of a pause), The ocean's application of applause.
On the Open Prairie
Rice grains of rain pattern feathers on the dry Sides of silos here, red and full of rye. In the open prairie, all we know is sky. Yet live on we must--on earth alone and dry. Somehow you know the whole thing's a ball Beneath your feet, and you can feel it roll. Every day I travel on, waiting for a wall. Then night comes, that shadow there, and its hole.
We traveled in our car Whole school summers Forgetful of the calendar From wonder to wonder: The Natural Bridge's catlike camber, Spelunking Crystal Caverns with lanterns, Singing in chasms together, Swimming in Delaware rivers, Sleeping in camp by those waters Enchanted and nimble as laughter; Ducking impossible weather In the concrete lee of an under- Pass, Dad smoking as he leaned by the car; We spat from speeding windows, Balanced flat rocks to slide off the fender (And full sodas forgotten on T-bars), Screaming through tollbooth and tunnel; Counting crazily crippled deer And license plates stamped Nevada, Swinging past capitols in order, Kentucky, Tennessee, Carolina; Shopping at "South of the Border" For Ace-Safety firecrackers And double fistfuls of sparklers. Never was summertime lovelier Than those summers we wandered together. We kids got happier and happier While Mom's matchstick face, dumbstruck, Flickered Darker and darker and darker.
I can see my son, aproned, up early, training among his chef tchotchkes, selecting eggs with effective fingers and rolling the oval winners into a bowl. Next, he gathers his spices, pinches tipples on his tongue to test them quick, and says ‘oh' or ‘no' to each. Two real-life princess dolls bowl in, dandelion-headed and sleepily slippered, standing suddenly seriously silent as totems. "Dad's kitchen is all business," whispers one to the other in litany. And Dad has them help, of course, even the whipping, even the delicate Egyptian procession of raised bowls over their princessly heads to the stove where Chef does the final fluffing. His long arms akimbo, he trawls for air to fold into the scramble, the Momlet, his swimmer's arm lifting and going around and around again--going for distance. I see him there. I see my son.
Dance Impromptu, Aged 12
There really wasn't alot to it: Girls too shy with us to laugh Corralled by a battery phonograph --And, here and there on the wretched grass, A pink and tinsel pirouette.
Girls are not like us, no. They watch impatient behind taut veils Of soft thoughts, as we come and go With our pockets full of rocks. Girls are not like us, no.
Almost Lost in the Ladies’ Department
On department store safari, at four, I scoped out translucent loose folds of whispery flowerprints, deep meadows of hanging pastels, and lacy clouds of padded bras and ladies' legs staunch as departmental mannikins or the infinite limbs of grazing giraffe, their shopping voices elated, angelic. I ran awkwardly in my new black shoes zigzag through disheveled grasses of matching pantsuits, a pampas of pantsuits flowing higher than my head, my lazy hand rippling the materials like a tailor between appointments, like a zebra sampling a strange stream, killing time, growing older by moments, a pygmy among these women's things, until I arrived at the end of a long, open aisle, my hand clanging a gang of faintly skeletal empty hangers ringing on their rack after the season, like Christmas bells swinging in July, like waterbuffalo ribs from past monsoons, and, brave and out of breath, confronted myself amiably at the back of the box-store in an empty dressing mirror, tall as the sky.
14 folds and you have a butterfly ready to float from the tabletop amidst the snippings, the open hands and astonished face of the girl who made it. The whole secret of life folded right there so quietly beneath her as she sits.
In here early, arranging chairs in lanes, The otherwise empty room's a spray Of local artists' ocean watercolors By local docents netted in place, prismy Mists and dark wakes so ably arranged Familiar things grow haloed and strange --A broken white fence, now luminous, or Sea stones folding under a wave.
In Right Field
Planted in a green corner of heaven I watched patchy grass And I counted Intricate, parched clouds as they passed Serene in solitude. Then, as now, old shapes soon forgotten. Skinny Beanie, our speediest pitcher Curtailed the sharp claps Of opposing homers Till into Death's ant-lion trap Old Beanie slipped And kept slipping forever. Then, as now, Death our speediest pitcher. Playing right field has always allowed Me to lean back and sit out Whole innings-- Keeping watch in green solitude, content, Looking at clouds and counting. Then, as now, the world passing by in its shroud.
Late into autumn we boys slept on the porch, Listening to October's stiffening crickets Compose their last passes At minuet masterpieces In darkness, The invisible slim river still tuning its flute, Our dreams as baroque as a monarch's. Zipped to the neck whenever night temps blew Low, we kids kept up chirping and peeping-- Lazily nested in chaises, Whistling boy wishes In darkness Until clouds snugged the moon off to sleep And we woke, cold, mufflered in the drifted snow.
I pull my life down off the shelf. How many fisheyes in the jar? How many stars, like fisheyes, in the sky? The night around me is dark, no matter how I stare. I, too, am a star. Inside. A fisheye full blazing with wet possibilities. Lover, brother, poet. My cold fisheye looks at the night sky through waves of rivergrass, subtle panes of flowing streams. Pushing onto land, I gulp muddy breaths. Running on all fours, I hunch into my dinosaur suit. Later the next day, I ache upright, feeling my ape shoulders burst back from their hunch. Long I walk with my brothers on the blazing plains, racing after buffalo and elk. Or we go leaning our nets together into the rich river, pulling. Tonight we are poets, we sing of stars, sharing the fish around the fire. Singing. The fire falls into the dirt, its near star gone dark. I turn to you under the warm skins piled deep. You stare silently. We wear our masks as lovers now.
Night Thoughts in a Time of Quiet
Night pine-tree sweeps, shush-shush, Against the window like a bird asleep, All song calmed to intermittent cheeps-- Half-conversations halfway overheard. A stranger lays beside me in my bed. Her body is a blazing blossom, her head Full of whistling voices frail and cold-- And hard to hear, my love, so hard.
When dinner bells stopped clapping after our parents' court-ordered partings lonely as ship horns mourning, one east, one west--we would each duck out in darkness, tiptoe stowaways, into newly empty backyards. Too young to kiss, or even hold hands, we met at the fencepost to stargaze. I was sad, and you were sad, and neither of us said so. Stars rose like sails around us, the dome of the planetarium cracking. And then, invisible as grass, our two little voices stippled the sky with stories.
The Black Dog
looks up with questionmark ears at the blonde woman who, a little sad maybe at being almost forty and the dew still frosty on the ivy in early May, stops walking the dog briskly to sit in meditated misery a moment too long, or longer, on the bench's flat slatting-- and who curls up into a sudden smile when the dog whines and water- falls into her small lap, plop, generously alive, its black tail pumping.
A wife is playing her guitar with inexpert authenticity. She is neither too loud nor too bad, like an old parrot that learns slowly to repeat a crackerjack punchline or an embarrassing string of expletives the owner leans in to repeat each night, pouring encouragement along with birdseed and fresh water into the cage's cup. Even so, her guitar is getting worn out, like a shoe one always dances in, like a husband's face smiling as he listens.
Balance and Air
First love never leaves us. Like a first bicycle, all balance and air, we learned to go downhill blind, with our hands out wide as if flying were forever ours. After the fall, a flash of pain, a flag of blood, and the bones jerk back into the body, like a handlebar wincing ribs when the wheel turns unexpectedly over a stubborn pebble. And later, you peel the bandage back from an inflated knee, biting a lip, to check the wound's "progress." And, even later, absentmindedly, while sitting on a folding chair at the school dance, waiting to ask or be asked into the moving circles-- you roll a fingertip over the scar's hub the shape of your own private nation. It leaves something with us. Even years later, when we see someone else skid or stop short, our breath catches as if we ourselves are falling.
Stealing Little Things
and the cup ran away with the spoon
I'll confess: sometimes I steal from restaurants. Oh, not much; a cloth napkin for the hell of it. Something both fine and tough that lays in the lap and feels like quality when you kiss it. But now I'm afraid Jenny's caught my old habit. Slick as a jewel thief last night after the movies, she palmed a real big soup spoon under a pile of casual paper napkins right into her open purse. Smooth as glass, not even a guilty twinkle in her eye. This morning I've washed it for her and set it shining in a stolen dessert cup with crenellations purpling all around the lip like a sticky jellyfish-- that mint ice cream and oreo crumble was so good! The washed spoon with its big plain silver tongue stands like the Seattle Needle in the glass, twirls just the least bit, flashing: welcome to town!
He was catnip to the ladies, they all said so, licking their paws when they saw him, washing their small faces adroitly, or rolling smoothly over onto their backs, switching their tails.
Above the weathered bench, Swaybacked where I sit And damp with summer night, An archer's bow of branch Drops its heart-shaped blossoms Steady as a sleeper's EKG or some Drip off a leaky faucet: Heart, heart, heart, heart.
The Neighborhood Peacock
The peacock's stubby stiff-legged strut chops short along downy lawns gone over to puffy dandelions, as hook over hook row the steady tines of his claws. His high eye rises, a tower, an outpost, a lighthouse above whitecaps, and one sees then that he is all eyes, a carpet of eyes, a sail of eyes, a sky unto himself of sheer irised iridescence-- seeking a portly peahen on which to squat his rainbow glory, Odysseus upon Penelope. It is for her that his neck bends and his beak cracks, and the seed of his dandelion cry goes forth, filling rainy afternoon yards with his loneliness.
Licking the Frosting
The long night is being carefully frosted By day, like a butterknife spreading vanilla icing Over a round new moon of devilsfood cake While she yawns wide as a sea-lion pup waking --Dressing slowly, nakedly in her mirror Where dawn-colored curtains flutter. Her hand disappears into her jewelry box And, frosted with lights, her fingers emerge, One light on each fingertip like a constellation: The Starfish. After a moment, her ears appear Dangling dark earrings like bats drifting Out the cave of sleep and into our morning That sits above blue bowls of Frosted Flakes Before we each skate off to our workdays Synchronized as Olympic champions. But, for right now, she takes a sleepy Pirouette in her mirror and approves: Of our lives together, the sweetness of our night.
The pillow where you last were laying keeps a spoon's impression of your head and even a swirl, a dimple, of your ear as if this pillow were a seashell, where a thousand voices enter which we later hear as the constant susurration of the sea. Can you hear me among them if I whisper so close my sipping warms your pillowcase while the rain goes on snoring in its gutter, and all the house closed up in a sort of sleep? I love you, yes. But what I whisper now is something other, something just for you.
Nights accumulate, turn December. Turn Xmas, with its sparkly galaxies Of discarded wrapping. The fire's chaos Recalls other heats, other faces.... And, shaken, sparks traces of your long departure-- Last Independence Day at the park, Fireworks' wild sunshine in your eyes In hot summer dark.
THE EAT LINE
Turning Forty Alone
Life is empty. A wind rises sideways until my pant legs stand out, twin rudders steering nowhere. Between one housefront and the next, irritated lightning, brief and naked. Rain, a thousand miles of zippers unzipped at once. Puddles swell like bruises and connect their black softnesses, as they did for Noah. Forty years I've been on this dark voyage. The straw is stale, the bursting stalls fecund with rancor. The lions, male and female, have slipped their tethers and roam the galley all night, roaring and shaking with hunger. Their matted manes are thick as rat's nests.
Breakfast on the Patio
Early memories have an edge of tragedy, The trace of a child's hand On construction paper, faded. Or the half-loops of letters, so rudely Learned, living forever unfinished-- Time behind crouches near one then, Ahead lies far. The coffee's graceful steam unfurls And morning stones glisten like stars, An irritation of pearls.
“In the Widening Gyre”
The worrying leaf twists, Its race arrested-- Maddened leaves repeat it In iterant wind. Down the long hill at sunset, one more Leaf doodles and cavorts-- Now doubly, trebly muddled in a ditch: Murmurous leaves.
for Joelle 1. The first one is cool, refreshing as a cucumber, A meeting sweetness lapping at the back of the throat As if sugarcane dripped off a fat icicle, and then The slow burning to the waterline of your little boat. 2. Now a power growls and routs small talk, dissent; Convictions gather like a curtain pulled, mauve, Revealing the pitted shallowness of daily talk, The world set to rights as easily as this olive. 3. At last simplicity arrives, looking through life itself As through a clarifying piece of glass, this Glass, contentedly in fingers twirling triangles-- Contemplating it filled, and its present emptiness.
The Eat Line
Nimble goats tremble on split tiptoes Eating knots of pine and holly, leaf and branch As far as fingering tongues can go Toward heaven for their lunch. Loosed to clear Sandy Hook's woods Of poison ivy, their saliva drips, they say, Immune to poison, and that's all good We say, going out ourselves to play Splayfoot on barren beaches. I spread The checkered cloth, pour figgy semillon Below the "eat line" where they've passed, Coppice chewed flat as a billiard green.
Motor's propeller coughs, catching seaweed, The intake valve gritty with chaff, the starter flooded, An unwell something moaning under the hood, Catching and stuttering loudly when it should Slur tigerlike, leaping purring for wavepeaks In choppy Keyport Harbor's uneven arena. The men, popping beers and flyreels, Lean back, deckchair masters from mast to keel; They survey the costal waters like a lunchbox Stuffed for munching while the boat knocks. They're happy. Their spouses, tan and sheen, Watch children thrash trash off the stern: Survivors in a drowning world, careening and green.
The Retired Sheriff
Saturdays he sat on his porch in his old uniform, Old like satin slippers stained and torn But worn anyway as the last fancy thing To go anywhere in, but he never did-- A general blown out of his war, gold braid And buttons so much parlor-curtain finery. Even his silver revolver was a kind of watch fob (Thirty years service, Bob, and thanks) Spun by a restless tic in his wrist That wouldn't quit--the watch hands shivery, And the bullet chambers usually empty.
He drools like a cow, that one. All night in his sleep, mumbling Nightmares, an old knife of stone Whittled by sea and season To the one dread: Wife and kids over the cliff, tumbling, And his dog dead.
Still Life With Sunflower
A still life still requires faith That life itself has stopped Just for you, your fist of brushes, Your dripping pots of gauche Fetishist yellow-red.
Eyes almost closed beneath his hat The old smoker blows gold smoke out, His agate eyes almost sedate. Eyes half-shut. You've heard the phrase. It isn't done to keep smoke out But to keep dreams in, as in a maze.
On Winning the Pulitzer
My darling friends, I am afraid This once-worthy prize is unmade-- This glittering thing has gone to shit. A bad generation ruined it. And, indeed, my winning here Has me question many years-- Makes me doubt what value, use, My life's devotion to the muse.
The Metaphor for Ordinary
The metaphor for what's ordinary Ticks rickety, and breaks its wicker back, Cracks sciatic with the dumbass weight Of my emphatic Great Aunt Kate. The ordinary's too circular for metaphor, A bridge to the same side of the stream Where everything is as it was before And no balloon squeaks loose from its dream.
’68 Brought the Riots
'68 brought the riots (we needn't speak Of them), arriving in a crash of days Washing away the city's soft authority, the meek Back-and forth of beach cleaning machinery.... At least we suffer no more the illusory Union of then and now--that tomorrow's kids Are the same as yours, that yours today Are you.... Too apparent's the decay. No fashionable derelict genteel twilight Fades us towards this stripped finality, This painted concrete scratch-graffitied grey.
Strong clear brilliant air drawn into the mouth in a moment. A special flavor of life, like the south of France. The dusty maybe of Marseilles. The long wet unrolling tongue of the Mediterranean Sea. Sweet dollops of cloud-stuff hardened to minarets. Minarets made sweet by the singing of prayers during the Middle Ages’ Muslim occupation and shrunk by forgetfulness to the size of a lozenge. A lozenge that moults my throat awake. Awakes me to think of melting time and swallowing castles.
Through Mullioned Glass
The bird, a blackbird, flies Up--words tear at his wings: "A crooked cross in damask skies" Or some other flitting fret or fraying Its vapid purplish flapping bethings. Some black clash of shadows Where blue bleeds in at the window.
White blind feathers, wintry February, Stale cereal fluff dumped from a box. We stare at the unlocked locks.
I read, midnights, until the haloed lamp Flares meaningless, Charon's guidelight on Styx's everlasting damp. Words once fit for granite no more affix, The storyline dead; The sculptor's hand grown bony, The lover by love abandoned. The looming book in my hand's a wick, Flaring, spluttering-- Burns words, rotten words, until I am sick. My eyes dry, drugged, bug-eyed, drained, My life illegible. I sit alone beneath an S-shaped lamp To which I feel inextricably chained.
for Dan Weeks
Sentences trick us out of time's traps The way a song will go back around And around on itself to the beginning. Songs and words, especially drum-taps-- Those dry discrete silences in sound, Change how long each quiet seems As if time only lived inside the drum. Music and writing are much alike. To begin, You first must stretch the skin out tight.
Days falls together like brushed curtains. Dawn and evening flutter together In silence, interlacing their delicate edges --Light comes up one side of a grassblade And goes down into dusk on the other. That's how it is, too, when I remember Suddenly, washing dishes, my name, And the sink shines with an identity: That's mine. And all the yesterdays Come snapping into place like played cards, And tomorrow's a fan of questionmarks Laid down beyond the kitchen curtains By a hand that flutters them lightly In my field of sedge and flat grasses, Interlacing their delicate edges.
I pile brown Christmas boxes, stiff With stuff: ribbons, tinsel, elves, lights Untwinkling and tangled-- Hooped in a humped death-wreath Giving no glistering whiff Of merriment. Wires and briars Hang black where torus roses had made holy The tree's abstract angles. How noble! How dopey! How phony! As if Christ hunched curled in a plastic star.
SEEKING THE FATHERS
Lace lifts like ladies' hems Up the sunlit hills-- A memory, almost of snow, Dissolves with evening's chill. Sticks of light beat time On spindly spring trees, Flat zags of lightning, A storm in morning calm. Every day, as out of a cave, My eyes wrestle to shore-- Unshaved, I want to see still more.
Father scuffled off to his daily office Where racks of coolly efficient fluorescents Left his smiling features half-effaced, A circle Seen briefly in a cavern, at a distance. At home we kids were laying out the plates And fanning out the flatware for family dinner, Our hour of bad jokes, day tales and talks. We debated rawly, sheer beginners-- Our circle Of faces a boardroom of love's assurances Over potatoes, Mom's burgers, asparagus stalks.
Our childhood redwood house stood surrounded By dry leaves in a time of dryness. So Dad placed beside each bedroom window A rolled-up field fire ladder, and assessed us As we spidered out of windows backwards, At ease and ready to catch us dandling, Chewing his raw black tobacco chew. "Whole damn place is no better than kindling." Down the short tilted hill through oak trees Lay Swimming River reservoir--its scratchy tangles Skated over winterlong, doing loops--which soon Grew warm and treacherous as a betraying hand With June, its rich mud silt as quicksand. Dad surveyed those greenish waters warily, His lips pursing and going still like ripples. "Boys, tomorrow there'll be swimming lessons." Saturday he took us, one by one in puffy trunks, Into a cool space of water he'd backhoed clear One drought last fall of underbrush and stumps Sharp enough to shred whatever entered bare. One by one, he had us straighten out at once As if flying, and practice the long Australian crawl, Turn our heads and spit out breaths of water-- Holding us up entirely at sternum and solar plexus.
The Adulterer’s Dream
Something he had swallowed earlier coiled in his belly, and sat there aimlessly striking his stomach walls and making him gulp like a toad for night air. His wife looked at him, her hair piled high and pinned for sleep, with twenty years of love and pity while he gulped and gulped, his eyes helpless, and out of his wide mouth leapt lie after lie, and the snake.
When Mom was done with yelling At Father on the phone Waving gestures in the air Breast-stroking for some shore That receded more and more, She continued telling the cat In a voice like water breaking About both this and that Until cat would purr asleep In the exhausted swimmer's lap.
At the Dock
My father's head, the classic cannonball tan and slick and fringed with foamy tufts of grey, spat black tobacco juice, ate raw oysters, nipped the tips off green jalapenos and cursed easily as he chewed, cutting the small bait-- having a grand time, it seemed, in the world of freedom and fatherhood. Between his bare red feet a bucket of crushed ice cradled long-necked naked beers sweating freely, floating until he walked away.
...our closeness is this: anywhere you put your foot, feel me in the firmness under you. ~~Rumi
Dad rounded us up weekends, happy, to his Dad Ranch, permissive as a belch, with an occasional locked door or verboten shotgun only Dad could manage sanely. The old blue Bronco snorted down the long unweeded drive, siphoning us boys off, a skim of childish excess, to buggy wild dunes in South Jersey. Dad steered a fireworks pinwheel spinning dizzy between his hands, leaping wave after wave of sand-drift all night, headlights hitting the tall grass like lightning, thunder cracking under us rev after rev like hooves, the moon skimming the night's grey undulant surf as if chucked hard, our stomachs light as laughter in our throats, we grinning even when smacking the roof with our little league ballcaps and wet palms, riding bareback our parents' dark divorce scared as cats in a carrier.
The Busted Greenhouse
Radiance of light-strobed clouds, a crinkle of thunder, and then hours watching rain stitch and slicken down the cold prow of the greenhouse roof. The wet smell like a captain's frisky deckrail racing through the stiff chop against other slant yachts on an inland sea-- the shores gorgeous forests of flowers. At times, there'd be stars, And leaves flat as soot against hanging glass. I put my head through the blown doorframe: you can hardly tell there'd been any windows at all.
for Tom Pedersen
This is the door at the front of the house, the one that goes everywhere and always comes home. This is the craftsman who works on the door with his wood-plane, trimming and smoothing it continually to a flatness, his mind like an adze. He carefully screws new butterfly hinges flush with the doorframe, oiling them quiet. He trues up the top of the door in the doorframe, checking with level and thumb. He tests the lock, then leaves it open. He stands back a pace, looks his work over, hands on hips, and hat brim pushed back: closely, carefully, critically. He spots something, licks his thumb wetly, like a lollipop, unselfconsciously, and pulls it from his mouth with a low snap. He spit-shines the doorknob, spinning it buff, his red kerchief cradling the knob like a hand-sized hammock, until both he and the door fit distorted and brassy in the small curves of its world.
Freshening the Day
The porpoises were beautiful, their grey skin shining like plastic in the morning light.
~~Det. Harry Bosch, The Narrows by Michael Connelly
Rain on charcoal shingles makes roofs shine pearly grey, like the slowly turning backs of whales that have swallowed whole families alive. Spring trees put out their leaves in the waving spray, and laughter falls like mist in the dim dawn. Sidewalks whiten and renew themselves, straightening their ties, ready again for the old routines-- A father running late, returning to work under still-pink floods; fresh clouds lifting over domed strollers gleaming wet as birthing calves; alert dogs following the pack, noses tense as harpoons in the spray; they tighten their leashes, anxious to piddle.
The cart man returns to our parkinglot, lowing his cattle-car song in morning air as he backs into a primo spot and starts routinely jostling the sleepy carts to life. He heaves them into his beat pickup, his ancient varsity jacket scraped soft from hugging the heavy carts up and up. The carts nudge together unevenly as cows, their grey faces skeletal and condemned. Most of them expect nothing, in for the long haul, but occasionally one breaks free, rollicking off the truck in a mad rattle and hoofing it as far as the dumpster.
Black Rat Snake
Why such evil in the world, asks everybody and the Bible. Outside, by my garden hose a cold shed snakeskin rejoices in the causeway breeze, a single-fingered glove for an absent injured hand, weightless as dried froth, as airy and helpless as a weathervane. Gray lifeless hose, your sole inhabitant has slithered off effortless as a stripper's zipper-- you the discarded clothespile. Whatever kept you company, intimate as a ballroom dancer, has bulked too thick in snak- iness to linger in you any longer, your diamond-patterned mask. It's gone, a child's taffy shadow pulled toward dark horizons. I touch the rocking feather still curled as if to strike fearfully with the toe of my boot-- How quickly life escapes! I see how, at first, the living skin must have split no more than a tear duct swelling-- and then all at once like a leathery egg, from snout to shoulder, hissing.
A grasshopper floats off my palm Like a prayer... then, its tin helicopter Ditches, the splayed skids stir My skin with itches: to swipe, to swat. --How little things, even the green things Of meadows, can vex a morning's balm! I wipe the tidy corpse off like that, Small as a bullet casing. Now I can return to fields and nature, The grasshoppers shifting in the grass Endless As a thousand hands at prayer.
A Frozen Waterfall
Swing with me down a winter river on sneakers, zing past a grandstand of widowy birches petrified forever washing their sudsy hair in the stream. In the circle of their nakedness is a frozen waterfall, tall and white, with a patriarch's great fall of beard. Studying the topless columns, I see instead, in their myriad crenellations and odd glittering rockwork organic as a vapor trail, the uncut pages of a book--of what secret litany of nature the lexicon? I find myself crossing over, pulled as if those furious waters still exhorted motion. I pat the tall rough face of page-ends sealed beyond the genius of knives, impenetrable as a meteorite's message, and rub a few blind valleys like braille.... Only Spring will read this story, after long winter writing has loaded its rifts, calling forth, tear by hidden tear, a waterfall.
Beyond whatever trouble brought me again (Past circumstance, ennui, a wish fulfilled) I drive by the white mailbox a final time Forgetting even the address that led me here, The map that was less map than maybe This once, minor hopes that would not let me be: Years of loving Dad and getting nowhere, Defending my life as if it were a crime. Beside me rolls field after field, untilled-- The road behind shaky, small and clear as pain.
Dad’s Navy Cap
Stowed back behind a slipped stack of power-equipment instruction manuals, Dad's navy cap from the war, wilted white, looks a sort of ruined sandhill now with a thin black brim for a shadow and miniature crossed gold swords, sewn, recessed under a dented-in ledge like a shallow cave in a sandy river bank eroded deeper by all that water gone under the bridge, years of echoing hurry belowdecks in the engine room among rolling waves of steam and steel, come ashore to this quiet spare bedroom closet with its dusty mirror and its 40-watt bulb triggered by a dirty string. Turned over, there's one old spot of blood-- a dead crab washed to the crest of a dune, just where the inside of the cap touched the peak of his skull.
I stepped, a tenderfoot, into the pebbly stream after Dad, Reeling as he taught, casting out from My center as if toward nothing, Feeling light as the Fly. Now wicked twists of river water press me as I pass To deeper ranges with my casting, where if you Try to stand in utter stillness You feel that you could Fly. Why was I always wading so slowly, so far behind Dad All those years ago? Still ahead of me today in Memory I see him striding, reeling in, Fall-lit leaves streaming By.
The ice cold stares of neighbors click across you like fridge lights. Washing machines neat as teeth line one cement-block wall beneath a whole row of closed windows. A flare of florescent cleaner like a tongue lays cut in two by red rubber cart wheels.... The scrambled contents of their lives empty hurriedly into the loud Charybdis mouths of machines: a pillowcase, yellow with age, tons of undies, a child's bed padding princess pink, shirts waving farewell, yoga pants pantomiming embarrassing positions.... Lives stuck in spin-cycle listen for a bell.... Dryer sheets flicker in corners of the room like stubborn popcorn husks, eternal and inedible.
Burning Wasps Nests
Unsholdering his shovel, Dad pointed to a unnoticed hole, down in the meadowy dirt, in the field behind our house--little more than an ambitious ant-mound really with a perfect circle centering it. We could hear what went on below: small muffled buzzing huzzahs like a covered pot of spaghetti or the sleepy voices of dead folk still warm under desiccated grass. Dad took the gas can from me, its fluent scent flaring clear light into our nostrils, and giving a pinch like hunger somewhere in our bodies. The matchstick arced and landed, a lady jumper with her hair on fire: gasoline flames came like a whiteness that's hard to see--but the heat had us stagger back, Dad's hand on my shoulder like a broad blade. I just stood there, staring at where those scrambled buzzing voices rose more and more angrily, like the deepening sizzle of an unwatched pot, its jittery lid shimmering.
He kept his grandfather company summers by the beat-up workbench in the garage, a piece of fine dovetail sticking halfway from the red vise--a kite's-wing of Icarus' in for repairs. He shook a coffee-can of nails real loud, and sang loud, too, the one tune they knew together, "That'll be the Day," to keep his grandfather entertained while old careful hands swept curls of sawdust to the floor among gluepots and chisels fine as infant fingernails. The wide blond grain of the bench was blasted smooth as a turtle's back by hundreds of restless broken things of grace dragged there and clamped in the vise until they were useful again.
Stray hats perch here all seasons, like birds who abandon their nests of stuck-up feathers (and one egg whenever I duck out of the weather). Where once a loyal brown dog lay curled, guarding hearth and home genially unless tangled with, the August sun scalds me through an open skylight, and cold slaps bone every December. In a gilt-edged mirror at the stylist, I can just about squint Caesar's laurels into existence, tilting weirdly above my ears. After a shower, with my two-days' beard shaved, my face is born again, pink out of the steam, while above eyebrows my pate rises mottled and bald, a tombstone with a single date.
Below my knees, the sea wavers my feet into fins spied through a stormy porthole. Wobbly toes grind sandgrains as if each minuscule stone were the whole world. How many summers, Dad, had we cast ourselves breathless into such endless days? The incoming tide makes me sit down--hard-- as if I were drunk. Ghosts of jellyfish hem my waistline, frail as collapsed lungs until I'm transparent.
Seeking the Fathers
Searching for the fathers of my baffled heart, I hid my head in long books of poems that were forever ending too soon. Once, I was a modern Native American standing silent beside that affable man William Stafford, leaning together among polite prairie dogs. Once, kneeling in deer-soft dirt, I counted countless red streams of army ants Bobby Bly knocked from old gopherwood. He smiled, and we listened to our spirits whisper in the grass. Each volume in the columned hall stood slenderly beside me, my arm draped lazily around its lettered spine. I found many fathers under the yellow suns of those aging, open pages-- we fished whole summers barefoot together, casting our lines, our lives, one word at a time: word, word, word.
Let my boat have neither anchor nor motor ~~Emanuel di Pasquale When they were running good you could spot their sails like dinosaur aileron above the spoiling waves tenting nerve-grey and blue. Our new boat, a fast fiberglass hull, was christened "Mutha II," and replaced an old wood Hacker-Craft, "The Pastime" for our swordfishing adventure. Each handsewn belly-bait carried weight enough to drop long hooks to the ocean floor where swordfish often loiter for prey dragged by the Gulf Stream. Every Christmas we were pulled to hear the hissing line to feel the arch and snap of heavy fishing wire disappear in our boat's shadow. And to witness all alone on the ocean with our father strapped in leather harness and reeling for the kill how swordfish fight and die.
Seeking the Fathers
Beginning to fabricate the music of poetry
It was back in college that I really began to take on poetry as a life-mission. Every serial killer has his first blooding, and mine took place in the leafy precincts of Monmouth University (née College). It was there that a trio of instructors really set out the map I was to wander for the next thirty years, exploring the Hundred Acre Wood of literature, leaving my own poems scritched into the easier pines, or a duck marker where the trail splits to show which direction I’ve gone. Thomas Reiter, Prescott Evarts, and Robert Rechnitz were the three that did me the most good overall. And, although I don’t mention him here, Bob Sipos and his Shakespeare seminars and knack for interdisciplinary studies gave me two of my lifetime hungers, one for anything to do with the Bard, the other for science in combination with literature.
I leaned lazily against the dirty ductwork, my rump in a rumpus of dry leaves, beside me a stack of Cicero (Loeb’s ed.), Auden, some modernist trash. I looked past my tilting sneakers to see the edge of the roof of the Guggenheim Library. A mix of field and woods front leafy Cedar Ave., a terrain that cradled my college days. This is where I ate my way through french fry piles of poems, feasts of history, big burgers of science, and lemonade gulps of art. With the open sky above me, a good book beside, and a building full of poetry behind–the world was my oyster!
On overcast days, or when the librarians were marching about, whistling me in from my aerie on the roof, I’d lean against the doorway at the top of the second floor’s curving staircase. The staircase had an ornate Swastika trim that flowed up alongside the marble steps and was cast (I hoped) before the rise of the Nazis, when civilization had already been rescued once so that F. Scott Fitzgerald could pen his Jazz Age prose for my delectation. It was nice to lean there at the top of the turning stairs, and read, and look through the long window at the bending cypress trees (fluttery as flame-drops) all spring, or to imagine hearing the wind shake snow from them in winter while the old heating registers creaked.
Occasionally I’d see Dr. Reiter or Prof. Prescott Evarts in the “poetry hallway” that led to the staircase–rows of tall bookcases filled with narrow volumes, like a quiver flush with arrows. I’d have to fold my legs into my chest to let the tromping professors pass, who’d offer only a laconic greeting while I’d proffer a phrase from some poem that was trying to absorb me body and soul.
Seeking the Fathers
Back then, I was seeking the fathers. The long beards who could sensiblize this enticing chaos of experience, with its shaggy roots entrenched in history, and its mystery made gritty by dirty Time. Of all the fellows I came across who seemed to hold this sort of full focus that could harrass chaos into the momentary clarity that I longed for, was Thomas Reiter–a poet, I think now, looking back, more of precision than of delicacy.
He had the tall, inquisitive look of a microscope, with a focused intelligence that could reduce callow poems to a tear-stain on a lab slide, each line investigated for signs of microbial activity. Gawky in glasses, Dr. Reiter spread my too-tall-by-half pile of high school scribbles before him on his cramped office desk, post-it notes stuck here and there, and announced that he would proceed by a method of “divide and conquer” to guide me out of my juvenile shallows, and into the Odysseyan deeps that a man might sail for several lifetimes.
He saw the junctures where past wisdom and present experience overlap. And at that overlap, always there burns the bright arclight of the sculptor’s welding torch. Inflection points, capacitances and resistances (as Dr. Reiter might say), all come within the domain and to the mindful moment of the artist–whose hands guide the welder’s fire, whose fingers impress new patterns in the steel. Layer upon layer pressed into palimpsest, and palimpsest hammered into meaningful mandala. It is the completeness and complementarity of his patterns that allow Dr. Reiter’s welded Iron Giants to come to life–and to stay alive. Every capillary has been laid to its destination as surely as any mile of rail. A shield for Achilles made with American hardware. But not made with the willful loss ideology uses to shape its tin minions; ideology that can only cut to create, snipping experience to fit its blinders; ideology that mistakes the narrow road for the wide landscape. Instead, the craftsman works with the simple, slowly learned, touch of humanity. That is the artist’s way: adjusting, assessing, remembering all the while. Such strength of touch we learn from watching our fathers work every day.
And Dr. Reiter loiters along my skyline yet, a shaper of the landscape.
Prof. Evarts always remained a mystery to me–or retained his mystery, perhaps I should say. Tall, with close dark curls grey at the temples, he has a passion for excellence–and for excellence alone. And here I think is his true poet’s touch: he never wavered in his ability to even silently emanate that dedication. In his poems, he casts his heart continually back to the Greeks–as who must not who seeks for excellence? He saw, and shows, how this pursuit of attainment and mastery is what sets our humanity most nobly alight. In his person, the man seems simplicity itself, with some humorous inward gleam withheld–or held within, more than withheld. But, like a prize grouper in his weedy redoubt, when some tempting excellence fins by, he nabs it without fail, adding to his hidden store.
What’s the secret that lies behind every face? Where do the rubbery strings that tie on our masks attach? Something of that esoteric knowledge is what a useful culture can impart to its devotees. And any useful human culture must believe in the best of the humanity of which that culture is composed. Teachers are the intermediaries here, being shaped themselves by the best of the past, and shaping that which is yet to come. It is a moral course, whose compass is composed of Euripides’ “warm droppings of human tears.”
The self-contained individuality of Evarts’s stance toward life and culture (or a life of culture), has taken me decades of rocky yearning and mossy slip-ups to really begin to appreciate. It’s a life-lesson from an old classics prof of mine.
A doze is a light sleep the mind dips into, then wakes from, achingly, into little Iliads ~~Prescott Evarts, "The classical world," in The New Criterion, November 1994
The Importance of Being a Proscenium
Dr. Rechnitz taught me that “Literature is an education of the emotions,” and I’ve noticed that when you read a book openly, getting involved with the characters and letting your imagination be deeply invested, you actually become capable of feeling things, of being sensitive to feelings, that you didn’t even know you had! You really are inventing yourself–your capacities and imaginative possibilities–every time you crack a spine (not to re-evoke the serial killer simile). Like Christian aping the words of Cyrano under Roxanne’s window, we grow eloquent within ourselves when we kiss genius. For words, spoken or viewed, do all their golden alchemy within us.
Dr. Rechnitz also directed plays at the college theater, and is now, since his retirement from teaching, responsible, with his indispensable wife Joan, for the Two River Theater in Red Bank–just the most beautiful theater built in New Jersey in the last fifty years. And when I saw him in the context of the stage, I got hip to the fact that for Dr. Rechnitz, “all the world’s a stage.” Everything, as in a poem or a well-ordered novel, has meaning in three basic ways: what it is in itself (either as essence or fact), what it is in relation to others, and what it pretends to be to itself or others. You see this in Odysseus, who wears many masks on his voyage home to Penelope, but never loses mastery of his essential (still mysterious to us) self. And with Dr. Rechnitz, it was seeing a different version of himself under the proscenium that clued me into how our awareness guides not just how we see the world but what we see of the world–how large our perspective can be. It’s related to growing with that “education of the emotions” stuff.
There is a criticality, a reserve, in even the most audacious clown. Ask the French about the slapstick genius of Jerry Lewis–they get it. Our essence, understood and held by ourselves within ourselves is always under observation by a part of us that doesn’t exist in any single discrete moment of time–but is the “wisdom” (for lack of a more boisterous term) of all our time of acting and observing. This gives the interior quality of good actors, and of happy people engaged in creating meaningful lives for themselves. It’s an open secret, a fun, doubling sub-plot with the power to intensify the main action.
And for letting that cat out of the bag, my thanks, Dr. Rechnitz, wherever you are.
* * * * *
Years later, outside the Two River Theater, I had parked and debarked to see part of the cycle of August Wilson plays they were putting on that season–Jitney, I believe. A long late-model sedan pulled in behind my car, and began a series of seesaw adjustments in attempting to parallel park–first gently crushing into my back bumper, then backing into the bumper of the Jeep behind it. After observing a few of these poolball style bankshots, I leaned in to the passenger side of the car and saw a bank of modern ‘park-assist’ technology displays brightly arrayed in the dash of the car’s dark interior; recessed screens showed in dynamic color each bash of the sedan into my car’s duct-taped bumper like the radar display on an aircraft carrier; and the picture-in-picture safety cam spotlighted a grainy close-up of my old torn Ramones bumper-sticker.
“Gregg G. Brown!” A staticy voice burst from the driver’s side. It was Dr. Rechnitz, grinning gamely as his gold sedan slipped into reverse for another bash at the Jeep.
“Would you like me to pull forward?” I asked as the passenger, the ever-lovely Joan Rechnitz, further lowered her power window with a near-silent zzzzt.
“You’ve got to see this August Wilson play,” continued Rechniz. “It’s a magnificent American original. And no need to move your car–this boat has auto-park.”
“I’m on my way in. I’ll let you know how I like it.”
“Yes. Do that. Do that. You won’t regret a minute.” And he went back to studying the wild displays, digital sweep and counter-sweep lighting up his circular eyeglasses.
I stepped back out of the crash zone, and kept a backward eye on the sedan’s awkward tipping and turning, expecting to hear the Jeep’s car alarm larruping behind me at any moment. At the next play the following month (not King Hedley II), I left my book of literary essays, Vindictive Advice, at the box office, saying only that it was “for the Doc,” and saw an email acknowledgement pop up in my inbox a few days later. I assumed the note would be something in the form of a UPS receipt, one you sign sloppily for the downstairs neighbor before accepting a questionable package wrapped in plain brown paper–and no return address.
The note was indeed brief, but far from perfunctory.
How, he wondered, had I gone from being the homely noticer in the back of the classroom at Monmouth to the well-read raconteur evidenced in the pages of my book? I felt deeply complimented by Dr. Rechnitz’ note. It had not been too many summers before that I had suffered the slings and arrows of 2,000 rejection notes from poetry magazines–without a single acceptance or even a paternalistic pat on the back. And here, in this small note, was acknowledgement of years of literary effort. The note even included a touch of that real writer’s compliment in its bob-tailed paragraph–envy, glittering in its bitter rarity. I felt embarrassed, but glad. I didn’t know what to do with his praise:
The bell's tongue Struck me dumb.
Dr. Rechnitz’s note had managed to park me twenty-five years into the past, back up onto my perch on the Guggenheim Library roof, the view renewed, a fresh bucket of icy oysters by my side in the summer sun.
Scrutable Totems and a Human Heightening
What exactly did I learn from these guys? Let me talk about the poets, since I think I covered some of what I gleaned while in the good graces of Dr. Rechnitz. From Dr. Reiter, I learned (or observed) how a poem can set itself up as a generator of paradox, or mystery. By that, I mean that the circumstances a poem places before the reader recreate the moment in the poet well enough so that the reader, too, must try and manage his way into meaning from what is presented. Hmm… Let me try again. Wallace Stevens has said that “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” I think what I saw in Dr. Reiter’s techniques is that that resistance can be ongoing in the poem, can remain in resistance to any sense of settled ending.
Dr. Reiter manufactures artifacts that embody the dilemmas they explore. They are scrutable totems of immense experiential value–and you could say of explanatory power if you are willing to include being, manifestation, as a form of explanation. If the story and its details can be set up the right way, with enough technique, enough craft, and enough justice to reality, the elements that the poet exposes to the reader go on making the poem long after the poem is over. It’s like striking a cymbal. You haven’t just hit a circle of brass, you’ve touched the nature of the cymbal and evoked it into resonant interaction with the world at large. So, Reiter would be able to set the scene–a plowed field, and country grave-marker, for instance–and turn the description, or evocation, of each of these elements toward a meditation of the relationship between living and mortality in a way that wasn’t a one-off noticing. The elements themselves, in their arrangement, remained deeply provocative. Like an ethics problem or a moral fable, but full of the super-sensible subtleties of poetry. And this is what life confronts us with all the time. And this way, life insinuates itself into the poem, and the poem has heightened life.
Dr. Reiter’s work is difficult to excerpt because of this well-crafted relatedness of parts, a sort of perfection in sum that resists summation, but here’s a few lines from “Sodbusters,” whose circumstance is described just above (ellipses are mine):
Say the child died that first winter .... Say Matthais Bell kept clear of the new stone that spring the prairie blazed with space .... Say year by year he plowed closer-- not that he forgot how the boy's hands were the color of freshly opened apples .... I see him turning the earth beside this graveyard where the prairie compass marks the meridian with its deeply divided leaves.
And it is also with this matter of a heightened life that Prof. Evarts’ poems most impressed me–as well as his whole demeanor. Exemplars, standards, a larger life seem always very near him, like presences. If anyone I know knew where Sophocles was hanging out on the down-low, it’d be Evarts. And by having a ready and eloquent access to these past exemplars, Prof. Evarts constantly calls us to our better selves–not some phony more moralistic self in any narrow sense–but in the very real sense of being ever-alert to our highest excellence. Don’t be good, be great. And he always seemed to have a long enough perspective to avoid the pitfalls of Romantic subjectivity–where the greatness is in what the ego, the I, is feeling–and if you couldn’t feel it too, you are just some kind of lame lumpen-proletariat. No, it’s actually a kind of heroic ideal, a human faith in human faithfulness, if you will. That our capacity to act matches our possibilities–and that the work to move in the direction we are heading is life’s one joy in some final way.
The snail, inch by inch, climbs Mt. Fuji.
And Evarts just always knows which way to Mt. Fuji! Directionality, combined with work and not accepting less than your own very best effort, creates a life and a poetry of excellence. A note that always plays true. I know this sounds a bit like a business seminar, with the way they wobble on about ‘excellence’–but I mean it in the olden way of the Greeks, the becomingness or arête, with man as the measure of all things. Less an appeal to ideas than an appeal to a comprehensive human experience that includes ideas. In this way, ideas are neither excluded nor exclusive. Ideas are simply another, and necessary, ingredient in the meatloaf.
Gregg Glory [Gregg G. Brown] April, 2015
The sea comes into the rock. The rock mocks the sea. The sea comes into the rock Until the rock ceases to be. Secretly the book is being readied. Obstructions and obfuscations Are being blown up and shredded. The book, the words, are come! Beat thou a merry drum! Don a motley cap, and a gown fine-beaded. The book, the words, are come! Beat thou the drum!