Author: Joshua Cooper

I write a blog of curious wordsmithery called Strange Language (strangelanguage.com) that includes series on poetry, Bruce Springsteen, faux news, and lists, among other things. My alphabetical list of interests includes amelioration, ballyhoo, catharsis, doodads, enlightenment, flotsam, gusto, hobgoblins, inquisitiveness, jetsam, koalas, lyceums, mojo, neologisms, oxymoronica, (parentheticals), quirks, refutation, smithereens, troglodytes, umbrellas, vivacity, wanderlust, xylophones, yoinks, & zings.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Ants by Matthew Rohrer

The first stanza of this poem, composed of a single sentence that is eight lines long, steals your breath. It is as if you, not the ant, is the one slowly dying from exposure to toxic mushroom spores. The terse imperatives (“forage”, “chew”, etc.) in the second line of the second stanza create a nice contrast to the poem’s grueling first sentence. By the concluding stanza, the poem fascinates as much as the the children’s science magazine fascinates the poem’s speaker. The lines “Everything he thought he was here / on Earth to do has been left undone” serve as a warning: get busy with the goals of your life before it’s too late. Lastly, I love how the solemnity found throughout most of the poem–breached exoskeletons, sinister spores, and unfinished life pursuits–contrasts with the final lines that jolt us back into reality.

ant
Image Credit: David P. Hughes via Gemma Reguera

The Ants 

Nothing is more important to the ant
whose exoskeleton has been breached
by mushroom spores that are now
controlling his nervous system
and compelling him to climb to a high leaf
only to die and release the spores
over the whole forest
than this poem about his sad plight.

Otherwise his life is meaningless.
Forage. Chew. Recognize by scent.
Abdication of the will. A huge wind
that comes and sweeps his fellows
off the grass. When he dies up there
in the treetops the mushroom grows
right out of his head and breaks open
lightly dusting the afternoon.

Everything he thought he was here
on Earth to do has been left undone.
Through the trees
the spores move on their sinister ways.
I put down the science magazine written
for elementary school kids
in which I have briefly disappeared.

– From Surrounded by Friends by Matthew Rohrer published by Wave Books, 2015.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Mannequins by David Shumate

David Shumate’s Mannequins reminds me of the notion that the only “normal” people are those you don’t know very well. We all have our little quirks, don’t we? It’s just that most of us keep our idiosyncrasies behind closed doors.

mannequin

Consider the speaker’s self-righteous neighbors thinking he’s a pervert while undoubtedly hiding their own depravity that they, like all good hypocritical neighbors, find less appalling. Because the speaker orchestrates the banalities of life using mannequins, even his own mother endorses psychiatric evaluation despite her dismissive attitude towards the practice. Is she the cause of our speaker’s odd little habit? Let us not forget the lines of poet Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”

Many might assume our speaker is demented and lonely, but by poem’s end it turns out he’s merely an unabashed eccentric in a relationship with a lover who shares his kinks. If he has nothing else, he at least has his mannequin posing to share and that is something we shouldn’t diminish in a world of increasing alienation.

Mannequins

At auction I buy two dozen mannequins and set them around the
house. I give each a name and dress them in tuxedos. Gowns.
Work clothes. Pajamas. I set a few in front of the television. Two
at the kitchen table. A man on the toilet. A woman in the shower.
Four on the lawn with croquet mallets. At night vandals arrange
them in obscene positions. But I don’t mind. I’m glad they’re
interested. Two mannequins lie naked in the spare bedroom
staring up at the ceiling. One dangles by his neck from a rope in
the workshop. Pull him once—the garage door opens. Pull him
again—it closes. The rest are stacked in the purgatory of my
closet. My neighbors think I’m a pervert. My mother doesn’t
believe in psychiatrists but makes an exception in this case. Last
week the police searched the place and left laughing. When my
lover arrives she calls them by their proper names. She brings a
new hat for one. A paisley scarf for another. Then she turns the
lights out and stands quite still among them. I know which one
she is. But I play along with her little game.

– from The Floating Bridge by David Shumate, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Memories of Fish by James Tate

Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org

The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).

Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.

While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.

The Memories of Fish

Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. “What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
no forgiveness.

– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Big Heart by Anne Sexton

Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

There I was, a capricious sixteen-year-old boy, bent intently over my desk, reading line after line of Anne Sexton’s poetry. I had little in common with this poet, yet her mostly autobiographical poems still spoke deeply to me.

Even now as I return to her work as an adult, I’m startled and enchanted by how openly she probed her own tempestuous interior life. Critics often cornered Anne Sexton’s poetry as merely confessional, but others later defended the artistry with which she expressed her autobiographical turmoil. At the very least we can say that her work contained more honesty than artifice, which is not to say she lacked technical skills of an accomplished poet. Both the number of awards she garnered and the popularity of her work attest to her abilities.

“The Big Heart” captures both sides of this critical discussion. From the start we see an incredibly transparent persona offering us a litany of those she is thankful for, actual names of actual people she esteemed for their willingness to give whatever it is she needed. But we also see wonderful imagery (the sea’s fingers on the shore), several similes (doubt as hollow as the Grand Canyon), and biblical allusions (the metaphorical staff, the slain ram). These references to God should not surprise us–the poem was written not long before her suicide, and many of the poems she wrote during this time demonstrate a violence (death), but also a spiritual seeking (the afterlife). Note the final lines, in which love arrives, but with fury in a monstrous heart.

The Big Heart
Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold
. – from an essay by William Butler Yeats

Big heart,
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly,
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
They are my staff.
They comfort me.

They hear how
the artery of my soul has been severed
and soul is spurting out upon them,
bleeding on them,
messing up their clothes, dirtying their shoes.
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
the sun
in all its amazement,
and a slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in–
all in comes the fury of love.

– from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books, 1999.

Litany: 10 Excerpts from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Image Credit: Christine Zenino, Wikimedia Commons Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is aptly titled. “Disquiet” refers to a feeling of anxiety, and this story has plenty of unease for both its narrator and readers.

The narrator, perhaps a stand-in for Pessoa himself, is clearly a distant literary relative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Eliot’s Prufrock. He is a man of inaction, excessively and perhaps obsessively analytical. He is beset on all sides by the ills of modernism–fragmentation, cynicism, paranoia, spiritual emptiness. Due to the personal, first-person perspective, it is difficult for the reader to avoid the resonance of these same ills, particularly the fragmentation.

Pessoa writes, “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.” Sounds beautiful, yes, but after only a few pages one realizes this “profusion of selves” is also problematic. It is the paradox of choice in terms of self. Who should I be, and when, and why, and how? The narrator is frustrated, and consequently, frustrating, but that does not make him any less sympathetic.

The writing itself is the book’s best quality. Pessoa is a stylist. Like Nabokov his prose sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond bathed in light. But he is not a storyteller; he is a thought-teller, and therefore this book is not for the adventurer, but rather the contemplator. He is, in a sense, Hemingway’s exact opposite. If we can accept that then we can appreciate not only what Pessoa has written, but also how he has written it–marvelously. Below are some excerpts over which you may marvel, but I recommend you read the entire book for yourself.

1. …and from the majestic heights of my dreams, I return to being an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.

But the contrast doesn’t overwhelm me, it frees me. And its irony is my blood. What should theoretically humiliate is what I unfurl as my flag; and the laughter I should be using to laugh at myself is a bugle I blow to herald–and to create–a dawn into which I’m transformed.

2. And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the souls’s salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life’s pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.

3. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes.

4. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place.

5. To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally…Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I’d languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.

6. Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

7. Absurdity is divine…Let’s buy books so as not to read them; let’s go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who’s there; let’s take long walks because we’re sick of walking; and let’s spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.

8. Sadly, or perhaps not, I recognize that I have an arid heart. An adjective matters to me more than the real weeping of a human soul.

9. Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone departed and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.

10. I want to raise my arms and shout wild and strange things, to speak to the lofty mysteries, to affirm a new and vast personality to the boundless expanses of empty matter.

Bonus – My march of triumph didn’t get as far as a teapot or an old cat. I’ll die as I’ve lived, amid all the junk on the outskirts, sold by weight among the postscripts of the broken.

– from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Richard Zenith, published by Penguin Books, 2001.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves, and that is unfortunate because she is one of our best. Her style is accessible, yet profound, at times bordering on conversational, engaging her readers in vital dialogue about human life and the sacredness of nature that surrounds it. That is the content she works over as a poet–the space where nature and humanity intermingle. What can a flock of geese or a field of golden rods tell us about our humanity? Oliver explores this question with the patience and keen observational eye necessary to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment from her surroundings.

So why isn’t she more popular in critical circles? Perhaps her work is too bucolic for modern times. Personally, I find it refreshing; others may find it passé. Perhaps another criticism is that her range is limited, that she covers the same ground again and again. However true that may be, we should recognize the quality with which she covers that ground. Her focus is narrow, but exquisitely so.

Oliver wrote “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” after surviving a bout with lung cancer. I especially love the third stanza in which she reminds us to make the best of our time, which with death lurking around every corner, is as fleeting as ever.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

1.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles–
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river–
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

Image Credit: Jay Sturner, flickr

3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belong to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more
life.

– from Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, published by Penguin Press, 2014.

Boss Songs Part IV: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy
Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy

Song – “Johnny 99” on Nebraska

This is yet another Boss song in which the central character’s hand is forced by his grim economic reality. The tempo of the song is fastpaced, especially in contrast with the majority of the Nebraska album, which in parts is unnervingly slow. In this case, a working-class man known as “Johnny 99” loses his factory job, resorts to the bottle, gets his gun, and ironically shoots one of his blue-collar brethren, a store clerk. The loss of a low-to-middle wage job is a common circumstance in numerous Springsteen songs, yet it continues to resonate because it’s still such a reality in America, where one economic injustice often leads to a litany of others. There’s legal injustice when Johnny gets a “public defender,” a moniker that instantly connotes inadequacy, if not downright incompetence, as well as the drawing of a judge dubbed “Mean John Brown,” who attempts to intimidate Johnny with his stare and gives him a life sentence. Johnny’s unexpected analytical response is that “it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” In his final act of defiance and hopelessness, Johnny requests a death sentence rather than the life sentence the judge gives. The “thoughts in his head,” he says, are deserving of such a sentence. It’s a classic Springsteen conundrum where the blame game is complicated. For a lighter take, note that the Boss alludes to Tanqueray gin long before Snoop Dogg ever mentions it in his 1995 hit “Gin and Juice”.

Song – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born to Run

While no one, including the Boss himself, quite knows what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is, the song is a favorite of many fans and often finds itself on Springsteen’s setlists. It’s one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I love the upbeat tempo created by the piano and horn interplay. I also like the “here I come” attitude of the song’s narrator. Bad Scooter had swagger before “swag” was a thing. “Well everybody better move over,” he croons, an artist on the verge of a breakout, much like Springsteen himself, whose superstardom began with the Born to Run album. “And kid you better get the picture / And I’m on my own, I’m on my own / And I can’t go home,” he sings. Success is a must because there’s nothing else left. Blessed with nothing but the naïve dreams of glory, he’s got his “back to the wall,” which we all know is the perfect motivation to “make it.” Throw in a little help from friends like “the big man” (Clarence Clemons), and he’s confident that he’s about to “bust this city in half.” The freeze-out, whatever it is, is in full effect.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72 by Charles Harper Webb

If you want to bring a neophyte or skeptic to poetry, Charles Harper Webb is your man. His work is an easy and enjoyable entry into the poetry arena, which is not to say his work is too simplistic. It’s not. His poems are emotionally resonant, their topics atypical, often written in an almost conversational narrative mode that includes deft touches of humor and irony.

The first time I read his poem “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72” it absolutely stunned me. As someone who adored his father, I could entirely relate to Webb’s rage. My own father was destroyed by cancer at the age of 55, much too young to die, and I wanted to annihilate his cancer cells the way Webb wanted to destroy the man who accosted his father. There’s something completely human about the desire for vengeance–it’s so emotionally irresistible. It just feels right. Yet intellectually it doesn’t solve anything. The hole created by loss is still there and we spend the rest of our life trying to fill it or figure out a way to live with the absence.

Image Credit: Brookie, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Brookie, commons.wikimedia.org

The title is superb, creating a curiosity in the reader who wonders why a poet would pray for a criminal. It isn’t long into the poem before we understand the irony built into this prayer. Even better is the ending, which although predictable, feels right–a son’s reprisal, futile in reality, but so emotionally satisfying.

Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72

May there be an afterlife.
 
May you meet him there, the same age as you.
May the meeting take place in a small, locked room.
 
May the bushes where you hid be there again, leaves tipped with razor-
blades and acid.
May the rifle butt you bashed him with be in his hands.
May the glass in his car window, which you smashed as he sat stopped
at a red light, spike the rifle butt, and the concrete on which you’ll
fall.
 
May the needles the doctors used to close his eye, stab your pupils
every time you hit the wall and then the floor, which will be often.
May my father let you cower for a while, whimpering, “Please don’t
shoot me. Please.”
May he laugh, unload your gun, toss it away;
Then may he take you with bare hands.
 
May those hands, which taught his son to throw a curve and drive a nail
and hold a frog, feel like cannonballs against your jaw.
May his arms, which powered handstands and made their muscles jump
to please me, wrap your head and grind your face like stone.
May his chest, thick and hairy as a bear’s, feel like a bear’s snapping
your bones.
May his feet, which showed me the flutter kick and carried me miles
through the woods, feel like axes crushing your one claim to man-
hood as he chops you down.
 
And when you are down, and he’s done with you, which will be soon,
since, even one-eyed, with brain damage, he’s a merciful man,
May the door to the room open and let him stride away to the Valhalla
he deserves.
May you—bleeding, broken—drag yourself upright.
 
May you think the worst is over;
You’ve survived, and may still win.
 
Then may the door open once more, and let me in.

– from Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems by Charles Harper Webb, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Ice for Eagles by Charles Bukowski

I read somewhere that Bukowski never wrote a great poem but rather numerous good ones. I’d agree, but argue that he wrote a glut of bad ones too. He wasn’t an “artist” or “craftsman” but that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t have its place in the poetry arena. His poems appeal and belong to the downtrodden and demoralized, or those interested in such exiles. Those caught in the fierce whirlwind of youth also adore him. I loved his work in my early twenties, and still like to dip into his work on occasion, though now I often find myself annoyed by some of his work.

Image Credit: paul_houle, flickr
Image Credit: paul_houle, flickr

The academy, however, despises his work since it is so far from cerebral in its content and so unsophisticated in form. Bukowski probably took being scorned by literary elites as a sort of gold star, although I guarantee he hoped to sell more. His best work is visceral, like an unexpected shot to the gut, and he excelled at eviscerating the delicacies of life while somehow balancing the humanity among the ooze. When the poet Anne Sexton wrote, “Man is evil. Man is a flower that should be burnt,” Bukowski knew what she was talking about. In one of the many documentaries about Bukowski, one of his friends recalls him saying, “If your parents begin to like your work, it’s getting bad. If the cops are around something good must be going down.” I think that quote encapsulates both his life and work rather well.

I find many of his poetry book titles, by the way, wonderful in and of themselves. Here are a few: Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, Love is a Dog from Hell, War All the Time, You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, Night Torn Mad With Footsteps, and The People Look Like Flowers at Last.

Here is Bukowski’s poem “ice for eagles”, which appears in The Days Runs Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, yet another stunning title. I love how the poem demonstrates that wild animals can also be paragons of tenderness, perhaps in contrast to supposedly civilized humans who often destroy one another. The last two lines, “those red tongues slobbering / out their souls” creates quite the concluding image.
 
ice for eagles

I keep remembering the horses
under the moon
I keep remembering feeding the horses
sugar
white oblongs of sugar
more like ice,
and they had heads like
eagles
bald heads that could bite and
did not.

The horses were more real than
my father
more real than God
and they could have stepped on my
feet but they didn’t
they could have done all kinds of horrors
but they didn’t.

I was almost 5 but I have not forgotten yet;
O my god they were strong and good
those red tongues slobbering
out their souls.

– from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills by Charles Bukowski, published by Ecco Press, 1969.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Who Needs Us? by Dorianne Laux

Image Credit: Odins Raven
Image Credit: Odins Raven

A poem doesn’t need to make you feel good, but it does need to make you feel something. Dorianne Laux’s “Who Needs Us?” isn’t exactly a sunbeam of positivity, but rather an indicting read whose sting is dampened by the poem’s sonic qualities. The alliteration, assonance, and internal rhymes of the poem lure you in so well it’s easy to miss the content and the ideas behind it. The title is a question worded in such a way that the answer–no one–is implied. However important or necessary we think we are with our “magnified magnificence,” we’re really just infinitesimal slithers in the sublimely infinite and ever-expanding world. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” asks T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. As if the universe would even notice the question.

Who Needs Us?

The quiet, the bitter, the bereaved,
the going forth of us, the coming home,
the drag and pull of us, the tome and teem
and tensile greed of us, the opening
and closing of us, our eyes, in sleep,
our crematorium dreams?

The brush of us one against another,
the crumple on the couch of us,
the spring in our step, the sequestered dance
in front of the cracked mirrors of us,
our savage suffering, our wobbly ladders
of despair, the drenched seaweed-green
of our tipped wineglass hearts, our wheels
and guitars, white spider bites blooming
on our many-colored skins, the din
of our nerves, our pearl onion toes
and orangey fingers, our effigies
and empty bellies, our plazas
of ache and despair, our dusky faces
round as dinner plates, our bald pates,
our doubt, our clout, our bold mistakes?

Who needs the footprints of us,
the glimpse of us in a corridor of stars,
who sees the globes of our breath
before us in winter, the angels
we make in the stiff snow,
the hack and ice of us, the glide
and gleam and busted puzzle of us,
the myth and math of us,
the blue bruise and excuse of us,
who will know the magnified
magnificence of us, could there be
too many of us, the clutch and strum
and feral singing of us, the hush of us,
who will hear the whisker of silence
we will leave in our wake?

– from The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

When Your Father Dies: In Which Sense Is So Far Away

Your father, still a young man, talks to you. His mouth moves plainly. Words float slowly from his lips; their sounds softly enter your ears, but they do not make any sense to you. It’s liver cancer. Terminal. Both bodily and psychologically, it’s going to be some hellish exit.

Still, he is remarkably calm. Death is sticking his fiendish fingertips in his liver, and yet he is unnervingly serene as he describes his options.

I’m going to fight it, he says. See how far I can go.

Good, you reply, staring a thousand yards away at nothing. You’re thinking, or trying to. Sense is so far away. Good, you say again.

Three swift months later, his demise surprises you. It is expected, yet somehow implausible. What happened? Inevitable and relentless progression of cancerous cells. How? Quickly.

Oh yes, it is progress, as inelegant as ever, destroying as it creates. Here is death for the man who has an answer to every inquiry of your childhood and every indiscretion of your teenage youth, however tame it seemed to you.

Here is death, silent and cold. Death is it.

It is undeniably hard; it is stunning in its lack of edge, its blur, its wobble; it is something you cannot quite recall now, his final words to you, the light growing dim in his eyes. His face will not float back to you, but if you could see its earnest hunger for a little more, it would only demonstrate that his mouth could not move or mumble, as was often his way; it could not utter its final utterance.

If you could see his sunken cheeks, the almost hollowed out sockets of his eyes, his face would demonstrate a lack of radiance evident even in those destroyed beings that somehow go on living. It could not, would not, illuminate the dark finale of life.

Yet it is his deep sleep, his final rest, that finally affords you rest of your own, however false it proves to be. It is three months of weariness diminished in a day, replaced with something else entirely. It is a substitute, a grief that literally destroys your gut for an entire year. It emaciates you and condemns you to never be too far from the refuge of a restroom where you can vomit just enough for a brief reprieve. It is where you can wash your face in an attempt to cleanse or drown—either will do. It is where you will remain for months, maybe years, wading in the waters of grief.

Death is an answer, so do not inquire.

It is ignorance, attempting to ignore it, a kind of false management that gets you where you need to go for some time. It is “magical thinking,” according to the writer Joan Didion, a pleasant euphemism for a sort of momentary insanity, but also a testament of imagination intermingling with the aching throb of the human heart.

Perhaps it should be deemed majestic thinking, the way it transforms the humble reality of an object into something superb. It is noticing that your grocery market keeps its peanut butter across the aisle from its bread. It is that sensible coincidence that allows the aroma of burnt toast and peanut butter to fill your nose, and all of a sudden, it is morning, and your father is no longer deceased, but eating his favorite breakfast of burnt toast smothered in peanut butter while reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He is sipping his black coffee from his black mug, but you are not there. Yet you will see him later because it is as real as the grocery cart you’re handling, your knuckles gripping tight and holding on as your mind careens between the real and unreal. Your brain, that callous beast of habit and circuitry, that beautiful mass of matter, is working wonders, yet it still won’t let you see his face with any exactitude, even though he is warm and living, an intangible being in a tangible body that is sitting in your kitchen one final time.

It is excusable, your imagination, your magical and majestic thinking. It is nothing if not a means to let you survive. Sanity is overrated when sense is so far away and his death so unreal.

And your own death, too, suddenly so real, so close, only a few decades away and now destroying your concept of time. Whatever it is, this death, it is indistinct, hard to hold, yet it is being held all the time within your hands, which with age start to resemble his—slow, callused, steadfast. It’s the finest line that lingers between breath and death, its limits and lines contained within a couple of letters.

Death is an answer, so do not inquire.

An answer, an abstraction, hard to pin to the paper, yet with you. Its absence is impossible, even years later. It is hard to understand, for yourself and for others. It is quiet, but there, where it will stay, much closer than any sense you seek.

*****

For another personal meditation on death, see Emma Kempsell’s The Waves on the Sea from thisrecording.com.

Boss Songs Part III: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images
Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images

Song – “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ 

This song is three minutes of pure bravado that concludes the album in a way that must’ve left initial fans clamoring for more. It’s also another example of Springsteen’s superfluous yet pleasing rhyme, reminiscent of “Blinded by the Light”, a song also included on Greetings but later popularized by Manfred Mann. The speaker of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is a young man who demonstrates a sort of hyper self-awareness, clearly knowing right from wrong. Yet his hand is forced by circumstances beyond his control in the predatory city, an oft-visited theme in Springsteen’s songs. The best lines in the song sizzle: “The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street / Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat / I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat / It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street.” Since it was recorded before Clarence Clemons joined the band, the album version is mostly guitar and piano, but watch the video of the band performing it at the Hammersmith-Odeon in 1975. This utterly enthralling live version is everything a live rock song performance should be. It includes a ragamuffin Springsteen looking every bit like a “king of the alley” who “could talk some trash.” Clarence Clemons, bedecked in an all-white suit, uses his saxophone to add an eerie tension that is sorely missing on the album. Roy Bittan is caught repeatedly manhandling the keys of the Steinway piano, while at the three and half-minute mark guitarist Steve Van Zandt dares to duel the Boss and his Fender Telecaster. If the performance wasn’t so quintessentially rock-and-roll it could pass as punk before there was punk. Watch it—you won’t regret it.

Song – “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

Like “Lost in the Flood,” here’s another Springsteen song without a chorus. Instead, we see a typical Springsteen collage of frantic images and fanciful characters (“interstellar mongrel nymphs”), but the grim reality that pervades many of his songs is absent. Although there’s no real story here, the Boss keeps it freewheeling and upbeat as he describes the cityscape with a barrage of allusions (silver screen actress Joan Fontaine) and quirky rhymes, with Mary Lou telling the Daily News, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” The music is pared down, the song is over before it hardly begins, and it can’t be slowed down. I’ve never heard of Bruce playing this song live, but if so I’d pay a small fortune to see him perform this two-minute romp in a blazing sixty seconds of stream-of-consciousness rock.

Litany: Seinfeld + Quotes + Poets = Seinquoets

As an avid Seinfeld viewer and poetry reader, I enjoy when the two inexplicably coalesce in my mind. The more I considered it, the more I realized that several Seinfeld quotes could have been uttered or written by famous poets. If you know your Seinfeld and your poetry, you’ll understand why I paired each specific Seinfeld quote with a particular poet.

Image Credit: commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Castle Rock Entertainment & Sony Pictures, commons.wikimedia.org
  • “Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.” – Robert Frost #roadnottaken
  • “I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I gonna make sarcastic remarks to strangers?” – Dorothy Parker #acidtongue
  •  “I’ve never heard of a relationship being affected by punctuation.” E.E. Cummings #modernistpoet
  • “Actually it was in gym class. I was trying to climb the ropes and Jerry was spotting me. I kept slipping and burning my thighs and then finally I slipped and fell on Jerry’s head. We’ve been close ever since.” – Allen Ginsberg #howl
  • “The sea was angry that day my friend, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.” – Stevie Smith #notwavingbutdrowning
  • “You have the chicken, the hen, and the rooster. The chicken goes with the hen… So who is having sex with the rooster?” – William Carlos Williams #redwheelbarrow
  • “Y’know I remember when I was a kid growing up, kids would make fun of my name like you wouldn’t believe – ‘Jerry Jerry Dingleberry’, ‘Seinsmelled.’”- Shel Silverstein #sidewalkends
  • “I’m not a lesbian. I hate men, but I’m not a lesbian.” – Anne Sexton #herkind
  • “Do you ever get down on your knees and thank God you know me and have access to my dementia?” – Edgar Allan Poe #darknessilluminated
  • “This woman hates me so much, I’m starting to like her.” Charles Bukowski #misogynisticlove
  • “Do you have any idea how much time I waste in this apartment?” – Emily Dickinson #aloneintheattic
  • “I couldn’t raise a kid? C’mon, I love bossing people around.” – Gertrude Stein #mentor?
  •  “Man, it’s the nineties… It’s Hammer time!” – Frank O’Hara #celebritypoems
  • “I’ve always been a stall man.” – T.S. Eliot #uptight

Poems You Might Have Missed: Emphasis on Mister or Peanut, Robo or Boy by Matthea Harvey

If you’ve never read Matthea Harvey‘s work, you’re missing one of the most insightful and fascinating imaginations in contemporary poetry. Reading Harvey’s work reminds me of the words of the French poet Rimbaud: “Woman will discover the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delightful; we will accept and understand them.” While Harvey has published several books, Rimbaud’s words most aptly describe Modern Life, .

Image Credit: poetryfoundation.org
Image Credit: Doug McNamara, poetryfoundation.org

Modern Life, like much of her other work, includes a hybridity motif, splitting and splicing together objects, animals, and language. It includes a series of poems including the bionic Robo-Boy, perhaps my favorite portion of this serious yet decidedly playful work. This series of poems are a good example of Harvey’s ability to fuse a sense of humanity into the premise of a futuristic creature that in fact doesn’t feel that futuristic, progress being progress. And while the vast majority of readers and real-lifers will undoubtedly frown upon the humanness of a bionic creature, Robo-Boy is not so unlike us in the series’ final poem, in which “he’ll sit on a fence and look at the clouds, through exhilaration, hysteria, delight, despair.”

Emphasis on Mister or Peanut, Robo or Boy 

In the chapters on Special Children, the parenting books stress
the need for role models. Hence the silver-framed portraits of Mr.
Peanut, the Michelin Man and Mrs. Butterworth in silver frames
on Robo-Boy’s bureau. Robo-Boy has never quite known what
to do with them. For a while he thought they might be estranged
relatives, especially since his parents never mentioned them. Mr.
Peanut, debonair as Fred Astaire, looks like the kind of uncle who
might tell you over steak and a cigar that with a pair of gloves and
a monocle slotted over your eyesocket, you can have your pick of
the ladies. Mrs. Butterworth figured more in Robo-Boy’s brief religious
phase–there’s something holy in her maple syrup glow, and
in her shape, something of the Buddha. The Michelin Man is the
one who worries him. With his perpetual thumbs-up and cheerful
expression he looks like he might be hoping to hitchhike his way the
hell out of here–

– from Modern Life by Matthea Harvey, published by Graywolf Press, 2007.

Harvey’s newest collection If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? has already garnered numerous positive reviews and will be released 19 August 2014.

Boss Songs Part II – Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Art Maillett
Image Credit: Art Maillett

Song – “Backstreets”
Album – Born to Run

This is perhaps my favorite Boss song of all time, although it is admittedly difficult and probably unfair to have to choose only one. The piano intro being played by Roy Bittan at the beginning of “Backstreets” feels like home and heartbreak all at the same. In his Rolling Stone review of the album Greil Marcus said it should be a “prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.” The lyrics are also a perfect mixture of nostalgia and desolation. I love the first and last verses especially, which demonstrate Springsteen’s poetry of the lost. He uses the poetic sound devices such as the alliteration in “soft infested summer” and the internal, imperfect rhyme and assonance of “tying faith between our teeth”—all of which balances nicely against the grammatically incorrect yet fitting sound of the phrase “we was born in.” In the final verse he sings, “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see / Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be / And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest.” At some point in our youth, we dream we’re rising, trying to live up to some unattainable ideal. Then one day we discover that glory passes most of us over, our youth is gone, and all that’s left is life on the backstreets.

Song – “Born in the U.S.A.”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

When I was eight years old I owned two very distinct cassette tapes: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A What a combination! I listened to both albums so often I wore them out. Just like nearly everyone else in the eighties I misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic theme. With the “I was born in U.S.A.” lyric, you can’t help being jingoistic and dismissively arrogant about being an American. The phrase had to be a boast, but of course, that is all part of the irony of the song about a former soldier pushed aside by the economic circumstances of the very nation he defended. Once you really listen to the lyrics you realize this song is anything but patriotic. It’s about a man run afoul of the law who can’t catch a break. He’s sent to Vietnam, does his duty, but returns home brotherless, jobless, hopeless. He’s wasted from waiting, a “long gone daddy in the U.S.A.” The song is saturated in irony, but most people just don’t get it. Musically, I love the snare drum that opens the song, Mighty Max Weinberg’s concluding drum solo, and in the live version, the wailing guitar at the end. Also, check out Springsteen’s solo version on the slide guitar—it’s intense and much less likely to leave you in a misguided nationalistic stupor.