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 live with an abundance of 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, so 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.

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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 can’t stand his odd line breaks.

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.

Many of his poetry book titles, by the way, obliterate all other poetry book titles considerably. 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 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.

What is it, this death? It is silent. It is cold. Death is an answer, so do not inquire any further. 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, his 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 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 only 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 nearly a 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 a sort of simultaneous 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 with your questions.

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,” as the writer Joan Didion dubbed it, 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 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 with your questions.

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, knowing right from wrong. Yet his hand is forced by circumstances beyond his control in the predatory city, a theme often visited in Springsteen’s songs. The most often noted lines in the song are chilling: “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, and right around 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 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 quite a few famous Seinfeld quotes could have been uttered or written by famous poets. If you truly know your Seinfeld and your poetry, you’ll understand why I paired the Seinfeld quote with a specific poet. Some are more obvious than others, but since it’s safe to assume more people know their Seinfeld better than their poetry, I added the hashtags as context for those not as knowledgeable about poetry.

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.