Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Two Good Men

There they were, two men I highly esteemed, at each other’s metaphorical throats. And poets yet.

In 1979 I found myself at Port Townsend, Washington, for seven days. It was the annual Centrum summer poetry workshop / conference.  I choose to be part of a small class headed by Stanley Kunitz. He was a mere 74 at the time, practically middle age for him. Kunitz was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 and again in 2000 when he was 95. He died at age 101.

He was the most eloquent essayist I have ever read, writing about poetry. His erudition was vast and almost casual as it elevated his conversation. In the group Kunitz presided with a gentle authority. His criticism was constructive, severe at times, yet never personal. His voice seemed to carry the entire canon of Western literature with some Basho and Lao Tse thrown in.

In my private meeting with him I presented a poem (since lost) with some trepidation. He read it carefully and his response puzzles me to this day, in its ambiguity. He said, This poem cannot be improved upon. I’ll never know if he meant it was so good not to tamper with it or so bad it was beyond repair. As I recall I just thanked him and ran off.

In the room next door to the Stanley Kunitz workshop was another one of my heroes, William Stafford. He had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1970.  It wasn’t so much Stafford’s language that impressed me, it was his approach to poetry as if it issued directly from his being. Every morning, at dawn, Stafford walked a few miles and out of that came three poems. They were raw and immediate. He was a man without guile. His embrace of the world was especially non-judgmental. Most remarkable was the way he responded to the poems of others. 

I attended one session in his group to witness an interchange I’ve never seen before or since. When students read their work to the class Stafford’s rule was: No Praise, No Blame. He was able to work with the poet to guide that person in becoming his own best critic. It was transformational. He believed that all of us are poets with the innate authority to express our art.  That unique voice belongs to us; it only needs to be fully relied upon and released. No external authority figure needed.

A poem without secrets lies dead on the page. These are the words of Stanley Kunitz. I believe this is true of all art. There is a mystery to our being. Words dance around that inviolate core. We offer a glimpse which can describe but not explain its secrets.

One evening I was to meet with William Stafford in the dining hall for a private meeting. I arrived to see these two highly evolved souls shouting at each other across the room. It was a sight I would gladly have missed. I didn’t catch their point of contention. When Stafford greeted me, we left. I didn’t have the courage to ask about their disagreement. Maybe that falls under the heading of the eternal mystery. Even saints have pushable buttons. I had the profound experience of both men; clearly there were differences.

Stafford was probably the least combative person I’ve ever known, He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Kunitz was a lifetime gardener. He regarded his plants as little allegories representing the fierce will to survive. His poetry was an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence.

Maybe Stanley Kunitz took offense with the unpolished spontaneity of Stafford’s work. Or perhaps Stafford took exception to the position Kunitz assumed as arbiter which (he may have felt) robbed the poet of his own creative impulses. Or could it be they were at odds over the spiciness of the day’s soup?   

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hills, Stairs and the Big Climb


Our dear friend Judy R. is an ace photographer. What I merely glimpse she composes. Stairs at Disney Hall become an abstract of intersecting angles with increments of light and shade. What are stairs but a series of horizontals within a diagonal to reach the vertical? She is a poet without paper capturing creases in the landscape and on faces. Stairs are what humans do to hills and high rises. We step, we climb.

Like Jack and Jill to fetch our pails. Sometimes we break our crowns or, like Sisyphus, our boulders betray us at the top and roll back down.

Artists have to find their place, their perch. half in, half out of this world. As A.A. Milne put it…….Halfway up the stairs / Isn’t up / and Isn’t down / It isn’t in the nursery  / And it isn’t in town / All sorts of funny thoughts / Run round my head  / It isn’t really anywhere / It’s somewhere else instead.

Five hundred years ago the Inca’s built a city on top of hill in the Andes. This was far more than a hill of beans.  It takes 3,000 steps to reach the top. I’d hate to have made the descent and forgotten my car keys. They managed their crops by terracing the land around and preventing mudslides. It might also have prevented invading pseudo-pious Conquistadors. However by the time Spanish marauders arrived Machu Picchu was buried under dust and rubble. It wasn’t unearthed till 1911. 

Mt. Everest might be good for intrepid sled-riders but I’m not one of them. Forget about my Flexible-Flyer. I’d rather watch photos. Maybe, one day, Judy will take the wrong freeway and end up there with camera at the ready.

High as it is nothing compares to our figurative mountains. Those seemingly insurmountable heights we need to ascend. Peggy is on such a climb. At ninety-nine she is inching her way on her own path, in her own time. Among her vital equipment is a spanking new aortic valve. Her impulse is to rest. My mission is to push, just a little. Deep breath….hold….and out…..ten times…..three times a day. No stairs or escalators, just an arduous journey, a lift made possible by her buoyant spirit accompanied by a chorus of love calling her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Virulence, Vaccine and Valve


To say that 2020 has been a bad year is to say that World War I was a family squabble or Moby Dick was a gefilte fish. This year has been twice blighted. First by the pestilence of Trump and then by his virulence actualized as Corona virus.  

In an episode of the Sopranos which has stuck with me, one of Tony’s thugs is killed and a memorial service is held in his house. After the priest says his usual platitudes he asks if any of the assembled would like to add a good word. A long silence follows until a voice from the back shouts, His brother was worse.

So our world got worse last Monday when Peggy’s heart attacked itself… or was it assaulted by the weight of the world? In came a squad of strapping paramedics at 3 A.M. and out they left with Peggy, horizontally, to St. John’s Hospital. I was told not to come; I wouldn’t be allowed in due to precautions set in response to the virus.

Indeed Peggy’s heart is capacious with a wide embrace touching the heart of everyone she has met, both personally and on the page. Her poetry issues from her being. Its incandescence is an essential lantern to see us through these dark times.

While awaiting an angiogram she wrote a poem for the cardiac surgeon. As many others it is both immediate and transformational. It will hang on his wall. After some probing and imaging, seven days after admission, she underwent a Trans Catheter Aortic Valve Replacement.

Success! She now has a spanking new bicuspid or mitral valve. The term describes a valve with two cusps or leafs allowing the blood to flow into the aorta. If arteries are highways this is the tollbooth. As the valve narrows it causes a Sig Alert. I prefer to think of it as a river running its course and getting refreshed as it cycles.

Another name for the valve is mitral, derived from the word mitre, as in a bishop’s hat. (I just looked it up; otherwise I wouldn’t know about such things.) How apt that the church has found its way on to this page. It was divine intervention from the hospital chaplain, Father Patrick, who on our behalf, blessed us twice. He and Peggy had formed a loving bond on previous occasions. Now he has prevailed upon the hospital administration to allow us to visit with Peggy in her room on two days leading up to the procedure. I almost considered converting but I’m afraid that would be a leap too far.

She will be coming home tomorrow. With a little help from her 2020 model valve I expect her Mississippi will be rolling along to steady chamber music. No muddying. No reefs.

May this sweet stream signal a turnaround for 2020. I can see a ship loaded with vaccine coming around a bend along with the restoration of dignity, compassion and science its cargo.

P.S. I’ve just been corrected. Forget what I said about the mitral (bicuspid) valve. It wasn't that one. It was the tricuspid valve. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Trip To Bountiful


I could write how I strap on my backpack two or three times a 
week and set out past the last row of homes, with their well-behaved beds of roses, into the wild communing with red deer under a cacophony of crows circling a bee-loud glen. Over there is Robert Frost’s bending tree and his not-taken path beside the rubble of an unloved wall.   

In fact none of this happens but I do take out the garbage every few days with due diligence. There are two rubbish bins; one west, down the hill on Raymond and around the corner and the other up the incline and headed south on Highland. I’m still looking for a route that is downhill both ways.

As I recall I’ve never encountered deer of any color but I do pass a commotion of crows reminding me whose woods these used to be. I hear that goats have reclaimed Main Street in some towns and penguins are stopping traffic in Capetown, South Africa.

My plastic rubbish bag is exhibit-one filled with evidence of our consumption or rather the leftovers of our lives. Pits and peels, bones and rind along with tissues, tea bags and yesterday’s flamboyant bouquets make for a rich mulch. The dump is full of ripe gone to rot. I am pallbearer in the grand cycle. This is where it is always winter where withered Christmas trees mingle with the excess of our celebrated civilization. Where putrefaction reeks against the promise of renewal.

In his poem, Man On the Dump, Wallace Stevens suggests this is also where poets live beating their tin cans, stubbornly, as if to answer the grackles of peevish birds. How do we converse with the decay of rancid voices? Forty percent, plus or minus, speak in fluent vitriol contaminating our common air.  Hurry, November 3rd. There is poison in our midst to be dumped.

Over three years of spewed hatred plus six months of virus hankering to multiply even as we are hunkered down and I walk to the dumpster writing this page out of my head in the silence of exhausted words. Rising from of our decline and fall a nascent poem takes shape, paragraph to stanza, stanza to music. A limp stalk stiffens as reed to the mortal coil of a bluesy sax.  

Friday, July 3, 2020

Fourth of July


This is the day Thomas Jefferson declared that all propertied white men are created equal. The rest of you guys, get over there. And you too, wives, sisters and daughters. You may be equal but not to us plantation owners who are more than equal. Nor are these savages who were so hospitable we never left. Nor are those dark-skinned people we buy and sell who have built this country. They have no inalienable rights but they shall count as 3/5 in the census. All these conditions were enshrined in the Constitution. There was cotton to be picked, stolen land to be tilled, bales to be lift and barges to tote.

Where do I sign, said our Founders. And these were the enlightened. But not enlightened enough to imagine that our creator endowed everyone with the right to life, liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. The declaration begins with the phrase, When in the course of human events... Are those who are shackled, dispossessed or indentured not human? 

In fairness it needs to be said that our floundering founders were bold and brave men. By signing their names to this  document they were committing sedition with a bounty on their heads and subject to hanging.   

From 1800 to mid-century the slave population quadrupled from one to four million. The face on our twenty dollar bill was a particular abomination. He hungered for their land and was particularly angered because the Choctow nation of five tribes were reported to be harboring runaway slaves, all 3/5ths of them. He then relocated 46,000 Native Americans about twelve hundred miles away, indifferent to their Trail of Tears or the thousands who died along the way. Jackson was no visionary. He dumped them on oil-rich land which then meant further displacement generations later.

Is it fair to judge our Founders for their role in human bondage? I believe it is. The truth about inhumanity is self-evident. In the case of Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette urged him to liberate his slaves and the Polish military commander and engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, offered to compensate our esteemed author /architect / inventor / and President for his losses. But the man from Monticello declined, even upon his death bed. Apparently, he had grown accustomed to his privileged position and Black lives did not matter. After all, manumission might have set a bad precedent.

In fact, upon Kosciuszko’s death, in 1819, he bequeathed $20,000 to Jefferson but T.J. took the money and passed on his enslaved men and women to his nephew. So much for declarations of independence.  

In Lincoln’s prose-poem we call The Gettysburg Address he got his first sentence wrong. Maybe on purpose. Four score and seven years ago in 1863 our fathers did not conceive of a new nation. We were not a nation for another eleven years when the Constitution was ratified. In 1776 we were, at best, a confederation of states. The sovereign states, to this day, are loathe to relinquish many of their Antebellum ways.

This is no year for fireworks. The country is already combusting. Let this Fourth of July be the time to revisit and redress the omissions and injustices baked into our Constitutional yeast.

Our cherished document is yet to be realized. The legacy of Independence Day is still aspirational. The lofty words need to be brought down to ground-level. Heirs of Thomas Jefferson’s 230 slaves have been emancipated on paper but not as yet freed from economic suppression, disenfranchisement, daily indignities nor from the festering worm of racism in the minds of the dominant class.  

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Baseball as Life


You had to be there. Maybe you had to be me at age eight and a half, Oct 5th, 1941. I remember it being a Sunday. (Yes, I’m right. I just looked it up). Fourth game of the World Series and the Dodgers had it won but managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It changed my life even though I didn’t have much of a life before then.

I won’t go in to what happened with two outs in the ninth inning. If you’re a fan you already know. It has never happened again. If you are not you’ve probably stopped reading this anyway. The point is that I never got over it. As a consequence, I have never, not once, counted my chickens before they are hatched. Of course, I’ve not counted them after, either. I assume nothing.  I cushion bad news. I prepare for every eventuality. Well, not every. I don’t go to sleep in a wet suit in the event of a tsunami.

Baseball teaches us how to fail…..and live for another day. The greatest hitter of all time failed sixty percent of the time. If a player today failed seventy percent of the time, he’d have a long-term contract for about twelve million per year. If a brain surgeon had that rate of failure, he’d be selling shoes at Big-5.

Baseball at age eight is its own universe. It is the first thing I knew my parents didn’t. (No, Mom, they are not pillows; they’re called bases.) I was fluent in its jargon. Stay with it and discover poetry in its stanzas and heroic couplets. There is a Euclidian elegance in its infield proportions, a randomness in the outfield, an existential moment at the plate while the umpire confirms subjective reality.  

For refugee families arriving here in the 1930s baseball was their portal into the English language. After a year or two one could speak fluent Baseball. The game was segmented into orderly innings. It was a repudiation of the chaos and incivility in Europe. Then as now it offers the illusion of manageable drama. It is linear. The narrative moves sequentially with innings as decades. The runner travels counter-clockwise around the bases back to home where he began and back to where I began.

What happens on the field is of no real consequence and that’s not a bad thing. Trump is still an infestation to our national heritage. Even as he divides our people that other virus, Corona, is multiplying.

Soon the season will begin in defiance. Controlled pandemonium meets pandemic. Let me hear the crack of bat, the thump in the mitt, the chatter in the infield even if the stands are empty. I’ll be on the couch, eight years old again reliving my early trauma or maybe this time I’ll be on the other side taking a bow for an amazing comeback with four consecutive home runs in the bottom of the ninth to live another day.

Baseball is my arrested development. Some of us grow up. I hope to keep the kid alive in an eternal run-down between third base and home, heedless of the clock.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Further Father


My father had a Dickensian beginning. His mother died when he was two and his father couldn’t cope. My grandfather was destitute and an alcoholic. If this were a novel there may have been great expectations awaiting but this was real life with no inheritance on the next page.

So it was that my Dad was sent to live with equally impoverished, but sober, Aunt Rose and Uncle Peretz whose profession was a peddler selling shoe laces and socks. I don’t imagine there was very much food on the table. Day-old bread would have been a luxury. I can imagine them eating a soup made from the top of carrots which were thrown away. I can almost hear my father saying, Please, Sir, I want some more. The Dickens, you say.

Wait, I lied. There was a rich Uncle Henry. But where was he? Maybe he hadn’t become rich for another three decades and even then I remember being invited to Rose and Peretz for lunch one day when I was about ten years old. I was served pot cheese and sour cream. As I recall I did not plead for some more.

When my father went to kindergarten the teacher warned the class to pay attention. In his state of anxiety he heard it as, Pay a pencil. Alas, like Simple Simon he hadn’t any. I don’t know how far he went in elementary school but I know he never went to high school. He sold newspapers in front of Bushwick Stadium in Brooklyn. At three cents a throw I guess he got to keep a penny.

Along came my mother to tutor him sufficiently to pass a high school equivalency test and then on to college for the required two years to receive his license to practice Pharmacy. He must have been dyslexic; it took an inordinate amount of time for him to read a newspaper article.

His model was compelling enough for me to follow that path into pharmacy. I remember how deliberate he was reading a prescription. In those days the ingredients were often written in Latin with a sort of educated scribble, unintelligible to most, as if the doctor and pharmacist were engaged in a clandestine operation. Simply counting and pouring came much later. Prior to 1950 drugstores were gardens of herbs with crude drugs emitting a vapor from their apothecary jars.  My father carried that scent in his body, pungent, organic and intoxicating.
A single inhalation could pacify my world.

The mean streets seem not to have left its mark on him except  his compassion for the disadvantaged which came out as a kind of abstract vehemence against greed and injustice. It landed him, apologetically, in left-wing politics. 

In the meantime his father had remarried and accumulated four more children. All of them were raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of inebriation my Grandpa Louis named one his new sons, Samuel, forgetting that he already had a son with that name. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Even Dickens couldn’t make this stuff up.

He loved his half-brothers, particularly his namesake whom I remember for his beautiful handwriting in the V-mails we used to receive during W.W. II where he served in the Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic.

Here’s my question. How does a boy, discarded by his birth father and raised as a street urchin, turn out to be such a soulful, loving, even-tempered father? I have no memory of him ever raising his voice. He never complained. He seemed at home in this world. Where did that sweet nature come from? I ask you Charles Dickens?   

My father took the hand dealt him and went further, father.