I haven’t been writing much poetry lately, but it wasn’t so long ago that I thought of myself exclusively as a poet. I had always written occasional poems—poetry for special occasions like weddings—but I identified as basically a fiction writer.
I came to love writing poetry, though . . . for the intense use of language, of course, but also for the experience of writing a poem as opposed to a long work of prose, and most especially for the craft of poetry. I wrote a lot of poems, and they began appearing in print and e-journals, and I even brought out two small collections of poems.
I stopped for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had to write a 300-plus page accreditation report for the school where I was teaching. It not only brought my poetry-writing and -publishing to a screeching halt, but it made me remember how much I enjoyed working in the marathon of the long prose form. So I started back to fiction.
I was reminded of all that this week when I saw a YouTube video by Michael Martin, a great friend and one of the most talented poets I know. In the video (you can watch it here), he reads two poems: his translation of a poem by Virgil and an original poem responding to the translation. Michael and I used to share poems with each other almost every day . . . one of us would churn one out and immediately send it off to the other for a response . . . we inspired and trusted each other.
Michael has continued writing poems, as well as lots of other things, and his video inspired me to drag a couple of my oldies out of the crypt for this week’s blog entry. The title of today’s post says, “Two Poems about Summer,” but of course they’re not really about summer. I picked them because they’re both set at exactly this time of year (August) and because they gave me the chance to revisit a couple of my favorites and share them with you.
The first one, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” I reworked a bit from its original version, but the second, “Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV,” is pretty much as it appeared first in the online publication Tryst and then in my first collection, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005). (BTW, that handsome devil on the cover is my grandfather.)
Et in Arcadia Ego
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position.
Standing waist deep in the water,
my older brother slaps a hand
on the surface of the startled round
blue sunny mouth of the above-ground pool
on the driveway in our back yard
to mark the seconds advancing
in the breath-holding contest.
Beside him, buoyant, his best friend
does a perfect dead-man’s float—
face down, arms outstretched, legs limp
and trailing in the water—
passing ninety-nine one-thousand
as tiny waves slosh over the edges
of the corrugated metal sides
burnishing a dark halo
in the sand cushioning the pool.
The day warm, the sky blue and cloudless
in Detroit in 1962.
“Aguirre on the mound,” announces
Ernie Harwell from the transistor
on the webbed chair beside the pool
where I am sitting, watching.
“Swing and a miss,” Harwell calls it
and a tinny approving murmur
issues from the ballpark’s August crowd
in the summer of my thirteenth year.
At once the door to the porch
off my brother’s second floor bedroom
flies open and our mother, stricken,
thrusts her head out. “Marilyn Monroe
died!” she cries, voice raspy from smoking,
her shocked grief compelling her
to notify someone, anyone, and
we are all she can find right now—
we for whom that churl death is still
a stranger mocked by a boyish game
(“How long you can hold your breath,”
Death will chide back; “good practice for forever”),
unaware as we are this is how
it enters our lives, with the surprise
burst of a swinging screen door.
Ears submerged but thinking from her tone
she is agitated about him,
the teenager still drifting face down
like a felled log lifts a calming hand
and sends her up an okay sign
while my brother keeps splashing his count—
up to one-hundred-twenty one-thousand—
as the cruel seconds race past.
Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV (August 1967)
Lying shirtless and pantless in the heat
of an overwhelming Detroit summer
at the end of my seventeenth year
alone on an unmade narrow bed
watching the Steve Allen Show
through a murk of endless cigarettes
on a black and white TV with an unbent
hanger for an antenna, I imagined I dwelt
among the habitues of Hollywood Boulevard
who stopped along whatever path
they were traveling to stare into the red
eye of the camera trained on the street
for a slice of southern California life
primed to catch their random amblings
and report the findings out to America
for the amusement of the nation’s viewers
who, like me, laughed along with
the host’s high giggle and comic invention
of lives for ladies with shopping bags
bubbling over with ripe oranges
and hose drooping at thick ankles,
and crazy-eyed men with dirty
pants cinched with neckties bunched
around their waists, and young men
bare-chested as I was, raving
about the government’s intrusions
into their lives, and now and then
a man wearing, say, a shower cap
might wander down the street at the wrong
time and turn up on snowy screens
across the country, his story concocted
for the occasion, and what is amusing
about such desperation, you might ask,
and if you do then you must not be
staring down the maw of your eighteenth
birthday, or understand how
the dusk of LA is as desolate
as the cruel deserted nights of Detroit
or how a camera’s glare can peer into
the deepest fears of those who dream
their truest lives into being, or even
how these could converge with your own.