Two Poems about Summer

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.

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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.)

Enjoy.

 

Et in Arcadia Ego

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position.
    W.H. Auden

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.

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Author: Donald Levin

A prize-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of six Martin Preuss mysteries: Crimes of Love, The Baker's Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and the newest, Cold Dark Lies. He is also the author of The House of Grins, a novel, and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine. He lives and writes in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for the Martin Preuss Mysteries.

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