“The plague full swift goes by”

Like most other people in the world today, I’ve been thinking a lot about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been taking me back to the time in the 1980s when I worked as speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City. At that time, the prevention of AIDS/HIV was the main public health concern in the city, followed closely by tuberculosis.

There were, of course, many other problems, some particular to NYC (window falls by children, for example) and some more common everywhere (dog bites, drug abuse, the diseases associated with poverty, and so on).

The commissioner at the time, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, was very active across the five boroughs, speaking on public health problems. He strongly believed that public health was a political process, and he spent a good deal of time out of the office, explaining and garnering support for the department’s policies across the city and in Washington.

(One policy was the necessity for widespread testing for infection by HIV, which exactly parallels the discussions over testingor lack of testing, I should saythat we are hearing today.)

It was a wonderful job for me . . . I felt I was contributing to the most important health issues of the day in the best way that I could, though my words.

Sometimes I wrote up to eight speeches a week, along with op-ed pieces and articles for medical journals signed by the commissioner and other physicians in the department. And whenever the Mayor’s Office needed something for Koch to say or write about public health, I was often tapped to write that, too.

Afterwards I calculated that I wrote roughly four hundred speeches about AIDS/HIV in my five years there.

And yet, the job had its consequences.

When I started, they found desk space for me in a cubicle in the Office of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Every day when I came in to work, I passed full-color posters of chancres, rashes, warts, and all the other lesions that STIs can cause.

I certainly don’t mean to make light of any of thisbut in the beginning, writing speeches every day about the effects of AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, and spending my days among public health workers who spent their days tracing contacts of people who might have been infected with STIs without knowing it . . . all had an impact on me.

Riding on the subway to and from work each morning, I began to imagine the city as a vast sea of infection and all the people I passed as unknowing vectors of disease.

Not a healthy outlook.

I got over it, of course, but I’ve been reminded of that time a lot lately. The same issues that the city faced thenthe critical need for testing to stem the spread of HIV despite (at that time) there being no treatment for itare issues now.

When I began to write poetry seriously, infection as a metaphor was one I came back to time and again, due in large part to my time at the Department of Health.

Today’s blog entry includes two poems about infection. The first one, “Serial Killer,” is based on a story an office mate of mine years ago once told me about a job he had infecting mice in a vaccine development lab. It seemed a particularly gruesome occupation when he told me about it, and it stuck with me until I tried to exorcize it in the poem.

As you think about labs trying madly to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, give some thought to the little creatures who give their lives to the effort.

The second poem, “Influenza,” uses the idea of infection as a metaphor for how we respond to other things in our lives.

As always, please enjoy. And stay healthy!

Serial Killer

So the god swooped down, descending like the night.
                                    ─Homer

They weighed next to nothing, their bones
more fragile even than a bird’s
when I reached into the cage and
cupped one in my palm, tenderly.

Tenderly, too, the needle, filled
with what poison, what rare
killing toxin tested on these
small creatures, deftly slipped between

their brittle shoulder blades, the fur
bunched in my thumb and forefinger,
a move I learned the first week, saving
time and wasted motions.

They all died. Before injecting
my day’s subjects, I harvested
stiff tiny corpses from the
night before. Or else collected

those I had to sacrifice with
another kind of shot. How like
a god I was, reaching in and
randomly selecting this for

Vaccine Beta, that for Toxin
Alpha, this for a quiet end
in its sleep, that to be rudely
snatched away from the life it knew.

How they feared me, feared the shadow
of my hand as it moved into
position, nudged the cage door open,
and plunged down with unconcerned

speed to snap up the unlucky
and slip in my fatal point,
forcing them to yield up, squealing,
all of their terrible knowledge.

© Donald Levin, 2002. A version of this poem first appeared in Delirium, November 2002.

Influenza

All language is vehicular and transitive.
                           ─Emerson

The vehicle of
a moving tenor

catches us unaware.
When it first appears

we try our best to
ignore its urging

but when it makes its
presence felt, we take

some certain pleasure
in surrendering

to it. At the end
it makes us feel so

awful we wish we
had never been born

though after, we are
better protected

against its striking
again. People the

vehicle with the
rider of your choice:

love, death, sadness, joy,
or even the flu.

© Donald Levin, 2005

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

This is one of my older poems. I wrote the draft of it on a plane on the way to Boston in 2002 to visit cousins and an elderly uncle whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was the first time I had flown since 9/11.

I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was plenty uneasy.

Flying is not my favorite activity under the best of circumstances. But I was flying in the near-aftermath of the terror attacks, when everybody was on edge, and lots of other things down on the planet Earth below me made it seem as though order was collapsing.

This was the time when a sniper in a blue Caprice was shooting people randomly on Washington DC highways. Chechen rebels held 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, and the attempt to rescue them went horribly wrong. Bombs were routinely going off on Israeli busses.

The world seemed a tad nuts.

As it happened, I had assigned Jane Austen’s Emma to my Intro to Graduate Studies students that semester. I brought the book along to reread—and as we always say literature does, it took me out of myself and my worries and transported me into Austen’s world.

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If you’ve read Austen, you know it’s very different from our own. Though her world was also in transition, her characters negotiated the changes with civility and grace

I tried to capture the differences—along with my yearning for a more orderly world—in the poem.

At the time, it seemed as if things couldn’t get any crazier.

Except today, 2020 says, “Hold my beer.”

There’s a new movie of Emma out, and I saw it last night. It was a decent translation of the book to film, with the exception of some casting choices I took issue with. (Note to producers: next time switch the actors who play Knightley and Robert Martin; if you’re going to use the great Bill Nighy, give him more to do).

It reminded me again why great novels like Emma hardly ever make great movies: novels are all about language, and no film can do justice to the sparkling wit of Austen.

But shifting into Austen’s world is still a serene experience as disease, financial catastrophe, corruption, and stupidity rage outside the darkened theatre.

It helps us realize that once there were people who were civil and agreeable to each other. And maybe there will be again.

Hope you enjoy “Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet.”

 

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

A voice from the flight deck mumbles—something

about the weather in Boston—as the plane lumbers

into the dawning day above it all,

the sniper’s nest in the blue Caprice, endless

wars, dead hostages, suicide bombers

blowing nailed starbursts through sunblind busses.

 

Jane, how I welcome your astringent lines, sly

as a measured throw of cards on green felt tables,

the ordered games of Hartfield after dinner

while poor cold Woodhouse worries over the dangers

of rich cakes, and pretty Emma schemes.

Sealed in steel dread six miles up, I enter

your safe art gladly, shaking the dust

of crumbling civilizations off my boot-soles.

[© 2005 Donald Levin. A version of this poem appeared in my poetry book, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005; reprinted in Detroit Metro Times, November 23, 2005).]

The Mysteries of Time Passing

I’m reading a book now called The Order of Time by an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli. Its subject is time (duh), and more specifically what contemporary physics has to say about our received notions about time.

Rovelli asks questions like, why do we remember the past and not the future, do we exist in time or does time exist in us, and what does it really mean to say “time passes?”

He talks about the ways in which modern physics has basically upended everything we thought we knew about time. Our beliefs that it flows uniformly, runs in a measurable course from a fixed past to an open future, and so on . . . all our assumptions about time are provably false, Rovelli claims.

The book examines how our ideas about time have crumbled, and what we are left with.

Fascinating stuff.

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us still abide by those old verities of time. In this season particularly—when we count down the final days and hours of one year and look toward the beginning of a new year and the promises we hope it holds—we seem to be called to reflect on time. Not as an abstract concept of contemporary theoretical quantum physics, but in its more human aspect . . . we are drawn to think about how we used the time we had, what it meant for us, what we might do differently when we have the chances that (again, we hope) the coming year will allow us.

I’m especially fascinated by what I can only call the mysteries of time passing. I regret I don’t have a more nuanced vocabulary to describe what I mean here. This past year I turned 70, which has been more of an “uh-oh” milestone for me than I thought it would be. This year I’ve also been in touch with some friends whom I haven’t seen in decades, and even though I know intellectually that people age, it’s still a surprise to see how thirty or forty or fifty years turn dark hair white, expand thin waistlines, corrugate smooth skin . . . and seem to turn people I knew in their teens and twenties into their own grandparents.

One of my favorite photographers is a man named Milton Rogovin, who was an optometrist in Buffalo until he lost his profession when he was discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s. Then he became a social documentary photographer of people whom he called (as the title of one of his books says) “the forgotten ones” . . . working people whose lives were overlooked, as well as the poor and marginalized and immigrant communities who lived on the lower west side of Buffalo.

His genius was not only to focus his camera on those groups and reflect back to them the meaning of their own lives, but to return several years later to photograph them again, and then return years after that to photograph them once more.

His photos therefore take on an added temporal dimension. They become enormously moving documents that invite us to reflect on, among so many other things, what time does to people.

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One of the photos of his that I find most intriguing is the photo used for the cover of the book, The Forgotten Ones.

I love this photo. It’s  endlessly fascinating for me. I love the people and actions and setting it portrays; it continually invites me, as a writer, to enter into it imaginatively. It’s a partner to another photo of the same two men that Rogovin took years later, and the difference between the two is striking: youth and age, hope and despair, promise and failure.

I don’t have permission to post either the early or the late photo, but the one on the cover of the book is the early photo, so I feel pretty secure in posting that. My continued engagement with the photo resulted in the following poem, “Time Lapse.”

As I said, I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to do justice to my thoughts and feelings about the mysteries of time passing, but in this poem I try to use language to catch something.

 

Time Lapse

(after a photograph by Milton Rogovin)

How is it possible to capture
a moment in a life—
and not just any moment, but
the instant before everything changes,
youth goes to age, future goes to past,
might do goes to have done?—
because here are Johnny Lee Wines
and his friend Ezekiel Johnson
paused on the cusp of their lived lives
caught in a black-and-white photograph
in a lower west side Buffalo bar
in their hats and cut-rate disco clothes
after working all day at the ice factory
doing the Kung Fu Fighting
in nineteen-seventy-three, at
eleven twenty-six p.m. exactly
(how do we know that, you ask?
so says the Genesee Beer clock
cocked between two crooked Genesee signs
on the painted particleboard wall
preserving this moment forever)
with Johnny the hopping happy one
the one with personality
saucy untroubled face looking off
cigarette in hand pointing out to
the future where they both head
and Zeke, he’s the quiet one
behind his square shades, grooving
in his own cool way but without
Johnny’s sassy pop in the reek
of cigarette smoke and old beer
though in the next jolting second
time will change them both forever
when Johnny shifts his willowy weight
from right foot to left, right-angled ankle unbends
and the dancer turns away, all put-on cheek still,
and Zeke (he’s still the cool one)
shifts his hips on the tawdry
checkered linoleum bar floor
where they dance in nineteen-seventy-three
(Everybody was kung fu fighting
Them cats was fast as lightning
)
and their short-lived convexity
will alter and propel them forward
into what future awaits them,
where two tired and portly men
will stand in the bleak Buffalo snow
years from now in another photo,
after all the fights, reunions,
exiles, returns, mistakes,
regrets, chances lost, found, and lost again,
Johnny’s face sad and bloated with woe,
Zeke’s youthful cool now equally absent
in his worn-out and broken body
two casualties of the mysteries of time passing
that release their power in the instant
after Johnny and Ezekiel
jumped into the upcoming.

© 2019 Donald Levin

still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin

 

Three Favors

I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.

Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.

Who is ever prepared for that call?

Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.

IMG_0749

Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.

So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.

But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.

While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.

His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.

IMG_0387
My brother, 1960

Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.

It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.

He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.

The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.

My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.

As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.

As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.

I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.

I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.

When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.

A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.

Three Favors

1

It is 1966 and I’m struggling

to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”

needle-dropping on my turntable

when my brother calls from next door where

he and the neighbor are watching a movie

and the 16mm projector jammed.

“Can you try to get it going?”

A simple problem to diagnose:

the worn sprockets on the well-watched film

have twisted over one of the feeders.

 

The curl in the plastic needs to be freed

and the film rethreaded. I start

the old machine and in the square of light

thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom

appear grainy black and white images

of a truly epic blow job

in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips

and sinuous tongue slaver up and down

a monster phallus glistening with spit

for longer than I would have thought possible.

 

My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder

at the animal rawness of it

as though it is a documentary

about an encounter between two apes

and the camera morbidly scientific

instead of pornographic—exactly

the opposite of erotic, with

a sound track filled with soggy sucking

and a man’s hammy moaning

tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.

 

When another actor enters the scene

and begins to take his own clothes off

I judge I have seen enough and leave them

to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest

blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return

to the silence of my own room

where I take up my guitar again

and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder

to let the hard vibrating wood

ring the bones of my head like a bell.

 

2

The second time, 1971,

we stay in the Southfield apartment

where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.

My brother needs a ride to a job

to meet a friend, this contractor,

he tells me, and he can’t drive himself

since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.

I am in another room, this time reading

(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)

when his spare and stricken figure heaves

 

into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”

he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp

at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub

he had fallen into once while stoned.

This is the time when he makes phone calls

day and night cadging prescriptions for pills

from shady physicians. He tells them

he is a cancer patient from out of town

grappling with terrible pain. He makes

his voice quake in pretend agony.

 

He directs me to a cracked and potholed street

on the east side of Detroit where we roll

to a stop outside a house with black paint

hiding living room windows and high grass

gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car

uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged

up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.

It occurs to me this is not about a job.

No light escapes from the front door

that cracks to allow him entrance.

 

A minute later he is out, walking fast.

“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.

“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,

this time for real. In his lap he cups

something small, like an animal he shelters

and gives me a sidelong glance that says more

than I want to know about fear and shame.

For the rest of the day he wanders around

the apartment with a spoon in his pocket

and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.

 

3

‘Seventy-seven, in another room,

grading essays for my classes at Wayne State

when my brother phones, which he never does.

Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow

fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I don’t even remember why he said

he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.

He must have been desperate indeed

to try me. But I am through granting favors.

I blame him for every unhappiness

 

visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.

“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.

It is the last time I speak with my brother.

Years later he is dead, found in a room

at the Y in downtown Honolulu.

Today, older than he would live to be

I imagine bars of tropical sunlight

peeking through his window blinds, striping

his decomposing body, his mouth twisted

in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild

 

as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,

melting after seven undiscovered days,

across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman

in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes

and died alone, without family, friends, job,

or money, having lost, along with his

precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance

that some indifferent lips might try,

tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-

abandoned, back into despondent life.

On Advice, and Where It Comes From

This morning over coffee I saw one of those ubiquitous bits of Facebook wisdom attributed to everyone from Anonymous to Abraham Lincoln to Morgan Freeman. It said, “Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

No matter who said it, when we’re starting out as writers, we’re always (or should be, anyway) looking for advice and help from established authors. When I give talks, I’m sometimes asked what was the best advice I ever received. I’m hardly ever asked what was the worst advice, yet that can sometimes be as useful as the best advice.

Back in the seventies, when I had written my first novel, I gave the manuscript to the author John Gardner to read, comment on, and, I’d hoped in my wildest dreams, recommend to his agent. Gardner is no longer with us, but at the time he was quite a famous guy. I was hungry for what he could tell me.

Not to be confused with the John Gardner who took over the James Bond series, this one wrote some best-selling literary novels in the late seventies and early eighties (including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts) in addition to children’s books, well-regarded books of criticism, and—guess what—advice for writers (The Art of FictionOn Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist).

At that time he was running the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, and he was friends with my wife, who was also teaching in the English Department.

I was an adjunct instructor in the department, and had met him on several occasions. He had the reputation for being extremely helpful to apprentice writers. I’d see him around the department, and in my interactions with him he was warm and friendly, and treated me like a colleague. He asked to see some of my writing, and told me he’d publish me in the new literary journal he had started at Binghamton, he’d recommend me to his agent, he’d help get me published, and so on.

I had written a draft of a novel, my first, a kind of bildungsroman about a young man who gradually learns to get in touch with “the life he had lost in living,” to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. Called Vital Signs, it was a typical first book, not groundbreaking, I knew, but still I thought it had its merits.

I put it off as long as possible, but I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and with high hopes I gave him the manuscript.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Even more time passed and I hadn’t heard back from him. So one night, when we were both at the English Department’s annual Christmas party (a huge event, since the department was large, with large undergrad and grad programs), I took the opportunity to approach him to ask if he’d had a chance to read the book.

He told me he had.

And he told me my book was evil.

He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Not like, “Dude, your book is eeeeevillllll!”

No, the best-selling author of On Moral Fiction had just told me I’d written an evil novel.

Evil, as in morally corrosive.

As in bad. As in no good.

I’d read On Moral Fiction . . . I knew what he meant: it was trivial, it was boring, it was a lie.

He told me there wasn’t much to do with an evil book.

As you might expect, this was not good news. Here was this big-time, best-selling, hot-shot author known around the English department (and indeed, around the country) as a generous and helpful mentor of young writers, and all he had to say about my book was that it was evil.

It was a blow it took me a while to recover from. (If you’ve read my June 4th blog post, you’ll know this was one of a series of blows that drove me away from writing for awhile.)

Two things happened that helped me come to terms with it. One was what I subsequently learned about that night. Not only was he drunk when I talked to him at the party, but his wife had sued him for divorce earlier that day. 

So he was not only plastered, but he was in a particularly foul mood.

The second thing was, a few days later, I got a note from him, apologizing. He told me he enjoyed the book, that he meant to just skim it but it engaged him so much he read it through entirely, that there were many good things about it, and that he would gladly write a blurb for it.

That salved the wound, but the constant little demon-critic who lives on our shoulders still had me wondering: was it really such a bad book that it took drunkenness for him to be honest about it? In vino veritas?

Still, I gained a lot from this interaction with Gardner—not so much that I am an evil writer, but that you really do have to be careful about whom you seek criticism from (despite all his gifts, Gardner was, I subsequently discovered, an extremely, even reactionarily, conservative critic); you have to be careful about when you ask for it; and—most of all—you have to be very careful about investing too much in what you hear. Another writer, even the hottest, best-selling peddler of moral fiction, is just another point of view, a man or woman with problems and limitations of perspective and weaknesses and failed marriages that sometimes color the advice.

I also learned the importance of being kind when dealing with a young writer, something I never forgot when I became a professor, and, ultimately, a published novelist and poet interacting with other writers, both beginning and established.

I never did publish that manuscript I gave Gardner to review, but I published lots of other things, and why I was able to go on writing was due in part to something he wrote about being a novelist. In fact, it was the best piece of wisdom I’ve ever read about writing in his On Becoming a Novelist:

”Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

I’ve gone back to this paragraph time and again for its wisdom. While the episode with Vital Signs was demoralizing, it turned out that Gardner’s words have seen me through some difficult times, after all.

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.

Six Sure-Fire Ways to Kill Your Writers’ Group

I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.

In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.

In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I  estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.

I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.

I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.

In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:

Screen-Shot-2016-08-28-at-6.07.19-PM1. Everybody’s a Critic.

Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.

It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.

2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.

3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.

Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.

4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.

Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?

25-man-battle-royal-WWE-Smackdown-17.2.2011

Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!

5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.

Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.

6. I Object!

When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).

If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives. The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so. My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing (culled from the Internet) of twenty scathing reviews of books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

 

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“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

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“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent. . . . This is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 

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“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” —Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

 

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“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

 

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The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” —L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

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“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” —James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

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“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” —New York Times on Lolita

 

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“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

 

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“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

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“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

 

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“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

 

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“I have two recommenda­tions. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.” The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener

 

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“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

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“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

 

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“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

On sonnet chains, mercy, and wisdom

In one of my former lives, I was professor of English and, toward the end of my career, dean of the faculty, at Marygrove College in Detroit. In 2012, a few years before I retired, I was invited to be a speaker at the baccalaureate ceremony for the graduating seniors—a kind of run-up to the Commencement Exercises that would happen in another few days. 

The catch was, my invitation was specific: my contribution would be to offer a reflection on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, which was to be the evening’s reading at the Catholic college’s mass for the graduates.

At first I thought it was a prank. My friends who had invited me couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate faculty member for the job. What could I—non-Christian, confirmed atheist, stubborn pusher-against of the institution’s core (and often more honored in the breach than the observance) religious values—possibly have to say about the Gospel of Luke?

When I realized my friends were serious, I started to take the request more seriously. The more I thought about it—and read and thought about the section of Luke that formed the evening’s reading—the more I warmed to the idea. 

I decided to accept the invitation. I thought it might be a way to invite the students to take a brief look backward at their education, and forward to the rest of their lives. My challenge would be to walk the line between meditating on the spirit of the Gospel to an audience of true believers without violating my personal beliefs—or more properly, lack of beliefs. 

In one of those creative decisions that seemed to come from nowhere, I crafted my reflection in the form of a sonnet chain (a collection of sonnets where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next). Today I’m not sure why I picked that form; I’m not even sure I could have said then. Maybe I thought it would be best to write an extended meditative poem in short hops.  

I was reminded of the project when a good friend reminded me last week that the school’s 2019 Commencement had just taken place. I don’t do much with poetry anymore, but I thought posting the poems along with this introduction as this week’s blog would make an interesting entry. And maybe it would help get me back to thinking about poetry again.

Either way, it’s a look into a part of my writing background that was important at one time. Hope you enjoy it.

BTW, please check back this Thursday May 23rd, when I’ll host an interview with Joan H. Young, award-winning Michigan author of the essay collection North Country Cache and two mystery series, the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries and a series for children.

The Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke
Dedicated to the 2012 graduating class at Marygrove College, Detroit

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1
On the pavement by the side of the road
a man walks—no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,
does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk,
hops about to preserve his feet beneath him
(assuming there are feet somewhere inside
those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)
as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes
near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward
on an overcast weekday in May, warm,
windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint
behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or
reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight
on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,
you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2
He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze
if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,
through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned
with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be
blind for all you know, looking not at you
but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,
his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,
lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat
stiff with dirt and britches of a startling
cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;
and don’t think I mistake this ragged man in such an
altered mental state for Jesus, though you may,
but I wouldn’t advise it because now
he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes—

3
He’s fastened upon you and here it comes—
“Yo, chief! Got something for me today?”
At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned
from the sustained confusion of traffic,
the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes
behind you, as if you’ve often seen him
before, and maybe you have, and you think
about how much there is in this world,
and how little; how close we are, and how
impossibly far apart. And you think
you hear music, floating in the air, remote,
the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks
unable to veil the strains of a tune
you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4
You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there—
and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time
you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy
bird-man. And you start to believe that you do
have something for him: because all at once
you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that
in-your-face query; and you intuit
the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;
the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;
whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh
so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,
evangelist, patron saint of healers,
artists, students, tell us how we know him,
teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5
Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.
Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.
Move the spirit upon us, finally, that
makes us love the least and most among us.
For we must love, we know this in our hearts.
Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered
from your rigorous years of study, which
we assemble here to celebrate today,
paused not at the end of your education,
but its beginning; for now are you primed
to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread
a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,
hope and liberation, your truths suffused with
that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6
That music whose soft melodies you hear—
gentle, distant, undulating on the wind—
now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled
with the rustling wings of angels wheeling
overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur
of departed spirits who swim through the sky
as they watch over us. It is the inspiration
which some call god, or Christ, or whatever
immense mystery we feel that impels us
past the insufficient sight lines of our world.
It is the bright summons of the sparrow
calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty
to bless the sacred weighty world beyond
the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright 2012 by Donald Levin