Thursday, April 21, 2011

First Encounters with Poetry (or, what the hell is this stuff and what does it want with me?)

Many years ago I lived on the top floor of a three story brick building on Rising Sun Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. Because of a bus stop directly below the kitchen window, diesel soot endlessly dusted the kitchen ledges, the sink, the already dirty dishes stacked next to the sink. Every fifteen minutes people gathered at the stop. The bus came, they boarded, then the bus let fly a dark balloon of diesel soot, and disappeared.

The old man who lived next door – Charlie – was deaf, so his television was always turned up full blast. The TV was positioned against my bedroom wall. When I first moved in I tried asking him to turn it down. “What?!” he’d shout through a crack in the door. “Could you turn it down?!” “What’s the sound?” I’d try again: “It’s too loud! I can’t hear myself think!” “You miss your sink?!!” “No! No! Think! Think! I can’t hear myself think!” Bad vaudeville in a dark hallway. After a couple of months of this he stopped answering the door. What to do? He was probably living off a pension and too poor to buy a proper hearing aid.

The woman who lived in the apartment below was a nurse who worked nights. Sunday was her day off and she’d make brownies, inevitably trudging up the stairs in the late afternoon, knocking first on Charlie's door, then mine, explaining how she’d made too many and would we like the extras? Charlie always answered her knock.

Below the bathroom window, one floor below the nurse, at street level, was a medical supplies shop. A large wood sign – bearing an illustration of an artificial arm and leg – hung off a metal pole positioned above the front door, just below the nurse’s apartment. When the wind blew down Rising Sun the sign would start swinging back and forth, metal rings scraping against metal pole, sending a vibration down through the pole into the bricks, shaking the entire building. Across from the shop was an abandoned gas station. Behind the station, a commuter rail line. Every other night, in late summer and early fall, between the abandoned station and the rail line, someone practiced jazz saxophone – mostly Coltrane solos from "Giant Steps".
It was in that apartment I first discovered poetry. At the time I was working maintenance (janitorial work) in a museum, studying for an undergraduate degree in anthropology at Temple University. In a going-out-of-business sale at a bookstore on Cottman Avenue I picked up Last & Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz and opened it at random. There were lines about rain blowing in through a window during a storm and it immediately made my brain light up. What the hell was this? Something happened. I had no idea what, but it didn’t matter, I bought the book, brought it home, read it through that night. Soon after, I went out and found Summer Knowledge, a book of Schwartz’ selected poems. 

Schwartz was the only son of Romanian immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, and was somewhat of a wunderkind in the Thirties, the youngest and newest sensation of New York intellectual circles. During that time he wrote a short story masterpiece: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It takes place in a cinema where an unnamed narrator watches a movie of his parent’s courtship, with the full knowledge of how painfully it will all turn out in the end. He wrote it when he was twenty-one (The bastard! When I was twenty-one I was installing solar panels on roofs around San Jose, California). Schwartz’ star began to diminish in the late Forties due to mental illness, coupled with alcoholism. His friend, Saul Bellow, wrote a fictional account of his life called Humboldt’s Gift. One of the myths about him I always liked was that his mother named him after the apartment complex where he was born: The Delmore Arms. 

There were poems in Summer Knowledge with amazing titles: Dogs are Shakespearean, Children are Strangers; A Dog named Ego, Snowflakes as Kisses; In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave …

In the naked bed, in Plato's cave,
Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall,
Carpenters hammered under the shaded window,
Wind troubled the window curtains all night long,
A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding,
Their freights covered, as usual.
The ceiling lightened again, the slanting diagram
Slid slowly forth.
Hearing the milkman's clop,
his striving up the stair, the bottle's chink,
I rose from bed, lit a cigarette,
And walked to the window. The stony street
Displayed the stillness in which buildings stand,
The street-lamp's vigil and the horse's patience.
The winter sky's pure capital
Turned me back to bed with exhausted eyes.

Strangeness grew in the motionless air. The loose
Film grayed. Shaking wagons, hooves' waterfalls,
Sounded far off, increasing, louder and nearer.
A car coughed, starting. Morning softly
Melting the air, lifted the half-covered chair
From underseas, kindled the looking-glass,
Distinguished the dresser and the white wall.
The bird called tentatively, whistled, called,
Bubbled and whistled, so! Perplexed, still wet
With sleep, affectionate, hungry and cold. So, so,
O son of man, the ignorant night, the travail
Of early morning, the mystery of the beginning
Again and again,
while history is unforgiven.
There were no milkmen or horses in my neighborhood, but it still felt like the world I saw when I looked out the bathroom window, witnessing how the rigid silence of the surrounding brick buildings transformed slowly into the day’s noise. After reading the poem, the gas station, the plastic bags caught in the weeds next to the commuter line, the cracks in the macadam on Rising Sun, the first people to gather at the morning bus stop, had all been transmogrified into that too-often abused word “beauty”. The poem had given me back the word.  

I went on to find a used copy of an anthology from the Sixties called Naked Poetry, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey, and came into contact with the poetry of Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder , among others. I would sometimes sit on my bed and chant Ginsberg’s poetry out loud (mostly from The Fall of America), trying to weave a spell against Deaf Charlie’s monstrously loud TV (a hopeless task):

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the
                huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over
                the box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we
                thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
                surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery…

                                                                                (Allen Ginsberg, Sunflower Sutra)

The work of both Snyder and Levertov taught me to look at what was right there in front of me. Which eventually led to the question: When had I lost the ability to see, to sense, what was all around me? And…why?
I noticed that reading poetry out loud was somehow helping hone my long dormant senses. Being an imaginative sort, it occurred to me that poetry might be one of the senses. That elusive ‘sixth sense’. I figured that singing was the union between body and mind (I still do). Singing (words and rhythm indivisible) made the idea that we are divided in two – that we are forever doomed to live in two different worlds simultaneously – look like a great illusion. 

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

          (O Taste and See, Denise Levertov)

One poet leads to another. Snyder led me to Kenneth Rexroth and Ezra Pound, and both led me back to the Chinese Buddhist-oriented poets of the Sung and Tang Dynasties (specifically Han Shan, Li Po, and Tu Fu). Denise Levertov led me to William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and H.D. Robert Bly’s translations and essays led me to Neruda and Vallejo, André Breton and the surrealists. The surrealists led me back to Rimbaud and Baudelaire…

During that time I’d started delivering sandwiches and coffee to the homeless around City Hall. I’d gotten involved in the program through Judge Lisa Richette, a famous Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia (sadly, now deceased. A good obituary that talks about her flamboyance and passion can be found here ). She was lecturing in a local government course I was auditing and threw out the suggestion that we students should meet her some night down at a city center shelter for mentally ill homeless women to help deliver sandwiches and coffee to the homeless. I took her up on the suggestion and continued to do it for about another year.

Judge Richette was a committed Catholic and, I think, saw her work to help the homeless as part of her religious practice. She was one of a kind, making her rounds with long, red-lacquered fingernails, heavy mascara, clacking bracelets, dangling earrings, the clip-clop of her high heels echoing off dark city walls. It seemed as if she knew everyone on the street by name. So down dark alleys we went, into the subways – sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs – hunting for those hiding in the shadows, clutching our plastic bags of sandwiches (made by Catholic school kids – so a lot of peanut butter and jelly) and thermoses of coffee.

Sometimes I got to drive her huge black Cadillac on our rounds. One of my favorite memories from that time: after we’d finished feeding the multitudes on the west side of City Hall, she ordered me to drive down the narrow, cobbled road that cuts right through it. Halfway through, a cop jumped in front of us, waving his hands, red-faced with rage. I stopped and he hustled around to the driver’s side, motioning for me to roll down the window. When I did, he stuck his face in the car and screamed “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I smiled, pointed at the judge sitting next to me. When he saw who it was, he jerked his head back, blinking, suddenly stripped of his mosquito fart’s worth of power. “Oh, sorry Judge, I didn’t know it was you.” 

This was during the late Reagan period when the idiotic trickle-down theory reigned (wait! It still does! What is that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result?). The first triumphant results of the “let the corporations run everything” policy were visible all around: many of the mentally ill from state funded psychiatric hospitals and the poorest of the poor had been dumped out onto the streets. The center of the city was filled with hundreds of homeless people trying to find food, a safe place to sleep. It was a world of the lost and hungry. It probably still is.

I remember a ridiculous and sad Charlie Chaplin moment while combing an island on Kennedy Boulevard – one of those circles with several park benches, a few shrubs. In the dark I could make out three people, one per bench. When I started to pour coffee for the first person, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to face a huge youth, a little younger than me, at least six foot five, wild-eyed, with no shoes. He looked down at me and said: “Give me your shoes.” I was speechless. What squeaked out of my mouth was: “But…they won’t fit.” (In my memory I said it in a high, falsetto, cartoony voice). He followed me to the person on the next bench and repeated his request as I poured more coffee. “I told you, they won’t fit.” He followed me to the third person. “Give me your shoes.” “No.” I quickly hustled off. It was an impossible situation for both of us.

In the dead of winter that year I encountered a woman sitting in the doorway of a store at the top of South Broad Street, near City Hall. As I approached she began to shout “NO!” over and over. I explained what I was carrying. “I don’t want your fucking coffee and sandwiches,” she shot back. “Get the fuck away from me!” There was something about her defiance I admired. As I drove home that night I kept thinking “How speak about that? What can you utter that can possibly speak to what is going on right now?” She’d been stripped of everything, forced to stand naked before hundreds, even thousands of passersby every day, and yet remained completely invisible (until night that is, when everyone else had gone home, and she was left alone, exposed…).
Six months later I was up late, reading Gary Snyder, and it began to rain. The medical supplies sign began to swing, shaking the floor, the walls. I stopped reading, went into the bathroom, leaned out the window to watch. The avenue glistened. No cars. The pattern of cracks in the macadam shone like snakeskin in streetlight. I suddenly imagined that the city was riding the back of a huge beast (of course, after all these years, I know now that it really was, still is). Across the street, the Marlboro Man on the billboard above the abandoned gas station smiled down at the rail line. I didn’t know why, but I suddenly crawled out the window, spun around, hooked my knees over the ledge, and dangled upside down above the medical supply shop sign. In retrospect, I think what I was looking for was a different perspective. Literally. I wanted to see what was out there in the same way I had been taught to draw portraits – by looking at a photo of a face upside down. That way you can’t rely on what you think you see, you can only draw what’s there: the pattern. Curves, lines, shadows: trees clinging precariously to the earth, rocks glistening on the rail line embankment, the hunched postures of the few people passing (never looking up to see the one dangling above), the smell of rainwater steam falling off warm macadam, the slight trace of dog shit and doughnuts in the air, the music of surrounding traffic rising and falling in ever widening circles, aureoles around billboard lights, sparks from the commuter train wires falling into a milky orange sky…
I stayed up all night, listening to Coltrane. At dawn, I wandered out of the building barefoot, down to the hospital grounds nearby. The streets were quiet. Everything was wet, but the rain had stopped. Without purpose I climbed a wet knoll, headed towards a line of pines. When I reached the foot of the first pine, a mushroom suddenly burst out of the grass, white cap blooming before my eyes. There it was: something from (seemingly) nothing. I went back to the apartment – the vision of the suddenly blooming mushroom, the vision of Rising Sun Avenue upside down, Coltrane’s Afro Blue, the tall youth who wanted my shoes, Deaf Charlie's TV, all swirling around inside me – and started to write my first poem. Not about the mushroom, but about the woman who had screamed NO. 

It wasn’t a good poem (how many of those do we really get to write in a lifetime?), but I still remember the last lines: No/is all/she calls/her own. I never finished my degree at Temple. During the time I would normally have graduated I was walking across France.

Although I’m a poet and novelist, this blog won't be exclusively about poetry or fiction. Everything exists, comes into being, only in relationship with other things. Everyone who lives near a border knows that borders are a lie – and I'm not really interested in helping maintain the borders that separate what we have labeled as art, music, politics, the environment, etc. Hopefully, there will also be interviews with interesting people I know. Maybe you. You never know.


                                    I dreamed I saw Joe Hill  last night

The past is all around us; beneath the streets, falling from the sky. Sometimes fire, sometimes ice. When raccoons appear from gutter drains, crouch under streetlight, their eyes are tunnels, caves. Leaves swirl, mix with diesel smoke. It might snow.   

I cart all my furniture, records, and books down to the street. Charlie peers through a crack in his door, watches me push my couch down the hall. Outside, its gray skies, a prophecy of crows. An intern from the hospital walks past, looks over his shoulder. I sit cross-legged on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. I am the prophet of snow.  

A garbage truck pulls to the curb. The driver hops out, nods hello. He buys One Dimensional Man and The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. When he drops two quarters in my hand, I remember who I am. I turn, get back into the truck, drive home.  

I am the last. I am writing a poem tracing the genealogy of the garbage I collect. I am stealing back everything that has been stolen from me. When I finish, I turn off the lights, open the window, let in the snow. Large flakes float past books scattered on the floor. Marx, Gandhi, Vallejo, Césaire. A snowflake lands in the palm of my hand. 
                                             (from How the World was Made
                            an online chapbook of prose poems available from 2River )

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