Monday’s Verse 5/15/2017

Dear readers,

before you comment, yes, I know I am the worst. Sorry for missing yet another week of spring. Yesterday I was driving a decent part of the time; I’m sure we can all agree that weekly poetry group reading does not justify the use of a smart phone while traveling at 75 mph on America’s worst piece of concrete. I have enough coordination problems simply trying to manage the steering wheel with one hand and the flipping off of truck drivers with the other.

Well, I arrived home to a peaceful house and a new magazine with a new Yusef Komunyakaa poem, so it was a fulfilling poetry afternoon after all. You remember Yusef Komunyakaa, right? He’s the one of "Love in a Time of War" from 9/21/2005, and "The African Burial Ground" from 2/15/2016. He’s the one whose name is an anagram of "Make a funk, you say?" He’s the one I discovered in a grad school contemporary american poetry class, the one who I recently claimed teaches at IU (when in fact, the New Yorker contributor page tells me he teaches at NYU).

This is a cool poem about current times, filtered through the musical memories of a character referred to as "Old School." There are so many good jazz, blues, and soul references here. I thought it might be fun if readers pick one out and talk about their personal connection to it–some tiny insight into your soul’s soundtrack. I’ll go first.

Late in the poem he talks about the Church of Coltrane, of which I’ll consider myself a smorgasboard member. I can’t remember the first time I listened to his live take on "My Favorite Things," but I can remember that it blew my little mind. I’m pretty sure I got my first Coltrane album via a pirated tape, December 1994. It was the reissued Giant Steps, with outtakes, that made it seem the album just went on in endless variations…never quite beginning and never quite ending. Shortly after that I moved to Pittsburgh, and I’m guessing it was at Jerry’s in Squirrel Hill that I picked up a "Greatest Hits vol. 3" that had "My Favorite Things" on it. It has come to be one of my… favorite things. He first recorded it on a studio album in 1961, but most people are familiar with the slightly faster take from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. How did he manage to bring a sinister, obsessive-compulsive edge to a nice song from a pretty musical? I don’t know, but I can no longer think of it in any other way.

Also, this poem kicks ass. Enjoy, -ed.

THE SOUL’S SOUNDTRACK

When they call him Old School
he clears his throat, squares
his shoulders, & looks straight
into their lit eyes, saying,
"I was born by the damn river
& I’ve been running ever since."
An echo of Sam Cooke hangs
in bruised air, & for a minute

the silence of fate reigns over
day & night, a tilt of the earth
body & soul caught in a sway
going back to reed & goatskin,
back to trade winds locked
inside an "Amazing Grace"
that will never again sound
the same after Charleston,

South Carolina, & yes, words
follow the river through pine
& oak, muscadine & redbud,
& the extinct Lord God bird
found in an inventory of green
shadows longing for the scent
of woe & beatitutde, taking root
in the mossy air of some bayou.

Now Old School can’t stop
going from a sad yes to gold,
into a season’s bloomy creed,
& soon he only hears Martha
& the Vandellas, their dancing
in the streets, through a before
& after. Mississippi John Hurt,
Ma Rainey, Sleepy John Estes,

Son House, Skip James, Joe
Turner, & Sweet Emma,
& he goes till what he feels
wears out his work boots
along the sidewalks, his life
a fist of coins in a coat pocket
to give to the recent homeless
up & down these city blocks.

He knows "We Shall Overcome"
& anthems of the flower children
which came after Sister Rosetta,
Big Mama Thornton, & Bo Diddly.
Now the years add up to a sharp
pain in his left side on Broadway,
but the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
call down an evening mist to soothe.

He believes to harmonize is
to reach, to ascend, to query
ego & hold a note till there’s
only a quiver of blue feathers
at dawn, & a voice goes out
to return as a litany of mock
orange & sweat, as we are sewn
into what we came crying out of,

& when Old School declares,
"You can’t doo-wop a cappella
& let your tongue touch an evil
while fingering a slothful doubt
beside the Church of Coltrane,"
he has traversed the lion’s den
as Eric Dolphy plays a fluted
solo of birds in the pepper trees.

-5/15/2017

Monday’s Verse 5/1/2017

Readers,

well, I blew it last week, what with the last week of national poetry month, and Shakespeare’s birthday (1564-1616) falling on a Monday. My friend Adam probably said it best via Twitter, "His passport accessed all worlds: from fools to kings, profane to profound, & comedy to tragedy. The best. Ever." But I was too busy performing the profane and mundane, yes, likely in the guise of the fool, to get my weekly missive out in time. My apologies, Misters S.

I’m certain we’ve read the below poem once before, and I’m pretty sure we’ve read it twice. But it’s too tempting for today, what with its mention of the new month, and its kind-of-the-opposite-of-carpe diem ethos. The man knew his way around end-rhyme, that’s for sure. Enjoy, and enjoy all your summer days! -ed.

SONNET 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Monday’s Verse 4/17/2017

Dear readers:

Gerald Stern has been one of my favorites since I first tripped over him about 20 years ago. Not that I’ve read deeply into any of his books — I’ve probably read about 1/3 of a collected poems my dad gave me for Christmas maybe, hm, maybe 15 years ago. "This Time" is one in the stack of books that makes up the MV twitter icon. It’s funny that my dad, who is neither a poetry writer nor a poetry reader, would give me a book by non-best-selling Gerald Stern. Perhaps the man who was born in April, 1937, in Pittsburgh, feels some kinship with the man who was born in 1925, in Pittsburgh. Of his own youth, Mr. Stern has said, "My family’s only been here 100 years. Exactly 100 years. And I grew up in Pittsburgh, American-raised, whatever the hell that means–to be American. But I realize now I’m somewhat of a foreigner." What does he mean, a foreigner? Living as a Jew in Pittsburgh? From a Jewish family, being of majority age as the U.S. turned away boats of Jewish refugees during the height of WWII (sending literally hundreds back to their deaths in concentration camps, rather than let them disembark on U.S. soil)? Does he mean adopting an outsider perspective on social life, lending just a touch of the surreal to even his most prosaic poems? Identifying more with European, rather than Anglo-American, strains of poetic art?

He’s a great Pittsburgher, hence his name anagram "Grand Steel’r." And my dad, who celebrated his 80th birthday last weekend, is too, and so I’m dedicating this edition to him: brand new work from a nonagenarian. Have a good week, -ed.

GELATO

The two nuns I saw I urged to convertto Luther or better yet to jointhe Unitarians, and the Jews Iencountered to think seriously aboutJesus, especially the Lubavitchers,and I interrupted the sewer workersdigging up dirt to ask themhow many spoonfuls of sugar theyput in their coffee and the runners intheir red silk to warn them aboutthe fake fruit in their yogurt sinceto begin with I was in such a goodmood this morning, I waited patientlyfor the two young poets driving over fromJersey City to talk about the late Fortiesand what they were to me when I was their age andwe turned to Chinese poetry and Kenneth Rexroth’s“Hundred Poems” and ended uptalking about the Bollingen and Pound’sstupid admiration of Mussoliniand how our main poets were on the rightpolitically—most of them—unlike the Europeanand South American, and we climbed some stepsinto a restaurant I knew to buy gelatoand since we were poets we went by the names,instead of the tastes and colors—and I stopped talkingand froze beside a small tree since I wasolder than Pound was when he went silentand kissed Ginsberg, a cousin to the Rothschilds,who had the key to the ghetto in his pocket,one box over and two rows up, he told me.
-2017

Monday’s Verse 4/10/2017

Dear readers,

strolling through the Rutgers New Brunswick campus yesterday, after running many miles with my friend and founding MV member Mike Scrudato, I wondered if Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) had ever been a teacher there. Turns out he had a contentious relationship with the place. He enrolled in 1951, but left after 1 year to attend Howard University. After he burst onto the scene as a creator of a distinctly black nationalist poetics (after dabbling in avant-garde and beat alliances), he returned to Rutgers as a visiting professor, but left the school when the full faculty senate narrowly denied his appointment to full professor. Because of his full commitment to various social and global causes–not all of them popular–controversy followed him. After his appointment as Poet Laureate of New Jersey in the 2000’s, the New Jersey legislature tried to strip him of the title. Finding no legislative tool for removing such a gubernatorial appointment, they instead did away with the position altogether. Damn shame for a state with a rich poetic past and present.

Baraka was born Everett Leroi Jones, and published under his birth name prior to adopting a more radical political stance. In addition to poems, he wrote plays, novels, short stories, political essays, and music criticism. In the poem below you sense some of the cold fury in his poems — though this one is a little more abstracted than some of his famous pieces — and also, perhaps, some of what makes his poems "not for everyone." -ed.

AN AGONY. AS NOW.

I am inside someone

who hates me. I look

out from his eyes. Smell

what fouled tunes come in

to his breath. Love his

wretched women.

Slits in the metal, for sun. Where

my eyes sit turning, at the cool air

the glance of light, or hard flesh

rubbed against me, a woman, a man,

without shadow, or voice, or meaning.

This is the enclosure (flesh,

where innocence is a weapon. An

abstraction. Touch. (Not mine.

Or yours, if you are the soul I had

and abandoned when I was blind and had

my enemies carry me as a dead man

(if he is beautiful, or pitied.

It can be pain. (As now, as all his

flesh hurts me.) It can be that. Or

pain. As when she ran from me into

that forest.

Or pain, the mind

silver spiraled whirled against the

sun, higher than even old men thought

God would be. Or pain. And the other. The

yes. (Inside his books, his fingers. They

are withered yellow flowers and were never

beautiful.) The yes. You will, lost soul, say

‘beauty.’ Beauty, practiced, as the tree. The

slow river. A white sun in its wet sentences.

Or, the cold men in their gale. Ecstasy. Flesh

or soul. The yes. (Their robes blown. Their bowls

empty. They chant at my heels, not at yours.) Flesh

or soul, as corrupt. Where the answer moves too quickly.

Where the God is a self, after all.)

Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,

white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.

It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton

you recognize as words or simple feeling.

But it has no feeling. As the metal, is hot, it is not,

given to love.

It burns the thing

inside it. And that thing

screams.

-1964

Monday’s Verse 4/3/2017

Welcome to National Poetry Month!

Yevgeny Yevtushenko gained massive fame following the Stalin years of oppression, declaiming his poems in concert halls and sports stadiums for young Russians just as fearful and optimistic about the future as he was. He died this week at 83. In 1962 he performed 250 poetry readings and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He even did a stint teaching at Queens College-CUNY, a campus I know a little something about. He was also a Jew who received commendations from international Jewish groups and composed poems of remembrance for important events in Jewish history, such as the 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, near Kiev. Here is his poem "Stalin’s Heirs", translated by George Reavey. -ed.

STALIN’S HEIRS

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fized bayonets.
He also was mute- his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious,
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal,
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare,
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin:
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go!
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin!
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
‘Why care? ‘ some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

Monday’s Verse 3/14/2017

Dear readers,
sorry for my absence yesterday, 8.5 hours of which was spent driving, 5 hours in a training, and 1.5 hours on a couch staring at the air. No time for a big intro today, but I did find something seasonally appropriate by a poet whose name anagram is "I care, big CEO." Regie Cabico is a former slam champion, and damned if he doesn’t craft a good title. -ed.

DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME FLIES LIKE AN INSTAGRAM OF A WEASEL RIDING A WOODPECKER & YOU FEEL EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT

The giant Slinky

of  Spring approaches

& I have nothing

to sport after spending

a fortune on hooded

sweaters that make

me look like I’m searching

for the Holy Grail.

Struggling with

granola & soy milk,

dental bills accumulate

like snow & the potatoes

I forgot have rotted.

I’m broke & broke

& broke & broke

& broke, a bowling

ball spiraling down

a middle-aged

staircase of doubt.

The night I crazily

fled for the gentrified

grids of  14th Street.

A pinball, I landed

in Playbill. I left

Brooklyn tossing

televisions & futons

like bombs

in the bowels

of  hipster bohemia.

In the piano karaoke

bar, I met Kevin,

a Peter Pan

Tennessee man

who spun quips & wit

like pixie dust about me.

A puckish chariot

fueled by moxie,

this lean tambourine

of charms leaned

over me, a hot flamingo

in the midnight light

& admitted his

once-upon-a-time

fetish for Laotian

men in his youth.

I wanted him to fall

for me as if  he stumbled

into the inside

of an Oriental

mansion shaking

the tchotchkes

in my heart, steeping my

crush into sweet green tea.

Kevin would be my model

of elegance, unabashed

confidence, a dragon

fierceness. He said,

There’s more to Rainbow

Pride than RuPaul

& Stonewall kickball

& I finally felt

I belonged in DC.

November, Kevin’s

jaw ached. He showed

up at The Black Fox

mumbling  jumble

garble through tears.

His feature canceled.

After the first break

from winter gray to blue,

Facebook alerts Kevin’s

wheeled to hospice,

liver cancer.

I teach Donmike

how to make pancit

noodles. We become

the curse of gossiping

Filipina spinster aunts.

How have we become

giggling little lily pad

princesses behind

invisible hand

fans, waiting for

our potential

suitors to make

the first move?

I wonder whether

you’re afraid my hug

lingers a little too long

after I rub your feet

or maybe you’re just

a Scorpio expressing

affection & I know

I have 3rd world Daddy

issues but I don’t want

to bring up hopes

& fuck ups.

Maybe I’m in love

with you like that

baby weasel riding

the flying woodpecker’s

back. It’s an Avatar

magical, sci-fi,

unexpected flash

of  bliss when really,

the woodpecker is

fighting for his life.

The weasel doesn’t

know what it’s gotten

itself into but a thrill

that will never

come again,

something better

than a feathered

Baby Jane din-din.

Tomorrow, you’ll

want to go to Rehoboth

& kite surf at the beach

house of the guy who

lusts after you. The priest’s

sermon makes no sense:

Forest Fires in the Bay,

Water Well Maidens

& “Let It Go” from Frozen.

It’s not that I hate white

people or that we’re soul mates.

It’s that you’re beginning

to wash off me like ashes

in holy water.

-2016

Monday’s Verse 3/6/2017

Dear readers,

somehow poet Michael Hofmann (b. 1957) knows just the kind of nostalgia I can get into. It’s the kind that smells like someone’s basement, sounds like a bowl of rice krispies, and invites know-it-alls, and he refers to it not once but twice in this hot-off-the-presses poem. I think he’s making a specific cultural reference there in quotation marks at the end, but I don’t quite catch it.

Mr. Hofmann has won a ton of prizes in England, and has also translated more than 70 books from German to English. Enjoy. -ed.

LISBURN ROAD

A few yards of vinyl records, well-thumbed,
Under the cistern that sometimes overflows over the front door in London,
The drips giving visitors Legionnaire’s disease. Books in four countries,
The same books. No turntable. None of this is a boast.

Boots, sweaters, jeans, from pre-designer days.
Papers, birth certificates, dead passports, their corners docked,
My degree, my decree.
Unopened letters from my mother.

Three sets of taxes, old boarding passes,
Coins, bundled stationery envelopes that are stuck down or won’t stick.
The whatever world of passwords, streaming, and clouds–
Oh, streams and clouds by.

A trunk holding a suitcase holding a hold-all.
The travel equivalent of a turducken,
Motheaten to buggery.
Children’s clothes, Oshkosh, never worn.

Two paintings by a man called Smith, American in Paris, or Brit in New York,
One by "Puck" Dachinger, a black canted nude in a pink camisole,
With a stove in the corner, scratched with the back of a brush:
Ravings from internment on the Isle of Man.

Blood on one of the doors, peach on one of the walls (don’t ask).
Two plastic bottles of yellowing samogon mescal
From Mexico, sealed with extra twists of plastic.
Imagine travelling with liquids.

Afghan rugs. A reamer, a garlic press.
A funny cup. The "Porky Prime Cut" greetings etched in the lead-off grooves,
When not only did you listen to records,
You held them up to the light and read them.

-2017