May 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
I went to PEN’s 90th birthday party last night with my friend Kewulay. I had gotten the tickets (free) on a whim, knowing that it was unlikely I’d know anyone there. It seemed like it might be fun to just look at the crowd, to see what kind of party PEN threw for its impecunious members—the big gala at the beginning of the festival cost $1,000 a plate.
First we had dinner at one of those places where the cheese plate consists of two thumbnail-size pieces of cheese with triangles of toast (“We don’t have bread,” the waiter said with a straight face), and Kewuley pleased me by laughing several times when I recited my favorite break-up poem from last summer’s heart-skewered poetry-writing marathon. Then we drove to the Standard hotel on Greenwich Street, which you have probably never heard of since it wasn’t there five minutes ago. The party was held in the bar on the 18th floor. It’s a reasonably elegant and comfortable place: the bar in the middle, in the round, with low vanilla-colored couches and chairs scattered by the windows.
The windows! Floor to ceiling, on three sides. The views are astonishing, from the river to the Empire State Building. I stood gaping in amazement as pretty young women in micro gowns vaguely resembling Greek tunics walked around with trays of champagne. That was really all there was to the party. Yes, Salman Rushdie was present, looking like an aging devil in a cheap suit; and lots of sweet-faced, mostly older folk, the less-thans of the literary crowd and all the more charming for that; and a big cake; and there were glossy black-walled bathrooms the size of closets with the same floor to ceiling windows so that if a jet happened to be flying at the building, you’d see it coming while you were pulling up your pants. One of the speakers told us that we were directly above the jail Lowell mentions in his famous poem Memories of West Street and Lepke (below). The point was that this territory has serious literary chops, as well as having once been not too salubrious a neighborhood.
We lounged on a couch where we could see the sparkly city, not the readers. It didn’t matter: I heard bits and pieces, mostly not of interest, although the last stanza of Auden’s great poem on the death of Yeats made me emotional, as it always does. It also made me want to hear it read by someone who knows how to read that kind of grand verse.
After the readings and the cake, we retired to an empty corner and Kewulay talked about driving through Sierra Leone in ’98, going to see what had become of his family’s village (burned down), risking death at every checkpoint but not feeling any fear. “I wasn’t brave,” he said. “You understand? It wasn’t bravery. I just wasn’t afraid. I don’t know why.”
“It was because you weren’t afraid that they didn’t kill you,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right. But in my village—the day after I left the village, the soldiers came for me. But I was gone. I believe I was supposed to live because I’m the one who can help change things.”
Earlier in the conversation, he said, “We need war so that we appreciate peace.” Perhaps. Just hearing about war makes me appreciate peace a whole lot. And I think, whether we need it or not, war will always be with us. The one thing in the readings I disagreed with strongly was a quote from John Steinbeck’s Nobel speech, “I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
I believe that we can change things and must try. But do I believe in the perfectibility of man, or only that those who care or can have to keep working just to keep the balance? Do I think we are any different, in our ratio of good to evil, than we were 1,000 or 5,000 years ago? There’s no way to know, but I kind of doubt it. And I don’t think writers need to sign on to perfectability to have dedication and membership in literature. I’m not a Steinbeck or Auden, not a crusader or one of the greats, not likely to make much difference in the world, but I am a writer. I write for people like me, the people I know, imperfect and only fitfully improving (and some are getting worse). I write to celebrate, mourn and amuse, and mostly because it gives me joy, satisfaction or in the darkest times, a handhold on sanity. “The Heart asks Pleasure—first—/and then—Excuse from pain—/ and then— those little Anodynes/ that deaden suffering—
Emily knew pretty much everything about the heart. Robert Lowell knew a lot too, and got out more often.
Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .