Jack Gilbert

November 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite poets died yesterday in Berkeley, CA. Jack Gilbert was 87 and had Alzheimer’s. It was the sort of death where you can say it’s a tragedy only because death is. I didn’t know him and he had plenty of adulation both early and late in his career (the middle, not so much), but now I wish I’d written him a note, when I first discovered him in 2005. I don’t remember what drew me to his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. Nobody told me about him. But somehow I found it, read it, and I should have said: thank you. Thank you for being brilliant. For hewing to exactly what you wanted to say, not spending one extra word. Thank you for making that outworn subject—love gone wrong—feel like a place to find wisdom and to express that other love, the one we use to communicate with friends and strangers.

I copied several articles and interviews about him yesterday, intending to read them and craft an essay about his life. I don’t feel like doing that now. I know he was an expatriate, lived all over the world, sought solitude and was lonely, loved women and lived with grief. I know his wife died young. That’s enough to know for now, though I will read the articles and interview and obituaries. His achievement makes me remember what poetry is for: not to move us or teach us (though that’s very fine), but to show us what new and durable craft can be made from the unchanging heart.

There are writers you love because you can find so many meanings in their work, interpret them a hundred different ways and not be wrong—writers who delight you with the fecundity and shape-shifting of imagination—and others whose power is to never be misunderstood.

I probably wouldn’t have gotten along with Jack Gilbert. I’m too much the first sort of writer, fishing, magpie-ing, putting things together one way and another, looking for comedy, looking for drama, hoping people like it, hoping something sticks; but I would have adored him anyway. His truth is not mine and it is mine. My sorrows go squishy, but they have their own tenacity. The sinews of his poems make me feel my own muscle. Words can do things.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gilbert. I wish I’d met you. You were a very great man.

Tear it Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

–Jack Gilbert

The Long Emergency

November 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was going to start working, which today means sorting jewelry and setting up a website, late for the season but not too late, and all of you should consider the ecological soundness and social consciousness of giving homemade, exquisite jewelry for Christmas…but that’s not what I started to say. I’ll save my rhapsodies on stone and glass for later in the week.

It’s this. Coffee beans at risk of extinction!

It won’t happen soon. There will be far worse problems before it does. I just feel guilty all over again that those poor shmucks left with our hot, howling planet won’t even be able to fortify themselves with a cup of morning joe. They’ll have to rise from bed in the dark and push back the sea without the lure of that bitter, come-hither aroma that in childhood I associated with the softness of my mother’s skin. The women of the future will stand on their back steps and stare over the withered fields—send the children to check the starling and field-mouse traps—even more bereft of comfort than Depression-era farm wives. Fresh water will become so scarce that the appeal of a diuretic beverage will be incomprehensible.

I realize that coffee isn’t necessary for civilization. In the middle ages, Europeans had beer for breakfast. Things moved much more slowly then. It took a hundred years to build a cathedral, or finish a war. Most people only read one book. News lasted months. Childbirth took as long as it wanted to.

Yet people were inspired enough to court and breed, which is all that’s required of us beyond plowing the fields and feeding the animals, burying the dead and keeping the fire lit; they also had art, music, politics, conspiracies, world travel and adultery. Even so, I think that without coffee, the less-than-genius or god-favored among us would find a drab in our bones, a fretful sulk in our imaginations. Life would become either the all-too-familiar cycle of revelry and hangover, or terrain of a dull sobriety, with none the chatter and jokes one finds at, say, AA meetings.

Reformed alcoholics have the great advantage of having been drunk a lot, so they know it’s possible to tell perfect strangers intimate secrets and ridiculous opinions and then have sex. Years of alcoholic excess remove the 7th grade fear that the squirmy humanity inside you is an alien being. Frail humanity is the only kind, other than brave 4-star generals. Instead, you become deeply depressed by your own squalid behavior and weakness. But that’s fixable with coffee.

Every generation makes its own coffee rituals, from the 17th century coffee house—hotbeds of revolution—to the French café of the 1950s, where caffeine joined literature and sex as the only thing stopping a man from shrugging his gallic shoulders of a meaningless existence. The American diner where they pour the coffee as soon as you sit down, the neighborly offer of coffee to anyone who stops by (including that strange ability of adults born before 1940 to drink it after dinner without ill effect) is forever linked in my mind with a certain annoying jingle that includes the phrase “heavenly coffee”. My breakfast when I was 14 was freeze-dried instant coffee made from hot tap water; I liked getting out of bed no more than 10 minutes before I had to leave for school. I remember horrid Irish coffees drunk at 17 or 18—excuses to ingest alcohol under cover of a desire for whipped cream. In my 20’s and 30’s, I enjoyed writing and daydreaming in the Italian caffes of San Francisco and Greenwich Village, and now—well, you know about now. I’ve never had a pumpkin latte. That doesn’t mean I never will.

Coffee is to our society what psychedelic mushrooms are to certain indigenous groups in South and Central America: the way the world is made sense of, how the frames are drawn. One could even argue that coffee fueled the industrial revolution and caused all this carbon trouble to begin with. There’s little evidence for this; factory workers in the 19th century were still drinking beer for breakfast—and throughout the day, to the consternation of the bosses—but it could be that the gradual adoption of caffeinated beverages in place of beer allowed mass production to become the streamlined behemoth we know and hate.

That doesn’t mean our descendents should be denied it. I don’t like to think of a society sliding into climate chaos without every possible aid to creative decision-making. They might drink synthetic caffeine, assuming wide industrial production of this in a shook-up economy is feasible. Synthetic caffeine is what’s put in energy drinks, and it’s inferior to the real thing in one important way: it’s absorbed much more quickly. That morning hour or two of sharpened thinking becomes 20 minutes of hyper-buzz. Imagine the National Security Council coming up with fifty ways to steal rain from other countries, only to end in an irritated chorus of “as if that would ever work, you caffeine-addled fuckwit,” just before shots are fired.

Maybe beer for breakfast is a better idea, helping us to grin and bear it as humanity slowly whittles itself down to a sustainable level. Of course, “we” doesn’t really mean we. Those of us over 50 will be safely dead. We is the children, the 6 and 10 and 15-year-olds, the children your adult children are planning to have soon and all those faraway faces you see in the Save the Children ads, as well as their kids. Billions of them.

This blog entry is brought to you courtesy of Citarella’s House Blend, a nice mix of dark and light beans from two continents, neither of them this one. Make yourself a cup of whatever you have on hand. Enjoy.

Canvas and Mirror

self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,

with mug, with yesterday’s mug. self-portrait
with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,

painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at

last, with epistrophy, with crepescule with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard

head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-
portrait voo-doo, self-portrait hijinks, self-portrait

surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
protest, with poetry, with papers to grade. self-

portrait as thaumaturgic lass, self-portrait as luna
larva, self-portrait as your mama. self-portrait

with self at sixteen. self-portrait with shit-kickers,
with hip-huggers, with crimson silk, with wild

mushroom risotto and a glass of malbec. self-
portrait with partial disclosure, self-portrait with

half-truths, self-portrait with demi-monde. self-
portrait with a night at the beach, with a view

overlooking the lake, with cancelled flight. self-
portrait with a real future, with a slight chance of

sours, with glasses, with cream, with fries, with
a way with words, with a propositional phrase.
Evie Shockley

WordPress sucks. Read this poem with the proper line breaks

Suicide Muse Bitch Slap

November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

She’s a dainty angel with very sharp claws

The Atlantic tells us: There’s this study, see, and it found out that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide as anyone else! Control group: accountants. Accountants are better paid, someone said in the comments. Steady work, medical benefits. I’d rather be a crazy writer, said another, though she didn’t say she wanted to be a dead crazy writer. These kinds of surveys mean nothing, offered a third, as though this remark wasn’t already marching across our brains—who believes anything they read? Reading’s food for thought (not faith) if you imagine thought as an army of beetles whose purpose is obscure even to itself, since as far as we know the concept of “self” has not yet acquired critical mass in beetles. Some of us read to put off writing, which will kill us.

“Accountants are the creative class today,” declared a wit, probably also a writer and marked for an early grave, though not in sacred ground (okay, that’s old school, but I remember). Does being a writer count as a pre-existing condition? I can’t help this affliction. My mother and my father made me this way, both by nature and nurture. My father also opened that craven door suicide, turning it into a family thing; in my dreams, it leads nowhere I’d want to linger. I find him but he’s usually drunk and the food is spoiled.

Some people kill themselves to get away from physical pain. Most kill themselves to get away from their own minds. Writers try and empty their minds as often as possible, though it’s much like bailing out a basement flooded with three feet of water using a coffee can, which I did once or twice. [This is hyperbole: I used something larger than a coffee can, I just can’t remember what. And the water was more like 18 inches deep. But over a large space.] The reason we so often write for nothing is that we have to do all this emptying anyway, though contributions are welcome.

That’s what blog is, you know, taking out the garbage that is not really garbage, but that will become so if left alone too long. Blog is a good word for a lively, nervous sort of maybe, maybe-not garbage. Readers are necessary, though sometimes an irritant. The most important thing to remember, when reading what is called “creative” work, is that it’s about you only if you love it. If you can’t love it, or feel at least a little fond, you don’t need to hate it or be insulted because it has nothing to do with you. This is general advice and doesn’t have anything to do with writing and suicide.

As I tweaked the above, my computer informed me: You are running on reserve battery power. Your computer will shut down soon unless you connect to a power source. Go ahead, drown me in metaphor, I retort. I asked for it, all those years ago, writing that first poem about a puppy. And by the way, I’ve been drowned before, I add piteously. I survived. One of the many Tibetan hells is a giant eternal washing machine rinse cycle. No, I just made that up, which makes it more likely to happen to me.

Writers commit suicide so often, though rarely more than once, because we’re used to making characters do horrible things that we don’t have to pay for—on the contrary, we’re told that if we do this well enough, we’ll achieve great renown, with money falling from the sky. Novelists, I mean. Poets are told things like, “Isn’t poetry a kind of 19th century thing?” Yes, like sex and eating and murder and politics.

You heard about the Republican who is refusing to ever speak to a Democrat again, for the rest of his life, including members of his own family? He’s a writer. The dirty secret is, we’re all like that—writers—in one key respect…

Here’s a couple of poems about writers and suicide. Jack Spicer died of alcoholism, which counts. John Berryman is the poet referred to in the second poem.

Poem for Jack Spicer

It’s the start of baseball season,
and I am thinking again
as I do every year
in early April now
that I live in California
where afternoon is a blue
span to languidly cross
of those long ones
you used to sort of sleep
through getting drunk
on many beers, lying
next to your radio
on a little square of grass
in the sun, listening
half to the game and half
to the Pacific water gently
slapping the concrete
barrier of the man-made cove.
I have heard it and it sounds
like conversations among
not there people I can’t
quite hear. But you could.
And later you would try
to remember what they said
and transcribe it on your
black typewriter
in your sad, horrible room.
When I read your poems
about suicide and psychoanalysis
I feel very lucky and ashamed
to be alive at all. Everyone
has been talking lately
about radiation, iodine,
and wind, and you are in
your grave, far from the water.
I know I don’t care about you
at all but when I look
at your photograph,
your round head tilted up
so you are staring down
at everyone, I remember
how much you hated your body.
Today I will go down by the water
where you used to sit and think
I do not hate my body
even though I often do.
When I die please write he tried
on whatever stone you choose.

Matthew Zapruder

In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs

Friends making off ahead of time
on their own, I call that willful, John,
but that’s not judgement, only argument
such as we’ve had before.
I watch a shaky man climb
a cast-iron railing in my head, on
a Mississippi bluff, though I had meant
to dissuade him. I call out, and he doesn’t hear.

‘Fantastic! Fantastic! Thank thee, dear Lord’
is what you said we were to write on your stone,
but you go down without so much as a note.
Did you wave jauntily, like the German ace
in a silent film, to a passerby, as the paper said?
We have to understand how you got
from here to there, a hundred feet straight down.
Though you had told us and told us,
and how it would be underground
and how it would be for us left here,
who could have plotted that swift chute
from the late height of your prizes?
For all your indignation, your voice
was part howl only, part of it was caress.
Adorable was a word you threw around,
fastidious John of the gross disguises,
and despair was another: ‘this work of almost despair.’

Morale is what I think about all the time
now, what hopeful men and women can say and do.
But having to speak for you, I can’t
lie. ‘Let his giant faults appear, as sent
together with his virtues down,’ the song says.
It says suicide is a crime
and that wives and children deserve better than this.
None of us deserved, of course, you.

Do we wave back now, or what do we do?
You were never reluctant to instruct.
I do what’s in character, I look for things
to praise on the riverbanks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
but this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don’t let us contract your dread recidivism
and start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from the fat book again, make us wave back.

William Meredith

And here’s one of Berryman’s Dream Songs (no 29). The last stanza always gets to me.

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

John Berryman

Listen to him read it

I suggest listening with your eyes closed first. Watching him is very distracting.

Haunted by the Future

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” —Ray Bradbury.
“The future influences the present just as much as the past.” —Nietzsche

The election was a great relief (though I was always sure Obama would win),and I’m hopeful about Obama’s next term, but not too hopeful. I can’t stop thinking about climate change, and am beginning to feel like I shouldn’t have plowed so fast into the data; rather kept a little, scratchy shawl of ignorance.

I didn’t think, at first, that the idea of a science-fiction horrible future would upset me so much. I’ve gotten used to thinking of myself as cold, since I’ve spent my life building barriers against pain, my own and others’. When I let down those barriers, I begin to come apart, which is one causative strand in many of my relationships. But now it’s the facts that are tunneling through the barriers, and I have to admit: wrong again. Wrong that I could simply “learn” this and not feel it, not ache for the future, not think about all those who won’t experience the beautiful, abundant world I know, the grass and trees and snow and apples. Paris and New York, epic dinners, croissants and chocolate, enough food for three lazy cats. And novels in their slick jackets, the new crop, the magic. I was making some choices last night for Christmas presents—fall books—and I felt a breeze of that old pleasure: important writers, culture shapers, the thick, clotted cream of the pages where the words burrowed. Other worlds. Doors and bridges. The belief that I would join them in that zone of demi-divinity. That I would exist in the future, not myself but better.

I have books to finish writing and I want to finish them. They rebuke me, languishing in my computer without feet. But they feel more like letters than books, evanescent—productions some people will enjoy reading, but not of the slightest interest to the future. Not letters, then. Emails. Shopping lists.

I’d like to speak to the future, but don’t know what to say. Humanity will survive and love and have families—there’s plenty of common ground—but this shyness is like the shyness I felt as a child when I first got friendly with very poor people. My friend Denise slept in a bed with her three sisters. I spent the night with them once, after Denise had spent more than a few nights with me. Her mother asked me to join them, after dinner, sewing nametags on Denise’s clothes for violin camp (she’d won a scholarship, my brilliant talented friend).

Denise’s mother said it challengingly—she didn’t expect the “rich” white girl to know how to sew, or perhaps be willing to sew nametags in a black girl’s underpants. But my mother loved sewing and was Southern enough to teach the female skills: sewing, cooking, the etiquette of being a hostess and a guest. And I loved Denise (who was terribly embarrassed by the interplay). But Denise didn’t ask me to come back and I didn’t press it, although I liked her fierce mother and her giggly little sisters. The shyness of privilege won out.

Perhaps there isn’t anything to say. I cringe under their backward wrath.

I have no idea why this poem works, but it does, beautifully.


Huge crystalline cylinders emerge from the water

The future

Where do they come from the King gushes these talking fish
Show me at once

We see the writer buried under a collapsing mountain of scribbled-over
While ink blurts from an overturned bottle

Speech is silver the King mutters
Silence is

They discover a fabulous ancient city

Black lake
Flag of smoke

Where we turned to look

Skulls, bats, stars, spirals, lightning bolts
Words spoken in anger
Flowers for sarcasm

The sequence continued to work in references to the brevity of life

Garlands of flowers
Stars signaling physical impact

They discover a fabulous ancient city
Under the water
None of the inhabitants

‘Be reasonable . . .’

Increasingly faint trace of inked
Flowers delicate

After that

Cat catch
The decree

Laura Mullen

Give Thanks to Suffragettes

November 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Women voting in New York, 1917

Voting was great except for the curmudgeonly old man.

I walked a few blocks on a cool, sunny day to a local elementary school. Comedy Central had set up a booth outside, giving away stickers. I left Charles to chat with them, went inside and voted. It took me no more than ten minutes. After getting my ballot, the line for the booths had two people in it and when a booth came free we each said, “after you,” “no, after you.” Finally someone who hadn’t been in line at all took the booth. When it was my turn, the pen didn’t work, so I used my own pen and left it there. After putting the ballot through the scanner, I went out to the lobby and stopped at the table covered with cookies, brownies, cupcakes and candy—a benefit for hurricane victims, food provided by local bakeries and Lilac Chocolates. I admired the wares, then as one of the women started to describe each item, said, “I’m sorry, I wish I had cash with me!” She said, “Take what you want. I’ll cover it.” I was embarrassed but took a cookie. Charles was still voting so I walked to a new, tiny storefront bank a block away and got cash from the ATM. There weren’t any tellers but when I asked the people behind the desks if I could break a $20—and why—they were very happy to do so and we chatted about lines at polls, etc. I told them to bring extra pens. I went back to the school and gave the bake sale woman $10. She thanked me extravagantly. Then I lingered in the lobby talking to people about how great it was seeing everyone vote.

Finally, Charles appeared. He said, “You couldn’t have voted that fast. You must have jumped the line. Or else you just pretended to vote.”

I’ve discovered a great comic poet from the suffragette era.

A Consistent Anti to Her Son
(“Look at the hazards, the risks, the physical dangers that ladies would be exposed to at the polls.”—Anti-suffrage speech.)

You’re twenty-one to-day, Willie,
And a danger lurks at the door,
I’ve known about it always,
But I never spoke before;
When you were only a baby
It seemed so very remote,
But you’re twenty-one to-day, Willie,
And old enough to vote.
You must not go to the polls, Willie,
Never go to the polls,
They’re dark and dreadful places
Where many lose their souls;
They smirch, degrade and coarsen,
Terrible things they do
To quiet, elderly women—
What would they do to you!
If you’ve a boyish fancy
For any measure or man,
Tell me, and I’ll tell Father,
He’ll vote for it, if he can.
He casts my vote, and Louisa’s,
And Sarah, and dear Aunt Clo;
Wouldn’t you let him vote for you?
Father, who loves you so?
I’ve guarded you always, Willie,
Body and soul from harm;
I’ll guard your faith and honor,
Your innocence and charm
From the polls and their evil spirits,
Politics, rum and pelf;
Do you think I’d send my only son
Where I would not go myself?

Fashion Notes: Past and Present

1880—Anti-suffrage arguments are being worn long, calm and flowing this year, with the dominant note that of woman’s intellectual inferiority.
1890—Violence is very evident in this season’s modes, and our more conservative thinkers are saying that woman suffrage threatens the home, the Church and the Republic.
1900—A complete change of style has taken place. Everything is being worn a l’aristocrate, with the repeated assertion that too many people are voting already.
1915—The best line of goods shown by the leading anti-suffrage houses this spring is the statement that woman suffrage is the same thing as free love. The effect is extremely piquant and surprising.

Alice Duer Miller

Read, Write, Vote

November 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Election Day. Getting ready to vote. Very thankful that I won’t have to wait in several-hour-long lines, or fight about my identity. I’m certain that Obama will win, unless—what everyone is saying—unless the voting machines do their dark business, though it’s hardly fair to blame machines….

Here are some poems for today.

I Am the People, the Mob

I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me
and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons
and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing.
Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out
and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes
me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history
to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the
lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the
world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his
voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

Carl Sandburg


The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems

Was he looking for St. Lucia’s light
to touch his face those first days
in the official November snow & sleet
falling on the granite pose of Lincoln?

If he were searching for property lines
drawn in the blood, or for a hint
of resolve crisscrossing a border,
maybe he’d find clues in the taste of breadfruit.

I could see him stopped there squinting
in crooked light, the haze of Wall Street
touching clouds of double consciousness,
an eye etched into a sign borrowed from Egypt.

If he’s looking for tips on basketball,
how to rise up & guard the hoop,
he may glean a few theories about war
but they aren’t in The Star-Apple Kingdom.

If he wants to finally master himself,
searching for clues to govern seagulls
in salty air, he’ll find henchmen busy with locks
& chains in a ghost schooner’s nocturnal calm.

He’s reading someone who won’t speak
of milk & honey, but of looking ahead
beyond pillars of salt raised in a dream
where fat bulbs split open the earth.

The spine of the manifest was broken,
leaking deeds, songs & testaments.
Justice stood in the shoes of mercy,
& doubt was bandaged up & put to bed.

Now, he looks as if he wants to eat words,
their sweet, intoxicating flavor. Banana leaf
& animal, being & nonbeing. In fact,
craving wisdom, he bites into memory.

The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie
to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man’s skin becomes the final page.

Yusef Komunyakaa


America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January
17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I
need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not
the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back
it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday
somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid
I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses
in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle
Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by
Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Business-
men are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of
marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable
private literature that goes 1400 miles an hour
and twenty-five-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of
underprivileged who live in my flowerpots
under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers
is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that
I’m a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as
individual as his automobiles more so they’re
all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500
down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Com-
munist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a
handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and
sentimental about the workers it was all so sin-
cere you have no idea what a good thing the
party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand
old man a real mensch Mother Bloor made me
cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody
must have been a spy.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen.
And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power
mad. She wants to take our cars from out our
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers’
Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia.
Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read.
Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us
all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in
the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes
in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and
psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Allan Ginsberg- Berkeley, January 17, 1956

A Strange Complicated Girl

November 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it.”

Yesterday, Katherine Anne Porter was inducted into the Poets Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Tonight there will be an evening of talks and readings from and about Porter from friends and scholars, as well as music. It will be an intimate, inspiring event: if you read this in time and can attend, please do!

I was very pleased when I found out Porter was the new inductee. Before this summer, I hadn’t read her in decades, but her work was still vivid in my mind. Her very name brings back an entire year of my life–my freshman year in college–when I was discovering writers and learning how they did what they did, how stories were constructed: I can still feel the thrill of that. I took a course called “The Short Story”: the syllabus included Porter’s Old Mortality; Blackberry Winter, by Robert Penn Warren; A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor; Why I live at the P.O, Eurdora Welty; A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and a couple of others I don’t remember. Old Mortality was my favorite of all these great stories.

At the Induction, Rosanna Warren, daughter of Robert Penn Warren (and Porter’s goddaughter), read the last sentences of Old Mortality. The protagonist, Miranda, who has grown up immersed and enchanted by family stories, especially one about her romantic Aunt Amy, is now a young adult.

I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.

I remember my professor, John Yount, who was in his early forties then, talking about that ending. His awareness that all of us, his students, believed as Miranda does, that we could know the truth about ourselves stuck like a burr in my brain: what people today would call a known unknown.

There was a lot I didn’t know about myself in 1973. I think of that girl in her big, striped Mexican sweater-jacket, hiking boots and notebooks—how close she was to the glittering sleeves of ice on the tight branches, the deep blue New Hampshire sky, the smell of pine and ocean. The stunningly beautiful world pouring in with so much less obstruction—that’s what she knew. Mind like a salmon leaping: wild energy, the pull of instinct. Not much consciousness of bears and fishermen.

The title of this post comes from a description of Porter by Elizabeth Anderson, Sherwood Anderson’s wife. The sentence continues, “…who could be perfectly charming or perfectly horrible with no apparent reason for either extreme.”

A Catholic nun, Kathleen Feeley, who met Porter toward the end of her life, recounts many kindnesses the writer showed to the nuns and their students.

One year Sister Maura and I visited her the day before Ash Wednesday, and she made pancakes and poured champagne for us. We had these beautiful glasses of champagne and very thin French pancakes rolled up with honey on top of them. It was a festive dinner at her table, and she herself cooked for us.

I remember so well one time when I was with her and the nurse came in to do something for her, and I walked out into her study, which was next to her bed- room. I was just standing there staring at the bookcases as you do in a famous writer’s study. I pulled out the Confessions of Saint Augustine. She had her name on the flyleaf. Written on the flyleaf in her handwriting was one sentence from the Confessions, which I’ve used many times as I lecture with our young people. The sentence she picked out of St. Augustine was, “It doth make a difference whence cometh a man’s joy. ” I always thought about that in respect to her declining years, because her joy was really in herself, and in her work, and in her accomplishments. Even though she was suffering what Teilhard de Chardin calls “passive diminishment,” at the close of her life, she never experienced any bitterness. She was definitely still her dear self. One time, she took her paralyzed right hand from under the cover, and she held it, saying, “My writing hand. It served me well. I still love it.”

Here’s more from Katherine Anne, who fiercely protested the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I remember small, slender Mrs. Sacco with her fine copper-colored hair and dark brown, soft, dazed eyes moving from face to face but still smiling uncertainly, surrounded in our offices by women pitying and cuddling her, sympathetic with her as if she were a pretty little girl; they spoke to her as if she were five years old or did not understand — this Italian peasant wife who, for seven long years, had shown moral stamina and emotional stability enough to furnish half a dozen women amply. I was humiliated for them, for their apparent insensibility. But I was mistaken in my anxiety — their wish to help, to show her their concern, was real, their feelings were true and lasting, no matter how awkwardly expressed; their love and tenderness and wish to help were from the heart. All through those last days in Boston, those strangely innocent women enlisted their altar societies, their card clubs their literary round tables, their music circles and their various charities in the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. On their rounds, they came now and then to the office of my outfit in their smart thin frocks, stylish hats, and their indefinable air of eager sweetness and light, bringing money they had collected in the endless, wittily devious ways of women’s organizations. They would talk among themselves and to her about how they felt, with tears in their eyes, promising to come again soon with more help. They were known as “sob sisters” by the cynics and the hangers-on of the committee I belonged to who took their money and described their activities as “sentimental orgies,” of course with sexual overtones, and they jeered at “bourgeois morality.” “Morality” was a word along with “charitable” and “humanitarian” and “liberal,” all, at one time, in the odor of sanctity but now despoiled and rotting in the gutter where suddenly it seemed they belonged. I found myself on the side of the women; I resented the nasty things said about them by these self-appointed world reformers and I thought again, as I had more than once in Mexico, that yes, the world was a frightening enough place as it was, but think what a hell it would be if such people really got the power to do the things they planned.

And a later passage from her book

In the morning when we began straggling out in small parties on our way to the trial, several of us went down in the elevator with three entirely correct old gentlemen looking much alike in their sleekness, pinkness, baldness, glossiness of grooming, such stereotypes as no proletarian novelist of the time would have dared to use as the example of a capitalist monster in his novel. We were pale and tightfaced; our eyelids were swollen; no doubt in spite of hot coffee and cold baths, we looked rumpled, unkempt, disreputable, discredited, vaguely guilty, pretty well frayed out by then. The gentlemen regarded us glossily, then turned to each other. As we descended the many floors in silence, one of them said to the others in a cream-cheese voice, “It is very pleasant to know we may expect things to settle down properly again,” and the others nodded with wise, smug, complacent faces.

To this day, I can feel again my violent desire just to slap his whole slick face all over at once, hard, with the flat of my hand, or better, some kind of washing bat or any useful domestic appliance being applied where it would really make an impression — a butter paddle — something he would feel through that smug layer of too-well-fed fat.

Finally a poem by Porter’s dear friend, Robert Penn Warren

Tell Me a Story

[ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

[ B ]
Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

Where Am I?

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