Poetry is Paranoia

December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the way to the poetry reading Monday, under the arch in Washington Square, we passed a slim, freckled young woman with hair the color of November leaves who’d just received a down-on-one-knee marriage proposal. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she was saying, her hands covering her face, truly startled, excited, happy and everything she should be. Charles wanted to snap a picture but I said no. The man had chosen to do this in public; the woman hadn’t. I wanted to give her privacy.

“I’ve been married twice but I never went down on my knee,” he said, as we walked on.
“If I’d waited for that I’d still be waiting.”
“I get down on my knees to clean the kitty litter. Not to mention the cat vomit. I think that’s enough.”
“You make an excellent point.”

KGB was crowded and warm, and the air felt thick; it was a smoky bar without the smoke. I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t really in the mood for poetry, either, but as always the lengthy and beguiling introduction set the tone for pleasure. Matthew went off on a tangent, “How many of you would call yourselves Yeats fans?” Most of us raised our hands. “Well, I have a problem with his poem—you’ll see this relates to David [Lehman]—The Wild Swans at Coole. “ He then quoted a line in a Yeatsian manner, but I’ll give you a few more lines, since I can’t resist them

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Matthew’s issue was how Yeats could tell there were exactly 59 swans and he went on a long, excited riff about dozens of birds packed close, in motion, behind each other, overlapping, squabbling, heads dipping, all that feathery white, how could you count them?

He had a point to make about precise description, about David’s poetry, but I kept thinking of Yeats seeing those swans year after year, and though I don’t doubt he chose “nine-and-fifty” for its potency and rhythm, I wouldn’t argue his authority in the number of swans. They returned, year after year, like the poet.

David Lehman (b. 1948), read his slangy, romantic, spontaneous-sounding, very American poems, poems with the looseness and swing of the New York School poets and a kind of pop, 1970’s sweetness—investigations of love and family without the deep irony and multi-faceted perception of the next generation, who somehow learned young what took us half a lifetime.

Lehman’s nonfiction book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs had been mentioned in the introduction and after David read, during the break, Charles leaned over (we were at the next table) said a couple of words, then starting singing the title song. David joined in. Could I do that?

A rhetorical question.

I nibbled at my wine. Mark Doty (b. 1953), National Book Award winner, read next and last. His poems were precise, generous, always clever (I liked one line especially, from The Beautiful and The Sublime “Paranoia is poetry/insomnia is prose”–better in context, part of a list building power), but he clipped his words and I missed a lot. I remember what he called his dog in the last line of a new poem about the animal stealing the stake marking a burial plot, running off into the woods, tail high. “Darling, you run…”

I left the reading just after it ended, while Charles was up at the bar waiting for the bill, chatting up some intelligent-looking young person. I was feeling a heavy press of wallflower melancholia, harsh whispers that all my recent rejections, personal and professional, were entirely deserved. My soul, for all its steel and shine in certain island neighborhoods, was on the whole tattered and rotting. It might not be entirely my fault, but I was part of the garbage of history, said my doleful inner voice. Writer’s envy sparked through this, not the story but the fuel for it. I needed the smack of cold night air.

Charles lingered and David Lehman pulled him aside at the bottom of the stairs to introduce him to his wife and to Mark Doty. “The three of us talked for a long time about everything,” said my dear husband when he returned to me and the cats and the sizzling pork chops. “David Lehman insisted on giving me his card…”

In my defense, he had had two gin and tonics while I had only a few sips of white wine. Trying not to drink in situations where I feel shy always makes me twitchy and hostile. But I was afraid he’d be angry at me for leaving—I hadn’t bothered to inform him—and he wasn’t. He came in happy, full of love, assuming I ran home to get a poem on the page (which I in fact did, a beginning anyway), and he chopped the parsnips and apples while I nipped the green beans.

We ate and talked poetry and he called Rebecca, his daughter who is now 42…which means I’ve known her 40 years…and it feels like a hundred.

I’m glad I didn’t drink. Yesterday was very productive. I have half a dozen poems in various states of construction and though I keep dreaming about the man who got away (to put it nicely), I’m willing to accept the dreams as my relationship, and let the waking connection melt like the Arctic ice. I have other things to do.

The English poet George Herbert said, “Living well is the best revenge.” I first heard this aphorism in my early 20’s, reading the book of that title by Calvin Tompkins, about the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, friends of Scott Fitzgerald who had a slightly better time of it. It was a seductive idea then, full of the promise of summers on the Riviera, delicious food, wine, brilliant friends, plenty of money…

Now the meaning is knottier. There’s not as much life left and “living well” is deeper and harder. But it IS the best revenge, though I take the idea of revenge with a quart of salt. If, for example, years from now, that person ends up lonely, broken-hearted and penniless, knocking on my door (a fantasy I entertain): “I can’t seem to get a nickel or a dime for a cup of coffee—I need a hamburg—in fact a hot dog wouldn’t be too bad,” I won’t enjoy it at all. Life’s a bitch that way. Time focuses the lens and revenge turns to ash like a vampire in the sun. But the idea of it can be helpful.

(If you don’t recognize the lyrics in the previous paragraph, go look them up.)

I need a vein of newness not sexual, not likely to drive me insane. And not just more reading, writing and attending cultural events, or making friends: something else. I can feel it out there. It’s more important than money, though the wind is blowing in through the torn paper windows, and the rats are biting my toes.

A little embellishment there. It’s cats, not rats. And they don’t bite but leave long claw tracks where they used my right thigh as a ladder or launching pad.

The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke

Can’t swim; uses credit cards and pills to combat
intolerable feelings of inadequacy;
Won’t admit his dread of boredom, chief impulse behind
numerous marital infidelities;
Looks fat in jeans, mouths clichés with confidence,
breaks mother’s plates in fights;
Buys when the market is too high, and panics during
the inevitable descent;
Still, Pop can always tell the subtle difference
between Pepsi and Coke,
Has defined the darkness of red at dawn, memorized
the splash of poppies along
Deserted railway tracks, and opposed the war in Vietnam
months before the students,
Years before the politicians and press; give him
a minute with a road map
And he will solve the mystery of bloodshot eyes;
transport him to mountaintop
And watch him calculate the heaviness and height
of the local heavens;
Needs no prompting to give money to his kids; speaks
French fluently, and tourist German;
Sings Schubert in the shower; plays pinball in Paris;
knows the new maid steals, and forgives her.

David Lehman

The Embrace

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out–at work maybe?–
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you–warm brown tea–we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

Mark Doty


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