Friday, January 26, 2007

A black spider

A black spider lives in the upper-left-hand corner of the cupboard
(I was about to spell it c-u-b-b-a-r-d—“cubbard”—
which sounds like it might be a homely sort of vegetable).

The dusty Indian meal moths flutter cryptically toward pheromones.
Their larvae eat the flour, pine nuts, rice,
dried porcini, dried shitakes,
and half a dozen kinds of beans.

The other day, I saw two swans, like feathered jumbo jets,
flying downstream above the river,
slicing across its bends.

One by one, mums
collapse like the paper parasols
that roll around exotic tropical cocktails.

Helen wonders if cowslips will survive in this zone.

Not a burl, the deformity on a paper birch’s trunk
looks like an elephant’s eye,
if the eye is gill-like, fungal,
and breathes light.

A blind man pats his German shepherd’s black brow.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Emmanuelle Béart

Why is this room so cluttered?
Because the inhabitant is a magpie,
a semiseria magpie of a
mixed type, a hybrid creature
who wonders whether it was the Teatro San Carlo
in Naples where La gazza ladra
premiered, and whether Stendhal
saw it there. I don’t remember
if it’s mentioned in his Vie de Rossini.

A basket lacquered dark cherry red
woven from vines the thickness of bucatini

The notes are more interesting than the text

The corner of the carpet curls upward
like the toe of an oriental slipper

There’s a jet overhead—where else?—
it’s long, mapped curves
convey its even roar

Maybe those Japanese platform sandals

Yesterday, I read Poe’s “The oval portrait.”

When did Bartók first get a short haircut?

Jacques loves Igor

Do all manias grow this way, like crystals?

If somebody asks me

If somebody asks me
why I’m standing in the middle
of a soccer field in the dark
I’ll say “A spaceship is coming to pick me up.
Don’t worry. I volunteered.”

(So Gérard walked east toward the star
the blue and pink one
visible even in Paris
where Iris’s scarf spanned the Marais
when I was there in 2001)

I was actually trying to find Comet McNaught
and take a picture of it
but it was too low or there were too many trees or lights

Coincidentally, exactly at that moment
a Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite

I didn’t see that either

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The court poet

“He was in a fact a very gentle individual whose poetry was quite well crafted and probably merited the recognition he imagined it deserved.”

When I was young it didn’t seem that life would be worth living if I couldn’t create a body of great poetry that would survive me. I wanted recognition and fame, in a serious, nineteenth-century, sense. Remarkably, I feel almost the same way today—with a bit more nuance. Today I believe that there are many other things that make life worth living, even my life.

From the outside, it doesn’t look as if I’m ambitious, but I do plot and make plans, like the one to float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in the form of a giant balloon, sort of like the flying manatee in a recent dream. In the worst case, they make a fishbowl, shaped like a lightbulb, especially for very tiny fish.

The other night I watched “Charlie Chan in Egypt.” Stepin Fetchit was in it. He walked so slowly that I actually became irritated and impatient with him. Then I noticed that he wasn’t as slow as he looked. He just made himself look slow.

I have a crude sense of my poetry’s worth, too crude for me to calculate whether it deserves 5, 50, or 500 years of life. Anyway, if it does last for 500 years that probably wouldn’t be a reliable indication of its value. A few people have told me that I am famous. I think it would feel different if it were true.

In the sixties, in a workshop at the Poetry Project, one of the students had a rubber stamp with which she stamped her poems “IMMORTAL.”

“Community” is new to me. For decades I pretty much stayed away from other poets. When I reentered the rooms where poets moved and spoke, I was still hesitant. I became more comfortable, but not exactly relaxed. I now appreciate the community and like its members. But I still want to go home early and be by myself.

This leaving my room, then returning to it, might be the best I can do. Leaving and returning are both important. However, if I don’t leave my room often enough I might become like Claude Vignet in “The King of Bedlam” by Gérard de Nerval, whose “madness consisted in tearing up every piece of paper or parchment not written by his own hand, for he considered these to be rival compositions by inferior poets of his age who had usurped him in the graces of King Henri and his court.”

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Books I read in 2006

The Life of Henry Brulard,
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939,
          William Carlos Williams
Everlasting Quail, Sam Witt
Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin
The Sense Record, and other poems, Jennifer Moxley
U.S.A., John Dos Passos
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen
Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
Works and Days, David Schubert
Collected Poems 1935-1992, F. T. Prince
On Earth, Robert Creeley
The Anatomy of Oil, Marcella Duran
The Kalevala, or Poems of the Kaleva District, Compiled by
            Elias Lönnrot,
Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., trans.
The Complete Poems, Thomas Hardy
Sohrab and Rustum, Matthew Arnold
Snow, Orhan Pamuk
Letters to Mary Ward, Emilie Clark
The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell
Platinum Blonde, Michael Carr
Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Sussman, ed.
The Futurological Congress (from the memoirs of Ijon Tichy),
            Stanislaw Lem
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Hints from Horace,
            The Curse of Minerva,
The Sixteen Satires, Juvenal (Peter Green, trans.)
Paint It Today, H. D.
Asphodel, H. D.
HERmione, H. D.
The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
The California Poem, Eleni Sikelianos
Dead Souls, Ian Rankin
Girly Man, Charles Bernstein
The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Faces from Ancient Egypt,
          Euphrosyne Doxiadis
Aaron’s Rod, D. H. Lawrence
Birds for example, Jess Mynes
Zing, The Breaks, Christopher Rizzo
Against Nature (À Rebours), Joris-Karl Huysmans
The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (Landmark ed., Strasser, ed.)
The Last of the Wine, Mary Renault
Alma, or the Dead Women, Alice Notley
The Anger Scale, Katie Degentesh
Lub Luffly, Del Ray Cross
My Terza Rima, Michael Gizzi
Black Spring, Henry Miller
Metropolis 16-29, Robert Fitterman
She’s My Best Friend, Jim Behrle

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"As long as I live"

I’m taking the final exam in a drawing course. Drawing is a requirement because this is an engineering school. Drawing here means technical drawing. The other students and I are in the lecture hall and the proctor goes on and on in a grating voice. Behind me, an intruder is speaking loudly into a cell phone. “You don’t belong here. Please leave!” he is told, and he does.

The exam is in the form of two large sheets of paper folded like maps. Most of their surfaces are covered with various sorts of information. One of them, as a matter of fact contains a number of highly detailed maps on several scales of a certain city.

Each sheet also has a couple of gridded areas on which we are to draw. There’s a practice grid and a grid for the finished drawing. We must stick rigorously to the grid, putting down a single mark in each grid square. This is difficult for several reasons. First of all, the lecture hall seats have very little desktop space and the sheets of paper are very large when unfolded. Second, we are in a hurry because we have to do a practice drawing first, then copy it neatly onto the second grid. No one has told us how much time we have. Finally, in my case, my hands aren’t steady enough to draw the kind of confident lines desired. It’s stressful.

I begin drawing weak squiggly lines on one sheet of paper but then discover that the drawing that actually counts is the other one, the one with the maps. I begin work on that but become exasperated and impulsively get up and leave without finishing, even if it means failing.

I wander off campus along the streets of a rundown industrial city. It has a timeless quality and the sense of a history that may be as ancient as Athens or Rome or as modern as a New England mill town.

I come across a desolate dead-end street that looks like the roofless interior of a ruined or never-completed building on a monumental scale, made of worn and crumbling red sandstone. I walk toward the dead end and see an iron gate in the corner at the end of the wall on my left.

Going through the gate I find myself back on the campus, which is hilly and rocky here and there. The buildings are like those of an Ivy League school. Crowds of students are milling around and waiting anxiously to see if they passed that accursed, but crucial drawing exam. Some of them wait on line and present their IDs to an official who checks a list like those election workers check when you vote. When my turn comes I present my ID but, though there are a couple of names on the list that are suspiciously similar to mine, my correct name isn’t there.

I enter the philosophy building, then find myself in the museum. I wander from gallery to gallery. It’s dark and many objects on display are monumental in size. Only a couple of other people are there. One of them handles several objects, which I’m sure isn’t permitted. He tries to fit his body along the curves of a statue, not in a particularly erotic way, but as if he and the statue were characters performing in a play.

In another gallery, an ethnographic one, two men in gorilla suits jump up and down as part of the exhibition.

Finally, I find my way to a colonnaded garden, through the center of which a stream is flowing. Between two of the columns a tiny branch of the stream trickles across a broken sandstone floor. This is a deliberate element in the landscaping, a toy stream small enough to jump across without wetting your feet.

I hear clarinet trills beneath a piano introduction. It’s Benny Goodman and Count Basie playing Harold Arlen’s “As long as I live.”

Saturday, November 18, 2006

La source

Out of words, out of tea leaves
out of an autumn stew
of currents, out of the enigmatic
behavior of extraterrestrials

I have come, with sandwiches,
with adjacencies, with territoriality,
with fragments of patterns,
with Eros, with grease and with dirt.

I possibly have to look up a word
I possibly have to cross one out
I’m looking for two good words,
masking tape, and crayons to color them in with

I live in a cave, drums beat
smoke from fire finds fissures
A fawn frees its head
from a drawing of a fawn

The world’s timid hum is always present
as I do something absentmindedly
smart or elegant, classically trained
or detachable, like metallic embroidery

In a jar of preserved sanity
a version is stabilized, exact
At this point in the score
trilling turns into trembling

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tree stairs

The workers are busy. They are renovating the garage that juts out like a bay from a rear corner of the house. On the same side, they are terracing the driveway with bricks, as if it was a sort of civic plaza. I discovered this activity only when I got up this morning. I don’t know who ordered it or why.

When I arrive in front I notice more developments. On the large area in front of the house a Wal-Mart-like big box has been built with numerous aisles stocked with products packaged in colorfully illustrated cardboard and molded plastic. The products themselves look alike. They could be cell phones or toothbrushes or coffee makers.

In back of the house there used to be an acre or two of scrub land, in one part of which we once tried to plant a kitchen garden that was soon overtaken by weeds. Beyond that, there was a marshy region that could be crossed on wooden planks. Even further were the shacks built by people who had migrated from the hills, which were visible in the distance. These were later replaced by new houses. The people who lived there were suspicious of outsiders.

Now all of this is gone. In its place is a sea below a long curving wall, and on the land side we find ourselves in the middle of the downtown of a good-sized city, whose streets go off in all directions. Each one is lined with fancy shops with custom-made signs. I expect to recognize a store or restaurant, but I’m disappointed.

I am now accompanied by my dream self, who seems to know his way around. Maybe, instead, “I” am my dream self and my companion is a second dream self. In any case, the two of us navigate this city together.

We next find ourselves inside a colossal mall, or perhaps an airport terminal. Its interior is nearly empty and its roof is skylit. Whatever shops, restaurants, or offices there are are concealed within its walls. They are either invisible or disguised as architectural nuances.

We do discover a restaurant, I don’t know how. It is disguised as a delicate paper funnel or lampshade suspended by a wire from the roof. You enter by allowing yourself to be vacuumed up by this funnel. We see this happen to someone, but choose warily to search for a conventional entrance.

We find it on another floor. Its modernist décor features chrome seating with thick cushions of black leather that recall Le Corbusier. Tables are mostly enclosed within these black blocks giving the diners a small and walled-in appearance. There is little room to maneuver between these cubes. The lighting is bright and yellowish.

The diners don’t have much to eat. Hardly anything is on their plates. They pick at crusts and crumbs. We intuitively appreciate the price they paid to get in. We see the man who’d been sucked into the funnel. He is eating, if you could call it that, in a niche by himself, bending to his plate like a mechanical statue. He has grown a reddish beard several inches long.

We then return to the vast mall “street.”

Walking aimlessly yet purposefully, we pass a tree. It’s a small, grayish brown, almost leafless tree. The curious thing is that against it leans a curving staircase that seems to have its arm around the tree’s shoulders. The steps of the staircase—foil-like brushed-steel accordion pleats (since there are no railings)—grow narrower as they rise and end in a point among the tree’s lower branches.

I look back with an impulse to climb it, then move on.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fog and rain (Brumes et pluies)

Autumn, winter, and spring go by like boats.
I love these sleepy days, living undersea
as I do, my heart and brain adrift in vapors,
in linoleum fumes of rooms dimly entombed.

Across this bare plain play freezing winds,
gyring and debris-filled vortices end to end nightly.
I think of nothing better to do than listen
to crows open their wings wide and flap them like sheets.

Nothing is more soothing, in this funereal mood,
with thoughts so dead they begin to form floes
that clog the bleak months—the queens of these latitudes—

than the inspired sense of permanent shadow
in which moonlessly and side by side
we sleep in the first bed we come to.

(after Baudelaire)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Shutting the windows

The windows are dirty and leaky. In late October they leak cold air. Damp air too, since it’s raining. The dark wine-red lilies in the vase are mostly wilted. Only one out of nine still looks more like a lily than like a garbage bag stuck to a shrub.

I’m recycling old thoughts, which I often do. These particular thoughts may have begun many years ago while I was discussing modern art with a scientist I worked for. Though he loved art, music in particular, a lot of modern art seemed irrational to him and therefore incomprehensible. At the time, I couldn’t respond articulately. Though I believed that art didn’t have to be rational or “about” anything, I did and still do think of myself as, if not a rationalist with a capital R, still as someone with a strong rational bias. I feel randomness as random, disorder as disorderly, incompleteness as incomplete. It was never simply OK to me that a work of art might not be explainable in a rational way and I felt instinctively that it must be.

The subject came up again years later, this time in the context of another poet’s response to my poems. She wanted to know why they couldn’t be considered to be arbitrary arrangements of unrelated lines. This time I used a scientific analogy in my defense. I stated that like a chaotic system that appears random but that in reality is deterministic, obeying known or knowable laws, a poem might appear to be put together randomly and yet be—let’s say—the (verbal) residue of a process that obeys laws, whether or not those laws are known to the poet.

Still more recently, I gave a seminar on poetry for the scientists among whom I work. It was my first Power Point presentation and I got carried away with collecting images and finding scientific analogues. I organized it in modules with subjects such as words and things, creating meaning, parts and wholes, etc. I called it “Knowing Your Onions: Secrets of Poetry Exposed.”

Things unseen, like air. But you can see “wind” or “breeze” or …

“draft.” I feel a draft. I’m shutting the storm windows only one or two at a time. There’s still hope.

Monday, October 23, 2006

No door

My palm on stubble
that stretches to the horizon
In a clearing owned by birds
a large clueless beast perturbs

I’m the subject of noisy discussions
afraid to clear my throat
It’s June 7, 2026 and
Lewis the cat is missing

A chip tells them where he is
Everyone is the same shade of brown
Tall, tan, terrified
The birds have located Lewis

The October curfew imprisons
an apple, a pumpkin, beans
I’m waiting for the dream to dissolve
A misprogrammed bus zipper

Sunday, October 22, 2006

"C R A S H !"

I want to write a noisy poem.

The idea occurred to me two or three years ago. I was reading Virgil’s Georgics. In a note to the section on beekeeping, the editor quoted a nineteenth-century British writer, I believe, who described a traditional method farmers used to lure a swarm of bees to settle where it would be convenient to gather their honey. The technique was the same described by Virgil nearly two thousand years earlier. Basically, the farmers collected cans, tools, and other objects and made as much noise as they could. The noise, counterintuitively, was supposed to attract the bees—teenage bees, no doubt. Bees are deaf, as it turns out, but the practice nevertheless survived for centuries.

I began writing a poem based on the quotation, but wasn’t satisfied with it and put it aside.

A little while ago I read D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, much of which takes place in Florence shortly after World War I. Fascists, anarchists, and members of other parties roamed the streets. A long discussion in a café is interrupted in mid-sentence by an anarchist bomb:

“C R A S H !”

That’s pretty effective, I thought—in a negative way. It’s like an abrupt cut in a movie. But how noisy is it?

I realize that words and sounds have a complex relationship and that any number of ways of reproducing or describing sounds with words can be very satisfying. Here, I’m simply curious about what people think of as a “noisy” poem. Any examples?

The Genius

The drawing on the cover of el corno emplumado 30, from 1969, is the only illustration of mine that was ever published. I’m sure I was stoned when I did it. I would not otherwise have been so obsessive. I sent it to Margaret Randall and Robert Cohen, who were then the magazine’s co-editors. They surprised me by putting it on el corno’s cover.

In June 1968, after nine months in London, I had flown to Mexico City to visit Meg and Robert. I had known Robert in New York, but I met Meg in person for the first time that summer. We became friends and corresponded prolifically for about a year until she and Robert fled to Cuba in extremely tense circumstances.

The quotation in my drawing is from Dreiser’s The Genius. I probably liked it because of its documentariness. For the same reason, I’m still drawn to old photographs and movies that contain so matter-of-factly the often vanished, and in some sense imaginary, objects or uncanny landscapes of other times.

Daydreams, possibly with redeeming social value.

My actual dreams are often of places with familiar names, like Rome or New York, but that don’t resemble them at all. The other night it was a “Vermont” that had something in common with Burgundy or a less settled and wilder place.

Though my unintentional dream “Vermont” and Dreiser’s intentional “New York” differ in many ways, they seem to occupy adjacent lots in my imagination.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Black tea and spread

Cold like the mountains
A spongy ball
Thick ambitious poems
Smoke-stained painting

I’m sitting for the first time in hours
A nut is my amuse bouche
Milkweed pod-shaped lily buds
100 sheets of idle peas

Knife-sharp grass bending
Redundancy of footnotes
Overlays, moirés
Long stems crack sediments of books

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Autumn inferred

An energy-saving bulb in lantern,
fish grilling, fat and appealing.
Birds’ indifferent rhapsodic pulses,
pretty and unpretty motions, emotions.

Leaves reluctant to leave
do, innocent of irony or comic
timing, with regrets, with coping.
O oily carbon-scented air!

Pangs fueling pangs.
Wisps of music along conductors.
Essential light, a good large painting, a good
smile, a good eye, good skin, hungry dog.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Roman cinerary urn

A plastic box of grape tomatoes
rests on two apples of a mushy variety
(not the sweet Jonagolds
Jimmy Schuyler loved)
near a large orange, slightly scabby
brandywine, all in a bowl
that looks black but is really
blue with glitter. A small, square
olive-tinted vase holds a
yellow-orange dahlia—cut because
its stem broke—that goes
with the tomato. It’s the plant’s
only flower, crowded as it is
by reseeded cleomes and
miscellaneous weeds. George Foreman’s
“lean, mean (fat reducing) grilling machine”
is dirty from sitting forever on the counter
unused. A card from Finland, a card
from a Greek island, Folegandros,
still stuck to and warping on
the refrigerator, along with the
image of a Roman cinerary urn
clipped years ago from the Times,
turning orange (like the aforementioned
tomato and dahlia). It’s a stone box with
chariot wheels, shields, and helmets
carved in deep relief, that look piled
like Guston’s shoes—another image
of an ancient practice frequently revived.
These personal and intimate belongings
will be buried or incinerated with me,
in piles, in boxes, jars, vases, or bowls,
like tomatoes, windfall apples, nuts, pills.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shabby genteel

To have thoughts is to mix poorly,
to think is to be both absorbed and transparent
like a pale purple hosta flower that gets fewer looks than weeds.
If one thing illuminates another, it’s either a thought
or a trellis defying an oxidized aluminum sky.

An arrow-shaped bird and a stalled minivan
don’t know how to sit down and think
or walk and think at the same time.
Do I expect to find—descry, I mean—threatening patterns
in flower stalks, overfull pots of impatiens,
dormant moths in cracks?

Incoherent thoughts, warmed by fever,
fill cells of color, energetic
knotted strands in a sketch of a cloud.

Branches stray away from their origins.
Footsteps rush, hang back, strut, stroll, in a modular, intelligible way.
An oval can’t choose to be a circle so is blacked out
with ink that angrily violates outlines.

A staircase with its shadows fills a frame.

Mariposas, cocodrilos.
Una paloma
draws in its wings and dives,
flaps to accelerate, averts
a disastrous impact by
folding its neck into its fluffed-up breast,
to stall just as the earth meets it.

Other birds rise ominously in unison.

Because the trees are planted in straight rows
this must be France.
That’s a thought, not a rabbit.

Crickets out of phase—late summer sound.
Asters, leaving behind the forest of anonymity—late summer flower.

Watery, threadbare vision
in one eye, convoluted walls
finishing and distributing sounds.
Complaints oozing like a ripe tomato’s broken skin.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A decoration that goes off in sizzles

It takes three hours to prepare a newspaper.
In three hours a tenement can burn to the ground.
The next performance is in three hours.

In a wet city a block is blazing.
Whirling newspapers flap to the ground.
They ought to prepare for the next performance.

The choreographer and architect are thoughtful.
Their newest thoughts are grounded in ancient thoughts.
Their hair is kept in place with chicken fat.

Dreamland’s whirling bonfire burns
every three hours, then is put out.
The same victims are again miraculously saved.

That’s what they think, that’s what
the newspapers say, that’s what the tenants say.
The fire ought to be put out periodically.

After sizzling, the dance reforms in many layers.
Three hours pass on a miniature block
with a population of German midgets.

The questioning is persistent,
questions running down a little avenue.
All of them should go up in a blazing bonfire.

Then there would be an empty lot on the block.
It’s citizens would be cats.
The midgets make heroic efforts.

Their valor goes unrewarded.
They want to be repatriated to Equatorial
Dreamland, where fat melts in sizzles.

New York is not Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is not Italy.
Italy is not Africa.

The further away they are the less of a flap it makes.
They must prepare to return home.
For the newspapers it’s a performance.

What ought to happen happens.
More thought ought to go into it.
Preparing to perform, he ought to get up.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Robe de chambre

Friday, September 01, 2006

Major League Baseball 4

In the nearly uniform grid of that part of Brooklyn, the intersection of 67th Street and 18th Avenue is a minor anomaly because the street doesn’t go straight across the avenue. It continues west of it at a slight angle a few yards further to the south. Possibly because of that Thomas Wolfe used it in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Before 1952 we lived on that deviant block west of the avenue.

One of my mother’s best friends, Miriam, lived in the same apartment building, with her husband, Harry, and their two sons. Miriam, a certified “dame,” smoked and had a cynical, wise-cracking style of talk. Harry was a newspaper reporter. He worked for the Brooklyn Eagle, and later the Daily News. He investigated things, wrote about them, and his stories were printed. He got leads from sources. He seemed to know the city inside out, and he knew all the other reporters. He was sometimes accompanied by a photographer.

Once he was doing a story on juvenile delinquency and decided he needed pictures of delinquent children: children breaking laws, children sneering at their parents’ values, children doing cruel things to each other. So he collected a small group of kids from our block, including me, and took us to an alley in back of our apartment building. We were very young. I may have been eight. I remember being asked to hold a board with a nail sticking out of it over the head of a little girl pretending to shield herself with her arm.

After we moved, I didn’t see Harry or Miriam very often, though my parents kept in touch. Technically, I was still a Yankee fan. Life was good for the Yankees. For the Dodgers, things were never again as good as they were in 1955, though they were still very good. Nineteen-fifty-seven was their last year in Brooklyn. Then they moved to LA.

In the spring of 1957, a few months after the Suez Crisis, an Israeli soccer team toured the United States, probably to help beef up support for Israel. They were scheduled to play an all-star American team in Ebbets Field. According to an item about the game that I found on the web, the Israeli players were asked which famous Americans they’d like to meet. Their reply was, “As athletes, we’d like to meet the Brooklyn Dodgers, as men, Marilyn Monroe.” And so it was arranged that Marilyn would appear and kick off the first ball. As a perk, Harry got extra passes, which he gave to me and my father.

On May 12, 1957, I was in Ebbets Field, probably for the last time. My father and I sat in the press box in the first row of the upper deck along the third base line. I knew nothing about soccer so it’s not surprising that I don’t remember the game, or even if we stayed to see all of it. Sammy Davis Jr. was supposed to appear too, but I don’t remember him either. I do remember Marilyn. She may have been wearing a pink dress. The dress may have had a scoop neck. And she may have worn pink high heels. In any event, she took off one of her shoes, then kicked the ball, which squibbed away crookedly. She seemed pleased. Then she sat on top of the back seat of a convertible and was driven around the field close to the stands. I looked over the railing directly down at her when she passed below our seats.

Long afterward, in 1994, I was in Brooklyn again and walked down 18th Avenue back to 67th Street. I passed an Italian bakery that had been bombed in some ridiculous mob dispute, then the eighteenth-century church with the “tallest flagpole in Brooklyn,” made from an old ship’s mast. Then the site of a house in which George Washington spent a night.

Activity on the avenue became increasingly lively. Then there were crowds. Cars circled blocks filled with cheering passengers. It was a sort of parade with improvised floats in the colors of the Italian flag. At that moment, Italy was playing Brazil in the World Cup final. I took pictures of the animated scene as well as of the apartment building I lived in when I was a child.

I felt like a tourist and thought the same thoughts I would have thought as a tourist in any foreign country, “Why am I here? What am I supposed to be getting out of this? How do I do that?”

In a game scoreless through extra time, Brazil beat Italy 3-2 in a penalty shootout.

(End of “Major League Baseball.")

Monday, August 28, 2006

Major League Baseball 3

We visited my grandfather once a week. During the baseball season, he would be watching a game on TV in the living room. The TV turned off, the grownups moved to the kitchen to talk. I studied the pattern of the oriental carpet on the floor. I flipped through the pages of an illustrated dictionary on the small table in the hall. I was bored.

My father took me to a few games at Ebbets Field, and when I became a turncoat, Yankee Stadium. I remember both places. I remember being able to see, from inside, bits of the city beyond the walls, and not being able to see, from outside, anything of any interest inside. I remember seeing Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, all the others.

What I don’t remember is how important it was to me. Jackie and Allen were important, but they weren’t true friends. Later our friendship seemed more like a transaction. I contracted to become a Yankee fan, and they agreed to supply me with a surrogate family less problematic than my real one—plus free baseball cards.

When summers ended, I returned to school, which at first was an elementary school across the street from the Dyker Beach Golf Course, one of the few public ones in the city. Walking home one afternoon, fog from the bay was so thick I was afraid I’d get lost. I was supposedly the smartest kid in my graduating class, so I got a pen and pencil set embossed with my name—misspelled, of course. It was the last time I would do well in school.

The last empty lot sprouted more nearly identical houses. I went to Edward B. Shallow Junior High School, which meant a bus commute back to my old neighborhood. There I could skip a grade. Allen didn’t do well enough to skip a grade, so he went to a different school. Jackie, intending to become an engineer like his father, passed the exam and went to Brooklyn Tech.

The three of us had joined the Boy Scouts. Our troop met in the basement of a Lutheran church on 85th Street. It was a small troop. Once we went to Staten Island to camp overnight. When we got off the ferry one of the boys fell and got a deep cut in his hand. No one else seemed to know what to do so I took charge, first leading the injured boy to a barber shop, where we borrowed a towel to stanch the blood, then finding a doctor who would stitch up the wound. I was proud of having acted with such competence and authority, which seemed so uncharacteristic to everyone, myself included.

Inevitably, I was the troop scribe. I had a thin composition notebook, but I don’t remember what I was expected to write in it. Once, though, I wrote a parody of Hemingway, even though I had probably only read other parodies of Hemingway. I also wrote one or two stories—and my first poem—which I showed to a teacher.

In the fall of 1955, during the World Series, I was on a bus coming home from school. The 18th Avenue sidewalks were crowded with people not going anywhere, just screaming and laughing and jumping up and down. The news of the final out caromed around apartments above stores, then shredded into ribbons in the sky, and was ultimately reconstituted in outer space, where Venusians and Martians shrugged whatever Venusians and Martians shrug in lieu of shoulders. Dodgers? What are Dodgers?

A couple of years later, I entered high school, the same one Sandy Koufax went to. At that time he was in the limbo between apprenticeship and greatness. I was in a different limbo—adolescence. Then three desultory, mediocre years before graduation. As a senior, however, I began to make new friends and hang out with the staff of the literary magazine, Marquis (It was Lafayette High School). Poetry was a new doom, and I began “wending my maze” (in Peter DeVries’s phrase).

The brothers and I drifted apart. I had other friends. I went to college—CCNY—which involved subway commutes of more than an hour each way, so I was out of the neighborhood a lot. I didn’t improve as a student.

Allen later became an accountant and moved out west. Jackie had gone to Brooklyn Polytechnic University before becoming some sort of engineer. He got engaged to Ruth, a woman who lived across the alley in back of his house. (“She has fat legs,” my mother commented.) He got his own apartment, in a basement a few blocks away. Shortly before he and Ruth were to be married, my mother called me. I was living on Avenue B by then. She said that Jackie had been discovered hanging from a ceiling in his apartment. I remembered him fooling around with nooses in the Boy Scouts.

Alfred and Anne didn’t buy the suicide explanation. They thought it was murder, maybe involving the Mafia. I don’t know if anything came of that theory. The Topps Company relocated to Pennsylvania. Alfred and Anne moved there too.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Major League Baseball 2

My closest friends were Jackie and Allen, brothers who lived around the corner on 16th Avenue. Though they were Jewish too, they were German Jews, therefore somewhat suspect to many of the mainly Eastern European Jews of New York. Anne and Alfred came to the United States before World War II. They originated in north Germany, Hamburg, I think.

Jackie was three years older than I was, about my sister’s age, and Allen was a few months younger. There was a competitive element in our relationships. Sometimes I was closer to Allen, sometimes I was closer to Jackie. Who was competing for whose favor? Maybe it’s something automatic about relationships.

I was at their house a lot. It was like ours, but different in certain ways. They had a finished basement too, but where, in the rear, we had a laundry room, they had a kitchen, where they ate most of their meals. I ate mayonnaise there for the first time in my life.

Outdoors we played box baseball, stoop ball, and stick ball. We also went bowling now and then. In the summer I took a couple of buses with them to the large municipal pool in Sunset Park, where I learned how to swim. But Jackie and Allen preferred more cerebral games, like chess and bridge, which I tried to learn, but had little enthusiasm for.

Their major continuing project was the creation of a model train system in the large front room of their basement. It was extraordinarily elaborate, with looping tracks and miniature buildings and people, arranged on a plywood board that filled a large part of the room. It was on hinges, so it could fold up out of the way against the wall. They had figured out transformers, wiring, and so on.

Though we played some card games, like gin rummy, and some board games, our major obsession, at least during the summer, was All-Star Baseball. The game was based on the actual records of real players. For each player there was a round card, its rim divided into unequal slices—each with a number in it—and a four-sided hole in the middle that fit over a thick cardboard cut-out mounted with a spinning metal arrow. You spun the arrow and the number it pointed to determined the play. One meant a single, two a double, and so on. Other numbers meant walks, ground outs, strikeouts, and other kinds of plays. I remember that Pete Runnels’ number one slice was greedily wide. We kept statistics for each player and played whole seasons, one at bat at a time.

Anne, Alfred, and their sons moved to Brooklyn from the Bronx, from which it can be inferred that the boys were Yankee fans. Having always lived in Brooklyn, I didn’t question Dodger supremacy. My new friends, however—especially Jackie—had an air of authority. They were the kind of kids who liked to know what thing was the best in its category or what the right way was to do certain things. And they were proud of knowing what they knew and felt superior when they could tell someone something he or she didn’t know or didn’t know with equal certainty.

I didn’t know anything with certainty. For instance, I didn’t know if Truman would be a better president than Eisenhower, even though he had already been president for most of my life. Jackie and Allen, probably mimicking Alfred’s opinions, were certain that Eisenhower would go to Korea and end the war and would therefore be a better president than Truman. I was convinced. Similarly, I was persuaded that the Yankees were better than the Dodgers. In 1952, I suppose the Yankees were better than the Dodgers, but I didn’t understand then that that was not a sufficient reason to root for them.

Why did these fervently rationalistic Yankee fans move to Brooklyn? I believe the reason was that in Brooklyn Alfred would be nearer to where he worked. The company he worked for was located in one of the Bush Terminal buildings along Brooklyn’s waterfront south of Red Hook. He was the chief engineer of the Topps Chewing Gum Company.

(I wrote the above from memory and got some facts wrong, in particular, about the All Star Baseball board game. For instance, the number 1 on a player card meant “home run,” not “single,” which was number 7. I’ll leave the text as is as a reminder that other errors of memory are likely to exist, perhaps more substantial ones.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


I’m wandering around Paris. I’m supposed to return home on Sunday, the day after tomorrow. I just left some friends, among whom was J. I hadn’t seen her in years. I was in love with her then. She retreats into the building where she works, through an enormous marble and glass lobby.

Broad plazas, monumental buildings, not the kind of Paris I like. One street is flooded with turbulent rapids. I think I know my way around, but I’m really lost. Finally, I come across the Palais Royal and duck into it, hoping for some peace and quiet. Its spaces are indeed peaceful, of different shapes and sizes, but more like a Roman ruin—like the Palatine—than the Palais Royal. I keep thinking, “This is where Head of State A met with Head of State B and resolved Major Conflict X.”

But even within this odd “Palais Royal” I’m getting lost. I ask someone who works there if he knows a good inexpensive restaurant in the neighborhood. He does and says he would like to have lunch with me, but I suspect that all he wants is to take advantage of a tourist. Then I remember that I have too little cash on me and it’s in US dollars. We wait for a signal, a bell, from a tower, which will let us know when the restaurant has a free table. I talk about preferring Paris and New York to Boston. Other friends of mine show up. They all want to have lunch with us. One of them is M., another woman I used to be in love with. I tell the others that I’d rather have lunch alone with M. She agrees, so the two of us wander off, but the landscape is becoming more and more confusing, more like a ruin, more like places in Rome, this time the Colosseum.

M. is distressed. She went to a meeting this morning where people described conditions of extreme poverty and oppression, and inhuman atrocities. I am at a loss to respond. I suspect that these things could be understood, and that suffering could be eased, but I can only acknowledge their existence. I can’t say anything comforting.

Street musicians and actors are performing everywhere. "Healing the Feeling" from Ornette Coleman’s Virgin Beauty is going through my head. M. is very hungry. She says she wants pancakes. She nibbles at food in a stall, which I discourage because I want to sit down with her in a restaurant. But where? Finally, at someone’s computer, I search for “pancakes Paris.” Fortunately, there are a lot of IHOPs in Paris.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Major League Baseball 1

In 1952 we moved into the first and only house my parents owned. It was in Bath Beach, near Gravesend Bay, Fort Hamilton, and the Belt Parkway. The sounds of the highway and the sounds of the sea were indistinguishable.

Bath Beach is a sort of subdivision of Bensonhurst. There must have been a beach there once, but it had been developed. The houses were postwar, mainly brick row houses, some single or two family, some “garden apartments.” Similar houses made Donald Trump’s father rich.

Our house was separated from the neighbors’ by thin walls. In front, a purposeless lawn and some shrubs, in back, a tiny yard. A cinder block garage opened onto a private alley that cut through the middle of the whole block.

A rhododendron, an azalea, a forsythia, an evergreen—hemlock, I think—and a pink and orange rose with a brisk brewed scent. Before my father, like nearly all of our neighbors, had it cemented over, the backyard had other roses and a tiny crabapple, beneath which I buried my dead Angel fish.

Our living room seemed bigger than it was because the previous owners had installed a large mirror on one wall. There were two rooms in the basement, a laundry room and small bathroom in the rear and a large room in front with green and brown tiles in a shuffleboard pattern. Walls were yellowish knotty pine. There were acoustic tiles and a couple of buzzing fluorescent light fixtures on the low ceiling.

Independence Avenue is short. Before its latest incarnation it had been Warehouse Avenue. It wasn’t completely developed however. When we got there—on February 29, Leap Year Day, which is why I remember it—there was an empty lot a couple of houses away. To me, it seemed bigger and wilder than it actually was. Playing there by myself one day, I snuck up behind a praying mantis, which suddenly swiveled its triangular head and bit my finger.

A dog, a collie with dirty long hair, went on its rounds, unleashed.

We moved there, I think, because friends of my father’s lived one street over. Fritzi and Milton and him had emigrated from Banila Rus in Bukovina. Unlike my politically moderate father, Milton was a communist, and had returned to Europe when, to him, the revolution still seemed viable. Ultimately, he settled in Brooklyn, worked as a furrier, and owned a mandolin that fascinated me.

There were few Jewish families in the predominantly Italian neighborhood. Nevertheless, there were a couple of synagogues and, among automobile showrooms and repair shops on 18th Avenue, a ritual poultry slaughterhouse. The man who slaughtered the chickens (I don’t know the technical term for such a person) seemed plucked unaltered from the shtetl. I saw necks severed, blood running, smelled raw chicken smell.

Bordering 18th Avenue, between Bath and Benson, there was a tiny, totally self-contained black enclave, half a dozen square blocks or so. Only decades later did I learn that it was one of the small communities established in northern cities in the nineteenth century by freed slaves.

The single token of continuity linking our old neighborhood—only a couple of miles away at the edge of Borough Park—with our new one was Ted, the Good Humor Man. Ted was a school teacher. Being a Good Humor Man was his summer job. A major recurring event from my earlier life was watching Ted buy a quart glass bottle of milk at the Kelber’s grocery store across the street from our apartment, then draining it in a single gulp. Ted was a Unitarian, which doesn’t adequately explain it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Benny Carter's "Synthetic Love"

The car is beating. I listen
A Kinglet—maybe—in an oak,
a startlingly healthy sycamore
The rose hips are yellowish
Portable storage containers big enough to live in
hiding deer and rabbits
The humidity stinks, makes things stink

Missiles are totally disinterested
in wind in trees or industrial montage
contending with an atmosphere
not a near “us” or an alien “us”
or an “us” forming in orange clouds

Her curls, her exhaustion, her
locks that drip, eyes that look
left and right, a unity
of determination with
functioning fingerless near-hands

From lower thighs
“legs” are undisguised prostheses,
silver and black artificial bones
that walk questionably
more elegantly than what we’re born with
on this muddy planet, an heirloom tomato
with streaming red and yellow fires.

The setting sun fills leafy gel.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Hibiscus kisses

You can analyze a forest
of oak, and the conversation
can give you a clue
to insistencies of will

and the whole forest
and you
will be blighted
you may find.

Some specific tract
of forest, a date
or oak forest, may not
be the whole forest.

It may or may not be
the conversation
you analyze later
to find the clue

to whether insistencies
of specific will
can be whole
or blighted.

To be specific
the wood
whether oak or date
may be a clue to the whole.

You may find the will to be
specific to insistencies
you analyze later
to be not it, the tract.

Some insistencies
may give you a specific date
to find the will
to analyze the blighted whole.

At some date
the oak forest can will
insistencies to be,
to be oak. Oak.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The chasm

You grew, grew, grew. But you couldn’t move. You couldn’t. You couldn’t move, but you advanced. You couldn’t exist any more. (One couldn’t exist any more.) A straight line, a spiral, a spiral on a straight line couldn’t exist, but one existed, one grew, one grew straight and advanced nearer to vagueness, but in a spiral, a tantalizing one, a more distinct one, but higher, higher, higher, and so more tantalizing. Things couldn’t exist in more distinctness, no, in more vagueness, in any dimension.

Had muddlings existed, muddlings couldn’t move in a spiral. But muddlings couldn’t exist, so muddlings, most muddlings, move in a vague spiral, to more distinctness, and couldn’t move in a line (so tantalizing the line) with a higher distinctness and a more tantalizing vagueness. Most distinct muddlings exist in one dimension. What things? Spiral things? Things that exist? So that was the most advanced you grew.

Things had existed. That grew more distinct. As you grew nearer, things grew more and more distinct. As you advanced, things grew more tantalizing, so tantalizing that one dimension grew a spiral. What dimension was that? No more You any more, that one. So you advanced, advanced, advanced. You grew, you grew, you grew. Most distinct spiral lines existed so that you couldn’t move more things nearer. No, no, no. Higher, higher, higher. One had had that, one had had one more line, and that was the most one had had.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Thou should'st be living at this hour

There were hot and muggy days like this on Avenue B in the mid-Sixties. People yelled or screamed, but you were used to it. Cops were on every corner. You’d be afraid to enter or leave your building. A window was just as good as a door and your apartment was sort of on the way to someplace for just about everybody. Your neighbor cried when he discovered another cherished possession stolen. You didn’t cry because you didn’t cherish your possessions. On a day like this you’d buy some wine and make some curry-seeming food and listen to a raga. You’d go to see a movie, or two movies, or a friend, or a bunch of friends, staying out as late as you liked, standing on streetcorners or looking at books. Then a strange kid follows you home because he thinks you were looking at him “with significance” on the subway.

(This sounds like some really old novel. If I did write a novel I guess it would be old at birth. When people began writing about the Sixties, I thought that they all had it wrong and that I would get it right if I made the effort. I don’t think that now. I’d rather channel Lawrence Tierney. A lot of noir in my diet lately.)

The tenement I lived in isn’t there anymore. I noticed this about three years ago on a visit to see friends who had a new baby. They lived in the west 60s and going downtown was a tourist kind of thing. Well, I’m a tourist kind of person, I thought. We got to Avenue B and I saw the gap between two tenements. The gap, the ghost gap, was where I lived for about two years, two fairly eventful years, in the old-novel era.

When I moved to Avenue B I was working as an office boy in the ITT headquarters building on Park Avenue in the 50s and in another building around the corner on Madison. I worked in the Patent Department. I get the two buildings mixed up now. The one on Park had the top executives’ offices, including the nearly always empty one belonging to the ex-CIA director.

We had a library, with law books and official government publications filled with diagrams and descriptions of inventions. I spent many lunch hours there reading poetry books. One attorney noticed this. Indulgently, he told me that he had written poetry when he was in college. Some time later when he saw that I was still reading poetry, he showed some irritation. “Still reading that stuff?”

The Madison Avenue building overlooked the rear of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One time a pope came to visit the city and stayed at St. Pat’s. Another celebrity visited and I actually shared an elevator with him. It was Walt Disney! His New York offices were in the same building.

During most of this period I was waiting for my first book of poems to come out. It finally did, in the spring of 1966. A courier delivered a copy to me while I was at work. I looked at it with indefinable curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I quit my job

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Paint It Today

The two poems, “I am glad I am not what I look like” and “We bathed in clothes” began as a single draft, written this past Monday in the Coffee Obsession in Woods Hole. Like many of my poems, they arise from how I respond to a specific place.

Unlike when I was young, I now frequently, and sometimes extensively, revise. Revising makes a poem feel more like a process. I sometimes can’t say I like one version of a poem better than another. I like the idea of process, though, selfishly, I don’t want it to keep me from remaining famous (and worshipped) well into the twenty-fifth century (to speak conservatively).

Needless to say, I wouldn’t like to revise if I thought I wasn’t improving a poem. Increasingly, however, the process of composing anticipates that of revision, so I often think of a draft as a set of notes for a poem. I also like the idea of selecting materials and objects that happen to be lying around and organizing them into a work of art.

In this instance, the stanzas and individual lines in the original draft would read like a shuffled version of the two present poems. I was attracted by a woman in the coffee shop and about half the lines I wrote were about her. The others were more miscellaneous. A couple of days later it struck me that I might place the lines about the woman together and see if they would work that way, and then see what, if anything, I could make out of the other lines.

While many lines in both poems describe my surroundings, usually with an attempt at faithfulness to appearances (almost always problematic, of course), there is another important factor woven within and between them. I was reading H.D.’s unfinished novel Paint It Today and had it with me at the time of writing. In the (autobiographical) novel, “Midget” is the character H.D. based on herself. Trying to imagine which eight-letter word the woman in the coffee shop had deleted, I found suggestions by flipping through the novel’s pages. There are less literal allusions to the novel in both poems. Both titles are quotes from its dialogue.

There is nothing marvelously new or unique about any of these procedures.

We bathed in clothes

Witches are expected to grow up, she wrote
make a volte-face

A yellow visor, soft nose, spherical shirt tied at waist
rolling downhill at a good clip
Another cap and another
A "Welcome" sign so I should feel welcome

Scientists are coming to the party
which is really nice
One bottle of wine doesn’t go very far

Reflective blue lenses hide eyes
a reflective blue casque

The driver is past middle age
his skin loose below jaw and below eyes
he traces a route on a map

A spirea’s browning flowers, a wordless white rectangle
silver reflecting muddied sunbeams
The tree has too many arms, all raised
The bridge deck rises, revealing lesbian graffiti
Half the tree is seeds, a baby croaks like a heron

In pink flip-flops and green crocs there is always an Other
always music, simultaneously urgent and dragging
like an old woman’s instability, not often beautiful
but applicable to a multitude of circumstances

I am glad I am not what I look like

A dark-skinned person at work
aggressively focused beyond street and coffee shop

Inky disheveled hair falls to the middle of her back
clawlike hands, like Midget’s, poised to clutch
to not let the keyboard escape
or to let the meek thoughts escape
thoughts that must be accurate and pertinent

An annoyed hand quickly brushes the chin
More thoughts, more escapees

Pale lime unbuttoned cuffs are pushed up to elbows
Is she thinking in complete sentences?
Is she writing a diary, elaborating a thesis?

She quickly hits the delete key eight times
Is “intimacy” gone, are “blossoms” defeated?
Are they about to “separate,” is “girlhood” over?

Done by noon, it almost has form
camouflaged form
dark green floral embroidery
on her shirtfront

Saturday, July 15, 2006

So so twins

Sheets of paper
wrinkled after many wine spills
lie on a clean wood floor like Hesse’s Augment
or a stack of papadums
and are blown through the room by the corner fan.

As they age and still seem to last
an order of time much deeper
arrives at the lip, where a woman’s portrait
in paint that still sticks to the wood
is ornamented with gold and pearls.

Her dark eyes avoid the artist’s,
dilated nostrils hint embarrassment and anger,
her nearly hexagonal mouth
that could be stoic or pouting
is certainly purple and mute.

I fall in love with her voice immediately
and remember it
for as long as I last
or seem to last.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

My sketchbook

My subjectivity and my emotions
taste bitter, a thin arm, too thin for the sleeve
of the teeshirt, in my sketchbook

Falling over themselves like roses
all a special case, weightless
dolls and other toys, counted, put away


Sketched sleeves of green shirt
An arm, a length of arm, ogre-green
lapses, beads, walking slowly
as if afraid of falling
no greeting, aware of eyes

French natives generate French accents
yellow complexion
economical use of hands


A boy in orange long-sleeved tee
dribbles, holds basketball away
from smaller boy who swipes and misses
Shiny girls, green balloons, a June party


A wall that makes no sense
so think of it as a canvas
unwieldy, deceptively heavy
dangerous during thunderstorms
and noisy under fountains


Cross-hatched winds
sheer and waves
A tiny boy sprawls in rectangular clothes

Devising instructions
designing software
a string mower
a wilted hill
divebombing robin
a lewd insult

Air is set in motion by the sun
My arm is numb, asleep
Nocturnal ants crawl over tiles


Retelling the way something fried
registered difficulty
when something’s quiet
another golden rolling dog
with a curled tail


Yellow daylily dingbats
Hair straightened with an iron

She lies on grass on cellphone
checking in for the feeling
or searching for good restaurants

By mistake I board a plane for Chicago
after searching through New York debris
for a bicycle that is really
locked throughout the winter
to a parking sign near Harvard Sq.
just uphill from a medieval town
its streets lined with casement-windowed shops

I meant to go to Miami

A dry refreshing breeze
is screened for a small audience
An invited pink rose

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Vie de Joel Sloman

The 1970s was the great period of self-examination in my life. I wrote journals and kept a diary, almost all of which bores me to death today. I began by trying to remember everything that happened to me up until the time I began writing it down. Then I tried to explain it to myself. Often, a particular text ended with an inspirational passage. I resolved some sort of confusion, explained enigmatic events, and then concluded that I could move forward, a burden lifted.

My problems were obvious to me. Socially, I was extremely shy and backward. Ordinary tasks, some of which I ought to have enjoyed, like reading a book, overwhelmed me. My attention wandered. I was very afraid, in danger, I thought (like Emily Dickinson?).

I certainly wasn’t taking the “responsibility” of being a poet very seriously. I drifted away from whatever involvement I had had in the literary world.

It was a period of “beginning again,” though hardly consciously or systematically.

A few times, however, I did learn something meaningful about myself. One day I sketched the floor plan of the apartment in which I had lived with my parents and my sister until I was eight and a half years old. It was on the second floor, facing the street, of a 4-storey brick apartment building in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. It wouldn’t be hard to sketch the neighborhood itself, which is basically a grid.

The apartment consisted of a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, a hall, and a bathroom. I looked at the sketch in amazement. The apartment was so small! It suffocated me. It made me crave limitless space.

“I’m going to be fifty. It’s high time I knew myself. What have I been? What am I?” Stendhal writes in his Vie de Henry Brulard. So he writes about his youth, beginning with his earliest memories, “far from certain that I have the talent to get myself read. I sometimes find great pleasure in writing, and that’s all.”

But he didn’t only write. He also drew pictures, of rooms, streets, squares, woods, mountains, views, labeled in detail, often lettered like a diagram with an accompanying legend. He claimed that this aided his memory, which, to me, is perfectly credible.

I think of Jack Kerouac and Bernadette Mayer.


Rembrandt painted two Lucretias. The earlier one (in the National Gallery) is lyrical, almost dancelike. Lucretia is fully dressed, her waist tightly laced, and she wears a couple of necklaces. She looks at the knife she raises in her right hand. She hasn’t stabbed herself yet. If the knife wasn’t there, she might be Salome instead of Lucretia.

In the later painting, Lucretia wears what looks like a loose white nightgown under an open robe. Below her heart there is a long vertical red stain. She is still. The knife is in her right hand, but the hand is resting on a pillow. Her left hand seems to be pulling a cord. Alternatively, she might be holding herself up with the cord while supporting herself on the pillow. Though her eyes are open, she isn’t looking anywhere.

I saw this Lucretia at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the summer of 1963. At nearly the same time, New York’s Met had acquired Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, which is contemporary with it. Aristotle’s pose is nearly a mirror image of Lucretia’s.

I was in Minneapolis to see if I could be a real poet. While my sister, in graduate school at the university, spent the summer in New York, I would live in her apartment and write poetry.

The apartment was the top floor of a two-storey house. Two opera students lived downstairs. Railroad tracks and one or two grain elevators were at the end of the street. The neighborhood was near the university.

I took long walks downtown, crossing the Mississippi. Where were the 10,000 lakes? The only skyscraper then was the Foshay Tower. I saw Moliere (The Miser, I think) at the new Guthrie Theater and heard a chamber music performance somewhere. On the hottest days, the asphalt in the streets became sticky.

I wrote on my sister’s typewriter on blue and yellows sheets of paper that my mother brought home from her job. I did my best to write every day, but it was frustrating. I was not a disciplined person. If I didn’t finish a poem in one sitting, it just got filed away. Any trivial distraction would shatter my mood.

At the university, I audited a couple of classes. “Modern American Poetry,” taught by James Wright (using Allen Tate’s syllabus, I believe) did not particularly interest me. It began with Jones Very at a time when I was encountering Donald Allen’s New American Poetry for the first time. When Theodore Roethke died that summer, Wright tearfully announced his death in class. Though I was sympathetic to Roethke’s work, I was a bit embarrassed by Wright’s emotional display. I may have been at fault for responding that way, but I stopped going to the class.

The other class, taught by Sarah Youngblood, whom my sister had recommended, was on Yeats. Though I don’t remember much about the class, I did take the opportunity to read and enjoy the Collected Poems. In the last class, Youngblood raised the question of Yeats’s greatness. Could a poet be great if he or she hadn’t written a major long work. Yes, she concluded. Yeats was a great poet! I returned to the apartment exhilarated. Even though I hadn’t written a major long work, I too could be a great poet!

Despite my frustration, I wrote a great deal that summer. The earliest poems in my first book were written in Minneapolis. I was twenty.