This poem started when I had a discussion with a friend about poet crushes. He said he had one for a while on Deborah Warren. If you don’t know her work, it’s great. She writes formal poems that don’t strain to fulfill their forms. I really enjoyed her book, Zero Meridian. That discussion made me realize that I had a poet crush on Elizabeth Bishop. The crush has now gone on for decades. I took the address from a book of Bishop letters that I was reading. The contemporary poet that I saw by accident at a friend’s reading shall remain nameless. The more that I have read of her, the more I feel guilty about a few of the lines.
The inscription was written on the first page above the blurbs:
Welcome to Brautigan. This is mind-funk. Enjoy. Thanks for being you. Keep hoisting them dark pints!
The paperback is a bind up of Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar. I found it in Brooklyn on Prospect Park West between Prospect Ave and Windsor on Jan. 3. This was a day when people get back into town from their Holiday travels and try to make room for new stuff. There was a small pile of books, so Death had been busy on Brian’s bookshelves.
For non-New Yorkers, here is some context (apparently lots of people in America don’t live in New York). Space is extremely precious in Brooklyn. Books are space hogs. People often put books out on the curb and then other book-suckers pick them up. Read them or not, they may end up out on the street again, most likely right before or even during a move, part of a slow moving sea of books traded anonymously. If we all lived in big houses in the suburbs, we would just keep them.
Despite the wishes of the M. of the inscription, Brian did the worst thing that you can do to a gifted book. He put it out on the curb. But why? And who are these people?
It is addressed to “Brian.” Just “Brian.” The writer could have helped. Had it started with a “Dearest” or a “Beloved,” we would know for sure that their bonds were of the flesh. Had the Brian been cut with a “Hi” or a “Hey Knucklehead,” we would know that these were friends. Just “Brian,” lends a weight. But what kind of weight? Lover, Former Lover, Mentor, Boss, Parent?
The first two sentences make me lean towards a mentor relationship:
Welcome to Brautigan. This is mind-funk. Enjoy.
It also has a kind of pushiness. I own this writer. This work was mine and now I’m giving it to you. Notice the hyphen in “mind-funk.” This is a performance. Then M. goes on to tell Brian what to do: “Enjoy.” Nobody likes to be told what to do. Imagine we were in a bar together and I turned to you and said, “I command you to breathe and drink your beer.” You would probably think, What an asshole, as you took breath and drank beer.
There is nothing worse than the mentor who tries to mentor the unwilling. I may have been guilty of this in the past.
The next line pushes the scale back towards a romantic relationship, “Thanks for being you.” But a particular kind. This line sounds like a consolation prize for a relationship not had. Something that the lover who thought better of it all would tell you. With that reading in mind, the next line is heartbreaking:
Keep hoisting them dark pints!
Forget that I said this person was bossy. This inscription strikes the right note of camaraderie. A little roughened grammar, a great verb. This is the right way to drink. If you actually get to sleep with the person that you hoist “them” dark pints with, you are doing very well in this lifetime.
We should all hoist while we can, because one day, it won’t be hoisting. That beer stein will be bailing out a sinking ship, one mind-numbing drink after another. This inscription was written twenty-three years ago. Maybe Brian is there already. Maybe the memories soured on this friend, or this lover, or on this self, not because it was a bad self, but because that self can’t be recaptured. Or maybe he didn’t like the book that much and only kept it because of the inscription. There was a dog-eared corner at page 93. The corner could have been marking a favorite passage or be the place that he shut the book forever.
The writer of the inscription signs off with an initial and a period. The M. needs no explanation for Brian. The self evident M. would never imagine that he or she could be forgotten. That Winter day may have finally come.
As far as the book goes, I’m with M.. I’m having a good time reading it.
ps. Brian, Brian between Prospect Ave and Windsor, if you happen to read this and you have changed your mind, maybe you forgot the inscription was in there, maybe M. just called, maybe you ran into someone that knew you both and you had a long talk about old times over a whiskey, maybe you got it all wrong, maybe you misunderstood a whole decade, Brain, you can have Trout Fishing in America back. Don’t wait too long. When I move, I might have to put it out on the curb.
I had this thought that I shouldn’t just post the link, that somehow that isn’t enough for a blog post. On the last blog post about a publicaton, I talked too much about how I wrote the poems. I preened a bit. Poets are the worst. The Byronic guy with flowing sleeves and a dashing way with anything that touches his hands (foils, women, forks, corkscrews, wooden tennis racquets) doesn’t exist in this body. The Byronic ego is there though. If I am at a dinner party and someone says that they are a poet, I run. If you are at a dinner party with me and I mention that I’m a poet, don’t run. I’m really a deep and fascinating guy as evidenced by the poems at the link below.
Most days nothing much happens as a poet. You go to work and you desperately try to stay awake in conference rooms as HR departments describe the exciting new shrinking benefits and you thank people for emails where they apologize for answering an email a week late with the note that they have sent it on to someone else who might know something about the topic. You eat hotdogs and then the news tells you that those hotdogs are going to kill you faster than you thought they would. You look out the windows and think, man, I should really be writing. But a boat crosses your window-size cut out of the Hudson River and the thought changes to why bother and maybe you muse about how if someone asked you to define poetry, you would have a confident sentence before it petered out into a kind of glum shrug.
But not yesterday.
Yesterday I got my contributor copies for Jelly Bucket 6. A deliciously large journal with a great illustration of a bird on the cover and an eight page color insert. Paging through it, I especially liked the short story by Lucian Childs titled, Letters from His Wife Regarding the Progress of Her Enlightenment. Oh, and I’ve got a poem in there, too. Did I mention that? The poem is about a woman I saw dancing in Ruby’s Olde Tyme Bar and Grill on the boardwalk at Coney Island after the Mermaid Day Parade, maybe fifteen years ago. . Here’s a link to the Jelly Bucket website with information on where you can purchase a copy.
Also, yesterday, the new issue of the After Happy Hour Review went live. I have two poems in this web journal.
Epistle 1: I decided to write letters to people in my past as poems that I would never send them or tell them about. I had high hopes of writing quite a few these. I wrote two. In poem hunting, if an idea or a way of thinking yields two poems, that’s pretty darn good.
Pastry Tong: This poem was conceived when I was under the temporary sway of a book by Ponge. A friend I don’t talk to anymore recommended him to me. This reminds me that I should write that friend a poem letter and not send it to him.
Here’s the wikipedia on Ponge, so you know everything, too:
He wrote poems about objects and he tried very hard to make the poems only about the objects. This is a doomed kind of writing, a bit of cooked science poetry. The personal, the universal, can’t be kept out. The first drafts just stuck to describing the pastry tongs and the back story of the speaker and the girl in the coffee house was just the faintest of shadows. A hint. Then at some point I just put a full on love poem on top of this abstract discussion of Pastry Tongs. I put it on like one puts a coat of paint over another older coat of paint. The speaker isn’t me, except for the attitude and the fact that I spend a lot of early mornings in coffee shops. The girl is equally as unreal. That’s why the poem works. The pastry tongs are real though. Here’s a link to the journal:
The Levelled Churchyard
O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
“I know not which I am!”
‘The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!
‘Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain!
‘Here’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some sturdy strumpet!
‘From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchman’s pick and plane,
Deliver us O lord! Amen!’
Here’s an early Thomas Hardy poem. The idea of the poem is that a part of a churchyard has been levelled by removing or moving headstones. The poem is not that clear except that some headstones are jumbled, presumably from being forced into a smaller area and some have been moved to out of the way places where there happens to be a little room. Hardy did some work as a church architect, so I imagine that he was part of renovations that did “level” some churchyards. Also, I imagine that he carried this idea for a poem around for a long time before he acted on it.
I’m not a scholar; I’m a poet. (Dammit, Jim.) When I read other poets it is with two minds. The first mind reads as anyone else would, for enjoyment, for that little pop, that twang of the heart that a good poem brings. I guess there are still innocent readers out there who just like poetry and don’t read it because they are trying to get a laurel to wear themselves. The second mind is a scavenger. That mind is looking for things to use. So what can a contemporary poet take from this old Hardy poem?
There is a balance in reading as a poet. Read none of your peers and you don’t have the same set of tools available. Read too much of your peers and all you can do is echo. You have nothing to bring then but your own personality which would be fine if you are incredibly charming or if you are halfway through drinking yourself to death. But if you are a boring old stick in the mud, you might have a problem. Read only the classics and you can’t help but become dated, espicially if you don’t read far enough back. I spent a lot of time with the poet’s of the fifties, Bishop and Lowell, for example. It ’s a style that is still valid but whenever I look at a new journal I am jealous of how much more poets are doing with lines, breaking and not breaking them, new shapes/ideas organizing poems, how much obscurity is used, how much more directness is used. How much more frank they can be with the rawness of youth.
I’m still nervous when the lines aren’t identical lengths.
One thing to look for in a much older poem is what we can’t use.
On the form, the ballad stanzas are fine. The rhymes chime reliably enough for the music to pull us along, no clunkers. Nice touch on the last rhyming pair, putting the amen after the rhyme of “sward” and “Lord.” There is enough rhythmic variation to keep us from falling asleep. It does what good form should, invisibility. We can still use this form if we have a compelling reason to sound like a song. This poem is not necessarily a place that I would go to sharpen my form.
In a vast and probably overly personal generalization, our poems seem to resist message. Seem. A favoring of some moment of emotional clarity or intensity is a message in and of it itself. This poem has more of a message than we are used to and he leads us to it harder than we are used to being led. Hardy doesn’t believe much in a God that takes an interest in our lifes or of the promise of any kind of afterlife. Some of his other poems make a case that it would almost be better to have an angry god than the indifferent one that he perceives. Might be refreshing now to get a message, especially if it wasn’t political. Maybe something about love or the lack thereof ladeled on thick.
Hardy makes a kind of collective speaker for the dead in the churchyard. That collective speaker is speaking to us collectively. It isn’t addressed to one person going through the churchyard. It seems a note or an inscription left for any passenger in the future. The collective speaker isn’t used that much in contemporary poetry. We strongly prefer the I. I strongly prefer the I. After that, the next fallback is to a omniscient third.
Speaking as a We was always a device but now it feels even more so like some grand rhetorical device. I was thinking that I couldn’t name a poem that uses this but then the words, “We jazz june,” popped into my head. The things we can’t use are really what we should try to use. Has poetry lost the ability to speak for the whole tribe at once? Probably. I think we can, as June Jordan does, speak for a smaller group we know intimately. Or we could speak for a ridiculously small and made up group, like the poor souls at this church.
Irony is also something that we generally shy away from. Irony needs the reader to get a message that the speaker in the poem doesn’t get. I’m referring to dramatic irony here. So it really has the same problem as message but with a layer of technique added to it. Hardy uses this device to lead us to his message. First, we get the great line about being mixed to human jam. Dark, funny. And you can see immediately how that would be a problem for any speaker. But the first thought after processing the humor and the funny idea of all the jams being mixed up, is what kind of “I” can something mixed to human jam have.
By the time, we get to the rhyme of trumpet and strumpet and the silliness of good jam ladies worried about being confused with immoral jam ladies, the dark thought comes to us, if it is silly for the dead to worry about, it might be silly for the living too. The identity crisis of the speaker is also that of the poet.
The part of me that used to write papers compells me to mention that the word, levelled, refers to the ground in the churchyard, but it also refers to a levelling morally and socially of the people buried and by extension all the members of the church. It could also be referring to death itself.
Maybe I like this poem because I’ve tried to write a few ghost poems- the ghosts that hang out in my apartment and another that imagined the street by street map of somebody’s personal ghost town. By the way, I don’t believe in ghosts. I just like the idea of them, hanging out, having opinions about our follies.
Another thing you can do with an old poem is try to imagine how it would be written today. With this poem, I could imagine a wild Dean Young treatment, with a long list of mixed-up fantastical ghosts blaming city hall. Or a wry Billy Collins treatment from the point of view of the church architect. The fourth stanza is already close to the quiet despair of a Phillip Larkin poem. Wait. Larkin goes too far back. He’s already in the jumbled cemetery.
Here’s a poem about a subway announcement. For a few years, the train skipped the Smith and Ninth Street stop. I heard this announcement every time I rode the train. Any connoisseur of the F-train will remember it.
If you like monkeys and rum, you might like this story.
Here’s a link to the BBC footage that inspired the story. The moral of this story is keep an eye on your booze.