Poem – Gray Suit Coat

Gray Suit Coat             

It’s remarkable the way, once you’ve started,
almost anything will work: telephone poles,
a pile of wood, a steeple. Farming
implements are lovely, and everything
in the garage, for that matter. Even fabrics,
if displayed correctly, can be effective:
take for example the suit coat on the chair,
say that the shoulders are square
and the creases sharp, and that the sleeves,
though worn, are spotless. Mention the way
the bow of the hanger lifts the lapels slightly—
all of these details have consequence.
No one will bother about motive
if the beam that you drop rings true
or cuts clean. Move the stepladder around
to the far side of the barn. Only avoid most 
adjectives, and the moon.  
Now: what about that gray 
suit coat hanging on the back 
of the chair, open at the neck?


Poem – Poem with Crow

Poem with Crow

for my daughter

I give you
in morning a man splitting wood
in March a man’s cut breath sudden
and the perilous beauty of steel arcing
around him

see how the
plaids of his coat are busy they
gather and flex for the keen wedge,
gather him to the greens and browns of
the pasture

I say the
greens and browns of sleeping horses
greens and browns of wet wood
this man stables for the splitting edge
in this March

I tell you
I am this man in morning
I am the wood and horse stabler
and it is my work unharnessed
in the axe

O the axe!
its bright weight a word for wood,
its quick insistent
talk in the ear, in the struck and
plied fibers

and how the
fresh hewn logs yield a fragrant hue,
yield such filaments of flesh I
cannot taste, cannot yet embrace
nor ignite

into this
(now the sharp waking of wood and axe
beneath the early mottled trees
beside the pasture-mantled mares)
March scene walks

jet, one crow
jet he is charcoal, he is his shadow
he is nearly not, an inked and
unblinking pupil at the center of
my fancy:

think of me
busting limbs by the waking sires
bursting steam in the unbuttoning sun
by the bark-strewn stump and the axe
as I say

this black stroke
this impudence of sheen, this concentrate
of crow crutching across the roots
grotesque as a straight-jacketed

was for me
a figment of a child I’ve not conceived,
a girl bearing what resemblance? to
this masked crow, eyeing me, turning
now its back;

such magic
in the burning March mid-morning
in the soft piles of flushing wood
in the right dominion of the horseshoe
and the axe

I saw my
black-bound daughter unmanacled as flame
in the pomp of every feather, mighty
in the muscling of flight, galloping, split-
ting the air

-Published in Wild Plum, winner of the Wild Plum Poetry Award.

Poem – Burnt Bus

Burnt Bus

Left in a lot, one where a building stood
or one widely fenced and piled with odd iron,
one where the scrap man spits from his tin shed,
left in these unruly lots is the bus,
burnt, or half–demolished, propped up on blocks
but looking still in all this wilderness
like a bus. No matter its vacancies,
glass burst into random, unmelted hail
in the ribbed rubber aisle and fraying seats,
all the engine innards ransacked and loose;
no matter its vacancy at the wheel,
the great, flat wheel which so many times I
would have swung into wide, flat revolvings,
turning round and through the narrow canyons
precisely, with precious inches to spare––
this is not a vague, derelict metal:
the rust is bus–like, and can still compel
pedestrians with pockets of nickels
to run. The placard spells 11th STREET;
someone must have driven it here, of course,
and it looks as though he will be right back––
the door is open. I imagine how
he parked here with that particular skill
of bus drivers, using the wide mirrors
and the various signaling lights; then,
taking the keys, how he pulled the handle
and descended as he would step slowly
from a train to the platform at Cripple
Creek or Canyon Gulch, and walk, uniformed
and solitary, listening for wheels
on the rails as the sun–filled coach pulls out.

-Published in SWINK, and winner of the SWINK Literary Award in Poetry, chosen by Tony Hoagland.

Poem – A Stadium Full of Bears

A Stadium Full of Bears

There are 7,500 bears in Pennsylvania. If you put
all those bears in a stadium—that’s a lot of bears.
-my dad

As the rows fill up, there would be the usual
jostling and scuffles over seats. Even before
the kick-off, imagine the noise from the stands.
Think of the lines to the women’s rooms,
to say nothing of the tussles outside Gate E
to the cheap seats. Vendors hawk fresh peanuts
over a din of growls and complaints about
parking or ticket prices; chums discuss Greenpeace
or annual weight gain; someone points out how
you could make a killing here on smoked salmon;
and everyone is generally ignoring the scoreboard
and adjusting their scarves and seat cushions as they
assemble, everywhere a bear, a common species,
a stadium full of bears growling and shrugging
and sucking their paws, negotiating for a little
space and a decent view, getting ready—the bears
are getting ready for something to happen, something
important, something truly out of the ordinary.

-finalist in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Competition, and published in Imago Dei.

Poem – Waiting Up

Waiting Up

There’s a table in the center of the room,
and the ceiling is ochre and very close.
There’s the sound of rain and nobody is home—
nobody else who can help hold up the house.

There’s a black lacquer table and it’s holding
a candle that stands beyond the windowpane;
its fire is polished brass and barely moving,
and the midnight sitting room is dark as rain.

Upstairs the air is dark but the bed is made,
there’s a book somewhere I haven’t been reading.
Downstairs the bookshelves have been newly arranged,
and the black lacquer tabletop is peeling.

Wax has been tarnishing the brass candlestick,
and the edges of the flower are folded.
Although the sharp edges of the flame reflect
in the picture frame the faces are clouded.

All the room’s dark furnishings conserve their strength;
the black table bears what I need to survive—
the taper, the portrait, and the hyacinth.
When I get up, all the windows throw their knives.

-Published in Best Poem and Plains Poetry Journal. “Waiting Up” was a finalist in the Art in the Air (WPON, Detroit) and the Spoon River Review poetry contests.

Poem – After Shunning


                                     -for the Treuherzigen

i. Out of the Dark

The footprints I follow to my door
are mine, and the clutter on the table.

This poem is wrong, because I
have been straightening up for months.

Today when I woke, the air held
the packed silence of snow.

If you came tonight, out of the dark,
snow would slide from my roof.

ii. Just This

Pines on a February afternoon.
Is this enough?—the salt–white road, the half-
hearted walls piled with cinders, a few leaves
leaping up. No one has been kissed, nothing

written. Between towns, an ocean glimpse
is aqua-marine, extravagant. Leaves
leap up. There is water, and sky, then just this
wide light on the needles beneath the pines.

iii. Past Places

These roads again, empty, winding past places
I have known: the frozen shipyard;
the fish house, shuttered up;
the burial ground, still swallowing itself.

Downtown, February snow dozes on doorsteps,
but the avenues here are salt-dry, and rows
of whitewashed houses are remembering the sun.
Every sunlit clapboard is a pang.

iv. What if Bass

In the wood duck’s wake the cypress dimples;
red-winged blackbirds are thrilling the cattails;
wind or water striders ripple the doubled shore.

So what if bass make their unfathomed rounds
or if the moth scribbles his erratic map?
The beaver’s tail is the mad slap of hope.

v. Who Would Not

This October woman crossing a stubbled field,
her hair black and her daughter blowing,
her hair blacker far than the stripped limbs;

who, when she looks up in that field to ask,
(her hair black as crow, blacker yet) who would not
furnish her from his breast one fire-tipped cigarette?

vi. This Birch

Civility rises as this birch
lifts its face, and stretches.

There is remembrance in these limbs,
of wind, and rain, and mute kisses.

All the gestures of the branches say
the gifts I bring must be refused.

Let this tree be dressed as light allows;
let it be white amid dark boughs.

-The poem entire. Winner of The Shine Journal Poetry Contest.

Poem – Bob’s Big Boy

Bob’s Big Boy

comes in
where the miracle happens
again today,
sidles up to the conversation
which never changes like the menu
except for the specials
and hears his name handled confidently
in quadruplicate
and glances over impressed and humble
faces of not-so-regulars
like boring headlines
and fumbles in his shirt for a smoke
and takes a light and a deep drag
before tossing out “Thanks” like a quarter tip
then sees her,
coming toward him,
and sets his watch again as she comes forward
forward bringing his water
right up across the counter
so that he must notice it slide
slightly on its wet cushion and the
square circle ice goes slosh against the
glass with the love handle around its
sweaty waist
and reaches knowingly to accept it
then watches her hands that
dip and feel in the
folds of her orange apron,
down and hidden in
and out again with a pad and pen
and waits for her to ask and says the usual
and she says what’s that and he straightens
and repeats it looking at the pad and wiggling pen
and rolls the glass between his fingers
as she pours his coffee and drops a couple of
Half and Halfs
then walks away with a walk that
makes him hurt.

He reaches for his cigarette and sucks his coffee
in the sound that is his thought
and thinks a while of silverware and glasses
and wonders for a moment in the ache of bacon if
he might just–what was it?
when her hands come bearing plates of food for him
a refill and presto one two no three!
Half and Halfs from her apron
and he smiles back at his eggs
and lovingly begins to eat his number 5 with hash browns
and oh the eating fills him up and makes him hungry
in this friendly restaurant where he brings
his need.

And the salt flows free
and the ketchup rolls slow
until at last again she comes,
his waitress,
wiping spills, wiping round under ashtrays
rainbows round,
wrists dipping softly in her apron
for a pad or pen and things and things
and maybe if he asks who knows she’ll
pull a rabbit out or even–dipping
and wiping and scooping up
tips all at once, all at once, and
he sips his cigarette and smokes
his coffee as she tames him with her
vanishing hands he knows would smell like
dawn if he could only
cig his siparette and cough his smokee
and laugh with the ring of the register and the
talk of plates and glasses being
swung around so easy in this
busy neighborhood and where the
streets all smell of bacon and the
cabbies call him Mayor and the
weather’s on the menu and the
sunny side is orange and the
whole confounding world is round and round and round
and round.

-Published in Literal Latte, and winner of a Literal Latte poetry award. Written when you still smoked in restaurants, and servers brought water without being asked.

Festival Introduction – to Patricia Smith

In certain sessions, in certain chambers this week, what was heard – from certain stages, from certain specific rostrums, from podiums therein – what was spoken – out from prosceniums, what was finally heard, spoken—

Listen for the voices you don’t hear, our poet-at-large adjures – urges her own students. Write those unheard voices.

And she shows them – she listens-them how. And those listenings surely become her.

This week in 5 performances, at 4 high schools, to 3 thousand students, over 2 days, our 1 poet-at-large (even-larger than that) loosed mute voices into ear-ful auditoriums of students in this our Palm Beach Country. [sic]

And we – we, down in our all-unprepared seats – numbered seats and comfortable – what we finally – who we finally heard:

Child of – 6th-grade-children of lost mothers—
mothers – of once-sons, was-daughters—
daughters – throats crammed full of rivers—
other mouths now drained of names.

Say the teachers-of-Palm-Beach: Our students have been hit hard by this stuff. They’ve lost—. You can’t know—. These poems—.

There amongst them, sitting in a soft seat, legs languidly crossed, listening, listening to her, to them – how can I not rise to my feet?—

Because – upright.
Because – hear the X’s kissing as they cross.
Because – again – the chamber-mouth is empty.
                    And there’s my son. My son.

Would that no one dast speak such words.

I’m saying weakly what’s been said well in untold reviews, releases, citations: from Kingsley Tufts, Lenore Marshall, LA Times, National Poetry Series: Do we all attend and mark this poet.

And Jenelle, too, (she, student, who read all seven of Our Poet’s books to prepare for her fine memorized introduction before her peers) twice today affectingly said, “By being a four times National Poetry Slam champion, she gives indelible public voice to the many too-long silenced.”

Yes, Jenelle. (I wish you were here.)

But it’s me, so, more plainly now: Our poet-at-large, and our reader tonight, hails from Chicago. She teaches at the College of Staten Island, where she was recently made a distinguished professor of poetry. Her first poetry collection, Life According to Motown, appeared in 1991; her fifth, Blood Dazzler, was a finalist for the National Book award; her seventh, Incendiary Art, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Miles, Susan and Blaise sagely invited her to be our 14th poet-in-the-schools; you have alertly come to hear her tonight.

Darlings, any jazz could be ours, and tonight her jazz is. Please join me in welcoming back to our stage – Patricia Smith.

Delivered at Patricia’s 2020 Palm Beach Poetry Festival reading in the Crest Theatre. During the festival, impeachment hearings were going on in Washington, D.C.

Festival Introduction – to Tyehimba Jess

This is a poet’s introduction, not a news story, but it’s got a lede, and I don’t want to bury it. The lede is this: that actions in our Florida state capital—certain capital offenses, chewed, swallowed and digested—have rippled their way to the poems that Our Reader Tonight, our poet-at-large, brought to three thousand students in five sessions over the last two days at high schools near here.

Just yesterday morning, our poet reminded auditorium-fulls about blackface, opening for the students on a big screen an ancient primer on the technique of blacking up—the burning of corks, the grinding-of-them into powder, the adding-to-them of petroleum jelly. And the application onto the skin… “So easy for gentlemen, and ladies, too.”

Then this morning at breakfast our poet read about this state’s secretary in the New York Times.

The Times, which aren’t a changin’, not enough.

Even before the object lesson, we knew: Our man’s poems are news that stays. For seven years he was devoted to the daily work of recovering personal histories from previous centuries, histories that resonate personally now—for him, and for us; for readers of The Times. What he made from them was Olio, a chronicling in poetry—part performance, part blueprint, part eavesdrop, part chant—in new forms that first engage the reader’s volition, and then step out from the sewn sections into volumes that stand, and deliver.

To encounter these poems is to remember that their speakers—Blind Boone, Box Brown, the McKoy sisters, Edmonia Lewis—each of them troubled this actual air with larynx and embouchure, with sound waves that are rippling out yet, diminished but factual, toward Ultima Thule—and that the sensibility, the instrument that catches – and renders – and returns them to us must be very fine, indeed.

Indeed, it is.

And prescient, too.

Tyehimba Jess is a native of Detroit who lives and teaches now in New York City. His first book, leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series. Olio, his second collection, won the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s with great pleasure and gratitude, Tyehimba, that we welcome you to our stage tonight.

-Delivered in January at the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Tyehimba was scintillating and warm & welcoming to students, festival goers, and to me.

Festival Introduction – to Aja Monet and Elizabeth Acevedo

A highlight from this festival is an event that only I and Dr. Blaise Allen get to witness—which is when, in sequence, two poets step to a lone mic in front of a thousand sullen students—and read, and perform.

I could have said, “perform magic,” seeing as how these poets can turn students from timid rabbits into rabid tigers.

—or maybe said “perform surgery,” on account of how these two stand up to stimulate the internal organs of empathy and recognition and resolve.

Is it too soon in my intro for all this?—to say these two poets perform a thousand acts of justice and mercy and salubrious upbraiding—in high schools?

Well, that is what they do—to those “thousand sullen students.”
They perform, they perféct, they deliver, they detonate certain time lapse detonations.

They make, of those students, a thousand splendid suns.

I said “two poets.” It’s true I could have said “raconteurs, rhapsodists, scops, bards, balladeers.” I say again: two poets, who assess from the page, and arrest from the stage, with throat & tongue, and timbre & timing & gesture—in form and moving. How express and admirable.

I say móre: these just poets justice; keep grace—thát keeps all their sass and sauce.

I said we “get to witness.” I could have said we “get in the midst of”—“get mixed up in”—because to engage their poetry with eyes & ears is to engage it with skin, and follicle, and capillary. Even tear duct.

As I have seen, and you will shortly know.

Please welcome Aja Monet and Elizabeth Acevedo to our stage.

-Delivered at the 2018 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Aja Monet (above left; her poem “The First Time” is here) and Elizabeth Acevedo (above right; her poem “Hair” is here), brought brilliance to schools and the festival stage.

Festival Introduction – to the Mayhem Poets

For the last couple of days, while the poets in Old School Square were workshopping and craft-talking, our two guests tonight were word-cajoling in high schools around Palm Beach County.

This is proper & fitting, because for the last half-score years, while we-all were on vocation, so were they—

vocationing—verbally, vocally, day-in and day-out, in theatres and gyms like this one all around the world.

And yesterday, while our new president was trumpeting in the streets, children in those same schools were dying – with laughter, and holding their breath, and handling words at once true and kind—

kind because vulnerable, and therefore full of power and authority.

Watching our guests from a fold-down seat didn’t just make me want to be them—
to imp my wing on their wit and talent and savoir faire

watching them made me mindful of,
grateful for those first permissions we all felt to love a poem—
to “belovéd a poem,” by Simic, or Perillo, or Roethke—and hear that voice that spoke up from the page, to us.

And for.

That’s what our guests are always up to, gig-after-gig,
voicing live from the stage what is scary, and scandalous, and scanned,
and granting permission to folks-young-as-we-were to speak—
and that in poems.

Here’s a little video of a student slamming a poem for them after one of their shows…
(Kidding—we have no screen here. But it happened.)

Legit now: Mason, Scott, hanging with you has been a highlight for me this week.

Year after year, you
bring the Mayhem Poets, you
get mayhem, poets.

Please welcome them to our stage.

-Delivered at the 2017 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Scott Raven and Mason Granger (l to r), two of The Mayhem Poets, regaled a couple thousand students with poems like these.

Festival Introduction – to Poet Marc Kelly Smith

Robert Pinsky says that poems are musical scores, to be performed by the instrument of the body. The lungs, ribcage, larynx, the tricky tongue and shaping mouth (some of you heard Kevin Young mention embouchure), the resonators of skull and nasal passages, upheld and amplified by the diaphragm—all these concert together (with pitch, posture, and pulse) to release a poem’s music—

And I haven’t mentioned the face, its members express and admirable as a portable Mummenschanz.

Well. Our guests tonight would seem to agree.

What do you need to know about them? Little to nothing, I expect.

Should you know that Marc Kelly Smith invented the poetry slam at a Chicago bar in 1984, and that he’s been doing it nonstop ever since—a three hour set at the Green Mill every Sunday night, the longest running show in Chicago and poetry slam history?

Does it matter to you that, though there are manifold films/CDs/books about slam, Marc has kept on resisting the co-opters and franchisers with a sweet old-fashioned belief that poetry SLAMS BEST on the fringes, in real bars, in real neighborhoods, in gatherings of the original and inexpert?

Does it make a difference to you that, over the last two days, our man engaged a couple thousand high school students, embodying how a shy person can trust and venture LANGUAGE—and that he got all of them performing, and dozens of them up on their feet, mics into their hands, their voices fat in surround sound?

Should you be forewarned he doesn’t think of himself as a slam poet?

—or that, even so, he’s complained publicly about effete poems feebling forth from page or stage, so that this week our chevalier, Miles Coon, may have greeted him with, “Why am I bringing you to this festival?” (But, of course, he did—a tribute to both.)

—or, finally, that after the DuhamelLuxShapiro reading on Tuesday, this man, who seems never to need a printed page to bear The News, exclaimed, with his slightly Chicago vowels, “That was fantastic. So good, that if I’da heard dem when I was young I wouldn’ta had to invent slam poetry!”

I don’t know if that stuff matters to you now as he approaches the stage. And truth is, you’d get it all for yourself; so this intro is just me glossing the goods beforehand.

Here then, more chastely: Following on thousands of performances in nightclubs, concert halls, libraries, universities in venues worldwide, he brings his malleable, effectual, appealing self to our precincts tonight.

Here is all you need to know.

Welcome, Slampapi—Marc Kelly Smith.

-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

Festival Introduction – to Poet Dominique Christina

Having learned a lesson earlier, I hope to carry fewer coals to Newcastle in this introduction of the poet Dominique Christina.

The catalytic Dominique Christina, I might effuse.

But you will shortly write your own superlatives.
What, then, will suffice for me here?
A few instances, perhaps:

—OK, for instance, Dominique Christina didn’t begin, hadn’t thought of performing a poem until six-or-so years ago. She was writing poems—her first, best love. Then some-smart-one said, “Dominique, you should stand up and say these things.”

—for instance, what was she doing then but teaching English, to students with certain troubles who, but for the grace of Dom, were headed down and out, maybe away, maybe for good. A dozen years’ worth of alleged incorrigibles have leapt to her high bar, looked for her kindly lash, and got her good graces in the classroom.

—for instance, when regarding a stadium-full of high schoolers, like she did this week, she will not stir the sanctioned myths of sweetness and light, will not denigrate or prevaricate thereby. She will cut what matters, cut quickly to your matter. Hear me: Were you there, you would watch 800 embodied aspirants writhe, and recognize, and rise to their feet at her accurate beck and call.

—and for instance, you would watch them come boldly forward to meet their provocateur, to touch and hug her, and be hugged hard in return, and to take selfies—yes—

—and (for instance) what MAKES them crowd into the frame with this secret sharer, this slinger of dark-and-bright, is nothing like what compels a pic with Beyonce or Bruno. What is it that compels? It is what she tells them in words and non-words: “You are magnificent. The world needs you. And you gotta SHARE you.” For that we all get in line.

Jamnasium, I tell you (for final instance) that nobody I know of has better intuition, quicker reflex, agiler access to what must inflect a poem’s passage. Or to what will bring the cowed student to her feet, and then to the stage (by a reliable tug on the wrist, and arm round the shoulder blades), there to speak her own truths.

These rarities the slam world knows—she’s a champion five times over—

—and tonight, we will relish our own instance of this coalescing—of grace and impulse, of verve and conviction, of pith and moment.

Dominique, come now and read us your scripture.

-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Dominique regaled 2600 students with this poem (“The Period Poem“), among others. You should click to it.

Crooked Rose My Youth – a Paean

I took a survey of British lit course in my first college term. We started at the front of our fat text, and over the weeks an exaltation of poems went winging past me and my fallow acre.

Two years—hear me, now—two real years later, while memorizing (because I needed to own it) “Lovers’ Infiniteness,” some insistent thumps began in my deep brain, my heart’s core. But they were not thumps of Donne.

Oh no, I thought. Those accents must be from a poem I read back in Survey. I’ll never trace them.

Still, I retrieved that old tome and, turning to Caedmon, put my ear to the page and started forward—from the strong stresses, forward through the wide centuries, into the accentual-syllabics (“and she me caught in her arms, long and small”)—with variations (here was “sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters”—that perfect double and)—into the strict countings (“to load and bless with fruit the vines”)—and the sprung rhythms (“that year of now done darkness I wretch”)—forward toward the new century—(“he, she, all of them, aye”)—its sonic mimeses (“Quick, boys!—an ecstasy of fumbling”)—beginning to despair now—

And then, there they were, sounding, sounding up from the print:

The fórce that thróugh the gréen fúse dríves the flówer

Blunt morphemes to me the first time, at 19—mad hammers, lacking all sense:

Dríves mý gréen áge

Beat-beat-beat-beat in me.
Break, break, break on my stone ears.
And then that thunderstruck finish:

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Years later, you see, and even more years, that Welsh silversmith is still
beating and beating at my intractable metal.

[The force that through the green fuse drives the flower]
Dylan Thomas

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

PWS was the professor of record.

o'keefe flower8

Tribute – The Greatness of Sourber (in appreciation of our teachers)

My grade school classmate Sourber was the Evel Knievil of bicycles. I once saw Sourber ride a bike straight up a tree trunk—5 or 6 feet up before he fell back in a tangle of spokes and limbs. The bike had no brakes—which he probably knew. He just lay there on his back, laughing.

Sourber was the Franco Harris of sack-the-jack. I once saw Sourber shake my tackle, and three or four more, and juke and fake until finally someone caught onto his shirt, and we began to pile on, leaping onto him like salmon, one after another as Sourber staggered downfield with five defenders on his back. Finally Cheryl Groah dove and tripped him up. As the pile disentangled itself, Geoff Hauck shouted, “Jeepers creeps, it takes the whole doggone army to bring Sourber down!”—which was one of the most memorable things I ever heard anyone say. And Sourber lay on his back, laughing and laughing.

But Sourber’s greatest moment of those young years came as a result of Eichenlaub. Mr. Eichenlaub, reading teacher. Eichenlaub was really his name. And that spring he had it even tougher than his name—because he was student teaching under Mrs. Crotchety Frownface. Mrs. Frownface’s class was living death: book reports, SRA, and a general sense of mummification. But that spring, a small miracle happened: Mrs. Frownface took time off from teaching (maybe to get a mouth lift), and that meant Mr. Eichenlaub took over.

I didn’t know much about teaching, but it seemed to me that Mr. Eichenlaub had the right idea about how to do things. The deal was, we would work very hard and very attentively for a couple days and get a little ahead of schedule. Then the time we had saved up could be spent—on kickball.

Kickball! When we’d scrimped enough minutes, Mr. Eichenlaub would close his book and say, “All right, this is it. You know what to do. Let’s go.”

And we were so happy—but we were so quiet as we sneaked out of the school, the entire quiet sneaky class sneaking right out of school with the teacher who was sneaking out with us—

—out to the ball diamond. And then with model efficiency we divided into teams, and with model cooperation we assigned lineups and positions, and with model application we applied ourselves to our favorite project, the ancient game of kickball.

Which brings me back to Sourber, and the greatest moment of all.

The sun was out, big and bossy, I was standing near the dirt spot that meant second base, and Mr. Eichenlaub was on the mound—all-time pitcher. Then Sourber came up.

Sourber was the kind of kid that, whenever he was up, whatever team you were on, you felt something like hope or glee in your throat. There was something so pure and exultant about him as he prepared his body for the explosion—it made you hold your breath. Sourber called for a bouncer (as opposed to the roller), and Mr. Eichenlaub served up his trademark bouncing pitch.

The rubber KUNG! of the well-driven ball thrilled us as Sourber’s great boot blasted far over Netscher’s head in left—and it was pandemonium. Sourber was chugging around second before Netscher nabbed the ball, and flung it to Born, and Born zipped it to Szymanski, we were shrieking—and there!—there was Eichenlaub in shallow left field, waving his arms as Sourber ate up turf toward third—

Sourber rounded the base as Szymanksi relayed the ball to Eichenlaub who spun around quick—and then I knew that something momentous was about to happen—Sourber streaking toward home, kids leaping and hollering, and Eichenlaub with the ball steamed toward the infield, reared back and chunked an absolute rocket, the ball actually changed shape, changed into a red rubber missile that howled through the air, an adult throw no doubt about it, straight as a ruler and gunned at the intersection of Sourber and home—and Sourber, young as he was, his black hair flying, sensed it coming with that intuition of great ones, and at full tilt he flung himself into the air, arching his spine backward, the missile screaming at his body—he arched around into a perfect semicircle above the earth, and the red hot missile of Eichenlaub whanged neatly through that semicircle of Sourber and kept going and going, and Sourber cachunged to the ground at the plate, rolling, rolling, safe at home, safe!

It was a miracle. It was the sports miracle of my life. And Eichenlaub, bless him, waded into the hysterical mass of kids and grabbed Sourber up with a great shout, and hoisted him high up, shouting, “That was great! That was great, you’re great, Scott Sourber!” And Sourber was laughing, high in the air there, Sourber was laughing.

There was no doubt about it: Scott Sourber was the Willie Mays of kickball.

And there was also no doubt that Mr. Eichenlaub was the Scott Sourber of teaching.

I was nine years old; I was in fourth grade; I knew greatness when I saw it.

This first week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week. For me, every week is.
I loved (and hope to have learned from) Mr. E’s unguarded praise of Sourber, and of the rest of us. Being seen, being appreciated like that by a someone at the right moment—that can really stay with a fellow.
This piece was written as the closing monologue for a weekly variety show that the Austins and I produced on WEZE radio in 1994/5.

Introduction – to Jonathan Bennett Bonilla

Jonathan Bennett Bonilla knows from poetry.

And from prose.
And from criticism.
From Ricoeur and from Derrida.

And he knows from translation.

Him knows from philologists, and philosophers, and filmmakers, and philanderers. (Maybe not…)

And knows from publishers—venerable; specialty; art house. Letter press.

Need to reach an editor at Tupelo or Copper Canyon? Bennett is your man.
Need to find an early edition of Gwendolyn Brooks? Try him again.
Do you want to get a grant, or a residency—an inner track, or an outer ring—
Do you want any wordy thing, or literary personage—
There’s a good—a very good chance that Jonathan Bennett Bonilla can get it/him/her/they for you.

Do any of you lack for hubris? He lacks more.
Do any of you go down in darkness again and again to the bright page? He goeth more.

Have any of you graces to be shown,
Goods to be given,
Goings-on to be gotten to—

Have you wise friends and meek, and older, and younger, who need your conveyance to an order, to an ordering of words—
By tutelage, by example, by bracing applause and charitable retort?

I tell you in truth, our man hath more of these.

So many of us here are so very in his debt.

He and Pete M. and Bryan P. and I have been upholding and upbraiding each other in writerly concord for years. And are much, much the better for it.

What could be better for we happy three, for all of us here, than to welcome now to our ears – Jonathan Bennett Bonilla.

smaller bennett and me

JBB read his poetry from the Cabot stage in Beverly on March 31, 2016.

Chariots Chanting

Dear Brian O’Donovan,

Hearing you on BPR today was the last straw; another was on a dark December night in 2016, when my wife and kids and I found ourselves reluctant occupiers of a pew in the UCC church in Gloucester. There were handfuls of battened fisherfamilies evident in the wide, underlit space, all facing in the same direction as the klieg lights’ throw. Up there where a pulpit should have been were singers, and players, reaching down into somewhere, time and again, to retrieve ancient tunes equal in spark and radiance to the dark that was—and that was coming. I mean they were caroling, and chanting, up among the strung pine boughs, behind a huge yule log, and teasing us out, cajoling us to join them. How? With hurdy-gurdy, a new sound to me, and fiddle, as my father called what he played, and wide drums they wielded like cymbals or flashing shields.

And didn’t we find our separate clusters blending into one big one, and our stiff hesitance softening and dissipating away, and our limbs moving in time, unbidden, and then our actual voices singing along, and even—who’d have believed it?—our bodies, old and young equally, deigning to lift from the pews, and moving out into the aisles, all of us, every single one, to join hands, and circulate the empty seats, the creaking floor drowned by the stomp and tickle of the music we made, and by the dance, wherever we may be, which was in a dark, bright Gloucester church on a night no one expected would hold such a thing, no one who was me, anyway.

The other straw was on a recent Saturday afternoon by the sea in Marblehead, my kids and me in the car on an early March day of our long withdrawing, listening, after climbing a rocky hill, to someone on your show who you’d recorded earlier, back from a tour or about to tour again, one of many such persons whose song that day, in whatever voice, male or female, with whichever instrument, sparked up like a fire against the strange darkness and distance we knew were coming, and have come—waiting in the rollicking air until the song ended, and only then turning the key, and driving on into the day.

I hope you’ll give 30 seconds to the attached audio clip [below] from that old December night; you’ll hear the stomp and tickle you yourself are so familiar with, and our voices, chasing our eager leader, following her with hope and heart into the long passage through night.

Brian O’Donovan is the host of A Celtic Sojourn, Saturday afternoons on WGBH radio.