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 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
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
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
and how the
fresh hewn logs yield a fragrant hue,
yield such filaments of flesh I
cannot taste, cannot yet embrace
(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
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;
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.
A couple weeks ago, actually it was January, 2002, my buddy Skillen sidled up to me and said, “Three things, OK? One: ekphrasis.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze.”
I said, “A skin disease?”
He said, “No, poetry.”
I said, “Ekphrasis—poetry?”
He said, “About art.”
I said, “Ah”—(sounding like him, suddenly)—“’About suffering they were never wrong’”—
He said, “’The old masters,’ esatto.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze. Item two, OK? You teach it.”
I said, “Ekphrasis? I don’t…”
He said, “You will.”
I said, “When?”
He said, “November.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Orvieto.”
I said, “Gesundh… Orv…?”
He said, “Il mio posto favoriàte.”
I said, “But… Ma… Non parle… parlo…”
He said, “Non ti preoccupare. Insègnerai bene la poesìa. … In Inglese … OK?”
I said, “OK.”
So I got busy studying… ekphrasis.
(BTW, did you notice in my chat with Skillen there were actually only two things? With Skillen, there are always three things, even when there’s only two things.)
The next November I did disembark from a plane, a train, a funicular, and a bus—on a rainy night, luggaged and tiny and daunted beneath the duomo’s almost audible façade—
a façade—and an edifice—and a town—that would furnish 17 years, 34 seminars worth of looking, and of loading into language what light reveals of artists’ handiworks.
Skillen’s ekphrastic impulse was prescient. Since we launched that course in 2002, scores upon scores of books on the subject—on the encounter between word and image—have found their way into print and onto Amazon. (A recent title is Ekphrastia Gone Wild: Poems Inspired by Art. Is that subtitle a letdown, somehow?) Only did luminaries like John Hollander and WJT Mitchell beat us to the museum gallery punch.
A veritable charm of poets, an exaltation of marvelous poet-teachers, and a few prose-ists, have brought rigor, vigor and love to our writing workshop-on-the-tufa: among them Christine Perrin, Paul Mariani, Julia Kasdorf, Scott Cairns, Hannah Badia, Robert Clark, and twice last year Jeanne Walker—all writers of durable works AND of ekphrastic poetry, some of which can be seen on our anniversary website.
By my reckoning, 175 students have written 1400 poems that engage artworks both notable and humble, and respond to locales and vistas they know by heart and by passeggiata.
I’m almost done. The ekphrastic pairings on the stairs here and above us come from my poetry seminars over the years, in San Lodovico, San Paolo, and the Servi. The writers engage both very old and very new artworks, with varying formal techniques and ekphrastic strategies. When you look & read, you might remark those strategies—the difference, for instance, between a poem that thinks about the artist or her studio or her materials or her model—and perhaps one that attempts to construct a verbal equivalent to the image, through formatting, say, or syntax.
This summer I sifted through files and assemble a portfolio featuring one poem from each student in all of my ekphrasis classes; you can download this if you wish as a PDF. (I’ve printed up a copy; it’s somewhere nearby.)
And now, at last, a word about Matt and Sharona Doll.
My thus-far purple pen pales, peters out when I turn to acknowledge and thank Matteo for his continued commitment to this program we love, and to the ekphrastic endeavors that have been a part of it for so long. Poetry, painting, and their tangling in history are clearly highly favored in our curriculum and in our daily lives.
And in his. Here’s a guy who launches the day with poetry, connecting our dots to words wise and beautiful (saying “you KNOW this”)—reading Seamus Heaney or Thomas Merton or (“but first”) Mary Oliver.
Matt, we love you back, immensely. Sharona, Alesandro, Emmanuella, Karen, Becky, Emily (great friends who allow us a glimpse across the limits of ourselves), thank you for your commitment and your welcome. Add to them John, Susie, Bruce, and Z(ingarelli)—thank you, multo grazie for your work which has allowed us this opportunity for a lifetime.
Delivered September, 2018 at the reunion in the Barrington Center for the Arts.
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 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 our state 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 documentary, part eavesdrop, part blueprint—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 brilliant and warm & welcoming to students, festival goers, and to me.
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 student 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: the just poet justices; keeps grace—with sass; vibe; 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 them 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.
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.
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 this one (“What You Want”).
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 Duhamel–Lux–Shapiro 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.
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.
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.
-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.
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.
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.
Bob’s Big Boy
where the miracle happens
sidles up to the conversation
which never changes like the menu
except for the specials
and hears his name handled confidently
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
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
And the salt flows free
and the ketchup rolls slow
until at last again she comes,
wiping spills, wiping round under ashtrays
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
-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.
As happens now and then, I stayed in the car in my driveway this morning to hear all of your essay on Never Playing a Friendly Game. Which is to say: great writing, yet again.
What do I remember my coaches saying?
Because there was no proper place for such a thing around the wide, Pennsylvania farmlands where I played little league, my coach replied: “What do you want to do–go in my pocket?”
In Lubbock, Texas, my basketball coach, when my dad inquired if I’d get any playing time, leaned down and offered, “DO YOU WANT TO COACH THE TEAM?”
Same city, a soccer coach introduced me to the word “dadgummit.” And then demonstrated its many forms and uses.
Another soccer coach reminded me often that we who were riding the bench were pretty much responsible for our teammates’ on-field gaffes.
Same city, my something-league baseball coach advised me to stop running under trees, even though I couldn’t see the Top Flites he was fungo-ing toward us with his seven iron.
Same again, a new hoop coach, when I flubbed another easy layup, would become a human calliope, piping a circus theme.
Finally, in high school, a wrestling coach, who liked to pit “heads against jocks” on the mat, picked me to ref a gym class soccer game. Afterward, he eased over and said, “Good work, Stevick. You should think about reffing.”
I took what I could get. It was a legit compliment, finally.
Thanks for your dadgum good essays at WBUR, Littlefield.
–Bill Littlefield’s essay, “On fathers, sons And Tennis: I’m Glad I Wasn’t That Good,” is here.
Here’s a poem by Mark Halliday. It’s one of many of his that compelled me to send him an email.
GRAY CHECKED SCARF
David Porter has said that for Dickinson
death is the summoner of style.
And I think of you placing your gray checked scarf
around your neck on a day in December.
Your hair, like hair that Yeats might have ached to touch,
falls across the scarf and upon the shoulders of
your black coat; we move toward the door;
the street opens upon my gaze like a new feature film
with sober intentions and I stand for a second
awed by the task of appreciation—
your hands—your eyes. There is the banquet
of what we do have while knowing it can vanish
and there is the cold banquet of what we once had
or conceivably could have had—
at both tables we gaze into the lamplit wine
and want to say something true but
not only true, something also lovely
in a respectful and charismatic sadness.
Here is the car, my dear, your gray Mazda,
and here we are in the middle of something,
unreligious, distracted, but lightly touching
each other’s knees from time to time during the ride
for the sake of what has been luminous and is not gone.
-from Tasker Street, The University of Massachusetts Press, © 1992. Winner of the Juniper Prize.
I wish I could write like that. Here’s the email I sent him.
Dear Mr. Halliday,
This morning I’m wading through closing documents for a house sale we’ll (Lord help) accomplish at noon, after three years of prep and pain.
I paused just now to read Writer’s Almanac. Which has forced me to look up your email and send you this sort of plaudit and thanks.
I’m almost done. Left to say is that in 1989, late summer, I arrived at a reading sponsored by the Boston University graduate creative writing program that I had, somehow, been accepted into. Only one seat remained in the room; it was in the front row, beside, I later learned, Lloyd Schwartz.
Your poems have been with me all these years—new poems, too. I never don’t read “Ketchup and Heaven” to my students. Never don’t I read aloud to them “just like this loaded world.”
We all repaired, after that singular reading (at which Mr. Schwartz and I kept looking at each other with amazement), to some restaurant nearby, and sat outside. Robert Pinsky was with us. Every three years or so I drive by that restaurant with my wife and say something feeble and charismatic about that dinner with Halliday. But, I repeat, I read your poems aloud.
Now I’ll click send and return to HUD statements and be glad, in an hour, to be free of a debt and burden. And glad to have said thanks to you meanwhile—and that you and George Saunders are the only writers I’d commit crimes to host at the tiny liberal arts college just north of Boston where I teach. If you’re ever nearby for this or that, and have an inclination to pop in for an evening, we’d gather a keen group to hear, and find some meager funds to fork over.
I’m saying that I love your poems.
Here is the car, my dear,
Mark Wacome Stevick
Astonishingly (to me), and sweetly, Mark Halliday emailed me back within the hour, to say thanks—and to request my address, to which he posted his two newest books of poetry. Character will out.
Let us be heartened by this story.
And I become the unleaded god,
rebuking the wind with my foot,
giving and taking life according to
the flex of my whim.
Let me be speed, I say;
air calms into my face,
unblows my mane back.
In my chariot I hear
in the pulse of pavement
the one heartbeat of the multitudes—
expectant tribes of corn—
When suddenly they part before,
like my thinnest siblings,
bangs in their eyes,
And kneel, pious
as I ride by,
what seem to be tongues
of fire upon their heads.
And for myself I’ll have
the bloody reflection of the sun
caught on the lake so like
the side of an 18-wheeler.
-Published in Sharkpack Poetry Review Annual, and finalist for the Prospero Poetry Prize.
Your favorite spot on earth is the lobby of the National Theatre in London. Partly because you have to work so hard to get there. Partly, also, because of the lives you’ve lived there, which you still carry in your body. And partly because of the most assured overthrow that awaits you each time you finish your white coffee and head toward the ripple seats.
* * *
One winter, for four months, a play of yours ran at a dingy dinner theatre up in Georgetown, Mass. You’d directed it, too, and built the set, all of it. For four months, as I said, on weekend evenings you climbed into the loft behind the tables and ran lights and sound, while patrons ate thawed chicken parmesan. Sitting up there watching the crowd, you rode their laughter to a kind of pinnacle. Have you been happier? Give me my sin again.
* * *
For years you’ve been herding students toward theatres, the National, and the Traverse and the Pleasance—for plays and musicals, but also for pantos and foolery, for marathons and acts without words. The lights, the urgency onstage reflect off their eyes and their teeth. They grab your arm. Afterward, you all stagger out to a table of spring rolls, to lick wounds.
You take them to these things so they can be flabbergasted, and confused, and confirmed. So they can see what it is we humans care about, and how to care about it not wisely and too well. You take them to be offended. Give us our sin again.
* * *
You attend an Episcopal church. You go there, sometimes, because Andre Dubus, after being hit by a motorist, could manage that, only that. He wheeled to the mass. Sometimes you think of Dubus in your pew, and of theatres. How being at the living theatre can feel like being at a living church. How our faith before the stage is as real and necessary as anyone’s who’d get out of a boat and walk. How we face each other, and agree to believe together.
And when we do, when the show is right, everyone, every single one, is healed of their sniffles and coughs, and we float bodiless and rapt until the script lets us go. Almost a holy edifice, you say. Who are these priests, these prophets? Sarah Kane, I have ears to hear.
-Why not read some pages in Peter Brook’s The Empty Space?
Dear Ms Peters,
I type this with a latte to hand here on one of the National’s high outside balconies. Moments ago the courteous Dominic at the stage door sent me to you through this portal.
I’m a teacher and writer, and since 1995 I’ve brought 350 college students from a hamlet north of Boston (USA) here to London to see shows at the NT. Our tally of seen shows exceeds 100. Yesterday we added Angels in America to the list.
—a production we will never quite get over. Neither will forget the opening of The Bacchae, or the final moment of Iphigenia at Aulis. A hundred-hundred moments that lived first for us in the ripple seats live in us yet, and have livened how we do theatre, how we teach writing, in our small liberal arts school.
When we lay over in London on our way to other Europes, we queue early and stay late under your roof. Conversations with Simon Russell Beale, Patrick Marber, Caryl Churhill, Jeremy Irons, Wallace Shawn, Desmond Barrit, Rita Moreno, Michael Frayn, Christopher Hampton, Judi Dench, William Houston, Emily Watson, Anna Chancellor, even John Gielgud (who came with Dame Judi to see Ian Holm in Lear)—these never leave us, and inspire gratitude still.
We cherish the sweet, savvy tour guides who’ve shown us backstage and front, mentioning the reason for the seat color in the Olivier. We remember jazz on the concert pitch, and the green AstroTurf (as we call it) of Watch This Space, and the bracing shows (with Chiwetel Ejiofor & Andrew Lincoln) in the Lyttelton foyers.
—and the hours we spent kindling with other lovers like us in and around your concrete crucible of lifetimes.
All of this to say: your address is our favorite on earth, and your commitments have improved our days.
In another year or so I expect to be granted a sabbatical from teaching playwriting and poetry. I have no greater wish than to find my way back to your address, for some shorter or longer period. There is no place I’d rather be.
Could I volunteer whatever I have for any need or purpose of yours? Requiring no pay, only a backstage pass to satisfy Dominic, I could write toward a “Making Of” account, like those on Humble Boy and Bacchae that I give my students. Or perhaps I can assist in useful ways with your growing online archive, a resource I access often. Or sign me up as a tour guide, and pay me nothing to enrich as I’ve been. Do you need a diarist? An assistant to a dramaturg? Someone to make copies or phone calls for the New Work Department, or set out chairs and water for Al Senter-and-guest? Or even a fellow to field oddball offers like this one?
If so, I’m your man.
And it needn’t ding a single budget line, because I’ll still be in the pay of my usual employer, a college that’s seen fit to invest in our annual pilgrimage here to the South Bank.
That’s my hopeful pitch. Now this:
Once, jogging to one of your shows, my billfold leapt unawares from my pocket somewhere between the Cottesloe and the base of the stairs from Waterloo Bridge. I realized the loss at the box office, and retraced my steps in a proper panic and haste. And there it was on the stones, fat with 900 quid, somehow invisible to all but me and bronze Sir Laurence.
Like so much that happens where you are—where I sit as I type—this little story is imbued with a grace, and is beautiful because it’s inscrutable and undeserved.
Will you keep me and my lucky wallet in mind?
Sincerely, with gratitude,
Mark Wacome Stevick
-A version of this was sent summer 2016, and this version last summer. No reply yet.
I wrote him a letter praising his work, quoting lines like
“Hosannas of cotton and hallelujahs of wool,” and
“The elms seemed swaying vases full of sky,” and
“They smile because
They know we know, they know we know.”
And he wrote back saying, “Thanks for your kind words about my poetry, which I’ve been neglecting lately, probably due to a dearth of kind words.”
He wouldn’t neglect it for long, of course. Poetry comforted him, he said, “with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux,” its “triumphant sense of capture.” He called his poems “my oeuvre’s beloved waifs.”
I love the humor and the metaphors in his poems—his eye for resemblances, for connecting dissimilar things to help me see them better, which is a mark of genius, according to Aristotle.
You get his genius (and his humor) in this short poem, one he wrote when he was 21.
Why the Telephone Wires Dip and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked
The old men say
young men in gray
hung this thread across our plains
acres and acres ago.
But we, the enlightened, know
in point of fact it’s what remains
of the flight of a marvelous crow
no one saw:
Each pole, a caw.
collected in The Carpentered Hen, 1958, Harper & Brothers. “I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture, with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday.” J.U.
And again, his metaphor-making, in this poem, the last I’ll read.
Before I read it I’ll say:
I loved living near him, bumping into my absolute my favorite writer in the world, at the post office or Harry’s or KC’s or The Book Store—a shop, I expect, he single-handedly put on firm footing. That he was living and writing and driving his gray Taurus around here ennobled this shore, and me, in some way—
“as in some mythologies [to quote him]
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.”
Alas, this is not the same place without him.
The Melancholy of Storm Windows
We touch them at the raw turns
of the year—November
with its whipped trees and cellar sky,
and April, whose air
promises more than the earth
seems willing to yield.
They are unwieldy, of wood, and their panes
monotonously ask the same question—Am I clean?
No, the answer is.
They fit less well, we feel, each year.
But the weather lowers,
watery and wider than a tide,
and if a seam or leak of light shows, well,
nothing’s perfect under Heaven.
Our mortal shell,
they used to call the body.
In need of paint, they heave
up from the cellar and back down again
like a species of cloud,
shedding a snow of flakes and grime.
They rotate heavy in our hands; the screwdriver
stiffly twirls; the Windex swipes evaporate
in air ominous of coming worse
or, at winter’s end, of Easter entombment,
of cobwebbed storage among belittling ants
while the grasshopper world above basks.
Stacked, they savor of the crypt,
of the unvisitable nook
and the stinking pipe, irreparable.
In place, they merely mitigate
death’s whisper at the margins,
the knifing chill that hisses how
the Great Outer cares not a pin for our skins
and the airtight hearts that tremble therein.
We, too, are warped each fall.
They resemble us, storm windows,
in being gaunt, in losing putty,
in height, transparency, fragility—
weak slabs, poor shields, dull clouds.
Ambiguous, we have no place
where we, once screwed, can say, That’s it.
collected in Tossing and Turning, 1977, Knopf
-remarks delivered at Lynch Park in Beverly, Mass. Some of John’s children were present, including Michael Updike, who is a sculptor. He had not known the “Telephone Wires” poem, he said, and later carved it onto the back of Updike’s gravestone in Plowville.
Elvis in Intercourse
—for the Rumspringe
Grossdaadi utters Ach,
winnowing his lot
of all mediated chaff;
he cuts the laughter off.
In consecrated barns
a verbal vermin runs
without restraint or heed
for what the bishop said—
the pious custom tossed,
2 batteries for the show:
go cat go.
-published in Baltimore Review, winner of a Baltimore Review Award. The picture above is from the cover of my dad’s book, Growing Up Amish, also published in Baltimore, by Johns Hopkins University Press. Mom’s book is Beyond the Plain and Simple, published by Kent State University Press.
Like John Updike, I grew up in Pennsylvania (in my case Lancaster County instead of Berks) and then came to New England for college; and until 2009 we lived here in Essex County together in view of Great Misery Island and Bowditch’s Ledge.
Of course, there the similarities between us end.
Or do they? No winner of Pulitzers or other laurels, I nevertheless find in John Updike’s poetry moments that I recognize as certifiably me. Here’s an instance:
Thoughts While Driving Home
Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?
Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”
And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?
-Collected in Telephone Poles and Other Poems, Knopf, 1963.
This piece of light verse from the ‘50s is obviously me, just better turned out, more winningly and memorably voiced. (You’ll know already that John Updike considered the publication in The New Yorker of such light verse, first in 1954, as launching his professional writing life.)
Thirty years later, reading these poems on the beaches of Manchester and Beverly Farms, I repeatedly, reliably felt a “triumphant sense of capture”—which is how he described the shudder he felt after writing a good poem. A splendid man!, I thought, to feel these things, as he himself wrote about James Joyce, in “Wife-Wooing”: “A splendid man, to feel that. Splendid also to feel the curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutably magical life language leads within itself.”
Here is another light poem, gamely led by language’s life.
I Missed His Book but Read His Name
“The Silver Pilgrimage,” by M. Anantanarayanan . . .
160 pages. Criterion. $3.95.
– The New York Times
Though authors are a dreadful clan,
To be avoided if you can,
I’d like to meet the Indian,
I picture him as short and tan,
We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan,
I’d say, with admirable élan,
I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran
A notice on your novel, an
Unusual tale of God and Man.”
Would seat me on a lush divan
And read his name—that sumptuous span
Of “a”s and “n”s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”—
Aloud to me all day. I plan
Henceforth to be an ardent fan
-Also found in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. He later learned he’d been mispronouncing the name and therefore stopped reading the poem aloud.
In the first poem, it’s the word “smarty” (“and did I, while being a smarty”) that’s spot-on, while not merely rhyming with “party.”
In the second, I enjoy (and I think he did) the flat, deliberate inexactness of the word “tan” (“I think of him as short and tan.”)
As a college student tossing and turning through the pages of Midpoint and Facing Nature and Telephone Poles, it was hard not to want to be John Updike. Still, “I had the timid sense to see that you do not will to be John Updike; you fall into it at birth, ripe from the beginning” (to appropriate The Centaur).
I’ll finish now with a poem set in a place many of you know well, Cape Ann Golf Course. I expect John Updike and I played Cape Ann at the same time on occasion, though I never bumped into him. There I never fail to say “the ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in”—or, on that peerless fourth hole, to recite the paragraph that contains the equally peerless “A divot the size of an undershirt was taken…”
Here’s the poem: “The Great Scarf of Birds,” written in 1962.
The Great Scarf of Birds
Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.
As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad but grass.
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.
Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great scarf.