Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fine. Good. Okay.

            I grew up in northern Indiana where the land and the language are flat.  Unlike Zora Neale Hurston who arrived in New York with “a map of Dixie” on her tongue, I don’t come from a community with a rich oral culture or one that reveled in language play.  In fact, it often was the opposite.  We were suspicious of people who were too glib.  I took enormous offense in graduate school when a professor wrote on a paper that an observation was “clever.”  Clever was an adjective applied to lawyers who got ax murderers off on technicalities.  Clever was suspicious verbal ingenuity.  Clever was not a compliment.
The Eskimos may have fifty words for snow, but we would make one word have fifty different meanings.  In particular, we made heavy use of “Fine,” “Good,” and “Okay.”  Depending on how it’s used, “fine” could mean “Great” or “I hear you” or “Get away from me” or “Okay” or dozens of other things.
            I spent a year in Europe, met the woman I would marry, re-thought and re-arranged my life, and when I came home and my father asked, “How was France?” I said, “It was fine.  Fine.”  And he replied “Good.  Good.”
            When my father broke his neck, I called him almost every day to check in.  I would ask, “How are you, Pop?”  He would say, “Fine.  Fine.”  I would respond, “Good.”  And that would be that.  “Okay, I’ll talk to you later.”  “Okay.”
            In part, this may be why people are surprised that I write poetry.  It seems unusual for someone so laconic.  But, it also explains why I write the type of poems that I do.  Yes, the intonation of “good,” “fine,” and “okay” provides a great deal of information, but often the words are superfluous.  My father already knew my time in Europe had been life-changing; a woman was coming back to the States with me.  When he broke his neck, I didn’t have to say I was concerned when I called, the concern was obvious in the fact I was calling.  And, of course, he was “fine.”  He was still alive after breaking his neck for god’s sake.
            So, mostly, I write without frills or curlicues in a language that isn’t particularly “poetic.”  I look for the gesture, the revealing moment, the woman putting her hand on her partner’s leg during a dinner party which says, “Careful. You’re talking too much. Reign it in.”  Often it’s something that may not seem important at the time – a conversation in the grocery, a man washing a car, or in the case of the following poem, the putting on of a scarf.

A Winter Dialogue

We decide to take a break from the eating, drinking,
and arguing -- our traditional holiday pastimes --
to walk around the ice-encased neighborhood.
In the hallway, we sort through the piles of coats,
hats, and gloves, pulling out what we think we need,
and when I get to the door my father calls me back
to drape a scarf around my neck.  In my forties,
I don’t like scarves anymore than when I was six,
but, now, having kids, I recognize what his fingers
are trying to say as they adjust the wool, and, I hope,
he recognizes what I’m trying to say by not moving.
It’s not much, but since neither of us needs anything
the other can buy, we try to exchange what we can,
a protective touch and a willingness to be touched.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Easter Poem (of a sort)

Easter Sunday

After I come back from a long run,
my wife sends me to the grocery
for fresh garlic, pears, more wine,
a good loaf of bread.  There, I help
myself to samples, a cookie, a coffee,
and balancing these, I slackly steer
the cart with an elbow until I encounter
an old lady blocking the produce aisle.

In black church clothes, she squints
at something cupped in her hands.
At first, I think it’s a list or a recipe
then I realize it’s a small bible.
I see her again in the baking section,
her face still inches from the book
nothing in her cart.  The third time
I realize she’s near, right behind me,

in the checkout lane, I’m tempted
to reach out and make sure she isn’t
some figment risen from a childhood
I thought had been sealed off long ago,
an admonishment for my spending
this day as a contented animal,
unshaven, unshriven, piling up
a cart of this world’s pleasures.

from Love and Other Collisions (Press 53)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hondo and the Sacketts to Ulysses and Prufrock

When I was young, I wanted to be a mountain man or cowboy, and that’s one of the reasons I ended up getting into poetry.
The first poem I consciously sought out was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  This was because I loved the Westerns of Louis L’Amour.  As a kid, I read his work over and over, and the characters in his books loved literature.  Often they would refer to “Ulysses” and Shakespeare and Plutarch’s Lives, and, because I wanted to be like them, a strong independent frontiersman (in suburban Indiana) I went to the library and checked out these works.
The appeal of “Ulysses” is straight-forward, particularly its rousing last line:  “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”  I didn’t know who Ulysses was, but I understood this desire to travel, this wanderlust, and the sentiment:  “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!/As though to breathe were life.”  And it made sense to me that this feeling was universal.   The mountain men and cowboys had it, the Victorians understood it, the ancients did, and so did a Hoosier in the 70s.
L’Amour’s characters carried poems with them and within them, and I began doing so as well.  I memorized “Ulysses” and find myself returning to it over the years.  In fact, I suspect that some day, I will offer a course called “Ulysses in America” and look at works that deal with this figure.  The novel Cold Mountain, for example, would be on the syllabus as would the paintings of Romare Bearden.  As Frost says, “way leads on to way” and book leads on to book (and link to link).  
Reading pulp fiction Westerns influenced me as a reader and a writer, but not, as it turns out as a rider.  Although I pretended my bicycle was a mustang (and even named it), when I finally had the chance to be around horses, I discovered that I'm intimidated by them.  Man, those things are big.