When I get off the phone with my wife I think
Of DNA, the great lengths that don’t matter,
That even its magniloquent scholars call “junk,”
So much that if you listened to the language
Of life you’d hear the ums between words, confabulation,
What we say when we’ve nothing to say,
As when she calls at lunch and asks How are things?
And I claim, Fine, as I would with the building
In flames. We ping pong pleasantries for five minutes
Then I return to putting out the day’s fires
Only now pondering lives we spend mostly
Apart just to make enough to have a life,
Something like divorce with marriage spliced in
Mornings and nights. I.e. she’s a stranger
And how do I know she’s not disbursing government
Secrets in coded want ads, begging exegesis
From her cult’s high priest, or running a house
Of ill repute by the shipyard? Mingling
Our loose strands, we become a stranger strangeness
Though scientists have begun to guess
At the hidden purpose in those stretches
Of fallow chromosome they also call introns,
A refreshingly arcane and important name
I attach to this break I take from a day
That started as the pieces we call hours
And put together by staying whole. The part
Where the phone rings isn’t the story’s moral,
Just abiding distraction, as if Sisyphus let go
Of the stone whose rolling went unnoticed
As he flipped open his cell and told his wife
What would bore anyone else, scientists
For instance studying mating rituals in fruit flies,
Or G-men eavesdropping through a wall.
But such twaddle sufficiently scrutinized turns out
To be a cipher for life, itself the redundant
Though universal meaning, as if at the most
Intimate level, nothing is everything.
They tell you with their stark solitudinous eyes
How much he loved them, women of all kinds,
Black haired, blondes, brunettes, redheads, how much he loved
To stare at them, paint them, take them to bed,
So many nights to make wet with absinthe,
So many colleagues in vice, models
Of dissipation strewn across rumpled linen,
Real women with hair in their armpits
And generous pubes, getting up to casually piss,
Cantilevering a coy hand against a door frame
As they smoked. Even Jeanne who backed out
A window for him or Anna who shared
His brilliance, or any he painted and fucked,
Fucked and painted, scolded, mocked, their outrageous
Perfection sincere artifice like his weeping,
His self-cursed efforts to reform, kindle
A family, shouting Dante in the alleys
As bacilli roamed his brain. Their eyes say love,
But you know it was sex, and more sex, sex
Sometimes maybe as preamble to love, but sex
In the meantime, a binge of the dark other,
The handsome taboo, poor man, sybarite, Jew.
They did it for him. They said schtupping
Let him paint, relieved him of small frustrations,
No clothes, no heat, no food, and torrid rows,
Fought fire with fire, four, five times a day
Because he was obsessed and they were satisfied
Only a short while, spoiled, used to it,
Even the whores taking care of him for free.
It was unabashed madness, all wrong with all,
And if he’d lived he’d never have lasted.
He had to succumb to filth just to keep
His romantic reputation. He spread beauty’s legs
To bless it, sacrificed himself for the sake
Of creation like Dionysus, became with each nude
Dumb cliche, a shooting star, a fresh cut rose,
A pig in her mud, and out of unctuous sweat,
Those indiscriminate moans came not art but death,
And like a lover who wades into pants as
He lets the door click shut, he was gone, his scent,
His voice, his hopes. The paintings stand on their own.
The roses which bow from a tabletop vase
Remain fake, and the woman searches
Her daughter’s face with the same foreboding
As when she left, detesting that cold smile,
All his. Untouched, the girl hums floating past her,
And she barely has the power to control herself,
Not ask how many bottles, and if he’s lying
About overtime at the plant, still
Seeing that dancer. The lawyer’s fought to end
Visitation, but it’s near impossible in this state.
So off the girl goes each Saturday to a man
So low he has a scar inked in his back
Of a woman going down on a thunderbolt,
No regard for boundaries. But the myth
That a child could feel so needy she’d snack
On the food of hell, well it fits here, snug
As the peeled rind of her jeans, and her father
While innocent of that, doesn’t give a damn
About her, just violating the woman
By remote control, even lost to the world
Her daughter still inside her, brutal
As the brutalized become, deflowered from the roots.
She doesn’t lust after men or fruit,
But satisfaction, simple and raw, the malicious joy
In dominating someone. She’s half his after all,
These her inscrutable depths, her inherited future,
Her nurse’s aide mother affectionate and loyal,
Such her principal flaws, and that she fell
For a jerk like him, let him tempt her, the myth
That there is one myth, one woman, one tragic scene,
When the partaking is constant, desire to hold,
To have, to govern, to break free, to understand…
There are over 600 seeds in a pomegranate,
Not enough to account for all the ways she gives
In to stupid want, the girl just one more.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Thus begins one of my favorite poems, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. If there is verse that more honestly, more painfully expresses gratitude for love, I don’t know it. Writing these lines, Hayden makes nothing up. He goes simply and directly to his own experience. But this isn’t a “confessional poem” in any meaningful sense, despite its reporting from life. He doesn’t sensationalize or complain. He simply tells.
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.
The poem is autobiographical but it’s not really about him. It’s about his father, one of those stern working class men uncomfortable to be around who had a thousand expectations, pointed out every shortcoming, and never said, “I love you,” not even once. The flames that heat the house, stoked before the speaker wakes, reflect the daily duty of the unsung founder going on even when he’s not at work, blissfully absent.
No one ever thanked him.
These are the kind of hands that run furnaces in the basements of buildings, or in the cavernous windowless spaces of factories and mills, but also invisibly provide the ambient passion that holds the family together. The hearth is the heart of the house and its consumptive burning that demands constant fuel is the patriarchal lineage of perseverance and commitment.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
In a family like this, a mother’s love— implicit here, though never mentioned—is abundant and easily acknowledged despite the meager circumstances. But a father’s love is more taciturn and tenuous, subtle, perhaps even denied as somehow unmanly by both father and son.
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Hayden didn’t have it easy, growing up poor in Detroit. He resented his father’s failure to give them more or better, and he lived afraid of the dissatisfaction and repressed rage that such inadequacy left just beneath the surface of the day to day. In every room, at every meal, in every forced proximity lay the chance that silence would blaze into conflagration.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
Yet at the end of the day, Hayden had a house, food on the table, a kind mother and an honorable father, who laid down his life year after year to give his son life. It was that man, not some other, who stuck around to raise him up into a decent human being. To paraphrase James Wright, this wasn’t a good home, it was a home, and that was enough.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
It was Hayden the man not the child, who too late as is often the case, understood he owed his imperfect father everything, and with these humble words repaid him.
Marilyn Monroe rules the world, at least
The part visible in a photograph, standing
Above the troops she’s about to bless
With a song in her porous sequin dress, her arms
Durably outstretched. She hasn’t aged a day
In fifty years. The men too appear impossibly
Young, mooning boys clotted around a woman
Who just might show them something they’ve never seen.
Picture the millions who’ve looked at this picture
As a relic, an idol’s sacred likeness.
Now imagine the few who bring her close, make out
In the crowd, a brother, a son, that it’s he
Who quickens hearts, dampens palms, doesn’t belong
With the others, but to those hopelessly apart
From the object of their affection, though holding on
Tight with their eyes. Incongruous, he has nothing
To do with movies, just right place, right time,
Korea during the war, at the front
Of countless gawkers when the bombshell walks out.
There’s your famous father, someone’s mother jokes
And everyone smiles, knowing how hard it’s been.
He’s in his prime and at his peak before
Coming home to the farm in Glen Mills
In a bag or minus a leg or unscathed
As far as anyone can see. Go ahead, ad-lib,
It’s all fantasy, how he stepped off a plane
And got recognized instantly, besieged by people
Who made up with the intensity of their obsession
What they lacked in numbers, open mouthed,
Daring to think, it’s him, it’s really him.
A man grips a woman by the shoulders
On a bed in the open air, a courtyard
With a wall no taller than their knees stopping
No one from getting in or seeing them there
In the middle of a town blue as the sky,
An anxious overcast blue, both of them clothed,
Both of them solemn and seated, halfway
Between sleeping and walking, love and goodbye.
A man with wings glides towards them with all
The speed a painted angel can muster—
That is he moves not even an inch,
Only wishes to, such the conundrum of dreams,
The dreamer paralyzed as he acts, eyes flitting
Beneath their lids. Why does he embrace her
Like this, poised for something closer but also
To shake her into sense, you don’t ask
Because you know, have found the answer
Still in your head as before you lost consciousness
In one world and regained it in another,
The dream a warning that comes after
Catastrophe, a ripple in the waters of sleep,
A tremor in the voice of breath, visual
Echo, the mind reminding itself. Stubbornness
Disguised as hope, the dream expects the body
To revolt, do something, anything, miracle
As a compost of facts. I want you, he says
To his wife, and the angel never arrives
With the message of ruin, which is ruin
Without the flames, the soul immunizing itself
Through a little grief, the dream one of them
Wearing the wings of time and not arriving
In time, not going back in it, budging
A single second. But in the dream, it’s 1939,
The world about to lie back and die,
Let the Jerusalem of the body fall
For the ten thousandth time, and afterwards
You’ll wake, you’ll dream it hasn’t happened yet,
Hasn’t happened, everything real, everything right.
I live in Philadelphia, a wonderful city, vibrant and diverse, with a downtown that thrives after dark and on weekends, with residential neighborhoods that are cosmopolitan here and provincial there. Arts and culture? We have museums to rival those in D.C. or New York. We have restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. We have a wonderful symphony orchestra and a magnificent concert hall in which to enjoy music. We have opera and theater and sports, lots of sports. We have Wi-Fi, and soon we’ll even have casinos (though hopefully not).
Bookstores? We don’t have so many. We don’t have enough, anyway. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lived here too long and seen too many wither and go. Do we really need bookstores anymore? Can’t we just do it all online? I’ll admit, I’m a fan of internet shopping. I can get anything from anywhere without leaving my chair, and I can get it delivered, overnight, when I’m impatient or last-minute or both. But maybe I’m a Luddite when it comes to browsing, to discovery, which is the real joy and purpose of a good bookstore and which can’t be duplicated virtually, not yet anyway. Sure, I can look inside books electronically at a number of websites. But I can’t hold one in my hands and feel its heft, smell the paper. Or notice that the pages aren’t flat, not really. They have depth. They have texture. I have a very nice wide screen monitor, but I still can’t see the type leap out at me when I stand with my head bent like a scribe while a stream of people flows quietly around me, or sink to the floor in a narrow aisle and give in to serious contemplation.
I think we’ve gone from around twenty to less than five independent bookstores in the city of Philadelphia. I think that’s not acceptable. Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about it. Except maybe frequent the ones that are left. O.k., so I’ll shop online some of the time; but I’ll also take a jaunt outside now and then, get my vitamin D from a little sunlight, peruse an indie bookstore’s offerings, and maybe even buy a few.
My favorite shop? There are two here in Philadelphia I must mention, in case you choose to visit or pass on the information. The first is Robins, which survives, though in a bravely, sadly scaled down version of its former self. Larry Robins is an institution in Philadelphia. His grandfather opened the store in 1936. Larry has been in the book business for more than forty years. Not only that, he’s championed the progressive side of related and relevant causes: censorship, blacklisting, freedom of speech. Tropic of Cancer. The Communist Manifesto. Mein Kampf. Salman Rushdie. All available, always available. Author readings? No place has been kinder or a bigger tent for every style and point of view. Fiction, politics, verse. He’s sponsored it all, and it’s still his store where authors, especially poets, and their Philadelphia audiences still congregate today.
The second store I would recommend is Head House Books, which, after four years, has less history, but not necessarily less charm. Owned and run by Richard de Wyngaert, the store reaches out in every conceivable way to the neighborhood around it in an effort to build literacy, community spirit, and an enjoyable space for browsing or listening to authors live. I have had two readings in the store, and both were graciously hosted, intimate, and well attended. This is the kind of store where a great deal of care goes into decisions about where and how to display books. Wandering Head House, I find that I see many books facing me with their covers, rather than just their spines. This makes my search for the right volume not only easier but more intriguing. It’s easy and enjoyable here to get diverted. Richard has strategically scattered chairs, a great love and knowledge of books, author readings, storytelling for children, and other events for children including a chess club. As a father, I’m glad for a store that isn’t only about sales, and one into which my children often tow me, rather than the other way around. I hope that when they grow up, bookstores like these won’t exist only in the virtual world of memory.