A folk song about counting.
A folk song about imitating a police siren.
A folk song containing the lyric, “I only love my bed and my mama, I’m sorry.”
A folk song containing the lyric, “The only tune that the fiddle would play was ‘O, the Wind and the Rain.’”
I travel to rural Ohio, where I’ve been invited to give a poetry reading at my alma mater.
“How do you write poetry that’s true but that also isn’t overly personal?” asks an undergraduate after the reading.
I don’t know how to respond. Were I a painter, I might say that art is an invented canvas full of real bullshit. But I am not a painter.
parable of bloodlines
After the poetry reading, I ate dinner with R., a beloved former religious studies professor. R. is one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known, possessed of a gentleness verging on genius—inquisitive but never hectoring, polite but genuinely so—there exists a spiteful politeness in the Midwest—thoughtful but silly, grave but cheerful, meandering but focused. In the class I took with him in college, called “Meanings of Death,” a survey of death and mourning rituals across world religions, one of the assignments was to write a eulogy for someone we loved who was still alive. To this day there is a bit of this assignment in every poem I write, premature nostalgia being something like my calling card.
R. is now retired. He has many close friends in town but so far as I know has never married or had children. At dinner he gleefully described his retirement plans—writing a murder mystery set in a seminary, a story based on events that he witnessed as a young man that I would recount for you here if I remembered.
Our dinner ended and we said our goodbyes, hugged, wished each other well. The night was open before me in my old stomping grounds where I too might have been inspired to write a murder mystery, if I could only witness one. But at present I am too old to hang out with the students and too young to pass the evening with the professors, who all go to bed early anyway. It was a beautiful fall night, the rest of which passed without incident. I slept poorly.
I woke before dawn to catch a shuttle back to the airport in Columbus. A man about R.’s age pulled up in a sedan in the dark and introduced himself as D.
I disliked D. immediately. He chatted with me in the car like a genial prison guard, in a tone that made no secret of the fact that he didn’t care at all what I said in response. Conversation in this context was a kind of disinfectant spray against intimacy. He was unwilling to hazard the exquisite awkwardness of sitting with a stranger in silence, which I cherish, but also seemed unwilling to talk about anything that actually mattered to either of us.
He asked me what I “did,” and when I told him that I was a poet, he asked me what sports I liked. I asked him what he “did,” and he told me that he was a retired math teacher. He lived in a nearby community with his wife. I asked him how he had liked teaching at the local high school, and he told me that it “had a good reputation.” At this point I was already completely exhausted, counting the seconds until I could get out of the car. The cornfields rolled out in the darkness like an infinite bruise.
“So what’s your poetry about?” he said.
At this point I should really have an answer to this question, but I do not. I gave him my stock answer: “Most of it doesn’t rhyme.” But then I remembered that there was a lot of internal rhyme in my recent work, and added, idiotically, “But recently a lot of it does.”
D. didn’t care, of course—this contentless answer was exactly the kind of adventure he was looking for. He nodded. “Guess you’re a poet and you do know it,” he said.
“What do your parents think of the fact that you’re a poet?” he continued.
I was taken aback. Not because the question was rude—but I was surprised that he wanted to go there. I explained that they didn’t always get my poems, per se, but they’d always been supportive of my writing even when it perplexed them.
“As long as you can pay the bills, I guess,” D. said. I didn’t mention that I’d recently been unemployed for eight months and had nearly exhausted my savings.
“Do you have kids?” I asked, not knowing what else to say. There was a heavy pause—it was clearly the question he had been fishing for all along. And yet he seemed reluctant to answer.
“Two daughters,” he said, “about your age.”
“Oh. And what do they do?”
“Well. The older one worked at a blood bank outside of Erie for seven years, but she got divorced and had to come home. She’s 35. Still looking for a man.” He emphasized this last phrase as if he couldn’t quite fathom it, a piece of slang that was beyond him.
“I see. Nice that you get to see her more often.”
“Yeah, she’s around.”
“And what about the younger one?”
There was a still heavier pause. “She works at the Rite Aid there in Fredericktown.”
“Does she like it?”
“They’re good to her. She has problems. Developmental disabilities. They work with her.”
“Oh, well, that’s great. Good to have a job.” I was really starting to hate myself.
“She hangs out with a lot of lowlifes.”
“Huh. What do you mean?”
“People see that she’s slow and take advantage of her.”
“That’s—just horrible. I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what to say.
He continued, eagerly now. “She has some issues with her eyes. She had trouble in school when she was young, but we thought it was because of her,” he paused, clearly uncomfortable, “cognitive challenges. When she was a little girl we went to the optometrist, and the doctor said they looked fine. All through her childhood and into her twenties she told us things looked blurry, and her eyes would sometimes make these odd rapid movements, but eventually she just stopped complaining because the doctor said she was fine and we thought this was just her funny way of rolling her eyes at us. Then a year ago it got so bad that she couldn’t see the numbers on the register at work. We went to another eye doctor. Turns out her optic nerves had been underdeveloped her whole life. It’s amazing she could see at all. So she just had surgery on the one eye to try to correct some of the damage, but the nerves are connected to her brain, which hasn’t developed right as a result of things being out of whack for so long, and she needs occupational therapy. She’s going to have the surgery on the other eye in a few months, but I don’t know. It’s just really painful.”
I couldn’t speak for a moment. “Are she and her sister close?”
“Yeah, they’re close.”
“That’s good,” I said. “It’s good that they have one another.”
“Yeah. Well—no. That’s not actually true. They fight a lot.”
“Oh, all siblings fight. I still fight with my brother and sister sometimes.”
“Well, the way they fight—they shouldn’t be fighting like that anymore. They’re adults.”
The sun still wasn’t up, but the corn was glowing a little now.
“It’s getting to the point where my wife and I are starting to wonder what we did wrong.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Let’s talk about something a bit less dramatic,” he said, turning the sports report on.
“Do you think the Cavs can win without LeBron?” I asked, realizing that to D. this question was the equivalent of, “What kind of poetry do you write?”
“No,” he laughed. “No, I don’t think so.” He changed the station.
The news. The president had said something, somewhere, and someone was talking about it.
We were halfway to the airport. The clouds were turning pink.
“I hate politics,” he said, smiling.
A brick in open dialogue with a window.
A brick in a private huddle with its wall.
parable of the bridge
I step into the crosswalk to the bridge behind a group of Hasidic boys walking in a line. A driver stops before them and leans on his horn. They don’t flinch. When I catch up with them they seem to walk faster, throwing tiny explosive Technicolor tissue-paper sperm filled with gunpowder. A bluish chemical smoke hangs in the air around them as they walk. My step quickens, and I pass them.
On the Manhattan side, you encounter three phrases in succession underfoot: no cocaine in the promise land, fuck the president, and pull the lever.
I am sitting down for a meal in a dark, candlelit dining room. Gathered around the table is my family. Some of them are very old and wearing shawls. My great-grandmothers. They are talking privately to one another. I sense that we’re in mourning?
The dream of the candlelit room on 10/24 struck me even as I was having it as an omen. Today a man with a gun walks into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and murders eleven people.
Halloween at Hot Bird. A nice crackling fire, people chatting over beers. Election Day looms like a glittering pus-Christmas. Soon the bar will close for good; a putrid high rise will be where we sit. The air is cool and crisp, smoky. No one is dressed up in a costume except for one woman as Waldo, in a striped red sweater, glasses, and hat. Another has a jack-o’-lantern sweatshirt, but this doesn’t count.
Actually, it appears that Waldo’s boyfriend is also dressed as Waldo.
But where am I?
I know where I am.
When in Rome, burn.