Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Great Leaf

Spouting from a flower-box,
a leaf three feet across waves
at passersby, threatening
or promising to enfold them
in green thoughts otherwise
available only in verse.

Most people ignore this plant
flexing its leaf like a muscle,
but I want to hear it fluster
in gusts of tropical rain blown
thousands of miles from the Gulf
up the Mississippi valley.

I can’t tell if the faint shiver
rippling across this massive leaf
is a farewell or some other thought.
Maybe it’s just enjoying itself
in that semi-sexual way that plants
stretch and preen in the sunlight.

Maybe I could learn something
from tissue more sensitive than mine,
something about touching more gently.
But you’re eager to collect the mail
and learn from cold print how deeply
debt plumbs us, how near the bottom.

When frost arrives and this leaf falls
the village will sigh with relief.
You laugh and drag me away,
leaving the whole plant fluttering
as if some microaggression
has soiled its perfect green day.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sam Cornish: a Memory

Sam’s World 

            When I met Sam Cornish he was editing a little magazine called Mimeo and stocking shelves at the Paperback Booksmith in Harvard Square. I had sent him some poems, which he accepted but never published because the magazine folded. A few months later, he left Boston to work at the Child Development Center in Washington, where he befriended Maxine Kumin and Jay Wright. After a year he returned to work in the CDC Boston-area office, devising eccentric but compelling teaching materials. One afternoon we met at a bar in Park Square. He grilled me about Boston bars, especially those in Southie and the Town. Could he safely drink there? What would tough Irish working men say to a black man in a bar on East Broadway? It took a while for me to realize that these were teasing questions, probing to see if I believed he would actually go to a place like Whitey Bulger’s bar. But if he wouldn’t, it wasn’t because he was black—black faces showed up in those bars without incident—but because he was Sam Cornish, a singularity not a stereotype, and chose his bars using an algorithm I‘d never figure out.
            Sam loved movies. Not film or cinema, but movies. Hollywood westerns, Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, anything with an Elmer Bernstein or Bernard Herrmann score, anything starring John Wayne. He loved comics as well, and amassed huge stacks of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and other titles of that ilk. His favorite novels were James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, followed closely by Richard Wright’s Native Son. As a poet he learned from William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes. He wrote about Bigger Thomas, jazzmen, Harriet Tubman, and people, stories, and street scenes from his childhood in Baltimore’s grim black neighborhoods. At the Enos Pratt Free Library he edited a magazine of children’s writing named Chicory, after that favorite urban weed with its startling blue flowers erupting in vacant lots. As a peripatetic teacher and later as Boston’s first poet laureate he brought an earthy wit to elementary and high-school classrooms all over the city and beyond. Teaching at Emerson College, directing the Literature program of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, working at New England Mobile Bookfair on weekends, he was a fixture on the literary scene. No one who met him would forget him, or confuse him with anyone else.
            Although he embodied the black urban experience, he resisted the role of angry black man. Despite repeated offers, he refused to publish with Broadside Press or Third World Press. Generations, his first major collection, appeared with Beacon Press in 1970. It sported an introduction by Ruth Whitman rather than by someone from the Black Arts Movement. Some of Sam’s colleagues were unhappy about this; but pleasing others by conforming to their expectations was never Sam’s way. Yet some of his poems are among the most uncompromising, most militant work of the last half-century. What could be more to the point than his eponymous poem about Ray Charles?

Do you
dig ray

when the
blues are

in his throat

& he rolls
up his

This challenge to the white embrace of black music asks whether we can appreciate the pain of being a black performer in a white world. It is not about “cultural appropriation”—Sam knew full well that culture necessarily appropriates culture all the time—but about facing up to this one suffering person, feeling how his music expresses him not as an abstraction but as a black man struggling to live in his skin, resorting to heroin to assuage a sad impossible hurt no white person can fully grasp. Sam chose to publish with a white publisher because he wanted to confront a white audience with poems like this. African Americans didn’t need Sam to tell them who they were or what their lives were like.
            For some years Sam and I lived near each other in Cambridge—Sam on Broadway, and me around the corner on Harvard Street. We worked together on Poetry in the Schools assignments, driving out to high schools in Newton or Sudbury or taking the T to elementary schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain. A couple of times a week Sam would dish up one of his notorious dinners: spaghetti with his peculiar sauce. He would mix tomato sauce and bourbon, slice hot dogs into it, spice it with the hottest peppers he could find, and slow-cook the mess for hours. He invited all sorts of people to dinner, including up-and-coming young poets like Tom Lux and John Yau, and visiting celebrities like Leonard Bernstein, Amiri Baraka, and the Dalai Lama. Bernstein was at Harvard delivering his 1973 Norton lectures, the Dalai Lama was staying with mutual friends on Chauncy Street, and Baraka came to Cambridge to persuade Sam to capitulate and publish a book with a—any—black publisher. Bernstein competed with Sam’s raconteur-ship, the Dalai Lama ate several helpings of atomic spaghetti, and Baraka went away dissatisfied but safely cushioned with bourbon. Those of us who weren’t famous happily basked in Sam’s polite, understated challenge to every authority figure he met.
            In 1975 Sam married Florella Orowan, a music student who specialized in film scores, and who would later become a graphic designer. The wedding happened in my large, rent-controlled Harvard Street apartment. In honor of the event, I painted the living room, polished the floors, and even cleaned the bathroom. A day or two later, we all caught the train to New York and roamed the bookshops together. We combed the Fourth Avenue booksellers, the Gotham, the Argosy, and the Strand. We saw six or eight movies in seedy Times Square theaters including a couple of porn flicks. That was Sam’s idea of a honeymoon. We all concurred.
            After Sam and Florella moved to Brighton and I married Carole and relocated to New Hampshire we saw each other less often, but the spaghetti dinners continued. Every other month or so Carole and I drove to Brighton for hours of gossip, serious talk, and spaghetti. For a few years Sam and Florella ran Fiction, Literature, and the Arts, a bookshop in the arcade at Coolidge Corner, Brookline. They could just as well have run it from home. Their apartment was a solid mass of books. Crowded shelves covered every wall. Piles of book slouched on the floor. At Christmas Sam would lavish on us treasures unearthed from the back room of their shop or, later, from the deepest recesses of New England Mobile Book Fair.
             On a couple of occasions, I brought Sam to Keene State College, where I taught creative writing and ran the reading series. Sam would visit classes, joshing with the students, and would present his reading in an offhand manner that still conveyed real seriousness. What did my students make of poems like “Empty Doorways”?

Empty doorways come straight
at me

Faces growing in the windows,
quiet women hanging clothes in the backyard,

indians are falling in the streets.
I hear Malcom X is dead;

they become white.

Sam’s poems hover on the edge of suggestion. They make most poetry, including mine, seem impossibly garrulous. The students stared as if someone had arrived from another planet, but then invariably would ask me to bring him back. His poems and presence stuck with them.
            For Sam’s sixtieth birthday, Carole organized a session on his work at the American Literature Association Conference in Baltimore. One of the participants offered a vivid account of Sam’s Baltimore days when he worked at the library and devised evil alcohol-soaked meals for his co-workers. Another speaker failed to show up, so I was recruited to ad lib a paper on Sam’s prosody. As Ruth Whitman noted, Sam “was born with perfect pitch.” You can’t change a word, much less a line break, in his best poems. However, since I didn’t have his books handy and had to quote from memory, I probably mangled more than a little of that perfection. Sam seemed a little uneasy about being back in Baltimore, but took it all with good humor.
            In 1998 Carole published a book with Cambridge University Press entitled Writing America Black. It contains a chapter on Sam’s poetry. As usual with Sam, he had trouble processing this academic exercise. On the one hand, he appreciated the attention to his poetry; on the other hand, he was wary. Cambridge was an uncomfortably prestigious press. Why would it want a book that discussed his work? The white world had scarred him more than he openly admitted; I don’t think he ever dropped his guard.
            Sam become Boston’s first poet laureate in 2008. I thought it a fine and most appropriate honor for both Sam and the city, but I wonder what Mayor Menino thought of poems like “Forecast,” the Afterword to Generations:

All will die
watch out for
the man with the soap
and the towels

Could this cosmic washroom attendant be someone we know? As the poetry scene of the last decades of the twentieth century fades from memory, Sam’s poetry still has something gruff, direct, but subtle to tell us. We would do well to listen.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Elizabeth in the Flesh

Sometime in the Seventies the Harvard Advocate sponsored a reading by Elizabeth Bishop. My then-partner was something of a Bishop fan. I knew her work only superficially, but admired “The Man-Moth” and “At the Fishhouses” and the poems collected in Questions of Travel. When we arrived at the reading, which was scheduled, I think, in Emerson Hall, we found ourselves the only audience. No one from the Advocate appeared, so when Bishop showed up, alone and bemused, we shucked the reading and took her across the street to the Toga, the favorite watering hole of half of the Harvard faculty and some of the Emerson College faculty, of which I was then a part-time member. We later heard a rumor that one member of Bishop’s workshop had organized a boycott of the reading in protest of her burdensome assignments, but if this was intended to embarrass the poet it didn’t succeed. Bishop was relieved to get out of the reading, always an ordeal for her. We had a pleasant gossipy chat about various subjects in common, particularly Robert Lowell, with whom I had taken a workshop a few years before and whom Bishop was replacing at Harvard. I also began telling Bishop a lengthy story about something I can no longer recall; but before I could finish we all, for some reason also forgotten, had to leave.

My other job, at the Temple Bar Bookshop on Boylston Street (now JFK Street) in Harvard Square, occupied my non-teaching days. A few days after our evening at the Toga, Bishop dropped into the bookstore on her way to her workshop and asked me to continue the story. First, leaving her in conversation with Jim O’Neil, the bookshop proprietor, I walked down to Leo’s Place and got coffee for us. Then I finished the story, whatever it was. She loved stories: that I remember. For the rest of that semester, and for at least one more, Bishop on her teaching days (she was then living on Brattle Street) came by for coffee on her way to her workshop, and then again after the workshop. Jim, his brother Gene, and I greatly enjoyed her visits, chatting with her on every possible subject except poetry, which she rarely mentioned except in connection with her teaching. Our raucous and slightly off-color milieu amused her, and we liked making her laugh, maybe because we recognized that she had a deep need for humor. We knew, as everyone did, about her long-term lover Lota’s suicide in 1967, but although I had heard from Lowell something of her struggles since, we had only a faint intuition of the real depth of her difficulties.

Although we generated a crudely male atmosphere, Bishop liked our company. Maybe she just appreciated the fact that we looked forward to seeing her, and greeted her with silly and surreal comments.  But we noticed that in the morning, on her way to work, Bishop seemed nervous and apprehensive, while in the afternoon, on her way home, she seemed triumphant. We concluded that she dropped by in the morning for our perverse version of moral support. Maybe because we were uninhibited with her (as we were with everyone) we projected a normalcy and nonchalance that helped her face a task she hated. In the afternoon, when we drank tea instead of coffee, she would regale us with stories about her workshop students. Most of them, if we had to judge by her observations, were ignorant troglodytes inert to poetry and everything else beautiful in life. We knew some of her students as customers, and didn’t find them offensive, despite our reservations about the manners of the typical Harvard student. But Bishop described them as insulted by the exercises she assigned (hence the alleged boycott), thoughtless and crude in their responses to each other’s work, and generally untalented and hopeless.

When I told Bishop that I sold rare books on the side (I never mentioned that I still wrote poetry), she exposed her exploitative side. She told me she owned a scarce Wallace Stevens book, a lettered copy of the limited edition of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, and was considering selling it. At the time the book at retail was worth something around a thousand dollars, and I would have paid her five hundred for it. Fifty percent was and is a fair price for a dealer to pay a private individual, and when I mentioned this to Bishop she seemed to approve. But when I went to her apartment to see the book she redirected me to a pile of review copies she wanted to sell. I wasn’t particularly interested, and knew a bait and switch tactic when I saw it, but offered her a modest sum for the books. She accepted, and then produced the Stevens book. However, as I slathered over it she told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to sell it quite yet, but would certainly give me first refusal. I had doubts, but kept them to myself. A few months later she repeated this performance. I realized she was never going to give up the Stevens book. It was probably still in her library when she died.

Although biographers and memoirists have made much of Bishop’s alcoholism, I saw only two moderate instances of inebriation. As I mentioned, the Emerson College faculty—or at least the most prominent members of the English Department—drank at the Toga on Massachusetts Avenue around the corner from the Grolier Bookshop. Jim Randall, whose Pym-Randall Press published the work of many poets who would go on to distinguished careers, gathered around him a coterie of poetry wannabees and genuine talents. On my teaching days I often joined his circle (at the time I was living right under him in an apartment building on Harvard Street), and well-known poets would occasionally show up. Lowell dropped in a few times, as did Richard Wilbur, Richard Eberhart, Mark Strand, and others. One night Bishop came in and sat with us for a few hours. When she rose to leave she was a little worse for wear, so I walked her back to Brattle Street (after an absentminded detour past Cambridge Common toward Chauncy Street, where she had lived for a while) and made sure she got through the door without too much difficulty. Since Jim Randall and I sometimes got so drunk we had to crawl home on all fours (it was only three blocks from the bar), no one thought anything of this. The second time occurred a couple of years later, when Bishop was living on Lewis Wharf. She stayed at the bar with us until after midnight, and I had to shovel her into a cab and accompany her to her condominium. Fortunately, Alice Methfessel, the lover who sometimes lived with Bishop, wasn’t there, and I didn’t have to deal with her disapprobation. Four years after Bishop’s death, I met Alice under other circumstances, and mercifully she didn’t seem to remember or associate me with Bishop’s occasional lapses.

Is any of this relevant? Elizabeth Bishop wrote some of the most memorable poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, and her personal qualities no longer matter the way her work does. But for what it’s worth, I found her charming, engaging, shy but curious, quick with humor, and alert to everyone she encountered. I don’t even mind that she stiffed me on the Stevens book. Her poetry is her monument, and long after everyone who knew her is gone it will remain unassailable in its purity and perfection. 

(published in The Worcester Review, 2017)