Summer Reading 2015: Native Son Celebrates Elizabeth's Spirit, Honors Its Ghosts
Joe Weil’s poetry is filled with an elegiac passion which finds greatness and beauty in ordinary people and places
Poet Joe E. Weil lives with his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, and their two children, Clare and Gabriel, in upstate New York, where he is an assistant professor in the graduate and undergraduate English departments at SUNY-Binghamton. But he was born and raised in Elizabeth, NJ, and his love of New Jersey and his old hometown draw him back frequently to the Garden State – recently, he took part in a celebration of New Jersey poetry, featuring former U.S. poet laureate and Long Branch native Robert Pinsky, at NJPAC in Newark, and he is still involved in the long-running poetry series held at the Barron Art Center in Woodbridge.
While Weil writes on many other topics, his poems inspired by streets of Elizabeth may best capture the elegiac passion of his work. He sees holiness even when its face is smudged and dirty, sees greatness in the ordinary, and turns his gritty hometown into a place of stark beauty inhabited by the ghosts of sad but beautiful souls who still abide in Weil's memory.
Weil's previously published works include “The Great Grandmother Light” (New York Quarterly Books, 2013), "The Plumber's Apprentice" (NYQ Books, 2009), “Painting the Christmas Trees” (Texas A&M University Press, 2008) and “What Remains” (Nightshade Press, 2008). He was also the winner of the 2013 People's Poetry Award from Partisan Press.
His new collection, tentatively titled “Dialing the Light,” is forthcoming from New York Quarterly Books.
Here are three poems from “Dialing the Light:”
A Poem In Which Lack is the Necessity of Being
There's someone who's not here,
who probably won't be coming back,
unless the ghost of the number 12 bus
opens its doors with a soft hydraulic hiss.
You remember all the beautiful boredom
of a long summer day-- just you and that Spaldeen
you kept whipping against the curb. Above you,
the shadow of the school's flag is performing its
hoochie coochie dance.
Everything in your childhood is lost
to the high weeds of an old man's musings.
What you feel is vital, necessary, beyond
all reproach appears-- to the casual witness--
as a pile of junk.
Someone's hand is on your knee.
That was forty years ago.
Someone's calf tightens as they push
down on a pedal, and the Schwinn moves
forward into oblivion.
There are no cows grazing in your
realm of dazed weather, in the bucolic
torpor of the scene -- but a woman with a red pistachio
nose leaning out a third story window,
a man entering the dark cool of
a tavern's open door--
Then someone calls your
name, piercing the ribs of four o'clock,
and you throw the Spaldeen with tendon straining oomph
against the street's hard curb,
catching the concrete edge
just so. The ball arcs
high above your head—disappearing
into the cheering silence
where all things perfect go.
The House Where I was Born
Is missing the roar and rattle of its pipes, the
wheeze of its aging relatives, the groans, and
whines of floor boards, death rattles both
human and otherwise—the tender eyes of
the neighbor’s niece watching me fetch the
garbage cans tossed with impressive
brio by burly guys whose lives were thunderous
with routine. The house is sans my mother’s Rose
of Sharon, the silver maple out front with its
flock of ugly angry starlings
making various lewd noises -- wolf whistles,
farts, dog growls -- those short tailed, long beaked
birds who shat on every junker Ford we ever parked,
who shat the berries from the mulberry out back,
those good-for-nothings except breeding
and clogging up the engines of 747s, those
birds I watched for hours as a child from my
parents’ bedroom window. That house where I was
born is not my house at all. They’ve cut the
the maples down, replaced the oil burner, stripped the
ugly siding that all the houses on my street once wore
to save on painting costs. They’ve stripped
the armor of the working class, and left the corpses.
This was my house that stretched
from Lowell to Baltimore -- just one enormous Queens,
This was my house, a jump rope at dusk on
a dark street, the children grown to heart attacks and
suburbs. Drive by it, without knowing, until you check
the address. Parking, I raise the tree with my
eyes, restore the Rose of Sharon with my desire.
Everyone who is dead returns and watches me.
Go home, they say, mister, you don’t belong.
A Green Brick
In the hot kiln of summer -- green brick
of the vegetation, green man hidden
in the sentences of sleep, beyond all harm
you came to me and sounded no alarm
except the jay's fierce and unbidden
cry -- that voice, like the kick
of deer's hooves against window glass --
sudden, a breaking of storm
in the full court press of the rain
against all roofs, forbidden, and in vain
we struggled, caught in the thick
webbed memory -- the warm
embrace of whatever it was we built:
that full tilt of stars above the drunken boat house,
the heron's mating in cat tails along the shore.