Summer Reading 2017: Poetry with a Take-No-Prisoners Attitude
Masterful poems that fragment and remake autobiography, rock and roll, English and American literary history, and a lesson in snake handling
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.
Reading these searing, relentless poems, is — to borrow a cinematic cliché — a bit like being a passenger in a heavily loaded cargo plane rapidly running out of runway. Then, as David Daniel says in “All You’re Losing,” “… somehow the whole machine takes off.” As it turns out, the pilot is not above pulling some remarkable stunts, collapsing time — so John Milton is only a line away from AC/DC’s Bon Scott (“Rock and Roll”) and a “salt and pepper kingsnake” caught by the poet bites him repeatedly and then advises, “You, my love, are easy to catch. Write something And remember how scared you are right now and always—now let me go” (“The Naturalist”). At times these poems are also wickedly funny: Dante, suffering the most famous midlife crisis in literature, doesn’t descend into hell; instead “he’d simply buy a car and, ‘headed down the highway,’ Blast classic rock.”
Bring down your ornaments. Bring down the attic dust.
Bring down the leaves, the husks of insects, the grease.
From windows. Bring down the clothes, shovel them,
Shovel them over the bodies you long ago brought down.
Bring down the silver, the screaming, the cries of love:
Bring them down and beat them.
Bring them down to the street,
Take a broom, and beat them: Let the dust live in the sunshaft.
Bring down their tiny planets, beat them, free them—
Those bodies. You wanted them once. You asked for them.
Now bring them down, bring down everything you’ve wanted,
Shattered, or soiled—some flag, some country you
Loved once, some child you lost....
Bring them down and beat them,
Down to your streets and beat them: There is peace in it.
There is peace in the beating. And bring down the poems you wrote,
Those strong feelings, the voice you had, so sweet,
That beauty too, its lies, those centuries collapsed, of stoop, of musky stone:
There was such promise, then, such future: Bring them down to your streets,
Take out a broom, and beat them. The dust will catch fire in the sunshaft,
It will light that light—it will burn it. Bring down those angels of glass,
That hell, those whispers in your ear: they say bring down
The shame they died in, the suicides’ longing, the bloody sheet,
The first hard cock, then the mothers’ skittish love,
The hazel of her eyes, bring them all down, bring them down
To your streets and beat them.
Bring down your fathers too.
Bring down how they drank and drank, how they beat you
With their drinking and the wars they took you to, how you sat there
Cheering so long ago, centuries now. Now you must take them out to the street,
Drive them like mules to the street and beat them, so you
Can take down the house itself, sweep off its skin, its muscle,
To get to its galleried bone, to its teeth, then tie a string to the doorknob,
Slam shut the door, and bring them all down. Pull out the floor,
The windows, the walls, the twisted nails, the light
That held them all, then finally the door:
Bring them all down
Into your streets, take out your broom, and beat them:
There is peace
There: When the dust rises in the light of the sun, it will come alive,
It will take your shape, sparkling, adorned; it will rise over streets now
Filled with you, over the villages, the cities now filled with you.
Its eyes are your eyes and it follows you in wonder:
It will bless you. It will look you in the eye and bless you.
All You’re Losing
It’s Easter Eve in Trax, and hot as hell, in 1986 Charlottesville,
And Paul Westerberg of the Replacements
has forgotten the words to Skyway
—the only song everyone else knows the words to
—and as everything hurdy-gurdies to a kind of halt
some other drunk yells, A Little Mascara, and Bob Stinson,
flat on his back, cranks the A and E from his Firebird
and somehow the whole machine takes off, and before you know it,
Westerberg’s wailing, All you’re losing is...a little mascara,
and it’s true, love is like that, and my friend Elizabeth is peeling off her shirt,
and so’s Ginsberg, and all of us are skunk drunk, bug-eyed gods
and the night’s looking pretty good all around.
Allen’s been asking the world to forgive Pound
for hating the Jews, and everyone
in the lecture-hall in this town we call Whitey
seems more than happy to forgive: usura, usura, okay USA.
At dinner he told us to fuck poetry altogether
and get into computers, The future, he said, live with it
right as always, the beautiful bastard, man among angels,
but I wanted to piss on his feet, we all did, or kiss them, I don’t know:
Forgive us our past, that drunken bafflement....
But now, Jesus, now, today, it’s perfect and we all understand:
the show’s done, and ten years later everyone
will sound like Westerberg, and Cobain & friends will die for it,
just like Bird died for it, and everyone else
great and bitter, rock and roll, and before and after,
we’ll get tweaked in the back of the restaurant where everyone worked,
where someone will snort a smiley face off the bar,
and we’ll drive out to Monticello, for God’s sake,
for the sunrise service because we’re sentimental by now,
and because Allen was dying soon, and so was Bob, and all of us,
and because Jefferson loved his Negroes, after all, and they’d be there
in the mist of the hill, the mist of this beautiful country
that tries to forgive everyone, every last one of us,
and we’re all climbing the hill slumped like somebody’s lashed
to our backs—all of us—Allen, Paul, Elizabeth, me,
everyone—the sun’s coming up, and I’m holding Elizabeth,
and so’s Paul, and we’re all crying by now, singing hymns, like everybody else—
the rocker Jesus, the faggot Jew Jesus,
every black Jesus in the ground,
sweet Jesus of the painted eyes, the pale light spilling down the hill Jesus,
in-the-pixelated-fire-of-technologic-wonder Jesus, shattered,
atomized—the future, the past, all you’re losing.... We’re crying
by now, singing hymns, like everybody else—crying on a great
American hill because you just don’t lose that much when you do.
In nature, what is beautiful is often poisonous,
And if it’s beautiful and easy to catch, it’s likely deadly:
This fact supported by naturalists worldwide.
Prophets are sometimes beautiful, and, since often blind,
Easy to catch: their futures are always deadly.
With poetry, however, even beautiful poetry,
People tend not to get hurt....
But I, beheaded by poetry, must drink the poison of the moon—
It will spill out my throat, scatter in the weightlessness
We learned from ’60s TV—everything floated then: men,
Wars, food, gods, even nature itself—
This from an old myth about an eclipse, Hindu or Buddhist,
And it’s about desire or immortality—maybe both, who knows?
Lately, I’ve spent more time in nature, whatever that means,
Often wearing space-age textiles, whatever that means,
And sometimes all nature is stainless steel, whole forests
Impervious to storm: When the wind blows there, it sounds
Like when you whet your knife. Other times all nature
Is made of flesh: When the wind blows then, it sounds like
When you whet your knife against my throat....
Years ago, deep in Louisiana’s nature, I dove
To catch a salt and pepper kingsnake as it slid into the earth,
And I pulled it up. Then it bit me over and over until I could
Calm it, pin its head to the ground: It said, as all prophets do:
You, my love, are easy to catch. Write something
And remember how scared you are right now and always—now let me go.
The snake leapt to its hole and poured in.
The earth was clay and humus, sassafras
and pine—sap on the shovel, everywhere—
we used turpentine to wash off the pine’s smell
of turpentine. And the earth was on our lips,
arms swiped across faces as we sweat and dug.
As we dug and dug—the hole huge now, yawning
the breath of earth, your breath. Then we dragged
sheets of plywood over, dropped them over the hole,
placed one edge under our toes to steady and dropped:
each with a bang and wow, a wow like someone
playing a saw, bending it, teeth up, in his lap, or her lap,
someone we knew once; and we shoveled the earth
on top to hide them, to hide the boards,
the roof: the earth thundered a little as it rained
from the shovels we dug with and down on the boards.
Then we shaped the earth, beat it down with our hands,
replanted the ferns called horsetails, spread out
the rusty needles of pines so fathers couldn’t find us,
so no one could. We crawled into it, crawled
through the tunnel of it, knees wet and slickened,
and we hung candles from strings, lit them, dragged in
toy soldiers and moldy Playboys snatched from
a neighbor’s trash, a coffee can of silvery gunpowder
from a bible of Black Cats: the powder’s metal
on your tongue too. If you lit a match there and flicked it
on loose powder, it mostly just sizzled and sparked.
But if you twisted a fuse, tamped down the powder
in a can and lit it—then everything changed.
Later I’d kiss someone—she opened the door
of her folks’ Silverstream, and we kissed the way
you kiss then, at seven or eight, in a time of war—
a kiss lit by candles under the earth, tasting like that,
like the spidery world below. Then I’d go back under.
If you waited a day or two, the earth moved in—
you wiped off the webs and looked for snakes,
and there were always snakes; they would mostly shy away—
they’d slide to the corners, ball up, flatten.
You don’t kiss them, those tongues, but you want to,
you want to kiss them, but you don’t. Mostly you wait. Snakes
are like us that way. You dig and you wait in the dark heart of earth.
The Mouse’s Nest
Madness, you know, creeps in—or else you stumble on it.
It happens. And it happens I stumbled on a mouse’s nest near the sea:
Clare—whatever that means—comes to mind, of course,
A glittering cesspool of a mind, this ocean of ours, this madness—
Sometimes it is difficult to say simply where one ends or begins—
Where Clareness ends when he sits beside me
With a pipe and where I begin when I breathe his smoke:
Just who’s found this nest and when? The mirror of nature, you say,
Just look at yourself. And I do. A storm had washed in
A wooden chest made to store what you need near the sea.
I forced its twisted latch, and among a family’s clutter:
The nest, soft as a bird, a shredded whorl of life-vests,
Buoy lines, hair, grass.... Dazzling, really, the orbits
Of the strands, their light like stones sparked by sky,
Or a hand lit by an August sea—brief, bright moments.
At the thinner end of the nest is a whole, naturally—
She looked so odd & so grotesque, Clare said, her young
Ones hanging at her teats—and I finger the silken belly
from which, in times past, many naked lives crawled forth.
Rock and Roll
Wildly in love in 1982 Los Angeles, John Doe and Exene Cervenka
Bend to a microphone and howl: I’m lost, headed down the highway.
In 1979, all over the world, the Bon Scott of AC/DC shouts his anthemic
Highway to Hell in reference, of course, to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Book II,
As Satan stands lost staring into the abyss of Chaos and Old Night
With whom he bargains, etc., etc. Henceforth, and before forth really,
All lost highways lead to hell and everyone rides them, at least for a while.
Willy Loman says, “To be thirty and lost in America, the greatest country
In the world, is a disgrace.” Of course, it’s grace itself that may be the problem
As Willy learns soon enough. If Dante were approaching mid-life today, lost in some
Dark wood, one wonders if he’d simply buy a car and, headed down the highway,
Blast classic rock. Many of the lost buy Porsches if they can, the fired-up
Descendent of Hitler’s vision of “the people’s car,” the Volkswagon Beetle,
Engineered by Ferdinand Porsche himself based on Hitler’s sketch,
The quintessential car of the Summer of Love, driven by Dean Stockwell— or Dean Jones or John Dean, who cares?—
Close friend of Neil Young—in The Love Bug. Dean, a beautiful American
By all accounts, was a junky and very lost. In 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
Could rock with the best of them and was a terrible disgrace. A guitar
Is like a gun is like a cock is like a mic: Simple stuff, says Dr. Freud,
Whose mouth, in the end, looks like Kurt’s after he, very lost, stuffed a mic
Down his throat, growled a few remarkably expressive growls, and pulled the trigger.
Used with the kind permission of the Pitt Poetry Series, (c) 2017, all rights reserved.
This book can be ordered on.