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184. She broke his heart in two. Then she quartered it. But each portion regenerated. Now he could run for miles, make love, weep at a sad movie, and still have one cold heart for her. In a dream of drowning, his life flashed before his eyes. She wasn’t there. 185. How many individual French fries were consumed in the past hour by someone other than the person who ordered them? 186. My first writing café was The Balcony on the east side of Broadway and 107th Street, with a life size mannequin of Genet’s Madam Irma on the balcony above the bar. Another writer was usually there when I arrived and still there when I left. The French waiter would fill my coffee at the exact right intervals. After about six months, the other writer nodded hello. After about a year, he asked me what I was working on. 187. In college, a friend says “I’m horny and I thought about fucking you, but I knew you wouldn’t because of your girlfriend. You put a circle around yourself. You’ll do anything within that circle, but you won’t even consider going outside of it.” I tell her that I am always working on widening that circle. She replies: “You’ve missed the entire point.” 188. On the bus, a six-year-old taunts his younger brother, who has been allowed to sit on their mother’s lap while he has to stand: “I’m gonna grow up before you.” 189. What my dying mother misses: “If only I could walk from room to room.” 190. In the diner from behind me they bickered, then a jarring noise like a chair being overturned. “Aren't you going to pick it up?” No response. “Stupid old man.” And that was the last I heard from them. On my way out, I almost tripped over the cane. 191. Song lyric: You set me up just to knock me down / You could win a prize in the carnival 192. No word Monday. No word Tuesday. No word Wednesday. Thursday just words. 193. Now, while the time since your death is still counted in weeks, I'll be walking along and there, just beyond the ability of my eyes to distinguish faces, I'll see someone who looks like you, and for a few milliseconds my brain will form your face. At first it was a little unnerving, but I've come to look forward to and treasure those milliseconds, and I will mourn them when they are gone. Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at The Best American Poetry
169. He believed her orgasms were authentic, but he suspected she was faking her compassion: “Oh. Oh. Oh. Yes. Yes. Yes. You poor thing, you!” 170. Within the past hour, how many people passed a stranger on the street whom they once passed on a street in another city? 171. The guy who used to sit on the bench is long gone. The bench is short gone. I miss him even more. 172. The softball team is coached by an English teacher and a social studies teacher. The English teacher misses an away game, the first I start at second base. The next day the two teachers huddle over a piece of paper. “How did the second baseman do?” “He did all right.” 173. At the flea market: “No, the Buddha by the bike, not the bike by the Buddha!” 174. The infinite wisdom of a circle. 175. The last phrase of Baudelaire’s “Dog and the Flask” (the title is also translated as “The Dog and the Vial” and “The Dog and the Scent Bottle”) is des ordures soigneusement choisies, which has been translated as “carefully raked-up mire,” “dung, chosen with care,” “carefully chosen sweepings,” “carefully selected scraps of nastiness,” “carefully selected garbage,” “meticulously selected garbage,” and “carefully selected crap.” And in Baudelaire’s “The Stranger” (also translated as “The Foreigner”), one of the speakers uses the familiar tu and the other the formal vous. It is impossible to capture this in English, though a Spanish translator would have no problem. 176. Part of me must be a damn genius or part of me a moron, because it’s oh so easy to outsmart myself. 177. Walking down the freezing street with a pizza box blanketing my hands, I've become one of those people I always envy. 178. My mother lies in the hospital bed with radium inserted into her abdomen, trying to kill the killer. She cannot move. Visitors cannot stay long because of the radiation. She tells us this story: “An older woman peeked in, wearing a volunteer’s outfit. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ the volunteer said. ‘Do you remember me? From when you were up on the sixth floor? I was just up there, looked for you, and something pulled me to come down here. I’m sure it was to tell you that everything will be all right.’ I asked her name. ‘Sadie.’ My mother’s name, and I never met another Sadie after she died. And she came down from ‘up there’ to tell me everything will be all right.” My mother laughs, for the first time in weeks, and for the last time. 179. In East New York we sit on the stoop waiting for the street fight. Not our battle—this one for the younger kids. From the next block comes the swarm, outnumbering our friends. We look at each other and attack screaming. “Look out, it’s the big kids,” someone shouts, and they run off. We are in third grade and I will never feel this big again. 180.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I appreciate this enormously! There will be a book--hopefully there will also be a publisher.
Thanks, Stacey! I love that Briscoe / Van Buren scene!
Gorky wrote in My Universities: “I do not like the moon.” As for me, I adore the moon, in all its phases. I spent a year building a boat that could take you back to me. When I finished, I took it apart and sent you the pieces. I stare at the moon as Neil Armstrong walks on it. I can’t fathom how humans made this possible, but know that the process started with the earliest living organisms and followed a complex set of instructions relayed in pieces through the ages. The sun is always out. The moon is always full. The parrot sits on her shoulder in the third row of the off-off-off-Broadway play, silent for the first scene, then increasingly cranky. As they leave during intermission, she says gently to the parrot, “I’m so sorry I should have never brought you here” Walking home from third grade on a chilly Fall afternoon, I see a circle of kids surrounding a fight. Most of them are shouting, “Come on, Babes,” “Get him, Babes.” Babes is a fourth grade bully. I despise and fear him and stay out of his way. He has the fight well in control, but is making sure not to dominate so much that even he would have to stop. Babes pins the other kid’s shoulders with his knees as he checks out the crowd. He glares at me and I start yelling, “Come on, Babes.” Babes bangs the kid’s head a couple of times into the dirt and nods at me as he slowly gets to his feet. At anti-war rallies many years later I won’t be able to chant. I arrive ten minutes early for a 2 p.m. dental checkup. Several people are in the waiting room. In my discreet sweep of the room—no eye contact—I sense familiarity, which doesn’t surprise me as I have been coming here for many years. At 2 p.m., a man stands up and enters the office area without being called, followed by the others. The last woman to leave the waiting room turns to me and says, “Come on in, Mr. Ziegler,” and, as I do, I see that the man has put on a white smock and become my dentist. On the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in July, a man in a long black coat comes running to me, desperation in his eyes. “Do you know what happened?” he implores. “Where?” I ask. The man looks at me incredulously and shrieks, “Anywhere!” He runs off before I can think of an answer. I am making a list, should we meet again. Jason Robards in All the President's Men: "Run that baby" (double tap, clap) Father and son on Mothers Day in the tiny hospital cafeteria. The father orders a ham and Swiss on rye, adding, “Could you put mayo on one side and mustard on the other?” The son has always chosen one or the other, never fully satisfied. The father has taught a life... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
A child watches with delight as the worker bangs away at plaster: loud noise, destruction, making a mess—and it’s all right with everyone. In our first stay in Paris, each night I stop at La Tonnelle, the grocery store across the street, where I can never get the right money to the grizzled man in the apron. I have taken to holding out my hand with all my coins, a beggar in reverse. He riffles through and selects the correct change, and I shrug and say, “Merci, désolé.” Tonight all I have is a 50 franc note (with a picture of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), and he says his first English words to me: “You don’t have seis francs?!” He gives me back 44 francs in various sizes, shapes, and textures: silver, gold, silver and gold. I study them before I go to sleep, and practice fishing by feel through my pocket for different combinations. The next night I place two large bottles of Badoit on the counter, reach into my pocket, and hand the grizzled man several coins adding to18 francs. He counts with his eyes, smiles, and bows. Zasu Pitts. In the 1970s, one of my roommates works for EMS but never talks about what he does. One night, we’re all watching the local news. The reporter describes a triple murder in the Bronx, and says, “One of the victims was dead at the scene, the other two died at the hospital.” “Two were dead at the scene,” my roommate says under his breath, “and the other one died in the ambulance.” Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “Well, didn't you bring me any donuts [beat] or sweet rolls?” Ben Kingsley in Betrayal: “Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that, something along those lines.” Feeling miserable about myself and everything I stand for and miserable in the March bone-chill that permeates my marrow, I make my way to the front of the 104 bus dreading the walk up the hill against the wind. I feel a sting on my back of my head and turn to see a deranged man eyeing me with disdain. I process the sensation and realize I have just been whacked upside the head. I stare him down. “What took you so long?” I ask, and descend into the bitter night. Librarian to Briscoe and Curtis on Law and Order: “Verlaine popped Rimbaud. Paul loved Arthur. Paul also loved Matilda. It was a whole mess. The French—what do you expect?.... If you really want decadent, I’d stick with Baudelaire.” Baudelaire: “Orgy is not the sister of inspiration; inspiration is absolutely the sister of daily effort.” Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In 1957 Bobby Darin introduced me to Paul Anka. In 1875 Stéphane Mallarmé, carrying a large portfolio, wanders the streets of London looking for Algernon Swinburne, intent on discussing their shared admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. In the portfolio is Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” and illustrations by Eduoard Manet. Two things my mother used to say: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” and “Like this you kill a day.” “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken” is attributed to John Buchan in 1919, and later appropriated into a song made famous by Faron Young and Maurice Chevalier. “Like this you kill a day” seems to be hers. You are so close to the way I want someone to look that I see you different when not around. Then you show up and I think, “What have you done to yourself?” Francis Williams—who played trumpet with Duke Ellington—started out as a pianist in his hometown, Toledo. Williams thought he was pretty good until he met a neighbor who was so much better. Realizing he wasn’t even the best in the neighborhood, Williams changed instruments. His neighbor’s name was Art Tatum. While my dentist waits for his assistant to join us for a procedure, we start exchanging reminiscences, having lived through some common times. Eventually he realizes the assistant has been in the room for several minutes, silently impatient. “Stories,” he explains to her with a sweet, wan smile. “Stories.” If Yankee Stadium had no fences, would a ball that lands in Montreal be fair or foul? Charles Laughton was plagued by self-doubt, especially during the 1937 filming of I, Claudius, which was never completed. Laughton would put his head in co-star Merle Oberon’s lap and weep, “I can’t find my character. I can’t find the man.” Years later, one of the other actors lamented that Laughton “needed sun and got frost” from the director. Who among you agrees that Larry Keating is an underrated comic actor? Hemingway wrote in the Closerie de Lilas in Paris, equipped with bluebacked notebooks, pencils, and a pencil sharpener on a marble-topped table; he carried a horse chestnut and a real rabbit’s foot in his right pocket for luck. Peter Altenberg wrote at Café Central in Vienna, which he used as his mailing address; his presence continues to be felt—and seen—in the form of a dapper statue seated at a table. In the 1920s, Borges spent Saturday evenings at tertulias hosted by Macedonio Fernández at Café Perla in Buenos Aires. Mid-winter, late Sixties, late-night Adirondack Trailways to Schenectady. A teenager strums a guitar across from me. We talk music and he offers his guitar. I strum an E Major Seventh easing into an A Major Seventh, over and over. “Whoa, what was that!?” “Magic Major Sevenths,” and he strums them, over and over. Years later I see his name listed as a sideman on an album. No doubt he thinks of me fondly and often. Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
My paternal grandfather, Philip Ziegler, AKA: Crookedneck, Sam Ziegler, Ziggie, Philip Abrams, Philip Seigel, Philip Zeigler. On November 6, 1916 (four years before my father was born), my grandfather and a crony named Finkel were arrested by Officer O’Toole for Burglary 3rd. On January 19, 1917, they were sentenced by Judge Rosalsky to an Indeterminate term in the New York Penitentiary. Coincidentally, the judge was director of the Hawthorne School, where Finkel had gone: “Now you have thrown away the opportunity of your life, Finkel.” My Jewish grandfather put down his religion as Catholic. On April 23, 1918 (two years before my father was born), my grandfather was arrested in The Bronx by Officers Armstrong and Brunchner for Burglary. On May 5, he received a suspended sentence by Judge Gibbs in Bronx County Court. On November 1, 1919 (one year before my father was born), my grandfather was arrested in the 33rd Precinct, Manhattan, by Officer Gamble, for Assault and Robbery. On November 3, Magistrate Douras discharged him. On September 17, 1922 (my father was almost two-years-old), Officer Lamour arrested him for burglary in the 39th Precinct. The next day, Magistrate Oberwager discharged him. The following day, Officer Lamour arrested him again for burglary in the 39th Precinct. Three days later, Magistrate Oberwager again discharged him. On December 6, 1922 (my father was two-years-old), my grandfather was arrested for Grand Larceny. On December 9, the charges were dismissed. On December 9, 1923 (my father was three-years-old), my grandfather was arrested in The Bronx for Burglary. The charges were dismissed. On August 4, 1924 (two months before my father’s fourth birthday), using the name Philip Seigel, my grandfather was arrested by Officer Reilly from the Safe and Loft Squad in Manhattan for Attempted Robbery in the 1st degree. On November 21, 1924 (a month after my father’s fourth birthday), he was sentenced to four and a half years at Sing Sing by Judge Collins of the Court of General Sessions. Sometimes my grandmother took my father along to visit his father “in college.” On August 12, 1928 (two months before my father’s eighth birthday), spelling his last name Zeigler, my grandfather was arrested in Saratoga Springs as a Suspicious Person. Three days later, the charges were dismissed. On December 6, 1928 (two months after my father’s eighth birthday), again spelling his last name Zeigler, my grandfather was arrested in Manhattan by Officers Casey, McGuire, Braunworth, Hastings, and Levine from the Safe and Loft Squad for Burglary and possession of Burglars Tools. On February 26, 1929, he plea-bargained to Judge Mancuso of the Court of General Sessions and was sentenced to an Indeterminate term at a Penitentiary. My grandfather’s burglars tools included: “four jimmies, two braces, sixteen bits, one hammer, one saw, one screwdriver, one flashlight, one wrench, and two punches.” On May 24, 1932 (my father was eleven), using the name Philip Abrams, my grandfather was arrested for Robbery; the charge was dismissed. On April 18, 1933 (my father was 12),... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I love this--especially going all the way to Milwaukee (bypassing Kenosha, Russia)! I'm a big fan of Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight--what a range ("Then all hell breaks loose")!
I am four, watching two big kids play catch on Essex Street in East New York, Brooklyn. An arm thrusts forward and the ball takes flight, soaring toward the rooftops, loses steam, heading for a crash, only to land in the waiting glove. Over and over. I want one. I will always want one. My mother would lay down a towel and help me out of the tub. I’d shuffle the towel across the cold floor, both of us saying “choochie choo.” One night: “Did your father tell you what happened today?” she asks. “Yes, your mother died.” I shuffle towards her, as I say, alone, “Choochie choo.” When one of the older kids in the neighborhood is told he “has no balls,” he replies, “I’ve got two of them, how many do you have?” This is a question I have never asked myself. That night, in the bath, I nervously count. One. Two. And no more. In eighth grade, researching an idea for a science fair submission, I read that a copper wheel can be induced to spin fueled only by a light bulb. I meticulously followed the instructions but could not get it to spin. I turned it in anyway, with a short paper about how it works, knowing it doesn’t. The teacher was fascinated and beckoned me to the front of the classroom. I plugged in the light bulb, hoped for a miracle, and feigned shock when nothing happened. The teacher consoled me, said it’s what science is all about, and gave me an A. I waited and waited for them, but, to be fair to the Monkees, they only said “We may be comin’ to your town.” When I am five, my mother’s dentist gives me a little vial of mercury to play with: “See, it’s metal and it’s liquid!” I love how the silvery substance slinks as I tilt the glass. “Is that safe?” my mother asks. “Of course it is,” the dentist replies. “It’s what we put in your mouth.” A frigid night in a strange town, warmed by the sight of neon squiggles steaming from a cup. Many coffee shops claim they make the World’s Best Coffee. And they do. How many pencils, pens, and markers are stored right now in mugs and other holders? How many are usable? How many have been nonfunctioning for more than a year? “So, what brought you here?” the cab driver in Binghamton asks on the way to the airport. “I gave a talk at the college.” “You gotta be really smart to do that.” “Not really,” I say, modestly. He frowns. “I’m not smart enough to do that.” Peter Yarrow tousled my hair and said “Oh you!” Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In the freshman dining hall, a maraschino cherry tops most desserts. We save the cherry for last and ritually eat it simultaneously. One night, we see four industrial sized cans of maraschino cherries stacked in the hallway. We take one back to the dorm. After the third night, none of us will ever eat a maraschino cherry again. Fall 1969. My girlfriend and I are riding with her photography teacher through the Vermont countryside. He pulls over to take pictures of the late-afternoon leaf collages and says, “Do me a favor and take off your clothes and walk up that path holding hands. I’ll only shoot from the back, no one will know it’s you.” She says yes, I say no, and we don’t. I wish I had said yes so now I could see our springtime asses descending into autumn. Summer 1965. We eat even more quietly than usual. Halfway through, I sneak a piece of chicken under the table for Duke. He doesn’t take it. He’s old and feeble, maybe the nose is going on him, so I look down. He’s not there. My father turns away, and my mother says, “The less said the better.” Spring 1965. During my road test, the examiner asks me to cross a six-lane highway. I get to the traffic island when I realize there’s an onslaught of cars coming from the right. I squeeze the brake pedal and hope everyone stays in their lanes. The examiner looks up from his clipboard and calmly asks: “Do you see where you are?” “Yes.” “Do you understand how you got here?” “Yes.” He makes a notation and clicks his pen shut. Someone tells me that in 1961 he was walking through Harvard Yard when he overheard a drunken argument. “Stop it, Bobby!” “Aw come on, Joanie, come back here!” I repeat the story many times, to the great pleasure of my listeners, who choose, as I do, based on no evidence, to believe the voices belonged to Dylan and Baez. Bobby Kennedy, campaigning for the Senate, is standing up in the back of his convertible as it drives slowly alongside the cheering crowd. He waves and smiles as people reach to shake his hand. He leans over, as if levitating, clutching briefly hand after hand. I run around to the other side, and see an aide on the car floor, holding Bobby by his calves. 1961. At the Woolworths lunch counter, my mother sits on my left and a classmate on my right. I am eating French fries, which I saved for last. My friend is done with his meal. He reaches over for one of the fries, then another and another. I am in distress. My mother says, “Let me see those fries,” and moves the plate closer to her. She takes the tiniest piece and says, “They’re good.” I resume eating, the plate out of my friend’s reach. 1950s. Each year, the Village of Lynbrook sets up a crèche on the grass... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
96th to 110th on Broadway is commonly known as “No man’s land.” Small, empty storefronts blossom into dedicated rose shops, a dollar a bunch. First there’s one, then many, then few, then none. A stationery store has the saddest window display in the retail world. A few Bic pens strewn about, a couple of worn steno notebooks, a small box of paper clips. I actually need paper clips and open the door. The only sign of commerce: a few teller-like windows. Prostitutes work openly on Broadway. When it rains, they go to the Grandstand Bar on 91st and Broadway to retrieve their umbrellas. Faces become familiar; nods without solicitations. During the 1976 Democratic Convention, new faces appear, temporarily displaced by police from midtown. One asks me if I want to go out. I say what I sometimes say to the regulars, “I’m already out.” She replies, “Fuck you asshole.” On the corner of Broadway and 106th Street one man says over and over, “Spare-some-change-appreciate-it?” in one William-Carlos-Williamsian American beat. A few times I see him give money to someone even less fortunate. On 107th and Broadway, the guy with the brown corduroy jacket chants: “Spare some change for a cup of cawfeee?” On Broadway between 99th and 100th, a pizzeria run by some kind of collective serves the first whole wheat pizza in the area and maintains a huge vat of homemade soup, ladled free of charge to the homeless. Occasionally they chant as they work. A gaunt man in his thirties wears a gabardine trench coat no matter the temperature, skulks from block to block, getting kicked out from store to store. He disappears during the winter and somehow reappears as a harbinger of spring. A cop walks the beat. Continue reading
Posted Aug 28, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Overheard: “I admit to being abstract and I don't deny it, and I don't think it’s a bad position. On the other hand, I find you very academic.” The first student I connected with, a teenager in Great Neck, discovered and excised a pre-cancerous melanoma on my back 47 years later. On a draft of " Tyger Tyger Burning Bright,” Blake changed form to frame. I really really saw, in the same day, a dog barking up the wrong tree and the blind leading the blind. Cartoon Caption: Dog says to person, “Quit damning me with faint praise and give me a fucking treat!” Among the celebrities my father saw in Hollywood and obtained autographs from during his 1940 cross-country trip: Freddy Bartholomew, Eddie Albert, Greer Garson, Robert Young, Rosalind Russel, Mary Astor. While the moon is being eclipsed, a mama rat and her children cross Riverside Drive in front of a taxi paused at a Stop sign. The mama stops in the middle, waiting for the kids to catch up. The taxi driver honks two gentle beeps. The kids speed up and the whole family reaches the other side. The taxi goes on its way. The moon returns. Overheard: “Subliminally when I got burned at the stake it was tough for me.” A small parrot perches behind the counter of a tiny antique shop in Paris. I stare at it and smile. The clerk says, “Babu,” and gestures it is all right for me to approach. The bird nibbles on my hand and watch band. I try to explain in French that I am waiting for my wife (“femme”), and the clerk thinks I am talking about Babu, whom she turns upside down and says, “Pas une femme.” I purchase a quill pen, and go looking for Erin so I can introduce her to Babu. When we enter, the clerk smiles and hands me my eyeglasses, which I didn’t even know I left there. Overheard: “You got a problem, you pull a man to the side and you talk to him.” Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Reno, Aug 17. Went out to take the town. P.S. the town took us!” Come one, come all, buy my vacuum cleaner. Be a friend of nature, for if there’s one thing nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s a dirty vacuum. Statute of Limitations Calendar App for Criminals: Enter the crime, the state, and the date, and the app will alert you when you can stop sweating it. Overheard: “I hate to sound like an essentialist since I’m in fact a Yale-trained deconstructionist.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Between Gilroy and Ballard, Aug 21. Stopped at a road-side stand and had a 14-inch Hot Dog.” Sometimes I wish you would turn traitor and lead them to me so I could see you one last time. I trip and scrape my knee. I smile as I remember crying as a little boy when I fell. I think of John Berryman’s line “I am not a little boy,” and a tear re-emerges. On the Trocadero Plaza I think of Hitler in the same place, nodding smugly at the Eiffel Tower: “This is mine.” You Nazi son of a bitch it’s mine now. What my grandmother said when she found out a relative’s husband was a bigamist: “But he held her, he kissed her, he looked her in the eyes.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: Washington, DC, Sept 6. Arrived with $.54. Put gal. of gas — .16. Balance .38. Went to Police station to try & get a loan of a couple of dollars. (Got S- - t.). Still hadn’t eaten anything so went to Salvation Army to try & get a meal. (Again, got S - - t.) At about 11:00 p.m. – bought some food: .38. Cash now on hand $.00 Went to sleep. Continue reading
Posted Aug 11, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
We arrive at connected brick buildings in a clearing surrounded by Vermont; inside, khaki walls, urine, and sobs. We are told, “Students tend to be overly idealistic but this place isn’t bad for a mental institution. Try not to let it get to you and you’ll learn some things books can’t tell you.” I am only visiting with volunteers; they will all leave in a few weeks and I will leave even sooner. I focus on Michael, who talks of Beatles, Stones, and Mets. I am told, “Michael won’t let you touch him, very erratic. He’s fourteen, been here since he shot his big brother six years ago. Under sedation he’s not too bad.” I bring my guitar and he says, “Are you the Beatles can you wear your shoes like Mick Jagger is that Steppenwolf’s shirt?” I say no and he punches me in the nose, smiling at the drops of blood he has created. I am told, “Soon he’ll be transferred to the adult ward and that’s usually the kiss of death. His mother is dead and the father hardly visits, says he can’t cope with him.” In front of everyone, Michael says to me, “Hey lemme see your pecker, is it big?” then cackles at my silence. He reaches for my guitar and I hand it to him, not wanting to set him off but also sensing that this is something he can touch for real. He strums, a-chordal but rhythmic, then sings in shrieks. He is me but less shy. Michael shows me his secret treasures: Shea Stadium grass, John Lennon’s guitar pick, and the key to the laundry room (“Don’t tell!”). We hear someone approaching and Michael closes his hand tightly around his treasures. I am told, “You’re getting too involved with Michael. I understand it’s tempting to try to save one patient, but you’ll have to handle all kinds.” Michael takes me to the laundry room, opens the lock, locks the door, opens the lock. He asks me if I have ever seen the Mets play. I tell him I have, and he asks, “Do they sing, too?” On my last day, we walk though dark halls and tunnels until under sunshine for our walk. Michael stops, makes his arms into a funnel and reaches up to me. I bend and he runs, laughing in circles around me, howling, throwing punches at the air. I want to pump him full of locked rooms. Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
50. Part of me grew up the day Superman blew his brains out. 51. Bowling: Quantity not quality. 52. A wooden wagon propelled by the light of the moon. 53. Inside each of us is a skeleton waiting its turn. 54. Tracking you sometimes I see my own footprints. 55. The mind feeding off the carrion in the heart. 56. Hope springs internal. 57: Incident on the highway: There’s one less tarantula in the Nevada desert. 58: Double positive can equal a negative: “I will always love you forever.” 59: The sadness of the empty dish after the unsatisfying meal. 60: Told to me in a dream: "Because we matter too much in this world." Continue reading
Posted Aug 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
“Alan Ziegler, Author of Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” A lone white horse wags its tail on the outskirts of Chamoux… Sealed condom in the pocket of jacket inherited from my father. After exploring possibilities I remember he worked in a motel…. Always the man hand-rolling bagels at a table in the small shop in Penn Station, his face as round as a bagel, never looking at the dough, eyes peeled on the ever-changing line of faces, once or twice a week mine…. I haven’t seen her in five years and the first thing she says: “Is that a new shirt?” Yes. Patient on the children’s ward at the Vermont State Hospital, periodically punches himself in the face and says, “Oooch!”…. We order cheeseburgers. She brings hamburgers. Before we can say anything, she looks at the plates and says, “I spaced on the cheese….” The little boy points to the author picture on the book I bring to class and says, “That looks like you.” I reply, “It is me.” He looks again and says, “It doesn’t look like you.” Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Lisa (fifth grade) For almost two years, through distractions and conflicts in the writing group, Lisa gets it done. She enjoys writing, even when it’s a struggle. Sometimes Lisa comes to the Teachers & Writers room alone to write—without any outside direction—in her notebook. Today she seems to be particularly happy with what she wrote, and I ask if I can see it: My mother made a great promise. My father made one, too. They both promised me to stop quarreling. At least for a little while. My cousin made a promise, my uncle and aunt, too. But they all broke their promises one by one. I don't want a perfect family who would always dress up fancy and neat. Just a family that keeps a promise, altogether, one. As writing teachers, what do we want for our students? A good experience with writing—the feeling that it was worthwhile to take pen to paper—should be right up there on any list of goals. I ask Lisa about her experience, and she replies that she exaggerated, which made her feel better. Sometimes we can “write well” but the piece has no life to it—the bones are assembled in the correct formation, the features are properly positioned, but the poor creature can’t laugh, cry, crouch, or dance. A week later, I read “My mother made…” to another class in another school. They listen, quietly, caught up in the words, in the presence of a living poem. Marcus (fourth grade) I notice him hovering around the doorway to the Teachers & Writers room during the lunch period. He inches his way barely across the border. I say hello and ask his name, which he slurs several times before I can make out “Marcus.” I ask if he likes to write, and he shrugs. “Perhaps I can arrange with your teacher for you to come down to the room sometime.” “I never go anywhere, I just stay in the classroom,” he replies. I ask him to write down his name, teacher, and classroom number, and I’ll see if I can make arrangements for him to join a group. It takes Marcus a painful few minutes to get the information down. He is in class 4-3 (next to bottom on the tracking ladder), on the “2 fool.” I ask if he’d like to write something now. “Sure,” he says into his chest. I suggest that he write down some things that are important to him—favorite food, sports, weather, whatever. I can then follow up based on the list. He writes diligently but slowly for several minutes while I make myself look busy. When I look at Marcus’s paper, I am surprised and puzzled. I am learning how to type. Am how to type. Learning am how to type. How am I to type learning? Me to is I type me. Then I remember that earlier someone wrote on the blackboard “I am learning how to type.” Marcus has written like Gertrude Stein, without intentionality. “Did... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In the scarlet light of Valentine’s our paper hearts are blind from “Valentine Melody” by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley (1966) (Tim Buckley was born on Valentine's Day 1947; he died of a drug overdose at the age of 28.) 1) December 1966. While at school in Schenectady, a friend tells me about a new singer-songwriter whose voice is “angelic,” and he’s our age. His name is Tim Buckley, and he’ll be appearing on a bill with Frank Zappa at the Balloon Farm on St. Marks Place. Over break, I climb the stairs of the Balloon Farm toward my balcony seat. Leaning against the wall on one of the landings, alone, is a kid with curly black hair. Our eyes meet and I say, “You’re Tim Buckley.” He smiles and walks away with a wave. The next time I see him he is on stage, singing angelically. In the middle of his set he starts “One For My Baby,” but stops in the middle, says he can’t go on, and walks off the stage. 2) March 1968. Buckley is performing at the Fillmore East, but we’re stuck in Schenectady. We listen over and over to Goodbye and Hello, and I say, “He should know what he’s doing to us." I call the Fillmore and say, “Let me to speak with Tim Buckley." “He’s on stage right now. Can I give him a message?” “Yeah, tell him that we hear him in Schenectady.” “Far out, I'll let him know!” 3) July 1968. Cliff Safane and I (two-thirds of a folk/jazz group “The Shuttle”) obtain press passes to the Newport Folk Festival through the Union College newspaper. Cliff has brought his bass clarinet with the hope he could jam with Tim Buckley. We introduce ourselves to Tim in the outdoor backstage area, and arrange to meet him at his hotel. Over lunch, he tells us that he had been called for his draft physical shortly after signing his first album contract with Elektra. “It’s what I always wanted, to make a record” he says, so he did everything he could possibly do wrong at the physical. “They pointed to a room down the hallway and I walked in that direction, straight into a wall.” He has perfected collecting a huge glob of spit on his mouth, which he did repeatedly at the physical. “The Army guy told me I was either the stupidest guy they’d ever seen, or the smartest; either way they didn’t want me.” We talk about Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne, who, along with Buckley, were dubbed the “Orange County Three” by Cheetah magazine. (More about Steve Noonan to come.) After lunch Tim pauses on the stairway above the lobby, waits, eyes imperious, until he attracts some attention. Slowly around his mouth a huge wad of spit congeals and remains. Back in his room, Tim improvises an extended scat, his voice melding with the chords on his 12-string. Cliff unpacks his bass clarinet and joins in. This is way... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
a play in one love affair Two people on a bare stage; any combination of genders. (For this version, it’s a man and woman.) They stand in random places throughout the play, changing positions during each blackout, sometimes together in various poses, sometimes separated. Sometimes they speak to the audience; other times to each other. MAN: In a crowd someone laughed. Thinking, incorrectly, it was me, a woman said: WOMAN: What a sad laugh. MAN: I was about to defend myself when she added: WOMAN: But there’s sweetness in your eyes, so there’s hope for you. MAN: We went off together, and I tried not to laugh. (blackout) MAN: A week later, when the joy was too much, I bellowed. She declared: WOMAN: That laugh! I have changed your life. (blackout) MAN: The world doubled its offering: my two eyes and two ears were no longer sufficient. Only with our four eyes focused together and four ears tuned to the same frequency could I fully see the beauty in art and the sky, and completely hear the music of symphonies and breezes. WOMAN: In the past, the best that others could do was to help me forget death briefly. With him, I could be reminded of death and still love life. MAN: We laughed and frolicked and kissed and nuzzled and ravaged and napped and did it all over again. WOMAN: They should’ve slapped a caption on us: MAN: In happier days. (blackout) MAN: The voice on the radio was hysterical. We turned it louder until we couldn’t make out the words, drowning out the phone and sirens. WOMAN: We shut the windows and harmonized in a hymn. My hands threw scary shadow figures from my past onto the wall. MAN: My fist shadows pummeled them. (blackout) WOMAN: We discovered the formula for happiness, the roadmap to contentment, and the recipe for good living. MAN: Unfortunately, we were terrible at following directions. (blackout) MAN: I truly believed that her orgasms were authentic, but I started to suspect that she was faking her understanding: WOMAN: Oh. Oh. Oh. Yes. Yes. Yes. You poor thing, you! (blackout) MAN: When I told her I loved her, I was caught red-hearted returning to the scene of someone else’s crime. She studied me up and down as if cramming for an examination. WOMAN: He passed the test. Time to make the questions harder. (blackout) MAN: I was an incurable optimist until I swallowed her medicine. She had me beside myself, and I hardly recognized the man standing next to me. Each time we parted, I was like a rocking chair she had gotten quickly out of. WOMAN: He ran away from me in circles, and I ran circles around him. He surrendered, and I shredded his white flag. He went limp and bared his jugular, like a vanquished fox. I snapped at him. MAN: I give up. You win. I will fight on. (blackout) WOMAN: He broke my heart in two. Then he quartered it.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Prologue: In late 1967, an English professor asked me to be Allen Ginsberg’s escort for his February 13 reading at Union College: “I think he’d be more comfortable with a student.” I wrote Ginsberg to ask if he’d add an event in our makeshift café, the North End. I figured I’d get a form letter from an assistant telling me Allen was too busy being Ginsberg. I was half right. He was too busy being Ginsberg to make plans, but it was Allen himself who replied. [Dear Mr. Z—I don’t know my schedule as it’s made up by others while I stay home & avoid correspondence & do my work — poesy, solitude as much as I can get. See you I guess there, I’ll keep yr. address & number thanks for good cheer — Allen Ginsberg] Allen wound up staying at my apartment for three nights, before moving on to Rochester to meet with Norman O. Brown (whose Love’s Body was a hot topic). He visited classes, did radio interviews, and gave a reading at the North End (including “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and “Wales Visitation”). Here, through the prism of distant memory, are some moments from Allen Ginsberg’s three days in Schenectady. Fitz Hugh: Allen’s main reference point to Union College is that Fitz Hugh Ludlow went here. All we know about Ludlow is that he wrote Union’s alma mater in 1856. Ode to Old Union (Alma Mater) Let the Grecian dream of his sacred stream And sing of the brave adorning That Phoebus weaves from his laurel leaves At the golden gates of morning. But the brook that bounds thro’ old Union’s grounds Gleams bright as a Delphic water, And a prize as fair as a god may wear Is a dip from our Alma Mater. Then here’s to thee, thou brave and free, Old Union smiling o’er us, And for many a day, as thy walls grow gray, May they ring with thy children’s chorus! We have referred to the “brook that bounds” as the “creek that reeks,” and someone once suggested that Ludlow must have been high when he wrote it “gleams bright as a Delphic water.” Allen informs us that this, indeed, may have been the case, that a year after graduating from Union, Ludlow published The Hasheesh Eater. (Many years later, Allen would be on the board of advisors to the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library). Dylan's Scarf: Allen notices the album jacket for Dylan’s John Wesley Harding propped against our stereo speaker, and points to the scarf worn by one of the people standing next to Dylan. “Dylan gave it to me,” Allen says, extending the scarf he is wearing. Dylan's Poetry: We discuss Dylan as poet: “ ‘The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen!’” Allen declaims. “That’s as good as anything I’ve written!” Uncle Allen: Allen walks by the poster of him wearing an Uncle Sam hat. He stops, backtracks, and signs his name on the ribbon. Bathtub: I awaken in the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 23, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In my first few years teaching I conducted creative writing workshops—with students ranging from six to eighty years old—in public schools (including my former elementary and high schools), community libraries, colleges, P.T.A. meetings, and senior citizens centers, in the five boroughs and beyond. I had one-shot sessions with groups as large as sixty students, and met once a week with a single student for a school year. Most of my workshops were sponsored by Teachers & Writers Collaborative, N.Y. Poets in the Schools, and Poets & Writers, but I also did sessions for groups with names like Young Visitors and Sub Sub. If it’s Tuesday it must be Yonkers because Wednesday is Lynbrook and Thursday is Spring Valley. A well-kept (and consulted) appointment book became essential. One morning I got a call from the Ardsley Library. “Oh hi, I’m looking forward to seeing you next week,” I said. “There are thirty children here who were looking forward to seeing you a half hour ago,” was the cold response. I had to be careful with the amount of work I took, to allow time for writing. The idea is for writers to preach what they practice, not what they used to practice. I could not make a living writing poems, but I could support myself helping others write poems. Some of our students would likely wind up teaching others to write, who would then, etc., resulting in an exponential growth in creative writers. One night, overscheduled and underwritten, I imagined a grant proposal to deprogram former students: “You’re upset or rapturous with joy? Pick up the damn phone!” (I also facetiously proposed prenatal workshops, but it turned out I wasn’t too far off on that one.) I wasn’t making a fortune, but I was fortunate. Teaching was not at conflict with art but in itself an art form. In both writing and teaching, you can alternate between having control, relinquishing control, and sharing equally; it is the wise writer or teacher who knows when it is appropriate to be in charge or to let things happen. Usually the teaching fed into and out of my writing. The same creative energy that fueled my writing also contributed to my teaching. I must constantly find ways for students to make it new, make it real, and make it finished. Instead of struggling with the development of one poem (my own), I sometimes felt like a chess whiz scampering from writer to writer helping each make a move. It was exhilarating. I experienced the same kinds of ups and downs in my teaching as I did in my writing. Sometimes I was on and the room seemed to glow with energy. In discussing exemplary texts, I almost always taught myself something new. Other times I was off and had to draw on professionalism to complete the task. There were moments when I was exhausted with language, indifferent to imagery, and I felt like Sartre’s bad-faith café waiter, playing the role of writing teacher. But... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Back in the 70s, SOME Magazine/Release Press was having a party in my apartment. Every room was jammed, and I kept hearing what a swell guy my super was. I hadn't invited the super but was delighted that he came. "He's over there!" someone said, pointing to Paul Violi, holding court with the smile you see above.
In mid-March 1996, Erin and I whisper-argue in the bedroom while my father lies on the sofa bed in the living room watching Family Feud. I would appreciate the irony if my father wasn’t having surgery in the morning for advanced colon cancer. The surgeon is a rotund, jolly fellow around 60, rated by New York Magazine as one of the best. He put my father at ease during the office visit, which is not easy for a doctor to do. The last thing the surgeon said was, “You’ll be dancing the tarantella in six weeks.” I leave Erin in the bedroom, hoping my father hasn’t overheard our quibbling. My father’s hospital pajamas are in a plastic supermarket bag, his blue slacks draped over a chair. He is wearing baggy boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. He is engrossed in The Feud. “So that’s the guy who replaced Richard Dawson?” I ask as I sit on the edge of the bed. “Yeah—a few years ago. They canned him—this is a rerun. It’s a shame. I liked him.” I can tell that my father was rooting for this boyish man who landed a dream job. We watch as he schmoozes with a boisterous, healthy-looking family, then smiles sweetly as mom, dad, and adult children jump up and down, hugging in celebration of a “good answer.” I like the new—now fired—host. What a rough day it must have been when he was let go, though not as rough as being told you have cancer—even if the surgeon is also a good schmoozer. I think about how, in the next few weeks—whether my father makes it through or not—the surgeon and host will move on: the surgeon telling others they’ll be dancing the tarantella, and the host smiling boyishly on the set of a new game show. But tonight, as I sit on the edge of the sofa bed with my cancer-ridden father while my wife fumes at me from the bedroom and my father’s wife is long dead, I am grateful for the company of the sweet ex-host and the jolly surgeon. By the Fourth of July, I will read in the obituaries that the surgeon died of a massive heart attack and the host hung himself with bed sheets in a closet of a psychiatric ward. Though he will never dance the tarantella, my father will live to mourn them both. Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2016 at The Best American Poetry