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Jersey Rain: Poems
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Jersey Rain: Poems

by Robert Pinsky
     
 

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Cathartic, refreshing new work by the American favorite

Tiptoe on the globe. Gazing
nowhere in particular, the slender
Thunderer surrounded by thunder,

Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled "Spirit
Of Communication"---unhistorical,
Pure, the merciless messenger.

--from "A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen

Overview

Cathartic, refreshing new work by the American favorite

Tiptoe on the globe. Gazing
nowhere in particular, the slender
Thunderer surrounded by thunder,

Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled "Spirit
Of Communication"---unhistorical,
Pure, the merciless messenger.

--from "A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties"

Innovative, engaging poems from a leading American poet.

Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turnsThe spiral press that squeezes the oil expressedFrom shale or olives. Particles that turn mudOn the potter's wheel that spins to form the vesselThat holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.--from "Biography"Jersey Rain takes up a central American subject: the emotional power of inventions, devices, and homemade imaginings -- from the alphabet and the lyre through the steel drum and piano to the record player, digital computer, and television. Formally innovative and highly readable poems like "ABC," "Ode to Meaning," "To Television," and "The Green Piano" meditate a life guided by the quick, artful tinkerer-god Hermes: deity of music and deception, escort of the dead, inventor of instruments, brilliant messenger, and trickster of heaven.

Tiptoe on the globe.
Gazing
nowhere in particular, the slender
Thunderer surrounded by thunder,

Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled "Spirit
Of Communication"---unhistorical,
Pure, the merciless messenger.

--from "A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties"

Jersey Rain -- at once complex and aboveboard -- marks a new, strong, lyrical stage of Robert Pinsky's work. Assembled here are poems -- some of the finest of his career -- that together compose a sweeping and embattled meditation on the themes of a life guided by Hermes: deity of music and deception, escort of the dead, inventor of instruments, brilliant messenger and trickster of heaven.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Poise and intellect do not preclude passion . . . in this ravishing and unusually revealing collection. . . . Life changes shape and intent in Pinsky's poems, like the gods and goddesses of old, and his chronicling of its metamorphoses is grace incarnate.” —Booklist

“With lavish technical gifts, a discriminating civic intelligence, and an impish relish for what goes against the solemnities of a lot of contemporary verse, Pinsky has given us one of the outstanding bodies of work in English-language poetry.” —Justin Quinn, The Boston Book Review

“The poetic mode of Jersey Rain is reflective, full of pathos for the human condition, and rich in its emotional scope. . . . Pinsky's poems remind us that . . . poetry is a tool for living.” —David Clippinger, Harvard Review

bn.com

Robert Pinsky is perhaps the most popular poet in America today. It is not simply that he is our poet laureate, or that his Favorite Poem Project has toured the country with its readings and recordings, or that he is the editor of the beloved anthology The Handbook of Heartbreak (1998), the translator of a highly successful version of The Inferno of Dante (1994), or the author of a treatise on the technical aspects of the art, The Sounds of Poetry (1999).

Pinsky's popularity is firmly based on the strength of his poems. His creative work embodies a concern elaborated in his criticism, the dynamic between individual and community, and his poetry occurs at the permeable border where the two meet. In considering the puzzle of his own tropes and tendencies, Pinsky himself has written, "I am from a lower middle-class family in a small town in New Jersey. My grandpa had a bar there. My family was nominally Orthodox Jewish. In my work I try to pull together as many of the different kinds and levels of American experience as I can." Perhaps it is these roots that have given Pinsky his unique twist. Pinsky was, famously, a prestigious Stegner Fellow at Stanford, where he fell into the orbit of the powerful critic Yvor Winters, whose strict insistence on technical formalism deeply influenced the young poet. But if Pinsky left Stanford with a talent for meticulously crafted sound and a classicizing disposition, he nevertheless retained a crucial ingredient specific to him: his origins in the garrulous multicultural boarding houses of his childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey.

Pinsky has an ear for the colloquial, for conversational rhythms of speech that insure his poems against sterility, irrelevance, and rarefaction. His idiosyncratic diction, a hybrid of the elevated and the everyday, can express serious philosophical truths without lofty airs, and his careful but understated manner of patterning sound gives the poems aural cohesion while avoiding the appearance of excessive artifice. This is a crucial achievement because, in a sense, speech is precisely what poetry is for Pinsky: an argument articulated by one speaker to a larger audience, in which clarity, inventiveness, and beauty are valued not so much in and of themselves but in relation to their abilities of public persuasion.

This approach is seen at its most successful in Pinsky's new collection, Jersey Rain, in the many poems that trace circles of thought or investigate cycles of being and time. Indeed, his soul "cleaves to circles," as Pinsky explains in the exquisite "Biography":

      Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,
      Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
      The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
      From shale or olives. Particles that turn to mud
      On the potter's wheel that spins to form the vessel
      That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.

      My mother's dreadful fall. Her mother's dread
      Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother's birth
      Just before the fall, his birth again in Jesus.
      Wobble and blur of my soul, born only once,
      That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
      Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.

      The line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
      Arc of the changes. The line from there to here
      Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends,
      The art of lines, chord of the circle of work.
      Radius. Lives of children growing away,
      The plant radiant in air, its root in dark.

The poem chains together so many different classes of phenomena -- descriptive observations, universal themes, personal experiences -- and does it so gracefully that Pinsky appears not to have created a connectedness, merely to have exposed one. Likewise, the equally remarkable "Samurai Song," "Porch Steps," and "Song" also link diverse material into a complicated circuit; they remind the reader of those traditional dances in which one hand is exchanged for another and the other for another until the dancer has worked his or her way around the complete circle: "Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body. The body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air." Pinsky's technique is perfectly suited to this operation. His tercets and quatrains have a dancelike forward momentum, the outline of metric order sketches its steps, and the poet's wit provides the playfulness propelling the whole. On a more profound level, this type of circle dance may be viewed as a metaphor for Pinsky's overall project. For Pinsky, poetry is neither solipsism nor mysticism; he neither inhabits the narcissistic plane of pure self-expression, nor does he deal in the shell game of symbols and endlessly hidden meanings. Rather, poetry is an active means of appreciating the lived world that draws all its parts into one, a community.

—Monica Ferrell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite the Springsteen-esque title, the same phrasal gifts that drive 1996's new and collected volume, The Figured Wheel, and Pinsky's acclaimed translation of the Inferno, are well-displayed in this slim, sixth collection. Unfortunately, most of the poems' occasions and insights don't quite measure up to the rhetorical firepower turned upon them. The hortatory mode dominates the collection: "To the Phoenix" begins, "Dark herald, self-conceived in the desert waste,/ What yang or yin enfolds your enigma best?" Invoking Prufrock, the body as "Vessel" is implored "O veteran immersed from toe to crown,// Buoy the population of the soul/ Toward their destination before they drown." "A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties" features "Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled `Spirit/ Of Communication'--unhistorical,/ Pure, the merciless messenger." There is pleasure in the sheer muscle of these constructions, and it's clear that the poet's archaisms are within his control. Yet the name-checks--of Oprah, Ecco press editor Daniel Halpern and others--grow tiresome, and the stabs at intimacy are tinged with a neo-Lowellian obsession with guilt and grandeur. One can't help reading pretentious references to Pinsky's duties as U.S. poet laurate into an "Autumn Quartet" (written "On my birthday"), which calls on "the heros of antiquity /To pass their lonely double knowledge on/ To such as Odysseus, who learned to tell the story/ Of his life, couched in as many lies as needed./ Among the epic bravos, a civic man." The prose centerpiece, "An Alphabet of My Dead," brings in family, a student suicide, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse and "Plural dead in categories like counting sheep, the exterminated Jews of Europe, the obliviated Kallikaks of New Jersey " among others. "To Television," "The Green Piano" and other lighter pieces will delight fans, but the poems with more profound aspirations lack a penetrating introspection. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Pinsky has several careers within the realm of literature: poet, translator, and public advocate of poetry. All of these influences can be felt in his new collection, which is the first assembly of his own lyric verse to appear since The Want Bone (The Figured Wheel served as a Collected Earlier Poems). At times, his poems reach for the extra-personal, the mythic or abstract, as in "The Knight's Prayer" or "To the Phoenix"; at others, they move through personal or confessional modes, as in "An Alphabet of My Dead" or "To Television." Pinsky seems most comfortable with the gnomic or elevated phrase: "The shifting hero wanders alien places,/ Through customs of cities and histories of races,/ Recollects, travels and summons together all--/ All manners of the dead and living, in the great Hall." Occasionally, his differing manners collide strangely, but Pinsky delivers, as ever, intelligent, pensive poetry of great beauty. For most collections.--Graham Christian, formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374527723
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/16/2001
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
64
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

Jersey Rain


By Robert Pinsky

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 Robert Pinsky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-52772-3



CHAPTER 1


    Samurai Song

    When I had no roof I made
    Audacity my roof. When I had
    No supper my eyes dined.

    When I had no eyes I listened.
    When I had no ears I thought.
    When I had no thought I waited.

    When I had no father I made
    Care my father. When I had
    No mother I embraced order.

    When I had no friend I made
    Quiet my friend. When I had no
    Enemy I opposed my body.

    When I had no temple I made
    My voice my temple. I have
    No priest, my tongue is my choir.

    When I have no means fortune
    Is my means. When I have
    Nothing, death will be my fortune.

    Need is my tactic, detachment
    Is my strategy. When I had
    No lover I courted my sleep.


    Vessel

    What is this body as I fall asleep again?
    What I pretended it was when I was small—

    A crowded vessel, a starship or submarine
    Dark in its dark element, a breathing hull,

    Arms at the flanks, the engine heart and brain
    Pulsing, feet pointed like a diver's, the whole

    Resolutely diving through the oblivion
    Of night with living cargo. O carrier shell

    That keeps your trusting passengers from All:
    Some twenty thousand times now you have gone

    Out into blackness tireless as a seal,
    Blind always as a log, but plunging on

    Across the reefs of coral that scrape the keel—
    O veteran immersed from toe to crown,

    Buoy the population of the soul
    Toward their destination before they drown.


    Ode to Meaning

    Dire one and desired one,
    Savior, sentencer—

    In an old allegory you would carry
    A chained alphabet of tokens:

    Ankh Badge Cross.
    Dragon,
    Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio,
    Jasper kinema of legendary Mind,
    Naked omphalos pierced
    By quills of rhyme or sense, torah-like: unborn
    Vein of will, xenophile
    Yearning out of Zero.

    Untrusting I court you. Wavering
    I seek your face, I read
    That Crusoe's knife
    Reeked of you, that to defile you
    The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
    "I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.

    Drowned walker, revenant.
    After my mother fell on her head, she became
    More than ever your sworn enemy. She spoke
    Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.
    Or she spoke of the world as Thersites spoke of the heroes,
    "I think they have swallowed one another. I
    Would laugh at that miracle."

    You also in the laughter, warrior angel:
    Your helmet the zodiac, rocket-plumed
    Your spear the beggar's finger pointing to the mouth
    Your heel planted on the serpent Formulation
    Your face a vapor, the wreath of cigarette smoke crowning
    Bogart as he winces through it.

    You not in the words, not even
    Between the words, but a torsion,
    A cleavage, a stirring.

    You stirring even in the arctic ice,
    Even at the dark ocean floor, even
    In the cellular flesh of a stone.

    Gas. Gossamer. My poker friends
    Question your presence
    In a poem by me, passing the magazine
    One to another.

    Not the stone and not the words, you
    Like a veil over Arthur's headstone,
    The passage from Proverbs he chose
    While he was too ill to teach
    And still well enough to read, I was
    Beside the master craftsman
    Delighting him day after day, ever
    At play in his presence—
you

    A soothing veil of distraction playing over
    Dying Arthur playing in the hospital,
    Thumbing the Bible, fuzzy from medication,
    Ever courting your presence.
    And you the prognosis,
    You in the cough.

    Gesturer, when is your spur, your cloud?
    You in the airport rituals of greeting and parting.
    Indicter, who is your claimant?
    Bell at the gate. Spiderweb iron bridge.
    Cloak, video, aroma, rue, what is your
    Elected silence, where was your seed?

    What is Imagination
    But your lost child born to give birth to you?

    Dire one. Desired one.
    Savior, sentencer—

    Absence,
    Or presence ever at play:
    Let those scorn you who never
    Starved in your dearth. If I
    Dare to disparage
    Your harp of shadows I taste
    Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
    Ashes on my head. You are the wound. You
    Be the medicine.


    Autumn Quartet
    On my birthday

    I

    Others are not the medicine for loneliness—
    When I was a child, I wanted to be a knight:
    Helmeted, living by a noble code
    Above the crowd, to serve, to carry a sword
    And a shield blazoned with symbolic meanings:
    Arrogant and generous like Launcelot du Lac,
    The abducted infant and uncompanioned hero.
    Did part of me grow up to be a type?—
    Those melancholy males who nearly twitch
    With yearning for their silver armor, misplaced.
    Humorless. Often the inviting lady,
    Fatigued by all his brooding, slips away.

    II

    But somehow it was also all mixed up
    With Washington astride his horse, the ardor
    Of Lafayette, the elegant sad jokes
    Of Lincoln, who freed the slaves and demonstrated
    That Nature's were the only real noblemen:
    It was the assassin that craved the coat of arms.
    In his mid-fifties, a chevalier of care,
    It was heroic to scribble on the train
    The speech that disappointed many people:
    Too strange, too brief. And then they called it "great."
    Solitary in a vivid dream he saw his mourners,
    His coffin swagged in bunting, the marble hall.

    III

    Older than Odysseus, older than Leopold Bloom.
    Older than number forty-two was—Jack
    Roosevelt Robinson—when I watched him crouch
    Trembling on the basepath between first and second
    With arms extended, taunting the opponent.
    And now older than he was the day he died
    Depleted by his solitary ordeal,
    A public man. In momentary wonder,
    I see him burning again, beyond me, playing
    A boyish country game in the gaping cities:
    Brooklyn, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston.
    Nineteen-nineteen to nineteen-seventy-two.

    IV
    The heroes of antiquity were taught
    By centaurs, ancient creatures who were half
    Rational intelligence, half intuition:
    Bearded and hooved, all male, a dying race,
    Each solitary as the lawless Cyclops,
    But pedagogical and bound by nature
    To pass their lonely double knowledge on
    To such as Odysseus, who learned to tell the story
    Of his life, couched in as many lies as needed.
    Among the epic bravos, a civic man.
    The centaurs showed him truth in fabulation,
    In every living city the haunted ruin.


    ABC

    Any body can die, evidently. Few
    Go happily, irradiating joy,

    Knowledge, love. Many
    Need oblivion, painkillers,
    Quickest respite.

    Sweet time unafflicted,
    Various world:

    X = your zenith.


An Alphabet of My Dead

In the dark bed, against the insomnia and its tedium, I have told them over many times: a game not morbid but reassuring. Different names each time, but with recurrences.

I tell them over not as a memorial comfort, and not for the souls of the dead, but as evidence that I may be real. Inside the little deerskin medicine pouch flapping at my saddle, these tokens of who I have been. Therefore I exist, sleepless.


* * *

Harry Antonucci, who used to play basketball at the Jewish Community Center, as many Italian kids did, paying five dollars to join the same way a Jewish boy might find it convenient to join the YMCA.

He was a year ahead of me in school, tall, a good ballplayer although the colored part of one eye was milky dull, skewed away from where his good eye was looking. A sourpuss, swinging his head in an irritable way and too ready to call fouls against himself. In contrast, his graceful, soft jump shot.

The scowl and his swaying walk seemed to express anger at having a bad eye. We made fun of him for being grouchy and for being half blind.

But as we got older he became part of the crowd known as "popular." The night he died, the car he was in and the one right behind it were both full of kids from the senior class: football players, class officers, a blond girl named Cornelia Woolley who was Harry's date. She was bruised and scarred; he was the only one killed.

At first it surprised me that Harry Antonucci would be taking out Neil Woolley. She seemed too popular to be linked with a grumpy, one-eyed Italian who swayed sideways when he walked. But trying to remember him I saw that he had been handsome: fine features, white skin, dark curly hair.

And years after that I realized that a girl could be attracted by that wounded manner, the shadow of a lost eye.

* * *

B, C, D. Some poets. Elizabeth Bishop. The last time she was in public was at the Grolier Book Shop, at the afternoon signing party for my second book of poetry. Then afterwards, getting ready for dinner, the sudden stroke.

A "good death," fortunate, people called it, but she didn't get to witness the upsurge in her reputation. Nor Cummings the decline in his. Even before I learned about his right-wing politics, the Red-baiting and anti-Semitism, I had come to dislike the person behind the poems that once attracted me. The reliance on charm came to seem grim, unrelenting.

My college friend Henry Dumas, shot dead by a cop in a subway car a few years after graduation. Smart, talented, feckless, a bit of a phony, the first person my age to have a wife and child.

I knew just enough to like him for refusing the Negro stereotypes of the time: communications-major frat boy, street tough, jock. His knit cap, his knowledge of the Bible, his fear as he once explained to me that his wife's father saw through him. His beautiful little boy, a man somewhere now.

* * *

Becky Eisenberg, my mother's mother. When she was a teenager she married an older man, a distant cousin, also an Eisenberg. They lived in Arkansas, in a settlement of Jews who had all taken the same last name, that of the rich man from their village in Russia who had succeeded as an American businessman. In that village of Eisenbergs outside Little Rock, Becky gave birth to the older man's daughter, Pearl. Then another cousin, Morris Eisenberg, her own age, came to town on his motorcycle—my grandfather.

When my mother was crazy, Becky, my Nana, took care of me. She was afraid of everything: cars, the mailman, electricity, dogs. Were Nana's terror and her shame rooted in shame she felt for divorcing the first Eisenberg? Or was there any divorce at all?

Morris and Becky left Arkansas together with the child Pearl. My mother, Sylvia, remembers her half sister. She remembers Pearl teaching her how to brush her teeth. Then one day they took Pearl to the station in Baltimore and put her on the train, and that was the last Sylvia saw or heard of her.

It must have been 1922 or 1923. Becky and Morris are dead, probably Pearl, too, and for the story I depend on Sylvia, my mother, who is the spirit of confusion and darkness incarnate. Except for what she says, the story is locked away among the dead forever.

* * *

Souls, all vaporous mirrors, registers for me of my difference from them. Robert Fitzgerald and Mason Gross, my philosophy teacher—learnëd gentlemen, with the gift of study I have never had. As unlike me as they were, in a different way, Lynda Hull, almost as young when she died as Henry was. Her recklessness of a kind as different from me as Fitzgerald's and Gross's scholarship, the difference producing an oddly similar note of constraint, a cordial awkwardness, when I was with her or one of them.

Drugs, drink. The wistfully lurid movies of her poetry, neon and rain and facepaint, the books and languages of Fitzgerald and Gross. Neighbors to my soul, maybe, but not like my soul.

And another alien mirror, Army Ippolito, football coach and Spanish teacher. When he didn't know what else to do, which was several times a week, he had us sing, Ya las gaviotas tien' sus alas abren, sus alas para volar. Miles de conchas tien' las 'renas, y perlas tien' la mar! Or something like that. We used to make fun of Army's way of saying, "It don't make sense."

One day in need of a digression he told the class how when he was young my grandfather, Dave Pinsky, took him to Yankee Stadium. Army got claustrophobia on the subway, became sweaty and panicky, and as Army told it my grandfather was amused and callous, he showed no mercy.

This hardness was a quality Army admired. He considered it a funny story, and I took reflected glory from that, as I believe he intended, which was generous of him. This out-of-it, skinny ineffectual Jewish boy: I knew his grandfather, said Army, he was a tough guy and my benefactor.

And I did learn a little Spanish, one of the few things of the kind I have ever mastered. So in college I read Cervantes and Góngora. Armand, Hippolytus, thank you for that and for your kindness.

* * *

A drowsy spell: it is working. Plural dead in categories like counting sheep, the exterminated Jews of Europe, the obliviated Kallikaks of New Jersey, the dead Laborers who framed and plastered these bedroom walls threaded by other dead hands with snaking electrical wires and the dendritic systems of pipes and ducts, audible.

* * *

Nan M., my high school girlfriend, dead of lung cancer in her thirties. Bill Nestrick, Mrs. Olmstead. Dave Pinsky, the tough guy who took Army Ippolito to Yankee Stadium, and who died of heart failure at my present age—last week, my Aunt Thelma told me that Sylvia, my mother, used to prevent Dave from seeing me. Why?

* * *

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1900, rev. 1939, omitted the stanza of George Gascoigne's "Lullaby of a Lover" in which the sixteenth-century poet refers to his penis. Yvor Winters told me about this omission with great amusement, in 1963. All dead, Quiller-Couch, Winters, Gascoigne, who in his poem does something like what I am doing now:


    Sing lullaby, as women do,
      Wherewith they bring their babes to rest:
    And lullaby can I sing too,
      As womanly as can the best.
    With lullaby, they still the child;
    And if I be not much beguiled,
    Full many wanton babes have I,
    Which must be still'd with lullaby.


Quiller-Couch prints the stanzas in which Gascoigne puts to sleep his eyes, his youth, his will, but omits the next-to-last:


    Eke lullaby my loving boy,
      My little Robin, take thy rest;
    Since age is cold and nothing coy,
      Keep close thy coin, for so is best;
    With lullaby be thou content,
    With lullaby thy lusts relent,
    Let others pay which hath mo pence;
    Thou art too poor for such expense.


It pleased and amused me to have Winters share this joke on the prudery of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Now, Quiller-Couch has something like a last laugh on us as the opprobrious term "phallocentric" rises on the great wheel turned by the engine of death, always churning, as Gascoigne reminds himself:

    Thus lullaby, my youth, mine eyes,
      My will, my ware, and all that was.
    I can no mo delays devise,
      But welcome pain, let pleasure pass;
    With lullaby now take your leave,
    With lullaby your dreams deceive;
    And when you rise with waking eye,
    Remember then this lullaby.

* * *

Self-destroyers. Carl R., in the eighth grade, the big inoffensive pudgy blond boy who drowned. Jed S., the MIT student who took my poetry class at Wellesley so long ago and presented his poems on long scrolls of computer paper, the all-capitals dot matrix lines nearly unreadable. The first computer printouts I'd ever seen.

They found Jed in his room with a plastic bag over his head, possibly to enhance some drug he had taken. In the MIT literary magazine he published a dialogue between "Socrates" and "S." At the end of this piece, Socrates says, "S., your arguments have refuted me completely—there is nothing more I can say."

T., the graduate student who was caught stealing.

* * *

U the completely unknown, all the millions like dry leaves whose lives, rounded or cut off in themselves, touched mine not at all.

* * *

Butch Voorhies, the middle son of the only family that lived in the rooming house next door to us. That miserable neighborhood was stratified: my building housed only families, both buildings allowed only white people. Butch and his two brothers and his drunken father and the mother lived in one large room over the porte cochere of a house full of hard-drinking housepainters, laborers, restaurant workers.

He died in the Navy, some kind of accident. When the father, all but a derelict by then, recognized me in a bar years after Butch died, he asked me to buy him a drink. Maudlin, sentimental, extravagantly dirty. Huck Finn's father.

"Porte cochere" was my mother's word. Once she saw me helping Butch carry home a can of kerosene for their heating stove. He lugged it for ten steps, then I did my ten steps, taking turns all the way from Burroughs' Hardware.

Sylvia scolded me for the friendship. She said the kerosene was to kill the lice on their heads. Keep away from them, said Sylvia, or you'll be covered with vermin.

Then I told her I had seen the stove in that room carpeted everywhere with bedding and clothes, a double hot plate and tiny sink in one corner: the kerosene was for the stove. Now I realize that it wasn't the vermin she feared, precisely, but some worse contagion of poverty or doom.

Mr. Ronald Voorhies, Sr., drunkard, poor provider, surely you too are long dead. I offer you, too, as a sacrifice to sleep.

* * *

Old Mr. and Mrs. Williams who lived in a velvet shingle house behind those houses on Rockwell Avenue, I thought they had no electricity because the iceman delivered ice for their icebox. With tongs and a rubber pad on his shoulder. He gave us children splinters of ice from the truckbed. Their house, a phantom from another century.

* * *

X the unknown ancestors of my eight great-grandparents, unseen multitudes who have created my body, thousands of them reaching back into time, tens of thousands, kings and slaves, savages and sages, warriors and rapists, victims and perpetrators.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2000 Robert Pinsky. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Pinsky, United States Poet Laureate 1997-2000, has received the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is poetry editor at Slate and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

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