Read an Excerpt
By Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2000 Robert Pinsky
All rights reserved.
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.
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,
In an old allegory you would carry
A chained alphabet of tokens:
Ankh Badge Cross.
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.
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.
On my birthday
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.
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.
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.
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.
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Sweet time unafflicted,
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.
Excerpted from Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2000 Robert Pinsky. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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