The Poetry Conference

They see me walking with my stick
And like a sway of curtains
I hear the assumptions—
That I’ve been admitted by mistake
Or must be lost
Surely poems require sight?

Screw Homer; who reads Milton?
Big time poets know blindness
Stands for something something—
Didn’t Rilke touch on it—
A blind man lead by a gray woman
And lost forever in infancies?

That blind girl who writes verses—
She must be a bird
Something something
Half related to language
Her poems like feathers
Or yarrow stalks.

“How do you write so clearly
If you can’t see?”
“How do you read?”
“Would you have been a writer
If you had sight?”
“Can you see me at all?”

Facts Upon Which I Can’t Improve…

After swimming I scrambled from the Aegean up a steep rock wall and was the only one who didn’t get stung by the sea urchins.
Later in a shoreside taverna I ate sea urchin gonads. They tasted like blood and molasses.
Aristotle thought the sea urchin’s mouth resembled a small lantern.
No one has ever put the sea urchin and big band music in the same sentence before now.

Proscenium Arch

They don’t like you, the other kids in the seventh grade. Back then you figured this was largely OK. After all they were lumpy and smelled bad. Trouble was, they started pushing you down stairs, bashing your head into lockers. You were the disabled kid in the big junior high school and it was 1967.

I knew, listening with everything I had that crickets would materialize inside me. Later I discovered Lorca, his line: “the little boy went looking for his voice/the king of the crickets had it…”

Yes. The cricket king. A little boy with his thick spectacles.

Say it’s grief you’re after, then Poetry is your place…

If it’s grief you’re after then poetry is your place. And poetry is a place. As he approached the end of his life James Tate named it “the government lake.” While embodied grief and poetry grief are not precisely the same lets say poetry is dark tourism.

**

Three years into guide dog life I saw that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so busted they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw behind these stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.

**

As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw my guide dog was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.

**

I’m irreverent. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening or allow them to ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re just sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing comes to you like birds.

**

Grief land in poetry differs from grief in the public square because our brains make maps–neuro-synaptic fetishized memory-habit-charts. Grief in the mind is like every ghost story you’ve ever read–every thought we have about the past is a revenant trick. Go ahead, write them down those miseries, the sorrow has outraced you and is already occupying your future memories.

**

This is why I prefer the dark tourism of poetry: the blackbird whistling or just after. In poetry’s haunted house they are the same.

In poetry’s haunted house self-contempt appears swollen and cartoonish. Routine sorrow becomes collectivized, atavistic. James Tate writes in a prose poem called “The Visiting Doctor”:

“This afternoon about half past four I was sitting at my
desk when somebody knocked on my door. I got up to answer it
when my leg crumbled beneath me. I tried to stand, but it was
as if my one leg were made of silly putty. Finally, with the
help of the arms of the couch, I pulled myself up and yelled at
the door, “Come in, the door’s unlocked.” The door opened
slowly and there stood a little man in a doctor’s uniform.
“You rang?” he said. “Well, not exactly,” I said. “Yes, but
you need me. Am I right?” he said. “Yes, I suppose I do,”
I said. “Well, then, let’s get right to work. It’s your left
leg, am I right?” he said. “Yes, it’s my left leg,” I said.
“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to saw it off,” he said. “No,
please don’t. You haven’t even looked at it,” I said. “I
heard you fall. I know the sound. It’s no good anymore,”
he said.”

Excerpt From: James Tate. “The Government Lake.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-government-lake/id1434290871

**

When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

I feel safer beside the government lake.

Overnight

Apples have appeared on the old tree
Fingernail sized
Though nature keeps a closed book
And fruit cannot be hope.
Last night I dreamt
Of friends long gone–
We were beside a lake
Together in sadness
And someone said “Odysseus.”
Small apples.
Emergent green.
Nostalgia means
Returning home in pain.

Laconia- or the Provincial Opera

1.

When I was five years old I discovered a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. It was August and the neighborhood kids were playing ball and there I was with a wind up gramophone. Blind child alone at the top of a Victorian house with an ancient record player.

2.

I fell wildly in love with that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me—so small and stunned to hear such a voice under a sloping roof. Even today, sixty years later hearing Caruso pulls me back to that provincial first opera house.

3.

As a boy the poet W. H. Auden loved machines, especially mining equipment, so much so his parents thought he’d grow up to be an engineer. With poets what matters are the engines beneath the skull, those marvels unseen in the outer world. For me it was the Victrola—it signaled a recursive, shadowy inner life.

4.

There were lots of artifacts in that attic. A raccoon coat, a sea captain’s chest, a cracked boudoir mirror, cane chairs eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds and tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.

5.

In my case poetry has always been about forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You discover you need nothing.

I still hear the needle hitting the record. That sound of hay scratching hay.

6.

Lawrence wrote: “It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

Ah the voice of a tenor singing in the dark in Laconia, New Hampshire, 1960

7.

The times were plain. Some children knew the names of birds. My favorite was the White Throated Sparrow who we called the Peabody Bird. His song could break your heart. The Wood Thrush was also a heart breaker and lying face down in the woods he’d get inside you. He’d get inside us because we were playing dead. This was in the final days before television. We played dead and listened to bird songs.

8.

So a blind kid with a victrola falls in love with a great Italian tenor. I see now it makes sense: a disabled child was transported by a dusty machine that brought back alive a dead man’s voice.

9.

And wasn’t Laconia, New Hampshire the perfect town?
A ruined place.
Factories shuttered.
The disused railway station where they stored dead Coke machines.

10.

New York Times, 8 December 1906:

“The real sensation at the Metropolitan Opera House last night was the appearance as a spectator of Signor Caruso, sans moustache. When the tenor entered the foyer after the first act, accompanied by Signor Scotti, he was not recognized, but when the story spread the foyer quickly filled, with persons eager to see him. Seemingly unmindful of the commotion he had created, he continued to walk up and down the corridor.
“It’s on account of Puccini’s opera, Manon Lescaut,” he explained. “The chevalier is a youth and a mustache would not be congruous.”
The comments in the boxes and foyer were animated.
“Have you seen Caruso?”
“Do you think he looks better than he did?”
“What did he do it for?”
“Can he sing without it?”
The public will be in suspense about the last question until next Wednesday night, when the tenor makes his next appearance.”

11.

Boy 1906!
Upton Sinclair publishes “The Jungle.”
The great San Francisco earthquake which Caruso survives.
Theodore Roosevelt creates national parks.
Harry K. Thaw shoots Stanford White high above Madison Square Garden.
Lon Chaney Jr. is born.
The brand name “Victrola” is introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, NJ.

12.

Enrico Caruso issued approximately 240 records, 78 rpm disks, each recorded while the tenor sang into a paper horn. His recordings became the gold standard for a new, sophisticated popular culture in the years before radio. Until the mid twenties the Victrola was the best selling and most sought after entertainment device around the world.

13.

My grandfather was dead about eight years when I found his record machine. He’d been among the earliest manufacturers of motor cars and motorcycles in the US. So yes the man loved contraptions. I’ve no evidence that he particularly loved opera. But that’s the thing: in 1906 Caruso was “The Beatles.” Everyone had to own his records. One could hear Puccini emanating from the lowliest farmhouse.

14.

And 1960 was the year I thought there was a man inside the window. He was frosted like the glass and more than once I knew he was the one doing the talking.

Then I’d climb to the attic.
The Victrola sang from its great, crackling heart.
And my own heart raced, both running and returning.

The Itch

When doctors don’t know what you have–you know, “the thing” that bends you low, makes you sweat, causes you to entertain prayer, forces you to jump up and down like a mechanical toy from the 19th century, they call it an “idiopathic” condition.

Now of course there are different kinds of not knowing when it comes to the body. There’s not knowing and there’s not knowing. I hope this clears things up.

I have one of the commonest idiopathic ailments and you might have it too: I fucking itch all over. We’re not talking a minor league, Sunday school itch–the kind Huck Finn had when they told him not to scratch in church–that ain’t idiopathic my friend. We know why Huck was itchy. In fact studies have shown that ministers, preachers, priests, rabbis, zen masters, imams, and school teachers can cause itching by doing nothing more than moving their eyes. There’s a scientific term for this. Preachers who make you itch just by looking at you are known as ohptho-idio-paths, which is an elevated way of saying you break out in hives because they really don’t like you.

Meanwhile the doctor doesn’t know why you itch. You just boil all over with purgatorial pins and needles, with no part of your body unaffected.

You might be allergic to wine. Maybe food. Maybe air pollution. Agribusiness. Laundry detergent. But when you live without these things as an experiment, sequentially, sober, starving, hiding in the cellar, stinking so badly the dog won’t come near—nothing changes. You itch like an electrified sponge.

In my case the thing that most helps is an over the counter generic drug called loratadine–an antihistamine that’s commercially marketed as Claritin. When I take it the itching is vastly reduced. I stop tearing at my skin. I even get some sleep.

So why then did I spend last night “not taking it” and playing a game of mind over matter? Why did I lie on my bed of fire and send brain messages to every part of my straining body?

The answer? It’s the Lutheran Olympics. It’s a Scandinavian thing.

Brain to feet: “C’mon guys, can’t we all just get along?”

Feet to brain: “Captain, the engine room’s on fire and the door’s locked!”

Brain to hands: “Now just stop that! Grow up!”

Hands to brain: “Help! The tarantulas have escaped! They’re in our mittens!”

Other parts of the body have requested anonymity.

Please don’t try this. We are, as they say in TV land, trained professionals.

I didn’t want to cry…

I didn’t want to cry. The wide sun was covering my face. Tourists were all about. The day was warm for April. I didn’t want them, the tears, the choked tears of disability exclusion but they came and I leaned against a wall outside Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to “The Last Supper” and wept before strangers. I’d been denied entry to the church by a nun. She’d hissed like a goose and had pointed me away. It was Corky—no dogs in the grotto! Her disdain was cruel and it belonged to the viaticum of ruthlessness and I understood it wasn’t Corky she objected to at all but blindness itself, a pre-Roman atavistic stigma. I heard it. It rose from the back of her throat.

I encouraged my wife Connie to go in and so I swayed and cried alone and hated myself. It wasn’t the spectacle of weeping that disgusted me, it was having to cry and letting a dried up craven, superstitious dingus get the best of me. “Supper Sister” had turned me away from Heaven and she knew it.

I slid down the wall and sat on the pavement. Corky, Labrador, large, affectionate, concerned, pressed against me and I cried all the more. The guide dog was supposed to fix this; to give me freedom; open the world, and to the best of her ability she had. We were in Italy when only three years ago I’d been living a sealed and provincial life in a small town, unsure of how to go places. Corky had done her part.

Godammit! What was wrong with me? The Italians weren’t friendly to guide dogs, and over a span of three days I’d absorbed the evil eye from at least eighteen men and women. So what? Where was my inveterate, subversive streak—though I’d lived much of my childhood and adolescence fearing disability, I’d also been wild enough to say fuck you to teachers and aggregate bullies. Fuck you, I’d said to the high school chemistry teacher who wouldn’t describe what was on the blackboard. Fuck you, I’d said to the college professor who said I shouldn’t be in his class. Fuck you and Fuck you. And Fuck you, Nixon. Jesus! I’d been undone by a nun! A sputum bespattered unfounded wobbly nun!

I laughed then because that’s how it is with tears of discrimination—you get there.