From Morpheus to myself

Astute readers will notice that I’ve added my name to the header of this blog. I’ve quietly been abandoning @godlessinitaly as my online handle, which I’ve been using for quite a few years. Perhaps I should’ve turned it into a brand and tried to monetize it, which seems to be the way these things go. Whatever, I’ve never been good at that kind of thing. This blog has gone through quite a few permutations over the years, and I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it. Lately, that means poetry. I’ve dipped my toe again into the waters of Lethe. I’ve sent out some poems into the world and some have come back with wings.  Here is a poem I wrote about the opioid crisis after reading an article on the Sackler family in the New Yorker (them again?). The poem was written quickly, as “news poems” usually are, in order to keep pace with the ever-morphing news cycle. As such, it is part of an interesting contemporary experiment: can poetry – typically a slow and arduous form of expression, often subject to years of revision – say something worthwhile about current events, while they’re still current? I think it can, and so so the editors at Poets Reading the News, where this was published back in November 2017.

Morpheus in West Virginia

A scion of robber baron philanthropists
whose last name is synonymous with pain
has, through the toxic advertising mists,
made murder legal, elegant, humane.

Like Jagger’s Lucifer, he wears a tie
outfitted in the finest Italian suits
possessing all that money cannot buy
prestige and prominence the world salutes.

The dead of West Virginia are his keep,
couples with needles hooked into their arms,
their babies born into narcotic sleep,
more dust from opiates than firearms.

The mortuaries have run out of beds
to stretch the corpses on. In this shell game
the blue pills were swapped deftly for the reds
by Morpheus. I hope you guess his name.

I actually wrote my first news poem the week after 9/11, about those terrible events. It was written at a Chinese restaurant on 48th & 6th, and I can still smell the scent of that food as I wrote those bitter lines. Those were heady days, but there was no outlet for poetry that commented what was happening, as it was happening. I sent it out to the usual journals, but it was never accepted. Of course it lost its immediacy. What to  do with such a poem almost twenty years later?

Write new ones.

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A Letter to the New Yorker

Yesterday I wrote a letter to the editors of the New Yorker. Since I very much doubt it will get published or even answered privately (then again, who knows?) I’ve decided to publish it here, as I feel it is in the general interest of those who read and write poetry.

Dear New Yorker,

As a longtime reader, enthusiast, poet, poetry-submitter and subscriber – not necessarily in that order – I was taken aback to see that the poet Traci Brimhall (“Dear Eros“, “Love Poem Without a Drop of Hyperbole in It“) was published twice in a three-week period in January, 2018. I have no qualms with Brimhall or her work; in fact, I loved her poems on both occasions. But to publish one poet twice in such a short period, in a magazine which publishes roughly a hundred poems a year, comes off as a display of cliquishness. It reminds me of an exchange I once had with a former poetry editor of this magazine nearly twenty years ago. When I queried if I could send her some of my work, she responded with visible embarrassment, “Please understand – I have obligations.” The New Yorker is highly-regarded for the quality of the work it chooses to publish, and no one would ask that it lower its standards in order to broaden its sweep. But one wonders if, among the thousands of poems on the editor’s desk, there wasn’t one which might have rivalled Brimhall’s for ingenuity. I’d bet almost anything there was.
I’m not sure why I was so ticked off by this, but I was. A poet friend of mine says he doesn’t read the New Yorker, so he doesn’t care what they publish. Well, I do, and I generally esteem their selection. And I also recognize that a great many poets dream of seeing their work in its rarified pages. I just keep wondering, what obligations exactly? Every poet wants to be on a level playing field, don’t they? If their submissions page said, “Agented submissions only,” I’d grit my teeth and understand. But it doesn’t. It sounds friendly and open and, well, encouraging. As if you or I might actually stand a chance.
I’m not worried about burning my chances with the New Yorker because of a kvetchy little post like this one. After all, it is the New Yorker – right? What’s New York without a good kvetch?

New Poem up at Rattle

facebookprA few days ago Rattle published a poem of mine in  its Poets Respond series. Like most poems inspired by the news cycle, it was written at lightning speed and sent off almost immediately and with minimal revision. I’d like to write a post on the phenomenon of “news poetry” when I have more time, but right now I’m just bookmarking this one for posterity. Rattle is a fantastic journal and it’s an honor to be in such good company.

_____

WORTH IT

You, too, are currency. You can be saved,
devalued, spent, invested, thrown away
or burned. In this town roads are paved
with skeletons of folks like you and me.
Your net worth isn’t what you thought it was—
pursuing happiness, you work for free.
You’re better than this, you tell yourself as
you Google who you are. And who are you?
Data, as it turns out.
                                      Go now, erase
your name from the wine-dark sea of Facebook blue
before you’re bought and sold! But it’s too late.
The work is done. What more is there to do
but punch the clock and rue what’s left of fate?
In bed, you count your sheep and calculate.

A Memory of the Gotham Book Mart

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/.a/6a00e54fe4158b883301bb087ebc4c970d-piBookstores are something I know from, as my grandmother might’ve said it. I worked in some of the most famous bookstores in the world, and accumulated a large backlog of anecdotes and memories which have served me well since I moved on to other things. They are a constant source of material for my poetry, for one thing. But then again, so is every experience in a poet’s life. Take a recent example: the other day I was writing a poem on the kitchen table – which is my writing desk for all intents and purposes – and one of the lines became something about my grandfather’s prosthetic leg. My grandfather – who had been born in Vilnius (Vilna, in Yiddish) – died when I was eight, and I had only ever seen him infrequently. That is to say, I have no conscious memory of his fake leg. My sister, however, confirmed that he had indeed lost his leg to gangrene and used an artificial limb to walk. There is no end to the surprises we find out about ourselves, and sometimes in the most surprising ways.

The following memory was written in 2007, after the Gotham Book Mart had finally closed its doors.  I hope some of the flavor of the place comes across. There will never be another bookstore like it anywhere.

_____

Everyone’s mother has some tidbit of wisdom that stays with them throughout their adult life. Here’s mine: when a person dies, an entire library dies with them. Therefore, it stands to reason that when a bookstore dies, an entire fleet of readers dies with it.

The Gotham Book Mart was, by some accounts, an ordinary bookshop in the venerable old style. Founded by Frances Steloff in 1920, it was there on 47th St. in midtown Manhattan before the diamond and watch merchants moved in. In its final days, it was the only remaining oasis on the block, a place where one could duck in amid dusty volumes of forgotten poetry and tumbleweeds of orange cat fur in order to escape the rabble. It was also a haunted house of literary legends. It was there that Steloff may or may not have scolded Marilyn Monroe for climbing on a ladder in high heels. It was there that Ezra Pound reportedly refused to enter because Steloff was Jewish. It was there that Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold under the counter when you could still get into trouble for such things. Rumor has it they used to assemble the loose pages of Joyce’s masterpiece copy by copy in the store, making it a kind of literary speakeasy. It was there that they filmed the bookstore scene in Rosemary’s Baby. It was there that Robert Crumb reportedly rode a woman down the stairs like a mule during his own book signing party…

As of 2005 the store’s bookmarks boasted “85 Years of the Best in Literature”, followed by a cascade of illustrious clients: Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, John Updike. I can personally attest that the store’s Rolodex contained the very private addresses of Greta Garbo and Lou Reed, both of whom lived on the same block on the Upper East Side in the 1970s. All this was part of the fun. The Gotham swept up all kinds in its wake: writers, artists, culture mavens, gossip columnists, executives, bookaholics, even the occasional schnorrer with his handfuls of change and a rehearsed joke: “A rabbi walks into a bar…”

After decades in the limelight, times changed. Days could often pass in the presence of no one but a few old-timers and a gaggle or two of tourists straying from Times Square. Steloff died in 1989, at the age of 101. Up to its ears in debt in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on earth, the store’s second owner, Andreas Brown, was constantly under pressure to sell. Finally, having no choice, he did. In 2004 the bookstore moved from W. 47th St. to E. 46th St (just across 5th Ave., for those unfamiliar with Manhattan’s nexus of streets and avenues.) Away from the whirlwind of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Diamond District and – significantly – a very convenient subway stop, the store battled bravely on for another two years. It closed, almost without a word, in late 2006.

This is not the place to do justice to the Gotham Book Mart’s legacy. One day there will be a full-length book to do just that. Word has it that they are still “negotiating a deal” with some business bigwigs, which means – in newyorkspeak – that there is almost no chance of the store’s ever reopening its doors again for business. The loss of the Gotham Book Mart is one of those things one would like to blame on the internet or chain-style bookstores. We could even try to blame the fact that “no one reads anymore”, but then they never really did. The store was a kind of unofficial New York City monument, the kind of place one was proud to shop – or browse – if only to admire the signed photos of Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin, the creaky wooden floor and the thirty-pound feline named Pynchon lazing in the window. It was, as it still says on the bookmark (quote courtesy of Woody Allen): “…everyone’s fantasy of what the ideal bookshop is.”

Emmes*, as my grandmother might’ve said.

*Emmes is Yiddish for emet – the Hebrew word for “truth”. It means something like “damn straight”.

2018 Update

Strand Logo
When I was there it was still only “8 Miles of Books”.

It’s 2018, folks, and it’s time for an update. I haven’t published anything on this blog in almost two years. Frankly, it’s just too much work at times, and there are always more important things on my to-do list, like cobbling together poetry manuscripts, writing new poems, raising a family and – yes – work.

My intention is to use this space to track new writing as it is published. Last week, Poets Reading the News ran a poem of mine about the Strand Bookstore which was written on the occasion of the death of its owner, Fred Bass. The Strand was my alma mater, in a way. There is a lot to say about that time and place, about New York City in the mid-1990s. There is probably a novel in there somewhere down the line. But let’s let poetry do its work. Suffice to say it took 20 years to write this.

______

The King Is Dead

Employees stocked the fridge with beer, pocket
bottles of Smirnoff tucked
behind stacks for easy nipping. Lunch-

breaks were drinking contests, pounding
pints to dull ourselves before re-entry,
turbulent and dazed. After our shifts

we’d hit the bars along the Bowery
fueled on Chinese takeaway and pizza
by-the-slice. We were ‘bodies’

in their jargon, useful mannequins
for schlepping boxes full of books –
ten floors of them and counting.

The intricate small man sat at the desk
glasses clasping the bridge of his nose
bald pate shining like a headlamp.

“I need a body,” he would say. Someone
would pick up a phone, request
a body, one would be sent up

from the nether world. We were paid
minimum wage to build labyrinths
of boxes made of books made

of paper, miles of it, enough to pave
Broadway with a pelt of snow. Walls
went up between us, block after block after block,

a city within a city. Like Theseus,
I wandered through them endlessly in search
of my Minotaur. The king is dead.

_____

September 1, 1939

It’s September, which would not be complete without a re-reading of Auden’s great poem, “September 1, 1939“. That was the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of WWII. I’ve never understood why this poem didn’t make the cut in the Collected Poems (apparently Auden, in retrospect, didn’t think much of it – or perhaps he was concerned with false sentiment and “German usage,” as he put it); however, it’s available in the Vintage Selected Poems. And, of course, online. If you’re not familiar with it, read it – then go read Joseph Brodsky’s fine essay on it (it’s in one of his major essay collections). The poem begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

(keep reading…)

Samuel Menashe, 1925-2011

Poet Samuel Menashe died on August 22, 2011. He was a friend of mine in my New York days, and I’ll always remember him fondly. He was a very old school kind of person. He lived alone in a walk-up apartment on Thompson St., in Greenwich Village. He’d wander into New York bookshops and start reciting his poetry to complete strangers, which was how he sold his books. He had a gentle voice, a wild shock of white hair and a congenial presence. He’d sit for hours talking about the war, William Blake and the Hebrew Bible. His poems were “concise” (his term), mostly condensed into few lines of concentrated musicality. Below is a poem I wrote about him. I was told my a mutual aquaintance that he read it and enjoyed it. Goodbye, Samuel.

Samuel Menashe Reads at the Harvard Club

You’re reading your poems at the Harvard Club
in New York City. The hall, rimmed with oak,
sputters a dying light suffused with thick
brown shadows, like intellectual antelope
gazing at their reflections on the wall.
You can’t believe you’re here.
Poems leapfrog
from your throat (already you’re older
than most of the old men in attendance here)
poems so short that if you miss a word
you miss the point. I listen, neither
graduate of Harvard nor university-bred,
but a young man seeking encouragement
from an elder such as you. Invited here,

I hold your book open and read along
but the light is bad. My clothes are shot. No tie
is knotted in the hollow of my neck.
My shoes, the worn-out patent leather ones
from the J. Crew catalog, are more like husks
that hug my feet.
In private, you told me
to give up poetry and dedicate
myself to writing narrative instead.
“No one reads poetry,” you said.

Certainly you spoke from experience.
They used to snicker when you’d ramble in
off 47th St. to the Gotham Book Mart.
“Here comes the poet Samu-el,” they’d joke.
“C’mon,” I’d say, “He’s really not so bad.”
You’d stop and talk about the war, recite
Blake and the Hebrew Bible (KJV)
and then your own compacted prosody
which stopped the tourists in their tracks. “A pot
poured out fulfils its spout,” your voice
intoned. Then you’d explain, to the stupefied
clientele, what the poem really meant
based on its lingustic roots (“the pot
fills up the spout, fulfilling it etc.”)
You’d sign their books before they’d even bought:
“To Jo, from Canada. Best, Samuel.”

That said, your poems are now canonized
in the Library of America.
You snagged the “Neglected Masters Award”
the kind of name you always called yourself
alluding to the New Yorker and “Talk of the Town”
the only place they’d publish you back then.
You felt yourself a curiosity
in your hometown, an underdog, the last
of your generation, a congregant
of Homer’s, the Greek café long since shut down.

What more could anybody do for you?
Your wish-list is complete, you have become
a famous poet with a style, to boot.
Menashesque. I can almost hear it said
in college classrooms, by professors younger
than I am, too obliviously young
to have attended the Nutcracker with you
at Lincoln Center.
Wedged between Masters
and Michelangelo, your volume rests
on my bookshelf. I flip through it, recalling
your evening reading at the Harvard Club
ten years ago. Like Emerson, you blurred
the distance between poetry and faith,
the kind one has in literature, not God.

That evening you gave your best performance.

© Marc Alan Di Martino 2011

_____

 Published in Italian Americana, Winter 2011

“I crave the stillness of rooms”

Every so often I mention that I write poetry. I used to write a lot of poetry, though lately it’s kind of tapered off due to our recent move, our ten month-old daughter and a hundred other things that eat away at the imaginative mental loitering time so conducive to writing poetry.

This is a poem I wrote a few years ago and posted at my wife’s blog at the time. Probably nobody ever read it but her. I’m posting it again because I like it; it has the scent of Cavafy, Pessoa and the “crepuscolari” poets so dear to me. Enjoy.

I crave the stillness of rooms
full of smoke, after the party,
when all the guests have gone.
That’s when the poem is born.

Late at night, sitting at a desk
in the city, or outside of one,
the poet remembers those rooms
full of smoke. He lives in them,

a world of his own making.
He conjures the odor of ash,
the yellowed lampshade, the stain
of lipstick on a shard of glass.