A few weeks ago my poem “National Day of Atonement” went up atWriters Resist, a website “born of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election”. The poem was actually written in November 2017, in response to the Virginia election results. It was the first time in a year where there seemed to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The poem takes its first line from an article about Americans actually screaming at the sky on the anniversary of the election. There is a play on Wallace Stevens’ “Blanche McCarthy” there, as well. The poem attempts to end on a note of hopefulness. Let’s hope 2018 fulfuls that wish.
“National Day of Atonement”
Scream at the empty mirror of the sky,
the waiting blue, the blinding cosmic eye,
until your pain lathes the Plutonian rim
of the Solar System.
Scream at the crystal ceiling of the sky
until it cracks up like an electoral map
of the United States, our jagged earthly cry
a collective bootstrap.
April was a good month – for poetry, anyway. After a two-month streak of rejections I thought would never end, I had two poems accepted. The first is an ekphrastic – a poem inspired by an image, in this case one from NASA – and the second is inspired directly by the moon (no telescope required).
Space Station Crew Sees Lots of Clouds
From up here it’s an oceanic birthday cake
these frosted tufts of cloud
makes you want to poke your finger in and lick
it right across the sugary mounds
of chemical-sweet butterscotch icing
gold-plated by the setting sun
then suck it through your teeth and tongue. Up here
we get lonely for such things.
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?
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?
*Update: As of May 15, 2018 there has been no response from the New Yorker. Unsurprised.
A few days ago Rattle published a poem of mine in itsPoets Respondseries. 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.
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.
My father – like all Italian fathers – thought it was important that I learn to ski at a young age. Perhaps this comes from growing up in a country with an Alpine border. So he took us to the local bunny slopes in Pennsylvania where I learned to coast gently on the powder and sip steaming hot cocoa by the fireside in my wet jeans. As a teenager I became a skateboarder, and so naturally in winter I began to snowboard. One winter we even took a trip – friends only! no adults! – up to the slopes for a weekend. While my friends were getting trashed and wrecking the room at the Days Inn, I hooked up with a girl I had never seen before, resulting in an unexpectedly hot night. The next day on the slopes I remember thinking, “Do I have a girlfriend now?” When we got home I promptly discovered she had moved in with my friend Jeff. At least I had an answer: I did not have a girlfriend now.
Years later, after I had moved to Italy, I was visiting a cousin in Zurich when I found myself again on the slopes. This time they were real Alpine slopes with staggering views of what appeared to be the entire continent of Europe. I was on borrowed skis for the occasion. With the Swiss there is no dilly-dallying on the beginner slopes. These people race right up to the top of a mountain and down the other side like rabbits. When I found myself on a slope, which for all intents and purposes seemed liked like a mountain-sized vert ramp made of ice, I began to have second thoughts. “There are only two ways down this hill,” I was told by my Swiss companion. “On your skis or on your ass.” I seriously contemplated the second option for what seemed like years, staring down at the infinite whiteness. A knot formed in my stomach. When I finally thrust myself from my shaky perch, I made it some part of the way down the mountain before hearing a distinct “craaaack!” and feeling my leg twist around like a rubber Gumby doll. I lay there sure I had broken my leg. The pain was intense. I had no phone, spoke no German and had no idea where my cousin or his family were. I was three hours outside of Zurich, eight hours from Rome, an ocean and a mountain range away from New York City (still home to me then), alone and writhing in pain on a mountainside in deepest Switzerland.
I spent the rest of the week reading Nietzsche’s The Gay Science in the lodge and obliquely chasing after Italo-Swiss ski bunnies. I wrote a lot of poetry in those days, continuing work on a Don Juan-esque epic I was writing (to be published after my death) and musing on what the fuck I was going to do when I got back to Rome. My leg, it turned out, wasn’t broken.
I haven’t touched a slope since then. When people ask why I don’t go skiing in the winter – settimana bianca is an Italian tradition – I say I don’t like having things fastened to my feet. Of course, as a skateboarder it’s becoming more difficult to make excuses for not wanting to ski. And now that our daughter is old enough to begin taking ski classes I envision having to return to the dreaded mountains again soon. Seeing the distorted smirk on my face, my wife says, “You can snowboard, you know.”
“I don’t like having things attached to my feet,” I repeat, changing the subject.
Ever since I got my current setup I’ve been trying to remember the ones I rode back in the day. My very first setup was a Vision “Gator” kaleidoscope model. This was 1987. I have no idea what trucks I had, but I probably had Slimeball wheels and Ugly Stix on that board. My next setup was a black SMA Natas Kaupas with the panther graphic. I was probably riding Independent trucks (we all were), and big, soft wheels of some sort.
This was the era just before the noses began to get longer and wheels began to get smaller and harder. The Natas model was ostensibly a “street” board, but by today’s standards it’s difficult to see how that could be. But we still weren’t doing flip tricks or noseslides.
Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the other decks I rode. I must’ve gone through a bunch of them between 1988 and 1993. Here are a few models I may have owned.
–H-Street Matt Hensley: You can see the shape is already morphing and the nose is getting more foot-friendly. Hensley was my favorite skater around the time of Hokus Pokus (1989).
–New Deal Ed Templeton: Something about this graphic looks very familiar. I loved New Deal in 1990-91.
–Blind Jason Lee Foghorn Leghorn: Or was it the Cat in the Hat model? Who can recall?? Jason was a big influence around the time of Video Days (1991).
–Pure speculation at this point, but I may have had this H-Street Mike Carroll (1991) with the Calvin & Hobbes graphic.
Of course I understand that memory is fallible and I don’t claim to have actually owned any but the first two on this list. It’s all guesswork at this point. It’s frustrating, actually. I wish I had a better memory. I wish I had kept a better archive of my past. All that I have are a few photos and a few minutes of poor quality video a friend has salvaged from his old camcorder from 1991. Thankfully, today things are easier with the internet and smartphones. I can even document my progress by myself so when I’m sixty-four and senility sets in I won’t have to rely on my faulty memory to reminisce about skateboarding in my forties.
This is my first setup, which is about to be retired as soon as the weather improves. It is an Enuff complete, 7.75 with 53mm wheels, Bones Reds bearings and Grizzly griptape.
But why worry about such things as what kind of skateboard you ride? Let’s just say that when you skate you personalize things, from parking blocks to clothes to the board you ride. It all becomes a part of who you are. This has never been so apparent to me as when I discovered I was unable to recall the boards I rode so obsessively in my youth. It’s like a black hole in my memory. For what it’s worth – probably only to me in the end – let me record the present for the sake of the future.