I am going to the Catskills this afternoon, so I spent a while this morning looking for a poem that would encompass all I hope will happen this coming weekend.
But then I remembered that most people writing poems about being in the country—especially in New England—talk about the rain, and the little bird that twitters at them in the morning, and the way that their wife looks as she walks away from them down the path before they have their coffee.
(Not you though, Larry Clark.)
I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about how writers are so nostalgic, and also cowards. It makes them into copycats, and it makes their language sound stiff and antiquated. Everyone’s afraid to write in the language of “their time,” as if the present demeans their intelligence.
But seriously, I don’t want to read another poem in quatrains about someone padding down the stairs and mourning the passing of youth in the style of a 21st century Walt Whitman. I want to read a collection of young writers’ thoughts in the style of Gchats.
Gchat conversations are all about pacing, and tone, and spontaneity. Shit is something that I could get lost in. In fact, I already do, for up to 8-10 hours a day.
(Idea that will continue to consume my time and make me no money: compile an anthology of “The Best of GChat Conversations: 2011.” I’m taking submissions already.)
Anyway, back to my quest to find a poem about drugs, sex, skinny dipping and shooting the shit in the Catskills on poetryfoundation.org. Guess what? I didn’t find a single fucking one.
So instead, I’ll share with you a poem by Philip Levine, who was just named the next Poet Laureate of the United States.
Philip Levine is pretty fucking adorable. He has wackadoo teeth, and he is 83-years-old. He has won every award you can possibly imagine for poetry, which probably means that you have no idea what he’s won.
His stuff is all about the tension between growing up working class and being an intellectual, and the struggles he had to deal as a factory worker, etc. Pretty standard mid-20th century male stuff.
I haven’t read many of his poems, but the ones I have, I like, especially “The Two.”
Here’s why I chose to share it with you today, from all of the others in Levine’s oeuvre:
1.The beginning of it made me so hungry for eggs that as soon as I finish writing this post, I’m going to the diner down the street for breakfast.
2. It reminds me of my dad, who worked double shifts at a gas station and a bar when he met my mom. She was working as a nurse, and he would drive his motorcycle down from the Bronx into Manhattan to pick her up at the end of her shift from Lenox Hill Hospital. I’m sure he smelled like exhaustion when he kissed her hello, and also probably beer.
I’d love to read a poem from the perspective of my grandmother when he kept up the ritual even after they discovered that my mother was pregnant with me.
To My Son In Law
you’re a son of a bitch i knew you were no good from the second i saw you my daughter should have married Shawn McDonnell with the nice job instead of you all you’ll ever be is a goddamned fireman, if you’re lucky.
3. The poem ends on this note that is really beautiful and contradictory. At first, it seems like a love story, but then Levine points out that he didn’t write about love at all. He wrote about all of the details of his memory of a woman he might have once loved, but was too afraid to get to the meat of the emotion. Killer, right?
Anyway, I’ll shut my fingers, and let you read. Get to the end. It’s worth it.
The Two by Philip Levine
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired, a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion on his own breath, he kisses her carefully on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what. The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives nothing away: the low clouds break here and there and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven. The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become. The traffic light at Linwood goes from red to green and the trucks start up, so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?" she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing, though spiced with things she cannot believe, "wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired of their morning meetings, but when he bows from the waist and holds the door open for her to enter the diner, and the thick odor of bacon frying and new potatoes greets them both, and taking heart she enters to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke to the see if "their booth" is available. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in America, but he knew neither this man nor this woman and no one else like them unless he stayed late at the office to test his famous one liner, "We keep you clean Muscatine," on the woman emptying his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote with someone present, except for this woman in a gray uniform whose comings and goings went unnoticed even on those December evenings she worked late while the snow fell silently on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say. Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon with the other, but what became of the two when this poem ended, whose arms held whom, who first said "I love you" and truly meant it, and who misunderstood the words, so longed for, and yet still so unexpected, and began suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned to the ground in '67, two years before my oldest son fled to Sweden to escape the American dream. "And the lovers?" you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers. Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work, a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices of spent breath after eight hours of night work. Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write? Why the two are more real than either you or me, why I never returned to keep them in my life, how little I now mean to myself or anyone else, what any of this could mean, where you found the patience to endure these truths and confessions?