Featured Poet: Cathy Cullis — There Is A Secret Shortly After This One

THERE IS A SECRET SHORTLY AFTER THIS ONE

I am a feint-lined notebook
and only
the rain has the right handwriting.

Take me outside and lay me
on the grass
so that I may dampen your expectations.

In the night stars grow fierce
but only
the sun can dry me boat-shaped.

How might you smooth me and tell secrets
with only
your wretched, mystical hands?

 

**********

Cathy is a poet and mixed media artist born in London.  She studied English and Art at university to the postgraduate level,  was awarded an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors UK in 1996, and has had poems published in a variety of journals, anthologies, and books.  She is currently working on an extended sequence of prose-poems titled ‘Violet Goodenough.’

You can read more of her work at  neveringpoetry.blogspot.com

The Joys of 13th Century Words: The Cuckoo Song

The Cuckoo Song
(13th Century, Anonymous)

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is i-cumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth –
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu.

Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!

_____________________________________________________________________________

The 13th-century round known as the Reading Rota or, more informally, The Cuckoo Song, isn’t about the approach of summer, but its arrival. “Sumer is icumen in” is frequently mistranslated, but “icumen” means it has come, as the presence of the cuckoo implies, and it’s here, nu (now). Summer, that is.

The variations between the different modern texts available are small, and mostly connected to the decisions made by later editors confronted by 13th-century orthography. I don’t know why different editors modernise different words: perhaps they’re guided by assumptions about their readers’ understanding. Nevertheless, which version you happen to discover first can make quite a difference to the way you savour the poem. For instance, doesn’t “lhude” sound ruder and louder than the “loude” some editors prefer? And “murie” seems worlds away from “merry”. The old spelling pushes your lips and tongue to a different pronunciation, while charming your eye with an unfamiliar pattern of letters that has nothing in common with he cliches of “Merry Christmas” or “Merrie England”.

Awes, lombs, bullucs and cus are likewise stranger beasts that ewes, lambs, bullocks and cows. A lomb has got to be fatter than a lamb. So it beautifully suits those delinquent teenage lambs of early summer. If “sed” seems a bit colourless compared to “seed”, “med” makes “mead” seem stilted.

Where the translation into modern English is concerned, the word most often disputed is “verteth”. Does the “bucke” turn about and cavort, as some interpreters say, or does he fart (a territorial device not unknown among males of many species). I’d opt for the farting, while letting the other meaning linger, too, for a complete picture of buckish elation. I think this is a line that wants us to hear those animals, just as the whole song wants us to hear the cuckoo it’s addressing.

The verb in “bulluc sterteth” doesn’t seem to perplex translators. I’ve never seen it rendered as anything other than “starts” or “starteth”. Starteth what? Well, of course we can guess. And anyway, the verb works perfectly well intransitively. A bullock, surprised by joy, or its prospect, has started from his grassy drowse. A “cu” chews the cud nearby. What more needs to be said? Well, it’s worth noticing that the Latin word “stertere” means “to snore”. Etymologically, “snore” is kin to “snort”. It’s only guesswork on my part, but I feel this bullock, too, could be voicing his territorial rights – like the buck, but from the other end. He’s snorting. Intransitively, of course.

The last line is interesting. Russians say that the number of times you hear the cuckoo’s call represents the number of years you have left to live. By asking the cuckoo never to stop, the singer may just be wishing that summer could be neverending. But it’s plausible that there was once a similar, English superstition about the cuckoo, an interpretation that would heighten the final plea (“Don’t ever stop, now”) and give it added bittersweet flavour. Life, don’t ever stop.

Have a murie bank holiday. You might hear a cuccu, if you’re luccy. And if the weather’s really awful, sing along with Ezra Pound instead.

Translation: Gil P. Roberto J., “Perfection”

PERFECTION, by Gil P. Roberto J., translated by Andres Rojas

Most sweet perfection,  small correction that can not be made finer.
Most sweet infection of body and mind.
A perfect world in imperfect minds that desire more miseries,
humans that have lost their heads.
Perfect Judases that inhabit all soils,
false promises,
cheating Judases that show the perfection of their damaged minds,
your darkling smile grows in the dark day that haunts the earth.
Here lie the ashes of perfection,
An earth of imperfect dreams in imperfect minds.

_______________________________________________________________________________

PERFECCIÓN

La perfección más dulce, pequeña corrección que no pudo afinarse.
La infección más dulce de cuerpo y mente.
Mundo perfecto en las mentes imperfectas que anhelan más miserias,
humanos descabellados.
Perfectos judas que habitan los suelos,
falsas promesas,
judas tramposos muestran la perfección de su mente dañada,
tu sonrisa tenebrosa se agranda en el día oscuro que asecha a la tierra.
He aquí las cenizas de lo perfecto,
La tierra de los sueños imperfectos en las mentes imperfectas.

The Common Controversy: Are Popular Song Lyrics Poetry?

Probably the least known controversy arising from President Obama’s invitation to rapper Common (a.k.a Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr) to the White House’s May 11, 2011 poetry reading is whether a rap artist is a poet and whether rap qualifies as poetry. The question is a bigger one — essentially, it comes down to the deceivingly simple inquiry, “Are popular song lyrics poetry?”

As far as I know, the “Common controversy” was first raised by Kevin D. Williamson on a May 12, 2011 short piece for National Review Online. Therein, Williamson objects to having to pretend “that such semi-literate rodomontade as Common’s constitutes poetry.” Williamson certainly doesn’t, and adds for good measure, “If you think [Common’s work] is poetry, you are a boob, and your aesthetic judgment should not be taken seriously.” While he’s at it, Williamson swipes at contemporary poetry too, which he calls “mostly a racket,” and ends his diatribe with this gem: “Politics is full of barbarians who ought to be kept well away from our cultural institutions, such as they are.” (One would tend to pay closer attention would he not protest so much.)

While I am all for the separation of art and state (Dr. Goebbels, anyone?), I can not justify criticism of President Obama for having a White House event that showcases poetry. That’s orders of magnitude away from, say, establishing a Department of Culture that must pre-approve every art exhibition that opens, every movie made, and every poem published. However, my aim here is to discuss the question of whether song lyrics are poetry.

The initial answer is simple: in our tradition, poetry is not set to music. If a lyric is set to music, then it is a song (whether folk, pop, or rap) and not a poem. Bob Dylan and Tori Amos are excellent lyricists, but they are first and foremost singer-songwriters — that is, writers of lyrics set to music. Rap artists also belong to this tradition, be they Public Enemy, Missy Elliot, or Common. They do not, strictly speaking, write poetry as that term has been understood in the West for the past 200 years or longer. That their lyrics have elements of poetry (and that those lyrics are a lot better than a lot of “poetry” being written today) is undeniable. But those lyrics are considered something different, something else, something that is “not poetry.” I am not sure this is a satisfactory state of affairs.

Poetry, someone said, must mean something or it means nothing. If anything can be “poetry,” (including Dylan lyrics or rap songs) then the term is meaningless. For there to be “poetry,” there have to be some things which are “not poetry.” The only question is where to draw the line. Are the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” poetry? How about the lyrics to South Park’s “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch in D Minor?” If some lyrics can be poetry, why not others? To me, the issue is not one of quality or artistic worth (is a poem demonstrably “better” than a song lyric?) but one of definition.

The history of the lyric (as in, lyric poetry) goes back to the Greeks (of course), where “lyric poetry” meant poetry accompanied by a lyre or other musical instrument which was sung rather than recited. Thus, the origins of lyric poetry were actually musical. Before there were recited or read lyrical poems, there were sung lyrics.

This changed, of course. By Roman times, Catullus and Horace wrote (not sung) lyrical poems, and later, Callimachus, Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid followed suit, their “lyrics” being written poems dealing chiefly with romantic love as they understood the term.

As time went on, the pendulum swung back towards lyrics set to music, and Medieval Europe went medieval for lyrics addressing courtly love sung by troubadours in the 11th Century and onward. By the 14th Century, however, the pendulum had swung yet again, and Petrarch developed the sonnet as a written lyric — later to be modified into the Elizabethan sonnet immortalized by Shakespeare in the late 16th Century — as a form of (written, not sung) love poetry.

In the 19th Century, the written lyric became the dominant European poetic form (as opposed to dramatic or epic poetry). Some argue that the lyric became synonymous with poetry itself. Certainly the greatest English-language poets of the age wrote lyrics: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti, as a quick list. In contrast, the musical lyric became the stuff of music halls, operetta (think Gilbert and Sullivan), vaudeville, and on into what is now known as popular music (from, say, lyricist Beth Slater Whitson to singer-songwriter Common).

The confluence of ”lyric” and “poetry” in the 19th Century had at least two effects. First, it led to the supreme dominance of lyrics as the literary poetic form of choice, which endures to this day. Lyrics, it seems, is all poets write anymore, even though no coherent definition for the term exists. As poetry critic David Orr has stated, the only thing we seem to be sure about regarding the lyric is that it is overwhelmingly popular.

Second, and more importantly, the confluence of “lyric” and “poetry” divorced the popular, sung “lyric” from the literary, written “lyric.” Rather than seeing the two as very closely related forms of the same genre, a split occurred between “poetry” and “song.” This understading of the terms is ahistorical. Simply put, both lyrics to be read and lyrics to be sung are fruits of the same tree. If anything, written lyrics owe sung lyrics their existence, as the Greeks will attest.

The question “are popular music lyrics (including rap) poetry?” misses the point in my view. Poetry encompasses many forms, and the sung lyric still retains the conventions of “poetry” (rhyme, metaphor, imagery, and so on).

I would suggest returning popular song lyrics to the fold of poetry, not as an opposite to written poetry but as a companion to it. And I would suggest defining “literary poetry” as just one of many subsets of poetry, not the only and certainly not the one with the biggest audience these days.

And so, let us rephrase the question. No, popular song lyrics, including rap, are not literary poetry. But are they poetry?

You bet. That is not to say all popular lyrics are good. But neither are all literary poems good. And certainly, no one can argue that literary poetry has a monopoly on quality or relevance these days.

———————————————
Additional Resources:

Bob Dylan, I’m a Poet, and I Know It

The Platonist, Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Rob Woodward, Lyrics Poetry?

Translation: Ernesto Cardenal, Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

Ernesto Cardenal

Prayer for Marilyn Monroe  (Translation by Andres Rojas)

Lord
receive this young one known on Earth as Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name:  the orphan girl raped at 9,
the shopgirl who at 16 wished to take her life)
who now presents herself before You with no makeup
no press agent
no photographers nor signing of autographs,
alone as an astronaut facing the night that is space.
As a girl, she dreamt herself naked in church (as the Times tells it)
before a  prostrate multitude, heads to the floor,
and she had to tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know these dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave are the safety of a mother’s bosom
but also more than that …

The heads are her admirers, that is clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under a stream of light).
But the temple is not a 20th Century-Fox studio.
The temple — of marble and gold — is the temple of her body
where the Son of Man, whip in hand,
expels the 20th Century-Fox merchants
who turned Your house of prayer into a cave of thieves.
Lord
in this world tainted by sin and radiation,
You can not blame only the shopgirl
who, as all shopgirls, dreamt of being a star.
And her dream was real (but as Technicolor is real).
She only acted the script we gave her,
that of our own lives, an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for that Colossal Super-Production in which we have all labored.
She hungered for love and we offered tranquilizers.
For the sadness that none of us is holy
she was recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember Lord her growing dread of the camera
the hate of makeup, her insistence to be made up anew for each scene
and how the horror grew
and the late arrivals at the studio.

As all shopgirls
she dreamt of being a star.
And her life was unreal, a dream a psychiatrist interprets and archives.

Her romances were a kiss with both eyes closed
but then the eyes open
and discover there are spotlights on
and then the spotlights go dark!
And they dismantle the room’s two walls (it was a movie set)
as the Director moves on with his notebook
because the scene is done.
Or a trip on a yacht,  a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s mansion
seen in the tiny living room of a miserable apartment.
The movie ends without the final kiss.
They found her dead in her bed, her hand on the phone.
And the detectives did not know who she was calling.
It was
like someone who dials the only friendly voice she knows
simply to hear the voice of a recording  saying:  WRONG NUMBER
Or like someone who, wounded by gangsters,
reaches for a disconnected phone.

Lord:
no matter who it was she tried to call
but couldn’t (and perhaps it was no one
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer the call!

———————————————————————————————————

Oracion por Marilyn Monroe

Señor
recibe a esta muchacha conocida en toda la Tierra con el nombre de Marilyn Monroe,
aunque ése no era su verdadero nombre
(pero Tú conoces su verdadero nombre, el de la huerfanita violada a los 9 años
y la empleadita de tienda que a los 16 se había querido matar)
y que ahora se presenta ante Ti sin ningún maquillaje
sin su Agente de Prensa
sin fotógrafos y sin firmar autógrafos
sola como un astronauta frente a la noche espacial.
Ella soñó cuando niña que estaba desnuda en una iglesia (según cuenta el Times)
ante una multitud postrada, con las cabezas en el suelo
y tenía que caminar en puntillas para no pisar las cabezas.
Tú conoces nuestros sueños mejor que los psiquiatras.
Iglesia, casa, cueva, son la seguridad del seno materno
pero también algo más que eso…

Las cabezas son los admiradores, es claro
(la masa de cabezas en la oscuridad bajo el chorro de luz).
Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo —de mármol y oro— es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el hijo de Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.
Señor
en este mundo contaminado de pecados y de radiactividad,
Tú no culparás tan sólo a una empleadita de tienda
que como toda empleadita de tienda soñó con ser estrella de cine.
Y su sueño fue realidad (pero como la realidad del tecnicolor).
Ella no hizo sino actuar según el script que le dimos,
el de nuestras propias vidas, y era un script absurdo.
Perdónala, Señor, y perdónanos a nosotros
por nuestra 20th Century
por esa Colosal Super-Producción en la que todos hemos trabajado.
Ella tenía hambre de amor y le ofrecimos tranquilizantes.
Para la tristeza de no ser santos
se le recomendó el Psicoanálisis.
Recuerda Señor su creciente pavor a la cámara
y el odio al maquillaje insistiendo en maquillarse en cada escena
y cómo se fue haciendo mayor el horror
y mayor la impuntualidad a los estudios.

Como toda empleadita de tienda
soñó ser estrella de cine.
Y su vida fue irreal como un sueño que un psiquiatra interpreta y archiva.

Sus romances fueron un beso con los ojos cerrados
que cuando se abren los ojos
se descubre que fue bajo reflectores
¡y se apagan los reflectores!
Y desmontan las dos paredes del aposento (era un set cinematográfico)
mientras el Director se aleja con su libreta
porque la escena ya fue tomada.
O como un viaje en yate, un beso en Singapur, un baile en Río
la recepción en la mansión del Duque y la Duquesa de Windsor
vistos en la salita del apartamento miserable.
La película terminó sin el beso final.
La hallaron muerta en su cama con la mano en el teléfono.
Y los detectives no supieron a quién iba a llamar.
Fue
como alguien que ha marcado el número de la única voz amiga
y oye tan solo la voz de un disco que le dice: WRONG NUMBER
O como alguien que herido por los gangsters
alarga la mano a un teléfono desconectado.

Señor:
quienquiera que haya sido el que ella iba a llamar
y no llamó (y tal vez no era nadie
o era Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de los Ángeles)
¡contesta Tú al teléfono!

Review: David Orr’s “Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry”

In his slim Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, New York Times Book Review poetry critic David Orr gets to the point quickly. In his first paragraph, he writes:

[T]he potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

Notice he does not list poetry readers. These days, it seems, only poets read poetry, much less books about poetry. There’s some argument over this, but I think the point is fairly made. The percentage of general readers (those who read, say, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Dave Cullen, Armistead Maupin, Lorrie Moore, Sara Gruen, Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, or Rick Atkinson) simply do not read poetry. Not, at any rate, in any significant or even statistically relevant number.

Poetry apologists may argue that there’s never been so many people writing poetry (true) or so many poetry magazines (also true) publishing so many poems (yet again true). Nevertheless, the bottom line remains that all those poetry magazines publishing so many poems by so many poets are being read … by those who write the poems and a negligible percentage of the general reading public. What if they gave a poetry fest and nobody but the poets came? That is the poetry scene in America today (it is slightly better in England, but that’s a different story).

David Orr takes it from there. Beautiful and Pointless is essentially an invitation to those who don’t normally read poetry (“the rest of the world” other than poets) to investigate what poetry can offer. More to the point, it is a guided tour of poetry-land (Orr compares reading poetry to visiting, say, Belgium), an attempt to describe “what it really means to read poetry, and by extension, why such reading might be as worthwhile as watching the director’s cut of Blade Runner.” Cut to the second and first person singular, and the book becomes “an attempt to let you see how … [an] individual reader — how I — read poetry.” It does not get much more personal than that.

Orr does, by and by, a creditable job. He refuses to mystify poetry (it’s just something else humans do, like watching football, playing golf, and watching soap operas or dog shows). There is no ecstatic rapture at the mere sight of a poem. Angels will not sing as you read the last line of a sonnet. At the same time, Orr implies that poetry is NOT like anything else, that the pleasures it offers are different (in degree if not in kind) from the pleasures offered by non-poetry pursuits. People who read poetry LOVE poetry (that is, get more out of it) in a way football fans, golfers, soap-opera addicts, and dog show aficionados do not love (nor reap rewards from) their respective interests.

Alas, Orr’s approach (perhaps inevitably in a man who holds a law degree from Yale and is a gatekeeper of good poetic taste at the New York Times Book Review) is very cerebral. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: poetry is, last I checked, part of literature, and literature (particularly modern literature) is rather cerebral. But people other than fiction writers LOVE and feel emotions for such cerebral works as, say, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s hard to find people other than poets who can feel anything for any book of poetry, even such phenomenal ones as Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain or Elyse Fenton’s Clamor.

Of course, poetry is much more difficult to read than fiction. Poems more often than not have no narrative, no characters that develop and grow fully human in our imaginations, precious little time or space to flesh out a time and space until it becomes “real” to the reader. On top of that, poetic conventions make it difficult to READ a darned poem in the first place (and it’s supposed to be that way, right? if you can read a “poem” and immediately grasp its entire meaning then it’s not very good, is it?) If you can’t even figure out what the poem is doing (who is talking? where is he or she while talking? what on Earth does he or she mean by “My sister, the sun, / broods in her yellow room and won’t come out?”) then how can you have any response to it other than frustration and eventual disinterest?

Poetry, Orr counters, despite its difficulties, can offer the potential reader rewards of such depth that it is worth sticking with. Yes, reading a poem is hard going. And yes, it can turn off the casual observer. But for the initiated, poetry is a bottomless source of pleasure unlike anything else the world has to offer.

Fine enough. It’s just that after reading Beautiful and Pointless, I am not sure Orr describes what that pleasure is with any credible emotion. Quite the contrary, as I touched upon earlier, Orr’s cerebral approach and reaction to poetry seem to require a distancing from any response remotely related to the visceral.

That response is, by the way, why I read poetry — to have a poem punch me in the solar plexus and take my breath away (pardon my bad poetics). In turn, the desire to affect others that way is what makes me want to write poetry. The emotional response a poem can hand you in a handful of lines is a powerful one, and that is what I look for in great poems. And let me tell you, that quality is rarer than ever in the poems being published to good reviews today. My desire for (and disappointment at) not finding emotional satisfaction in much of the poetry being written today is probably why I don’t have the poetic taste necessary to be a poetry critic for the New York Times Book Review. And it’s probably also why most people don’t bother reading modern poetry. As experiences go, it’s a pretty empty one, even when reading many of what Orr would consider “good” poems.

Orr’s approach is a possible solution to this lack of readership: that of educating and guiding the would-be poetry reader, hoping that learning more about poetry and how to read it will create a more meaningful experience for that reader. His book is, in fact, a pretty good attempt at easing the initiation into the world of poetry. And if he never exactly explains the rewards the initiated can expect from poetry, one senses that is because the pleasures of poetry must be experienced personally and individually. And therein lie poetry’s greatness, and also its challenges.

And yet.

And yet … What if the issue also partly lies with the poetry being produced these days and not simply with the modern (non-poetry) reader?

Orr illustrates what I think is the very problem with poetry right now. Speaking of his father’s terminal illness, he must distance himself from emotions that are … dare we say … commonplace. A poetry critic, one who has a great deal to say as to which poets are and are not worth reading, must not indulge in such … common feelings. Nevermind that losing a parent will unleash feelings about as universal as universal gets. No. The poetic sensibility (which Orr admits is entirely idiosyncratic and unfair) must be on guard for cheap and easy feelings, ever able to keep an ironic distance … even if such feelings revolve around the death of one’s father. (I am, of course, not talking about what Orr felt, but about how he chooses to talk about what he felt, how he edits himself, how he, in short, produces something tangible, much like a poem, from the raw emotions of his life).

I wonder if such a rarefied (if not downright self-censoring) sensibility is the primary barrier between a general reader and poetry. If critics reward poems that say nothing anyone could relate to but say that nothing beautifully, how many readers will invest their time therein? What reward can a poem written from (and evaluated in) the context of post (post-post-post) modern self-referential irony offer a reader hungry for a commentary on human experience? Can such a poem (and such poetry) offer a payoff sufficient to keep a reader coming back for more?

If any given poem is pointless, from a human experience frame of reference, why would a reader take the time and effort to worm his or her way to the heart of it only to find there’s no heart, alas. If ALMOST EVERY published poem is likewise, the experience quickly becomes self-defeating … and not worth repeating. If poetry is an experience, there must be something in it for the reader, and it seems that if poetry critics, poetry editors, and successful (that is, widely published) poets indulge in a “poetry as an exercise in cleverness” the results are bound to turn off a reader taking his or her first (or fifth, or tenth) step into the poetry world.

There may exist, it seems to me, a disconnect in the sensibility of poets (or at least those poets who are rewarded by editors and critics with publications and good reviews) and the sensibility of the general reader, with the result that the general reader turns away, perhaps never to return. This is perhaps inevitable. Perhaps poetry as a genre is something like opera — it had its heyday, it has been in long decline, it will never regain the cultural significance it once held, it survives in a niche of its own making. Perhaps writing poetry simply means writing for an audience of poets, and that will never change (at least not any time soon). But I, for one, hunger to be read by the same people who buy good fiction and enjoy it, and I don’t want to write them off simply because I am not willing to write things they want to read.

I remember teaching college composition and reminding my students that “the audience” was key. Know your audience. Aim for your audience. Persuade your audience. I am not convinced that more people wouldn’t read poetry if poets (by way of editors and critics) made the general reader their target audience. And I am not convinced that such poetry would be much worse than the poetry being put out and praised today.

In short, if poetry is beautiful and pointless but little read, would it hurt to make it beautiful and meaningful to enough people to get it read more?

How to do that is a challenge David Orr does not contemplate in Beautiful and Pointless. It is thus unfair to judge him on it. But it is significant that the option never enters his frame of reference.

Random Review 2: The Stroller, by Larry William Fish

Larry William Fish

The Stroller

Those first few summers meant not so many
days at the beach for us, we just started out.
Sundays meant long walks with a baby stroller
on the streets of a small city, always in the 90’s,
always high humidity, always a chance of rain.
Up the street we’d go with a bottle and a diaper.

On the corner was the Eighth Day Lounge with
a pinstriped Yankees car parked by the back door.
Further down, Daisy’s Carniceria with it’s strange
smell of dead animal, we’d buy cans of Inca Kola,
loaves of Manteca bread, or bags of plantain chips.

Down the hill, into the tunnel with the train tracks
above us, the walls dripped and the sidewalk was
painted with pigeon poop, littered with broken glass.
I pushed you up long streets lined with multi-family
homes ,once owned by the richest of folks in Jersey.

Shut down stores, closed restaurants, and factories
now gave way to the Prima Vera bakery where rolls
called conchas piled high on glass display counters.
Sometimes I’d stop and get a Cuban sandwich or a
cup of espresso, but mostly we headed to the place
called Five Corners with a bagel and apple juice boxes.

We’d park on a bench by a sign that said how it was the
capital where colonists and settlers came to market with
their goods here, before it was called the United States.
We’d stop to listen to seagulls screech by the Armory and
look out at sailboats moored in the gray waters of the bay.

I’d speak to the baby, he’d listen, not knowing how to talk,
but he knew how to laugh and he knew how to smile when
I told him how someday; maybe we’d have a boat like those.

___________________________________________________________________________

Random Review:

Larry Fish, who also goes by the Spanish name “Lorenzo” (i.e. Larry) is very much concerned with the family ties that bind, particularly that of father and sonMany of his poems touch on this theme.

Married to a Hispanic woman, his mixed-cultured household emerges now and then, but is always  there, a substrata in his work. Who is he?  Where is his home, culturally speaking? How has he challenged and re-defined the family in which he grew up? Has he married into the future of American ethnic (lack of ) identity?

Icons of the past: the Yankees, trains, the shut-down businesses of a culture that has moved on.

And yet, the future: the Yankees carry on, trains wobble by, new businesses open, a new culture moves in.

The laughter of the baby: a future longed for or derided?  Does the baby laugh with joy or with ironic prescience? Has the American dream died or is the American dream always reborn?

And the words spoken to a baby, good intentions, lost in the gap of generations: each to forge its own path, deaf to the previous ones — the rebirth of the new, oblivious to the rebirth that came before.