On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
I’m sixty-seven. I was twenty-eight when I heard Stephen Dunn read “Men at 40” by Donald Justice in a gymnasium at New Jersey’s Artist Teachers Institute. A year later I would be Justice’s student. But for now I was Stephen’s, all Stephen’s.
I have no idea what poetry means to my father. In their modest apartment, he and my mother have a little shelf where they keep copies of my books. Along with my books, they have copies of Stephen Dunn’s Local Time and Donald Justice’s Selected Poems. Stephen and Don were my teachers. I don’t know if either of my parents have read any of their poems.
To my friend, I said I don’t believe in the soul. That surprised me: I had never said that before. I don’t know if I’d ever even thought it before. I do know that I felt relieved when I said it, unburdened. Relieved of what? Unburdened of what?
I’m not dreaming. I’m reading. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands. What a relief to read this now, this fragment of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell. A human body can only do what a human body can do. I don’t expect: how about working with that as a practice when I lie down at night and in the morning when—if—I rise again?
Are there other ways of responding to what’s unknown? Might we even train ourselves to recognize the human mind’s habit of perceiving as threats those things, human and more than human, that do not conform to the world as we know it?
“It was good to be in Chicago.”
What comes next? How about this: “On the way to Santiago.”
That’s Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. He’s demonstrating how one line of a poem leads to another.
I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.
And that’s where “the sound begins.” Mindfulness of hearing. What sound? Here again the poem pauses. Instead of jumping ahead to disclose the source of sound, which is revealed to the speaker soon enough, the poem offers us an experience of what the mind does when it encounters an unknown.
To the American citizens who marched in Charlottesville, to the American citizens who defaced the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, to the American citizen who hopes to see me in an oven, I say this: I’m trying to hold it all, hope and fear, present and past, apple and fire, light and gleaming dark, exile and home.
“The only person that I ever touch,” you write, “left town for a few weeks, and the city [L.A.] feels more threatening than ever…. There must be more to life than writing letters. Trying to describe with words what can only be communicated by touch.” That was in the 1980s, the last time we were in touch.
In her “Declaration,” Tracy K. Smith, former U. S. Poet Laureate, uncovers another declaration, a story that lives within, inseparable from, the Declaration of Independence. To tell that story, the story of enslaved people, clearly, forcefully, Smith erases words from the dominant story.
I’m looking back. I’m reading James Baldwin, his essay “Notes of a Native Son.” His father dies. On the same day, his father’s last child is born. A few days later, his father is buried. On the same day, Baldwin celebrates his 19th birthday. That night, a race riot breaks out in Harlem.
Here’s a game: in the lines below, can you tell which are from the Bible and which from an English poem?
Ho, every one that thirsteth,
to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
buy, and eat;
Meet John William “Blind” Boone (1864-1927): “Sprung from a Yankee bugler and a newly freed mother, his sight was sacrificed to encephalitis at the age of six months. Possessed by a prodigious memory, perfect pitch, and a particular partiality to piano, from which he sees and he sees and he sees…”
Adam and Eve didn’t need to be told not to eat from the Tree of Life. Until they ate the “forbidden fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That they were mortal. Lacking that knowledge, what need would they have had for a shot at immortality, that is, a taste of the Tree of Life?
I keep a few small stones—a couple from Israel, a couple from Whidbey Island, Washington—near my meditation bench in my study. Some days, when anxiety zig-zags around my nervous system, I pick up one of the stones, hoping that its weight in my palm will ground me, as in bring me to solid ground. A body doesn’t fret about work, family, friends, God. With the stone in my palm, whom should I fear?
A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.
Let’s memorize this poem. I’ll give you three minutes.