“No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

"Now you’re walking down to the shore. . ."

“Now you’re walking down to the shore. . .”

These days there’s a lot of prattle by the talking heads on TV from FOX to MSNBC about President Obama’s “legacy.” Usually the topic is what the President is doing to shape (or reshape or create or change or . . .) his legacy.

The other day Diane Rehm’s guest on her NPR interview show was the British actor David Thomson. I didn’t hear the entire program, but I heard a few moments of his speaking to the idea that all of us are to a certain extent acting—acting out the role in which we want others to see us.

Don’t jump to conclusions. He was not saying we’re all phonies. Far from it. His point was that we all decide (maybe several times in our lives) how we want the world to see us—what our role is in the drama of our lives. I think that’s a powerful idea.

I’ve been thinking lately about that concept. My legacy. That, of course, is a luxury. For anyone who is simply and constantly trying to keep warm or figure where the next meal is coming from, a legacy is the last thing they have to worry about. And that’s—what?—90% of the world’s population. That I have the time, the awareness that anyone might think of me when I am gone—the luxury of knowing who the “leader” of my nation is—places me in the tiniest minority of the people now living or who have ever lived.

I heard only a few minutes of David Thomson’s discussion with Diane Rehm, and I have not read his book. I can hardly claim to understand his ideas. No matter. My legacy. My acting. My acting as if.

We’re all “method actors,” I’d say. We feel the feelings, we immerse ourselves in our experience, in our real and perceived worlds, and then “act” accordingly. Somewhere along the line my experience, both real and perceived, took me down several conflicting paths. I suppose that’s universally true. I don’t need to rehearse mine—it’s pretty much in evidence throughout this blog.

Yesterday I saw my new talk-therapist for the second time, and I began revealing as best I could why I was there. First, I was having a minor version of what I have heard described as a “panic attack.” It’s just the way I live—and my guess is everyone else does, too. I didn’t want to be there. I suddenly was aware of my heart (I don’t know if it was racing or pounding or what—I was simply aware of it). I could not sit still. I seldom can except when I’m at my computer keyboard or working a Sudoku puzzle. I was acutely aware that I did not want to be there.

". . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . ."

“. . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . .”

So we talked. I talked a little about me. He talked a lot about anxiety. My skin crawled and I had to rub my head, and I wanted to scream. He sat calmly in his chair wearing his tie with his handsome gray beard immaculately trimmed and prattling on, and I slumped in the easy chair in my t-shirt with my hair and beard that have not been groomed for two weeks. At one point he was talking about the experience of the victims of the Holocaust (he’s not Jewish—his father was a famous Methodist theologian) and the numbers tattooed on their arms, “Not like the impressive ones you have.” I wore a long-sleeved shirt the first time we talked, so he hadn’t seen them before. At one point I saw the skinny young intern—did I say skinny?—(my therapist teaches at UTSouthwestern Medical School—I see six doctors there, lucky me) staring at my tattoos, and I knew they were both curious about them. Why does a retired church musician/college professor have all those tattoos? I think—although I may be projecting or hoping—that was the unasked question of the hour.

So then he asked me something—I forget what—that the answer was logically to tell him about tutoring college athletes. Specifically about the one last semester that I bonded with in a way the NCAA says we’re not supposed to, but which—I am pretty sure (because he told me so)—has helped keep him in school in the midst of a situation I would not have been able to handle when I was 19 years old. And then the one this week who told me the story of his (for me, literally, unbelievable) growing up, and his violent high school years, and his landing in college with almost no preparation and no skill for staying there. And the words of the director of the program as I left at the end of the day were, “Have you gotten through to another one of the boys?”

So President Obama and I are worried about our legacies. I wonder what the most important thing is that he’s ever done. Bet it has nothing to do with being President. I’ll bet it has to do with his making a connection somewhere sometime with someone—someONE—who could barely connect with anyone. And it makes the fact that he has not written the great American novel or been a concert organist or published books and books of poetry or any of those other things he MIGHT have done pretty much irrelevant.

And in those days in 2031 when he’s 70 and looking back on his life and alone—of course, he’ll never be alone, but he’ll be lonely—it’s that minute when some kid who’s had a rough, even violent, life said to him, “But I’m going to do this,” and admitted he could use his help along the way, that will make him weep in a way no actor on stage has ever done.

“What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” by Edward Hirsch (b. 1950)
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

(About Edward Hirsch.)

"No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depths."

“No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.”

sum link for other blog

“. . . more life and more adventure for the brave. . .” (Godfrey Fox Bradby)

Gibbons  and hymnal gibbons

Gibbons and hymnal Gibbons

I’m a coward.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. But then, most people who know me well are cowards, too. The people I hang with are pretty run-of-the-mill, don’t bother me I’m busy making a living kinds of folks.

If I had even a modicum of courage, I would be living in Bethlehem or Freetown or Mosul or Lake Providence. I’d at least be volunteering at the North Texas Food Bank or The Stewpot.

My default earworm is a tune by Orlando Gibbons (1583 –1625) published in 1623, his “Song 1.” It’s the tune for a strange hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (number 470, I will remember ‘til I die).

The hymn is strange because it begins with a heretical statement,

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.

It’s heretical because, even though people think Christians believe we will die and then immediately go to heaven or hell, and that’s the purpose of life, true Christian theology is that when we die, we’re good and dead! St. Paul says we will be raised “incorruptible” when the trumpet sounds, but until then we’ll be dead. No Rapture there!

The statement, “We were not born to die,” is heretical.

I don’t care one way or the other what anyone believes about death. I think the orthodox Christian theology is correct—at least that we’ll be dead when we die—and I expect in 14.07 years (by the Social Security actuarial table) to be dead.

As earworms go, mine is pretty strange. I’ll bet no one reading this can sing it. No one who didn’t grow up Episcopalian between 1940 and 1982 has ever heard it . Not more than 5% of those folks can sing it.

I learned the tune when I was a junior in college, 1966. Dr. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, gave me his copy of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons from the Tudor Church Music collection. He bought it when he was a student in Paris in 1931. In 1966 I thought it was a venerable antique. He gave it to me because the University Choir, for which I was one of the organists, was singing the little Gibbons anthem, “O Lord Increase My Faith.”

The book was (and is) one of my prized possessions, a hefty tome. In order to show me it was not simply a historical relic, Dr. Spelman showed me “Song 1” from the volume was used in The Hymnal 1940, which the University Choir used. It immediately became my favorite hymn tune.

When I was pursuing my MA in composition four years later, my first extended work was a brass quintet, and the second movement is essentially a chorale prelude on “Song 1.”

The hymn may have been omitted from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 as much because it is confusing as because it is heretical. After beginning with the statement that we were not born to die, it closes with the stanza,

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.
“Beyond the grave, more life?”
Nothing that lives in God is ever dead?

Wait! We are—according to the most orthodox Christian theology—dead until the trumpet shall sound and we shall be raised. Now, lest anyone think I worry about the fine points of Christian theology, I must get back to my original topic. Bravery. Or was it earworms?

Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

So, according to Bradby, if you want life and adventure beyond the grave, you must live bravely here. Sounds vaguely like something a “Jihadist” suicide bomber would say, no?

It probably means Bradby would say I’m not going to heaven because I don’t live bravely here.

My favorite autograph

My favorite autograph

I’ve thought a lot about that for 50 years. Because of my earworm. Really. I’ll bet five days out of seven I hum at least the first three or four bars of the tune, and I have to consciously substitute some other earworm to take its place. That often turns out to be not much better, the hymntune “Salzburg,” with the original words, Alle Menschen müssen sterben (“all people must die”).

I’m a big baby. Scared of everything. Scared I’m going to hurt my hip again, so I walk with a cane (actually, about every 10th step does hurt, so that may not count). I never do anything dangerous. Never have done.

And, for the most part, my friends haven’t either. I have one friend who climbed some mountain in Tibet, but that’s not danger, that’s foolhardiness. I know a guy who races stock cars. Again, foolhardiness.

I am acquainted with a woman who travels all over the world saving girls from sexual slavery. She’s brave. A close friend has been in an Israeli prison for helping to feed kids in Palestinian refugee camps (Gaza and Lebanon). She’s the bravest person I know.

I saw on the PBS Newshour a couple of nights ago the attorney Nancy Hollander, whom I have met several times, who is representing Mohamedou Ould Slahi whose book about his imprisonment at Guantanamo has just been released. Nancy is brave. So is Mohamedou.

I hope it’s evident where I’m going with this. I don’t have much use for people who climb mountains or worry about heaven or hell—whether or not there are such things and/or whether or not they’re going there.

Bravery, in my book is doing something FOR someone else—probably someone you don’t even know—that might (probably will) make other people hate you and probably harm you.

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.
All that is beautiful in earth and sky,
All skills, all knowledge, all the powers we have,
Are of thy giving; and in them we see
no dust and ashes, but a part of thee.

Laughter is thine, the laughter free from scorn,
And thine the smile upon a cheerful face:
Thine, too, the tears, when love for love must mourn,
And death brings silence for a little space.
Thou gavest, and thou dost not take away:
The parting is but here, and for a day.

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

I’m pretty much chicken-shit.
photoApropos of almost nothing. This photograph was in the Gibbons volume when I opened it. Three of the players in as production of the Wakefield Cycle of Mystery Plays, the play for the Feast of the Ascension, produced my my choir at Grace Church Episcopal in Salem, MA, 1983. Jesus (not pictured) was played by a Cabot (yess one of THE Cabots), and God sat on the high altar throughout the drama. Some people didn’t like that she sat on the high altar. Some people didn’t like that she was African-American. Hardly anyone complained that God was she.

“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

“A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral fruit.” (Amy Gerstler)

Eating it meant you embraced tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

When you get to be my age memories pop into your mind from nowhere and arrest your attention, sometimes with startling vividness.

This morning I stumbled onto the poem “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956). Suddenly I was remembering a trip to Kansas City in 1973. I stayed with my mother’s brother and his wife, and we spent a day with my father’s father. The memory is confused. Sometime after my grandmother died (1973), my grandfather sold his home and moved to Abilene, TX, where his youngest child, my aunt, cared for him until he died (1977).

I was on my way to audition for the organ department at the University of Iowa to be accepted into the DMA program in organ. My maternal uncle took me to visit my paternal grandfather (my parents’ families had known each since long before my parents married), and the three of us went to my uncle’s church so I could play the organ for my grandfather.

Are you confused yet?

For some reason I played the Bach “Little” Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major. It certainly was not one of the works with which I was planning to impress Professors Krapf and Disselhorst. It does, however, have a pedal solo, and I remember my uncle was so amazed that he made me stop in the middle of the Prelude and play it again. He had never seen such a thing. It’s really quite simple (the work isn’t called “little” for no reason).

Why? Why does reading a poem about fruit cocktail drag into my consciousness my uncle’s amazement at my playing a passage for pedals alone in the middle of a Bach organ work?

That trip to Kansas City was fraught with import, with meaning. I was beginning the process of giving up my old life to strike out on a new one (and I was not altogether certain I would be accepted). That meant quitting a job and selling our house and moving with my wife to a place neither of us had ever been. I was alone on my “audition” trip, and I already knew in some unconscious way that it also carried with it the distinct possibility that our marriage would end when I was immersed in my new life. That may, in fact, have been one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on this new path.

Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit.

I had another (ulterior, I suppose one might say) reason for arranging my trip to be with my uncle. I won’t explain here because it is too painful for me and not fair to him, but I had a score to settle with my uncle. At the time I thought I could engage him in a way that I had needed to since I was in junior high school. It was not possible. I didn’t know how, and he would have rejected my attempt, I am sure. It could not be part of this memory-tale.

Somehow playing that pedal passage and astounding him was enough at that moment.

The next time I saw my uncle was at my paternal grandfather’s funeral. The Peck family was, of course, there to support and be with the Knight family. I remember clearly standing with my father and my mother’s brother beside my grandfather’s casket in that stilted and phony funeral home scene we all know so well and hearing my uncle say to my father, “Well, Glenn, now we are the older generation.” My father was 63 at the time, nine years younger than I am now.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.

Faded funeral fruit that meant you embraced tastelessness . . . and that when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth. Not until about 1985 did I confront in my mind the reasons I knew I needed to visit my uncle. Ten years after that I visited him in a nursing home where he was cared for as an Alzheimer’s patient, of which both he and my mother died.

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

Memories—vivid memories, important memories—do not necessarily equate with the “truth.” In fact, they might well help you spurn the truth.

The day I visited my uncle in the nursing home and his brother explained who I was by trying to bring up memories of childhood—“You know May, our sister—her son”—I had determined to confront my uncle, to bridge the enormous chasm between us.

Fortunately, I did not need to. Even I, the wounded party, the self-righteous actor in the drama in my head, could forgive a man in such dire and pitiable condition.

Self-righteousness, I think, is a more or less useless attitude. I think it actually comes from thinking of oneself as a victim—“how dare he do that to me, righteous as I am?”

Two days ago I was in the grips of what I thought was either the “hangover” from a massive seizure or a day-long series of tiny seizures. Intense dissociation mentally and dizziness physically. My neurologist made time in his busy schedule to see me early yesterday morning.

Blood work. Are your meds in balance? What else is going on in your life?

Retirement, separation anxiety, worry about taking care of yourself in old age. I want you to keep in contact by MyChart, but I’m also going to arrange for you to have regular talk therapy with one of the psychology faculty here at the medical school. At my age? I’ve been in therapy much of the time for fifty years!

You need to put these demons to rest. Anti-seizure meds can’t help depression.

“Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956)

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

A resident of Los Angeles, Amy Gerstler has taught at Antioch West and the University of California at Irvine’s graduate writing program. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars program at Bennington College in Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Bitter Angel (1990).

About This Poem
“A friend showed me a reproduction of a 1964 painting by James Rosenquist called Fruit Salad. The painting (you can Google it) is a close-up, bright, garish portrait of fruit cocktail. Seeing it released a flood of memories of the ’50s and ’60s for me, so I decided to try to make a picture of that time period via this popular food of my childhood.” —Amy Gerstler

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

“Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. . .” (Mark Strand)

Never. That’s when I was in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.

Yep. Never.

And for a gay man, that’s a somewhat sad statement. We’re supposed to ooze sex and health and attractiveness. I guess so other gay men don’t have to think twice about hooking up with us. And life is fun and frolicsome.

I think I’m basically a poet who does not know how to write poetry, so my poems come out in these somewhat (absolutely?) disjointed 1000-word “essays” full of bizarre connections and metaphors and similes and other poetic devices, the names of which I don’t know.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a gray dawn.

If I can’t write poetry, perhaps I can write about poetry. I want to write a little piece about “Monocle de Mon Oncle” by Wallace Stevens, but it’s long (longer than my attention span can follow), and I don’t have any idea what it “means.”
Here’s the second stanza. I dare anyone to read it and not be simply transfixed by the words, whatever they mean.

A red bird flies across the golden floor.
It is a red bird that seeks out his choir
Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing.
A torrent will fall from him when he finds.
Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?
I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;
For it has come that thus I greet the spring.
These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell.
No spring can follow past meridian.
Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss
To make believe a starry connaissance.

I’d love to be able to put some words together as mysteriously and exquisitely (I think I have never typed “exquisitely” before) as Stevens did. Even if neither I nor anyone else knew what they meant.

The “About” page in the masthead on this blog says,

This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old (I’m 69). I’m a (soon-to-be-retired) college professor. You can read more about me at my very serious blog, http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/
I will post silly stuff I find elsewhere, and I will write original stuff. I will tell stories and expound my opinions. So, welcome aboard.

It’s a lie in at least two ways. I’m not a “soon-to-be-retired” college professor. I am officially retired (ask Medicare). And I very seldom post silly stuff, either my stuff or stuff I’ve ripped-off from someone with a more obvious sense of humor than I have. (Unless, of course, all of my stuff is silly.)

I do tell stories and expound my own opinions. Seldom do either seem to be light-hearted. As it happens, when my thoughts about getting older materialize, they are seldom “light-hearted.” Here’s where I’d like to be a poet. I’d like to be able to express my not-light-hearted thoughts about aging without sounding as if my thoughts are depressed or dark. I’d say they’re pensive or earnest or sober—like my general personality. That’s not exactly what I mean, either. Anyone who knows me well would say that, if my ideas are like my general personality, they will at least lean toward the depressive. However, it is possible to be depressed and think in a way that is not depressed. I suppose that seems like a logical impossibility, but it’s not.

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I know what Mark Strand’s poem “means.” Mark Strand is a Canadian-born American poet, born 1934. He has received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was appointed Poet Laureate 1990. He is, by the way, 80 years old and still teaching at Columbia University.

I empty my pockets, too. I’m trying to divest myself of the stuff of my life that is no longer meaningful—all that stuff in my pockets that I might as well pitch. And that includes even some people who are not good for me. I don’t know about turning back the clocks. I have little desire to be young again—but I do open the family albums and look at myself as a boy. Trying to put my mind at ease about how I came to be the man I am.

A blog I found looking for information on him says Mark Strand is one of the 10 manliest poets. Wallace Stevens is on that list, too. I think the blogger guy has a problem with his own manliness. I don’t have such a problem. Because I don’t know what “manliness” is. If I don’t know what the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics is, how can I have a problem with it?

I don’t suppose “manliness” has much to do with the physical. I don’t have to worry about never having been “in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.” Even in order to be attractive to other gay men.

And I don’t need to worry about being “manly” (or write a blog in which I list my ten nominees for manliest poet—does that strike anyone else as a sad enterprise?).

I would indeed find it strange—ironic? (probably not in the actual literary sense of the word), lightening of heart—to discover here in my incipient old age that I’ve known myself, my “manliness,” my (in)ability to write poetry, all of those things that used to perplex me.

Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

“The Remains,” by Mark Strand
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

Mark Strand was born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island on April 11, 1934. He received a BA degree from Antioch College in Ohio in 1957 and attended Yale University. In 1962 he received his MA degree from the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991. He is 80 years old and teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.