“Life passes away–
Poetry remains.”
This is what the students
of the Hebrew University Secondary School
wrote on their card to me,
handed to me
attached to a small bouquet
after my reading. I thought
they wrote it with my age in mind,
for solace. I would like to believe
that what they wrote is true.
But I know most poetry passes away,
and maybe all of my poetry will pass away
and it will be as if I had not been.
My sons may come to see my life’s work
as a foolish project. When they do,
I hope they remember the happiness it gave me,
the places it took me to–
Jerusalem, for example, and my meeting with Ester,
my passing through the Lions’ Gate
as if in my youth.

* * *
I met Harvey Shapiro several years ago on the eve of a reading he was to give at Xavier, at a party hosted by a professor friend of mine. He was old and small but spritely. He drank wine, entertained each conversation with intensity and interest. So much life, so much experience, so much worldliness in such a small body, I thought. Someone said he had just come, a few nights before, from a party hosted by Martin Scorsese. I stayed late–probably later than I should have–so that I might finally get a chance to talk to him. I sat next to him and told him I liked his poems, told him about the magazine I edit for, and would he consider sending us some work. He was kind, patient, and even accepted my request to read an older poem of his that I liked at the next night’s reading. Of course I had to bring the book, since he didn’t have the poem with him. I can’t remember the name of the poem now, but it ends with something like an answer to the poem I’ve quoted above. “Peace, goddess voice, / keep telling me a story,” or something like that. Shapiro’s later poems are filled with an acute awareness of aging and of his own mortality, of his life’s passing, and questions of what he will have passed on, if anything. The happiness he speaks of here comes to him, I believe, because of that prayer spoken to the goddess to keep telling him a story, and because he has continued to listen.

Shapiro knew cities with a strange and unexpected intimacy. He could see through them, into their soul. The poem “Jerusalem, For Example” comes from a collection called How Charlie Shavers Died, and I could have picked any of the poems in it as representative of this intimacy. For example, I could have picked “It Was April”:

It was April
and it had snowed
and we thought it was snow again
coming out of the restaurant
into the lit night
but it was wind-borne
white petals of the flowering
Bradford pear trees
that line this Brooklyn street.

His simplicity of statement, so close to the bone of experience, is felt immediately, and is recognizable. The poems are not just accessible, but familiar. They touch with their truth. I think I have read and returned to this collection more than any other in the last six years.

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And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

* * *

This poem, which Bob Murphy sent over the other day, reminds me of a conversation I had not long ago in Lancaster with my old friend Dan Miller. We were sitting in Jethro’s Pub smoking cigarettes and drinking an ale of some sort, and Dan was describing the confluence of life and Christian faith, how God’s design–both anthropologically and spiritually–coincide with an almost impossible simplicity. Our primal human functions–eating/drinking, bathing, breathing, and sleeping/waking–are daily embodiments of all Christian doctrine. The Eucharist feeds us; our bathing, like baptism, is a form of cleansing; our breaths are the life He breathed into Adam and the disciples at Pentecost; our sleep a daily death to self, our waking a resurrection of the body.

When at his best, Ezra Pound once said of Lawrence that there was no English poet under 40 who could “get within a shot of him.” Here, the poet lets us hear the sound of life’s season’s (“as weeks go round”) which we are forced, by our very limitations, to submit to. Our lives are always “moving still / with the dark earth.”

Lawrence’s poem, it seems to me, is ripe with what the Romans called gravitas, which they equated to soberness and grief. It is a recognition of our brotherhood with the earth. In our grief, we grow downward. We enter the depths. We cross into Hades. Robert Bly tells us that “the time will come naturally when [a man] will find himself falling; he will find himself on the road of ashes, and discover at night that he is holding the ashy hand of the Lord of Death or the Lord of Divorce. He will find himself noticing the tears inside brooms or old boards; noticing how much grief that whales carry in their skulls. He realizes how much he has already lost in the reasonable way he chose to live, and how much he could easily lose in the next week. For some men, it is a time of crying in airports.”

As Lawrence tracks life’s phases, its sicknesses and misery, its “trouble and dissolution and distress,” a shadowy world to be sure, there are yet “snatches of renewal” and “wintry flowers upon the withered stem.” There is grace. I like to think that simplicity Dan spoke of was something like this, something like grace. Despite the downward pull of our grief toward earth–the earth from which we were made, and to which we return, the place of which Neruda said “I know the earth and I am sad”–it returns to us new blossoms. Meals, wine, breath, a hot shower, a good sleep, a waking up with the sun.

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs–

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red pipe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing.

* * *
Knight is among those poets associated with the Black Arts Movement, but his poems tend less toward language experimentation than that of, say, Amiri Baraka, A.B. Spellman or Russell Atkins. Knight has become famous for writing “toast,” a form of improvised long narrative poem in the African American storytelling tradition. His poems tend to employ dialect, repetition, call and response, and evoke southern preaching tropes familiar to southern audiences, even those who were mostly uneducated. Central to the aesthetic behind the Black Arts Movement was a desire to “return the poem to the people,” to create communal spaces in which reader and audience could participate in a shared ritual. Performance and improvisation were key elements to this movement. The point was not to write poems for the page, for archival in some poetry anthology to be read and studied; the point was to move audiences to intense feeling and action. Poetry for Black Arts poets and musicians was political and by definition, according to Haki Mahdabuti, the poet and publisher of Third World Press in Chicago, ultimately perishable.

What is not perishable is the shared chains some of us men wear to those women in our lives who, for one reason or another, have left us against our will. So strong are these chains that something in our very body would curse all to get them back. A bad bet, in the end, but a feeling no less real, no less monstrous in our bones for all its false promises.