Okay, first of all, happy National Poetry Month! Second of all, I feel just a little bit of shame that I have not posted a poem on this blog site since April 30th of 2020. I have, over the last seven years, been in the habit of celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a single poem on each day of April. In between the Aprils, I have, from time to time, continued the practice of posting poems here, you know, to keep things moving in the poetry department. 374 poems in all. But 2020 proved to be a dismal year for poetry, as it was dismal in many other ways as well, at least for me, at least until a very late kind of redemption that took place around November. I think I may have written one poem during all of the rest of 2020 after April–and for some reason, it didn’t end up on the site. Suffice it to say that things are a little rusty over here. I have, I suppose, been saving my poetry energy for other things, like writing about The Plague Year, like surviving said Plague Year, not only by remaining healthy, but by trying to keep my head above water in this brave new world of enforced Distance Learning and Teaching. I’ve been talking to myself, talking to a computer screen, talking to 9th graders’ junior high school pictures, all year long. It makes Jack a dull boy. So after this long preamble of excuses for not writing poetry, let’s dig in, shall we? See if we can recapture the spirit, get this poetry department back in order, open for business.
As always, it is my practice, at the beginning of each day in April, to visit the mighty NaPoWriMo website for inspiration. Every day in this lovely place there are things to read and consider and a prompt to get one started, if one needs a boost. The prompts are always optional–we wouldn’t want to make the compulsory poem-a-day feel any more compulsory than it already is by requiring people to write from a prompt. But I find these things helpful and often do take up the suggestion–especially if, instead of a subject matter suggestion, it’s a crafty one. You know, write a limerick–but write it about whatever you like–that sort of thing. Even as I write this I don’t know what I will do–but I will tell you what the prompt is, if you like, just to give you a feel for the thing. Here’s today’s prompt:
That was actually not the prompt from Day 1 of Napowrimo, but the early bird prompt from yesterday for those folks who, for some trick of the sun and the moon and the orbit of the Earth were already in April before the rest of us. I liked that prompt, and immediately I knew the piece of art I wanted to grab, one not found on any of those links. Do you want to see it? Here it is.
This is a piece by a Polish artist named Rafal Olbinsky. It appears to me that it was used to promote a performance of a work called “Don Carlos” by Verdi, but I know it, at least that part of it that begins above the tip of the naked guy’s sword, as the cover of a novel I am currently teaching, and have written about before here on the blog, called Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, a super important practitioner of fabulist, fantastic, or speculative fiction from Argentina.
My god, it’s late. Way later than I wanted to be writing my first poem of the month. The day has been a kind of train wreck. There is a part of me that would like to just bail and cry April fools! But there’s the other part of me, the Catholic part, that insists that a poem gets written today come hell or high water. So I proceed. Trust me. Even in this moment, as I’m writing this, I have no clue about this poem–what it’s called, what it’s about, how it will look. I only know that somehow it will be inspired by the art above, maybe by the novel I’m teaching, and that it will happen on this screen underneath this paragraph.
Poem on April 1
I have a city growing out of the back of my head. It’s ancient, built of stone, full of towers and spires that reach, as long as I’m looking at the ground, to the sky, to the stars and the blood red moon. The city out of the back of my head prefers this orientation, reaching up while I’m looking at the dirt. But if I hold my head upright and look full forward, the city out of the back of my head reaches behind me, always following, always trailing, like ghosts, like memory, memory like ghosts, ghost-like memory, a whole city of things I cannot forget, things I would not forget even if it were possible. As much or as best as I can, I try to keep my eyes focused ahead; I move my body forward, try to see straight, while the city out of the back of my head continues to grow, building itself larger than life in my wake.
Made a single cup;
fuel needed after waking
at 4 in the morning.
There’s a bottle of balsamic
on the table, waiting to be
drizzled over someone’s
leftovers for lunch.
Here’s a copy of
Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits, a gift to
the staff lounge
from an intern of mine
from two years ago.
His name was Chuck.
In an era that finds
the textbook mostly
obsolete, several choices
are on display on a table
in the staff lounge.
Chips, candy, and soda.
Only one sugarless choice:
seltzer. These machines
There’s some crap in here
no one uses and no one wants:
desk organizers, empty binders,
old VHS tapes that Melanie left,
a 2016 copy of U.S. News &
World Report, the “Find the Best
Colleges for You” edition.
Who will throw out the crap?
Who will clean the microwave?
It belongs to nobody.
It’s nobody’s business.
The principal before
the one before the one
we have now, maybe
15 years ago, bought
two burgundy love seats,
a matching chair, and
a coffee table that looks
like a box in order to
beautify the lounge
and make it more
Dr. Rex Putnam Award
Candidate summaries. Please,
DO NOT REMOVE.
We Love You
in gigantic letters
taped up on the wall
from last year’s teacher
maybe even from the
year before. It’s so hard
to keep track of the love.
We have to remind ourselves
by looking at this wall
The natives are restless, the 9th graders are rowdy, won’t stop talking, interrupt almost every teacher phrase with chatter, and because my intern has the class, I am completely unruffled. It’s the penultimate day of National Poetry Month and this is my penultimate poem in prose in the April of my potentially penultimate school year as a classroom English teacher.
Over the last three days, I wrote three poems, each about travel, each ending with the same sentence. You are here. I’m reminded of that saying, wherever you go, there you are. Or the Player’s line in the Stoppard play, something like, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Coming and going, with perfect equanimity, you are always, and I am always, right here.
After next school year, in this moment, I am almost certain that I will not be here. But uncertainty is a constant companion. I said, it feels like jumping off a cliff. Or standing on a cliff, and maybe I’m looking down at a precipitous drop or looking out on some astounding vista. It really depends on the moment. I prefer vistas to drop-offs. In this moment, I choose vistas.
I notice what this poem is doing. Without my being conscious of it, paragraphs are landing in this draft in nearly identical chunks of five lines, four that move all the way to the end of the margin, and one, the last line–two, three, and then four words long. Now, I am conscious of a pattern, and I am planning to end this stanza in prose with a short line of five carefully chosen words.
It all depends on the margins. Type this poem up in a Word document, or publish it on your blog, and things will shift. Our margins shift like this. The only margin that doesn’t shift is the first one–our births are non-negotiable; on this day, December 4, 1964, you were born. Our careers begin somewhere in the squishy regions of early adulthood, and, if we are lucky, very lucky, they end 30-some years later.
My brother worked over 40 years at a job he didn’t really like. His retirement at 62 or thereabouts was an escape. He said good riddance and walked away. And he walked away so late because there were no other options. Again, I have been stupidly lucky. Luckier, and not so lucky, as my father, who retired, like I hope to, at 55. He had full health care from the moment he left work.
But I have loved my job, and I don’t know that my father loved his. He never spoke about it. I could hardly even tell you now what it was that he did for a living. It was a government job and he worked downtown and once he took a computer class and brought home a bunch of punch cards. My son knows what I do simply by virtue of his being a student in a public school classroom. What your teacher does–that’s your Dad.
God, look at all of these books, file cabinets full of 30-years worth of handouts, lesson plans, readings, exams; check out all of this student generated art that I’ve never tossed, that quilt for The Color Purple, the portraits of the family from Geek Love, portraits of Virginia Woolf, the beautiful and huge broadside of William Stafford’s “Your Life”-the treasured haul of an English teacher’s career.
If I take all of this home my wife will murder me. Health care will no longer be an issue, ironically.
I don’t know who made this. A team of students. Circa 1995ish?
Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate
anything in this room.
This bag is not a toy.
This thing right here: do not eat.
Watch your step.
If symptoms persist,
consult your physician.
I am out of band-aids.
Men below, please don’t throw.
This hand sanitizer is
flammable. Think about
that for a minute.
Do not flush.
Pull only in an emergency.
Do not spray your perfume
in a crowded classroom, you idget.
Listening only occurs when
your mouth is closed.
Reading only happens when
your eyes are on the page,
and even then, sometimes not.
Failure to listen and read
may result in abject stupidity.
Don’t tell me it wasn’t you, or
that you weren’t doing anything.
The first part is undeniably false,
the second may be true, but
that’s the whole problem.
Duck and cover.
Don’t look for hidden meaning.
There is no hidden meaning,
only meaning that you can’t see,
which is an altogether different thing.
Do you remember, Janine,
when we were not yet
out of grade school,
how we used to play
We had no cameras
or camcorders or iphones,
only our minds to record
the scenes conjured from
uninhibited and improvised,
film stars in a film no one
was watching nor would ever.
Sometimes we made your
sister be the monster and
we’d run away, but
other times, we took
ourselves and our project
I remember one scene
in particular. You played the
role of a mother and I was your son.
The context, the backstory,
the exposition is fuzzy, but I
remember that someone had
died, or there was some other kind
of absence, or an anticipation
of an absence: I remember now.
For some reason, I was leaving home.
There was no silliness or
childish theatrics; our intentions
were fierce and authentic
and whatever the words were,
the words we said to each other,
we believed them and allowed
ourselves to be moved.
I was saying goodbye to
my mother and we embraced
and we wept as if our lives
depended on it.
Maybe they did.
Moving through the last show of the run,
it was hard to contain my happiness.
Through the first four acts I felt downright
giddy. It was difficult to suppress the smiles
and there was a kind of laughter inside,
too flattering sweet to be substantial.
I was happy the run was near an end but
simultaneously I felt a deep gratitude
for this great gift of an experience.
And I was having a great show,
my best performance to date, I thought.
But, lo, behold, in the last scene when
the Capulets and the Montagues all
descend on the crypt where the bodies
of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet lie, I knelt
down by my dead daughter, and then,
taking in the carnage and picking up
a cue, I was to deliver my penultimate
speech in the play:
“O heavens, O wife, look how our daughter bleeds.
This dagger hath mista’en, for lo, his house
is empty on the back of Montague and
is mis-sheathed in my daughter’s bosom.”
But, lo, alack the day, I was silent.
No words came from my mouth,
nor was I even aware that words should be coming from my mouth.
I was aware, though, of a strange silence
on stage. I looked up at the actor playing
the Prince, and I thought, dude, say your
flipping line! But then my wife, dear
Lady Capulet, delivered the lines that
come immediately after mine and in that
moment I knew. So it was especially
difficult then, in the last 10 minutes of
the show, to stay out of my head and
connected to the scene. Consequently,
after having had the best show thus far,
it ended for me in the worst way possible.
I know that’s not really true.
I know it could have been worse, and
that this Actor nightmare is nowhere
close to being the scariest.
The great boon, here, though, I realize,
is that very few people were aware of it.
A few cast members, perhaps, and not
a single audience member. Even if there
were people out there who knew the play
well enough to track the missing four lines,
they might have just chalked it up to a cut that
had been made pre-production, on purpose,
like. Nevertheless, the audience response
to the last show was overwhelmingly positive,
and afterwards, most of us found our way
to a cast party where the kids behaved
like happy puppies, the adults sipped
wine in the kitchen, and the Italian food
to celebrate the Bard’s birthday was abundant.
Well, hello, and welcome to the annual poetry writing extravaganza in celebration of National Poetry Month during which suckers like myself attempt to write and publish a poem every day during the merry merry month of April. My first outing follows the instructions (optional as always) found on the National Poetry Writing Month website, where each day of the month, not only do we get a prompt for the day in case we are stuck, but other goodies as well, such as links to featured participants’ websites and this year, links to poems in translation. How cool is that?
Just in case you’re joining me for the first time and are confused by the number 189 (that was not intended to be a rhyme), I have been numbering all of the poems I’ve published on my blog site, and so this, my fourth consecutive year writing a poem each day for National Poetry Month and a bunch of loose poetry change, finds me today writing my 189th poem for the blog.
Today’s poem is a lune, an English language variation of the haiku, and I am writing my lune with my Creative Writing students, who I am forcing to also write lunes. Here I have attempted a poem in three stanzas, each stanza is a lune (5, 3, and 5 syllables, respectively).
Writing A Lune With My Students
Text messages go
a stupid response.
I assumed the loon
would be the
easiest thing. Fool.
Didn’t turn out to
notebook chicken scratch.
Postscript: I realize after initial publication that I’ve got the wrong lune (loon) in my poem, but decide to leave it as is. Seems to go nicely with the other bird reference in the last stanza. Maybe I’ll try to get a bird in the first one as well in a subsequent draft.
Writing A Lune With My Students
Text messages go
a cuckoo response.
I assumed the loon
would be the
easiest thing. Fool.
Didn’t turn out to
notebook chicken scratch.
The boy says, daddy, come play with me,
and I say, no son, I’ve got to write a poem.
A pitfall of national poetry writing month:
potentially bad, or at least neglectful
Oh, damn, that’s right, he says,
it’s April. You never play with me
in April. And I say, dude, dear boy,
my love, it only takes me a half hour
to write a poem. Hold on to your britches,
or do some cow art, why don’t you?
But he has already left the room,
given up on poor old dad,
trying to write a stupid poem
every day of the stupid month.
He retreats to his room
to do cow art, “super majestic
and flying,” his words.
And I’ve got a poem.