Saturday, May 21, 2011

'A Place That's Known' ...

I am not a poet.

In my lone poetry class in college, I earned a B. A pity B, I'm sure. Or maybe we all received Bs. My poetry professor didn't seem like the motivated sort. Perhaps he gave everyone a B and beelined for a bar.

However, I took a literature class taught by a poet. A professor who wrote poetry but who did not, to my knowledge, teach poetry, at least not to we underlings that I remember, which is just as well because while I wasn't really bothered to submit poetry to the man who taught my poetry class, I would have been nearly paralyzed by the notion of having to submit poetry to Michael. Because Michael, or Professor Anania as he should be called, is, poetically, a genius.

But the brilliance of his work, I have long maintained in those rare moments in which I am discussing poetry and poets, is two-fold: His words are beautiful, yes, but he has the most amazing voice. And so I've always thought of Michael's poems in terms of being both read and heard, but only if heard by him. The voice in your head, however a lovely a voice it may be, cannot do them justice.

Happily, others agree. In Natural Light is a small volume of his work, about the size of a jewel case, which contains a CD of him reading his poems. (My brain is convinced that I have written about this before, though where, I do not know. I can find no evidence of it in my archives, but even if I have, it is worth repeating.)

And so I took the liberty of uploading the audio of the first poem as well as keying it in, so you can both listen and read and experience Michael's poetry in the best possible way. There is something about this particular poem that I love, something that I cannot name, the elusive quality unique to us all, the reason some like some things and others like others, the stirring that art creates inside.

Thank you, professor. I hope you're well.

(If the embedded player, above, doesn't render in your browser, the direct URL for the mp3 is here.)

A Place That's Known

Out on the front step fifty years ago,
my mother beside the four o'clocks
smoking her last Chesterfield of the night,
locusts strumming, radio dramas and anger
practiced through open windows, the Plaza
beginning just where her anklets crossed,
American elms opening a span of western sky.

Sky outside her hospital window
spring-gray and full of the plains, droplets
sigh against the glass: wind out of Norfolk
and Kearney, brimming their emptiness.
We are silent now watching the thin,
transparent oxygen tube rise and fall
at the vein where it crosses her neck.

One and one and one, not a sequence
but something failing to start, ending.
Her hands seem longer than I had thought,
the still curve from wrist bone to fingertip,
fingernail ridges the same as my own;
my hand, my fingers begin and end in hers.
Slipping away, they say, one breath, no others.

I remember singing, a dance spun
across the linoleum's worn flowers,
her hair pressed into his chest, the Zenith's
pale dial, words of the song that stopped
the dancing, everyone staring into
the music, Seven-up blushed with port, war:
"I'd like to leave it all behind and go and find . . ."

somewhere in the West, in a space of green
edged with gold and sky blue, something the Plaza
might have given way to if we listened hard and held tight,
like the night his face appeared at the back window,
hitchhiked from Kearney, rail thin and cold,
and she sighed and scolded and leaned against him.
"What hospital?" he said, wishing it away.

That night we huddled into our wishes,
as later into relics and stories, evenings
full of the past, the green strong box opened,
bits of his life and hers spread out over
white chenille, each object held and named:
rosary, scapular, catechism, gun,
rewrapped in cloth or paper and locked away.

"Your father," "your grandmother," "my dad"
she said into the broken night, sirens edging
toward us, the fight across the way spilt
down the steps onto the Plaza's hopscotch,
knife flash or skillet lid, a razor's band
of blue darkness moving across soft skin
as smoothly as sweat, blood quick as a tear.

Summer night, poverty's continual rage,
voices, hands, fists rising and falling,
accusations and recriminations
breaking through windows, out of doors.
"Your father," she said, "your grandmother,"
the boat, the island, the train, the long dusty
tilt of the world, how they sang and danced.

One voice, all those years, against the clamor,
stories and names against blood-soaked hand towels,
against heels pounding down the walk, screams,
drowned children, scaldings, flesh drawn up and pink,
stretcher after stretcher, "cover their eyes,"
their faces, so many stomachs clutched in pain.
"Your father," she said, "my mother" and "sleep."


Anonymous Dave said...

He sounds a little like Michael Gambon.

"Seven-up blushed with port" - my grandmother's favorite drink, although back in England we called it
Port & Lemon.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

He does sound a bit like Michael Gambon. I never thought of that.

And I never knew about 7-Up and port until I heard this poem.

5:02 PM  

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