I have never given a performance in Savannah, Georgia, but I have given performances, and I have been to Savannah, and that was inspiration enough to write “Singer on River Street, Savannah, Georgia,” my poem that appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder. The subject matter here is interchangeable. Instead of a musician onstage, it could be an athlete entering tryouts or a politician attending a PAC meeting. Savannah might be exchanged for Boston, New Orleans, or the metropolis of your choice. Any activity or location that fires your imagination will do. The poem is about starting something, or trying to, and that concept transcends any time or place -- although, if some times and places didn’t particularly bemuse us, Savannah wouldn’t have such a shimmering night life.
This poem first appeared in The First Thing Mastered, a book that contains 44 poems advancing chronologically from birth to middle age. With that collection, I tried to eschew cynicism and irony and capture life as it feels in the moment. No emotion is frivolous when we feel it deeply. The lead character in “Singer” (referred to in the poem as “you,” not “I” or “he”) is a college student who has succeeded in booking a small gig in Savannah’s historic district. Perhaps he is a good musician, perhaps not. Perhaps the show will be his last. The future is unknowable, but he relishes his ability to shape the present: He made this show happen, first by learning to play and forming a band, then by texting the drummer who texted someone else. His thumbs on the iPhone started a chain that eventually led to a show being booked and a listing in the newspaper. Now, between songs, he surveys the crowd (however big) and notices a woman who seems interested in him. Has he found a lover, an agent, maybe both? His mind, and possibly other parts of his body, throb with questions. Then he realizes that it’s time for the next song, and he gives his band the cue.
I remember that feeling. For years, I operated Moon Tide Press, a small press that published three or four books a year by Southern California poets. (The press continues to operate under the esteemed leadership of others.) When a new title saw release, I felt giddy. The poet was excited; sometimes it was his or her first book. We sent emails to old college friends, press releases to newspapers, inquiries to mom-and-pop bookstores. Any of those outreaches might have led to an interview, a front-page story, a reading with a sold-out book table. Would the Poetry Foundation take notice? Was an award somewhere in the offing? I have never played the lottery, but I understand the appeal that every ticket may be the one worth $1 million. It is the same with any poem, song, painting, short film, text, tweet, or email. Moon Tide Press was small, and so were Elvis Presley's Sun records and Walt Disney’s first studio. If our initiative turns into legend one day, we want to have bragging rights.
Of course, “Singer on River Street, Savannah, Georgia” ends before we know if there is anything to brag about. The poem has no resolution, and I wouldn’t want to write one. Let’s indulge the singer, though, and give him what seems to be within his reach at this riverside club: a contract, a wife, the adoration of strangers. As readers, how much more do we want? I think of the words of Byron in Don Juan:
All tragedies are finish'd by a death,
All comedies are ended by a marriage;
The future states of both are left to faith,
For authors fear description might disparage
The worlds to come of both, or fall beneath,
And then both worlds would punish their miscarriage;
So leaving each their priest and prayer-book ready,
They say no more of Death or of the Lady.
A lot comes after death or the lady, and it doesn’t have to be anticlimactic. For every Presley who finds superstardom a trap, there’s a Disney who seems to relish it to the end. Perhaps the key is staying hungry. Years ago, at UCI, I attended a campus poetry reading in which a professor -- 50 years old, at least -- came to listen to the undergraduates read. He shared a piece or two of his own, then gave a short, eloquent tribute to all those gathered. “I’ve always said that I learn more from my students than they could ever learn from me,” he said. In his mind, was he still a fledgling poet seeking the validation of others? Did he feel like his break was still ahead of him? Since “Singer on River Street” is full of unanswered questions, I’ll refrain from answering these questions too. But look -- I have now finished this blog entry, and I am about to hit “Post” on Weebly. This may be the start of something astonishing. If I didn’t believe in that possibility, I wouldn't write at all.
It is a well-known story that Paul McCartney wrote "Yesterday" after the melody came to him in a dream. Law-abiding Beatle that he was, Paul vetted the tune with his contacts in the music industry to make sure that he hadn't plagiarized it from someone else. He hadn't, and an original classic was born. The moral of the story is clear: As much as we artists pride ourselves on our work, we still get to take credit for pieces that we created unconsciously. That loophole covers dreams, and also words or phrases that we misheard. Exhibit A in the poetry world this week is "Armistice," which first appeared two decades ago and arose from a line that I thought I heard Van Morrison sing. He didn't sing it, in fact, which means that I hold the rights to the mishearing. Given the agonies that sometimes come with being a writer, we can take ecstasies where we can.
The Morrison song in question is "Madame George," an impressionistic ballad from the 1968 album Astral Weeks. Many critics have interpreted the title character as being a transvestite, although Morrison has denied as much in interviews. Regardless, I was familiar with the standard reading of the song before I first heard it, and so when Morrison began the second verse with "Marching with the soldier boy behind," I initially heard it as "Magic left the soldier boy behind." If a soldier boy passes himself off as a beautiful woman, that is surely a magical transformation of some kind. For years, that was my favorite line in the song, until a lyric sheet proved me wrong. My initial disappointment was soon overridden by the realization that the line was now mine, even if Morrison (and his Belfast accent) got credit for the inspiration.
Perhaps you've seen one of those "letter swap" puzzle games. My daughter recently had one as part of her homework. You start with a word and change one letter to make a new word ("life," for instance, becomes "like"), then change one letter of that word ("like" becomes "bike"), and so on until you arrive at something completely new. That Morrison line went through a similar process as I toyed with it in my notebook. "Marching with the soldier boy behind" became "Magic left the soldier boy behind," and then my conscious mind tweaked it again to "Magic left his soldier clothes behind." Three original words, three new ones. Who would leave his soldier clothes behind? In the summer of 2004, when I lived in Connecticut, I overcame a long and particularly brutal stretch of writer's block to answer that question. A general -- "the general," as he's identified in the poem -- strolls into a metropolitan city teeming with nightlife. A war has apparently ended; banners hang in the city square celebrating armistice, while refugees wear black and indulge in wine. Casinos are booming and slot machines provide the soundtrack. The general himself seems mesmerized by the vibe -- flashing the peace sign, treating strangers to drinks, seeking out a church so he can indulge in a spiritual epiphany. At the end of the poem, he vanishes, and the narrator (some anonymous person) retreats to his shabby apartment, still tingling from having witnessed the sublime. Was the general's appearance a dream? A hallucination? A ghost sighting? In the spirit of Van Morrison, who once titled a song "Why Must I Always Explain?", I'll leave that to the reader to decide.
"Armistice" first appeared in Long River Run II, a staple-bound anthology from the Connecticut Poetry Society, in fall 2004. (The title is a reference to the opening words of Finnegans Wake, another enigmatic Irish classic.) It later appeared in my first full-length book, College Town, in 2010, and then stayed dormant until this week, when I submitted it to the Journal of Radical Wonder. Like "City Night," which I blogged about earlier this year, it's an early poem that I look on with fondness, even if I doubt that I would ever write one like it again. I can definitely see a thread that runs through the two poems, plus a number of other ones from that early-2000s period: I was entranced by urban nightscapes, their mystery and danger and titillating promise. College Town begins with a poem called "Night Companion" and ends with "Blues Man," in which a musician passes by the downtown lights after a show. The book opens with an epigraph from Kate Buckley: "I am tall, but not ever so tall as the city at night." Maybe it's no accident that I thought Van Morrison was warbling about magic back then. I may have willed myself to hear it.
One of my favorite movies is After Life, a 1998 Japanese fantasy in which the newly deceased enter a way station between this world and the next. Over the course of a few days, each of them is called on to select his or her favorite memory from Earth, after which a film crew (operating on a modest budget) reenacts it and gives it as a gift. The person then moves on to eternity, carrying nothing but a memory of the moment when life seemed most sublime. I imagine that anyone who watches that film is moved to ponder which memory they would take with them. Of course, I cannot choose one offhand. Perhaps when I was younger, I would have named a moment quickly. With time, I have come to view happiness as the riddle that it is. Do we feel joy most at the moments that seem scripted to offer it: birthdays, holidays, graduations, trips? Do we feel it when we are working hard at our area of expertise? Or does it creep up in disguise during the leaner times, when we face trying circumstances but feel an adrenaline rush at simply being needed by others?
I don't know which type of happiness is best. But I have come to realize, over the years, how hindsight sometimes alters those perfect memories. In After Life, the characters are asked to remember the moment at which they felt happiest, and the movie makes a joke about how many younger entrants to the way station choose visits to amusement parks. I have had many moments in the last 44 years, including Disneyland trips, when I lost myself in a state of bliss. I would not necessarily choose most of them as my most prized memory. They lack a certain aura of accomplishment, of euphoria for the right reason. Yes, my self-critic is at work here. I will let him discriminate. In baseball, we talk about earned and unearned runs. Perhaps there's also earned and unearned happiness. Since I just brought up baseball, I'll give an example of the second type. When I was 14, I attended a game in which the Angels trailed by seven runs in the bottom of the ninth. Astonishingly, they rallied for seven runs in that inning, then won the game in the tenth. At the time, I measured my personal well-being by the Angels' success, and when that runner crossed the plate with the winning run, I felt positively out of body -- so much so that (I distinctly remember) I looked up at the night sky above Anaheim Stadium and felt like a miracle had been bestowed.
I have rarely felt giddier than at that moment, but 30 years later, I have come to question it. Why was I so happy? I hadn't done anything myself, other than sit in the stands and watch someone else win a game. There was no personal epiphany, no long-awaited payoff. I was living vicariously, as I have steadily learned not to do. So that game comes off the list of contenders if I ever reach that way station myself. Along with it go other moments: winning video games as a child, receiving desired toys for Christmas, taunting classmates who taunted me first. None of them were sufficiently earned. On the other hand, I can list any number of memories that retain their luster over the years: graduations, publications, interviews with remarkable people. In 2013, I hosted the launch for my book The First Thing Mastered at a Mexican restaurant in Orange, inviting dozens of friends and sharing food and poetry. In 2017, my daughter crawled for the first time as I sat holding the camera. Those moments were earned happiness. I hope the 1994 Angels still remember that game fondly, since they did the actual work.
Back to The First Thing Mastered. Ah, I love that book. I started it around the time I got married (more earned happiness) and set out to capture the first three and a half decades of life in chronological order. The challenge that I gave myself was to approach every phase of those years without cynicism or ironic distance, reflecting the world as it actually appears to a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, a teenager, and so forth until the dawn of middle age. I aimed for 91 pages of sincerity. Among the poems in the young-adult section of the book is "Welcome Week," which appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder. It is one of the happiest poems I have ever written, largely because it's about the first week of college and doesn't know anything that happens beyond that point. Adulthood is exhilarating at times and maddening at others. So is childhood, of course. But those first days in the dorm -- meeting roommates, hanging posters, and creating a ramshackle group identity -- feel like the discovery of an awesome new frontier. It's a momentary rush of the perks of being a grownup, with the responsibilities and hard truths to come later.
For that matter, it's earned. We've worked hard to get into college, passed the tests and done the paperwork. The driver's license is snug in our pocket. Our adult personality is forged, though it will continue to evolve. The campus looks massive around us, countless times bigger than high school, and lockers and permission slips are behind us. All is anticipation, the belief that every step can birth a new beginning. Few things make us happier than the possibility of happiness. My own welcome week in college came in 1998 at UCI, and the memory lingers brightly after more than 25 years. In the poem, conversations in the dorm become "an improvised session / of laughter and half-invented stories"; the freshman residents hang up a banner to assert their independence, "their group name/ in multicolors defying the empty plains." If nothing after September of 1998 had ever matched that feeling, then I could at least say that I had had it once. I count myself lucky to say that I have had it again. Perhaps that's the true definition of happiness: reaching that way station in the sky, and having to resort to picking something at random.
Twentieth century, go to sleep.
The 20th century is fast nodding off. The Greatest Generation approaches single digits. Print newspapers have become a relic. VHS tapes and Life magazines line the shelves of antique stores. A centenarian who was born in 1899 could speak firsthand about a century that turned race, technology, and social mores upside down. I am certainly not that person. But as one who came of age in the century’s last two decades, I remember how it more or less stood at the end. (I am focusing on arts and culture here; politics and other matters may be pondered elsewhere.) If I could compare the coda of the 20th century to anything, it would be a painting in which the original pencil marks were visible behind the flamboyant splotches of color; there was a sense that we had accomplished something remarkable, and we could still trace the steps. Movies were barely a century old, and we could view The Matrix at the multiplex and then stop by Hollywood Video to pick up a classic with Rudolph Valentino. The early days of television were a recent enough memory that The Simpsonscould parody them. And perusing a record store, for those with the right knowledge, felt like entering a story that was still giddily in progress.
For those who, like me, devoured each edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, the story went roughly like this: At the dawn of the 20th century, recording technology came into being. America was a fledgling country divided into booming metropolitan cities and shadowy back roads, and as brittle 78 records began to circulate, voices from those shadows were preserved on wax. America won the war and its economy boomed. Freeways linked the small towns together. The Civil Rights Movement broke down cultural barriers. And then metropolis met small town, blues met country, and amplifiers birthed a shocking new movement. As Muddy Waters put it, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” For the latter part of the 20th century, we were still browsing the baby pictures. It felt like journey of discovery to go to Tower Records, pick up a recording of the Rolling Stones covering a Robert Johnson classic, and then slap it on the counter with a box set containing Johnson’s original.
In 2024, how many people still thrill to an experience like that? Some, no doubt, but probably few of them are teenagers. As time passes, older times become condensed, and the average Justin Bieber fan would likely group Johnson and the Stones, however respectfully, together in the category of “old music.” The styles that first emanated from scratchy vinyl remain the roots, but the tree has grown far above them. The 20th century is going to sleep. Fine, let it. Enough horrible things happened between 1900 and 2000 -- not least the segregation that helped to birth the blues in the first place -- that we can set our sights on doing better. What remains, if we want them to, are the artifacts themselves. Taken out of the context from history, they can still thrill us aesthetically. I am thinking of the last few songs that I cued up on Alexa: “Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes, “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley, “Smoky Places” by the Corsairs. They’re among the gifts that the last century gave us. It would be nice if that were all we could remember, but of course you can’t take the yin without the yang.
My poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, “Blues Man,” is an elegy for that wonderful and awful century. This is both among my favorite poems and among those that were hardest to write. It started a couple of years into the millennium with the opening lines, which never changed: “One century (which time let go) / lives on stubbornly in this room.” That was the guiding concept, and I quickly sketched an elderly blues musician playing at a club for a young audience. Why was the musician still playing? What did the audience think of him? The answers to those questions varied through years of drafts. In the final version, the club resides in a college town, and the sparse crowd consists of young people who alternately empathize for the musician’s hard-luck songs (“You’re healed now”), feel bad about not being able to tip (“I’m out of change”), dance romantically to the beat, or sit up front and eagerly take notes on their idol. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards once did the same.
As for the blues man, he’s glad to be wanted. After another night of validation (“Their pens sustain him”), he heads to the bus for his next gig, noticing the images of his past embalmed around him: the bootleggers of the 1930s painted in the art gallery, Chicago now the subject of a film at the multiplex. Of course, the blues man has no name. He represents an idea, the notion of an era that refuses to die as long as it’s revered. As the twentysomething writer who began this poem years ago, I clearly revered it myself. By now, Tower Records is long gone, and CDs are fast joining vinyl in those antique shops. At the same time, the past endures, and more accessibly than ever; all it takes is a shout-out to Alexa or the punch of a few keys on YouTube to bring up Ma Rainey or Mississippi John Hurt again. Perhaps that's one blessing of this new wonderful and awful age. We let the old centuries sleep, but not die.
I don’t know if I have ever lived with a poem as much as I did with “City Night,” my piece that appears this week -- for the first time in a very long time -- in the Journal of Radical Wonder. Yes, I have taken my time on poems since then, and some have even gone years between first draft and completion. But that process is typically an on-and-off one, punctuated by returns to the writing desk and dozens of slashes and revisions. “City Night,” if I remember the early 2000s well enough, came out in a single draft, but it was a painstaking process in which every line or phrase peeled out when the time was right. If Jack Kerouac had gone at a similar speed to type On the Road, the scroll that he ran through his typewriter might have had permanent curvatures from having sat in place so long.
When I wrote “City Night,” I was 21 — an age when poets can be wildly inspired or embarrassingly foolish. I am not sure which category this poem falls in, but more on that in a moment. “City Night” started with an inspiration: One night, I was driving home in the rain from the Los Angeles Times, where I worked part-time during college, and found myself thinking of a young fellow staffer who had left a bit before I did. I hoped that she had made it home safely, then began imagining her journey in the past tense. (As it turned out, she did return alive to the Times the following day.) As journalists, we often live among police blotters and man-bites-dog stories, and the world seems full of horrors. So the opening lines heralded the miracle of my colleague’s return home: Somehow, another made it home tonight. / Somehow the connection wasn’t missed… That was all I had for a day or two, and then more lines came: …out in the dark street where engines hissed / and moaned, packed together close / in the frozen lamplight…
I added to the poem in the lecture halls at UCI, in my dorm room, probably at the Times and maybe even in my car. After a few lines, I thought of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking,” which has uneven line lengths and no regular meter, but in which every line rhymes with another line somewhere in the poem — a merging of order and chaos. That fit the concept of a poem whose subject makes an orderly journey through a chaotic cityscape, so I had my format set. “City Night” ended up being 40 lines long (20 scattered rhyming couplets), and the title made its way into the sentences that end both stanzas. I was particularly proud of the final lines — Deliverance, in the city night, is just a door / with one strong chain — and when I dotted that last period on the poem (perhaps I was in line at the DMV or somewhere by then), I was convinced that it was the best poem I had ever written. Since I had only written about three legitimate poems by then, the competition was not intense.
But, as Frost wrote in another poem, nothing gold can stay. After I finished writing “City Night,” recited it proudly at a few UCI readings, and finally included it in Thief After Dark, my chapbook that came out from FarStarFire Press right before I graduated, I found my wonder diminishing. Part of me still felt that the poem was brilliant; part of me now wondered if it was pretentious and overwrought. …where doors draw back and payphones are forbidden / and men pray to women in bright-lit windows — by the time I finished graduate school, I was done writing lines like that. “City Night” didn’t appear in any of my subsequent books, not even the retrospective Tea and Subtitles in 2019. I stopped including it in my set lists at readings. Today, I certainly wouldn’t rank it as my best poem, or even in the top 20 or 30. And yet…
And yet I may not be the judge. Artists create art for others, and the audience ultimately decides whether something resonates or not. What the author considers profound, the reader may find dull or preachy; what the author fears is over-the-top may perfectly skirt the top for the reader. Just recently, I finished reading Moby-Dick in its entirety for the first time. I found it arch, self-indulgent and monotonous -- so perverse that I felt like Herman Melville was deliberately tormenting his readers. That novel has been hailed as a masterpiece by countless people for more than a century. By contrast, one of my favorite Bob Dylan recordings is "I'm Not There," whose lyrics consist of a series of fragmentary, slurred phrases, apparently since Dylan never finalized the words. The song makes no sense, but sets a haunting mood. There is no accounting for what will please an audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once described poets as "constantly risking absurdity." That is a risk that all artists take, and absurdity is not a terminal condition.
So absurdity has been risked, and "City Night" appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder. Perhaps it really is the tour de force that I imagined two decades ago, perhaps not. Enough time has passed that I don't care. The poem exists in finished form, and it now belongs to the world -- there for readers to ponder, forward, repost, or simply ignore. Like the woman who inspired it, it has reached its destination safely. My 21-year-old self would have been relieved.
In Careless Love, the second part of his brilliant two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick writes that by the end of Elvis' life, his audience loved him not for what he was but for what he sought to be. That is a difficult grace to bestow on celebrities, whose public lives are about nothing so much as maintaining an image. It is even harder to bestow on those around us. If there is one statement that literally applies to every member of the human race, it is that each of us has a vision of ourselves that we try constantly to live up to. Some of us may be less flamboyant than others, but a performance of some kind is inevitably taking place -- even if we don’t expect applause, and even if the only audience (or critic) is ourselves.
Take a moment to sketch a self-portrait. It can be an imaginary one; you don’t need an actual pen or paper. Perhaps you’re starting with your job, paid or otherwise. You are a firefighter, and your picture shows a strapping, resilient person who bolts to action when the alarm sounds but finds a way to stay methodical under pressure. A politician: You are charismatic, caring, the one who takes action while others dither. An artist: You entertain, challenge, and impress with inspiration. A preschool teacher: Your voice soothes at the right moments and herds cats at others. Note that some of the people described above might be considered “selfless” more than others. Yes, the world is full of people who put on a show of modesty. However subconsciously, that is still putting on a show. Being us can be a demanding task, especially when we sense that others depend on us to do it.
“Young Father,” my poem featured this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is about a man who is having a tough day being himself. The poem is not about any real person, but no doubt you can identify with it on some level. Perhaps you’ve failed to summon the wit that you typically muster at dinner parties or to perfectly keep track of every work email you received this week. The failure is the same thing at bottom: You feel that you’ve disappointed yourself, and others, and maybe God as well. Possibly a media image gets worked in there somewhere as well. The main character of “Young Father” may at some point have immersed himself in Atticus Finch, or someone Tom Hanks played in a movie, or any other Hollywood conception of an ideal man of the house. He is not that man right now, and he is unsure of his relation to the house as well.
An argument has just flared between him and his young son. He has slammed the front door and stormed outside, where he takes a moment to size himself up. Is there more than one ideal? Yes, and that may be a consolation. He is not poised or cool, but with his work clothes and stubbly chin, he appears fearsome and rugged (the neighbors' daughter, who watches him from a wading pool, provides a ready judging panel). Still, he acknowledges his helplessness -- both to control his temper and also to keep the house intact. Something else is keeping the house, plus the other houses lining the block, whole and standing. Some construction team worked it out, used the right materials and proportioned the weights correctly. The best that the poem's hero can say for himself is that his door slam didn't undo their efforts.
It is the woman who protects the house. She stays calm, holds their son to ease his nerves, sends the subliminal message that rage is not permitted. Am I delving into gender stereotypes here? Was I doing so when I wrote this poem a decade ago? Perhaps. "Young Father" is about specific characters, and a reader can take it as universal or not. For that matter, it is about a specific moment. If this fiery man could stick with the reader longer, he would show different sides soon enough. The next time his son leaves a toy on the kitchen tiles, he might defuse the situation with humor or a gentle reminder. His wife might nod with approval, the house standing as resiliently as both of them wish. The audience is always there. Elvis knew that. After so many muckraking biographies, we still hail him for the times when he got it right.
My newest poem in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Spectator at the Balloon Launch, 1783," another piece from my manuscript in progress. Flight and innovation are recurring themes throughout the collection, and this one is based on the first hot air balloon voyage, for which scientists sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster into the air over Versailles, France. As brave as humans can be, we sometimes let another species test the air for us.
Here are two other recent noteworthy pieces in the Journal:
I have read many ekphrastic poems (those inspired by visual art) over the years, but Robbi Nester did a unique twist with "The Missing Sense," which imagines the contents of a missing painting by Rembrandt. In 1624-25, the artist created five paintings that each depict one of the senses, and the fifth one (taste) has since disappeared. There is not even a written description of what it shows, so Robbi paints a scene of her own. An elderly patient grimaces at soup, while a small child gnaws on bread: "I share his pleasure, / savoring the thought that an artifact of the imagination / could reach us through the senses, make us dream." Check your attic for Rembrandt's actual painting, but I will accept Robbi's vision in the meantime.
John Brantingham, the magazine's co-editor, posted a short but profound essay titled "Ambling," in which he opens up about a recently diagnosed heart condition and how it's forced him to adjust his lifestyle, whether by embracing vegan food or simply by slowing down and no longer pretending to be 20 years old. Long ago, Emily Dickinson wrote about how Death was kind to stop for her and relieve her of her responsibilities. In a similar vein, John writes here, "I think about what a blessing it is to have a heart defect and to listen to its message." Feel better, John. May you have many years of ambling ahead.
The great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick reportedly had reservations about Schindler's List. According to a biographer, when asked about Steven Spielberg's 1993 Oscar-winner, Kubrick replied, "Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t."
That's a glib way of looking at it. But as I keep encountering the Holocaust in recent days -- as I prepare to teach Leon Leyson's The Boy on the Wooden Box to the 8th grade, as my school took a field trip last November to the Museum of Tolerance, as the media reports new surges of antisemitism around the world -- the word "success" seems appropriate in a way. The quote many people remember from Schindler's List is the Talmudic saying "He who saves one life saves the world entire." Life is a messy business, full of disillusionment and frustration and compromise, but we cherish the saving of it. Leyson, who was 15 when the Holocaust ended, went on to live in Southern California, teach high school, and embark on public speaking tours. He died in 2013 at the age of 83, of what we might euphemistically call natural causes. More specifically, he died after a four-year battle with lymphoma, but that disease was not induced by the Nazis. Leysen, born the same year as Anne Frank, was able to live out his life until his body declared the end. Stanley Kubrick would call that success. I would too.
I don't know how long I am going to live. I don't know the same about my daughter, who is seven. We use the term "life expectancy" to estimate how long our bodies have, but no one is born with a clock that counts down to a specific date. I have sometimes wondered, very seriously, how different our habits would be if we did. What we can do is toss out numbers and declare them our idea of when old age begins. Seventy, perhaps -- when Simon and Garfunkel were young men, they sang that it seemed "terribly strange" to live that long. We might put our finger on eighty, although many of our current politicians seem to shrug that number off. Ninety? Clint Eastwood is still making movies. Numbers become irrelevant. All I know is that my daughter is due a long time on Earth -- every indication points to that -- and I will not stand for her having anything less. Neither would all the doctors, nurses, firefighters, crossing guards, and others who dedicate their lives to preserving the lives of others. True, death is inevitable, and it is always an occasion for sorrow, but to die naturally is wistful, not tragic. Case in point: A year and a half ago, the Global News reported a story about a Schindler's list survivor celebrating his 100th birthday, and it noted that only six people on the list are still alive. Did you know that? Probably not. We cringe at what might have happened in 1945, and now are content to let biology run its course.
My poem featured this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, "January," is about two people who have put themselves in biology's hands. Are they Holocaust survivors? We have no idea; the poem never identifies them. The speaker is a man, the poem's addressee a woman -- presumably his wife. She is old. They both sense that she is dying. The speaker begins with the words "(I know) I'm losing you" -- parentheses appear four times in the poem, with the word "know" in three of them. She has visions of her death ("dreams about ascending") and murmurs about them to her partner. Clearly, he accepts the situation. Both of them are still alive for the time being; perhaps they have weeks left together, perhaps months, perhaps years. It is January, a new year, and sounds of activity still roar in the snow outside their window. He studies her as she studies herself, naked in the mirror, chest hanging unromantically and fingers laced through gray hair. Perhaps he still finds her alluring. Perhaps he is simply intrigued by the aging process; with the right detachment, we can find any part of our lives compelling. He holds onto the memories of their younger days ("two waists entwined on a couch / red-eyed / the floor scattered with a younger man’s shoes"), but they are not so much mourned as acknowledged as another obvious fact.
Is that what it comes down to, finally? Well, yes. It's what parents hope for as they first lay eyes on a newborn, what a lifeguard envisions as he fishes a flailing six-year-old out of the water. We have probably all raised a glass at some point and wished someone a long life. A long life is not always pretty, but it is just. Anyone who bemoans the sight of a loved one aging must consider the alternative. "January" is about two people who, for lack of a better word, have succeeded -- a feat that the daily headlines remind us is denied to countless people. The poem does not tell a proper story and has no real ending. Perhaps the poem is an ending itself. If it is not a happy one, then what would a happy one be?
Today is Jan. 2, and 2024 has begun. This is the first official day. New Year's Day is a warmup -- a blank page, a pause for planning and reflection, a day off school for everyone and off work for many. Now, all the holidays are over, and we get back to business. We may also get around to new business, although that can be notoriously hard. At 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, I got an email from Medium.com proclaiming that over 80% of people abandon New Year's resolutions within the first months of the year and posting a series of links to articles about how to stay on the wagon. In any case, if we've made plans to do things differently in the new year, Jan. 2 is probably the time to begin. This is when we see what the year is really made of.
As I noted the other day, I am not inclined to be political on this blog, even as the year concludes. Biden, Trump, inflation, climate change, Ukraine and Gaza -- any number of pundits for major news outlets can comment on them more astutely than I can. Perhaps 2024 will be as chaotic and bewildering as some of them have predicted, perhaps not. There is still a firm line between the personal and political, however blurred that line may often seem in modern times. So I can say without hesitation that, whatever trepidatious headline may top CNN right now, I am looking forward to 2024. I always look forward to a new year. The Christmas decorations can go back into their boxes for 11 more months, and other festivities can wait. I am excited to be productive again. I have learned to do a job and maintain a home well enough that I don't mind keeping that momentum going. There may be new adventures and surprising revelations along the way as well. A new year is a question mark, and Socrates, of course, believed that true wisdom began with questions.
Of course, a return to business isn't all about mystery. It's also about knowing some definite truths. Today, the Journal of Radical Wonder posted the third poem in my unintended New Year's trilogy -- unintended because they were written years apart and not meant as a continuing story. "Day After New Year's," which first appeared in the collection Angels in Seven in 2016, is about the party officially ending, although I don't view it as a sad poem so much as an honest one. A man who lives in a gated complex feels responsible for his neighbors' safety and casts a stern look at a group of boys who loiter near a woman's garage. They hustle away, and then, a moment later, the man himself becomes the target of suspicion; he's stared too long at a pair of girls who are playing with Legos on their front lawn. The girls race to the door and talk to a shadow that probably belongs to a parent. The man speedwalks away and takes note of the holiday remnants around him: "wreaths left out / for recycling, extensions, unplugged Santas." Personal boundaries solidify again. The new year has arrived, and it feels distinctly like the old one.
Unless any of the world events mentioned above severely disrupts our way of life -- and history has definitely shown that that can happen -- 2024 will probably feel mostly like 2023. We will take the usual precautions and draw the usual lines between generosity and safety. We will flourish optimism over the usual things and temper it when necessary. For that matter, some of us (roughly 20%, according to Medium) may genuinely stick with our resolutions and treat the year as the outrageous gift that it is. We always have the power to be extraordinary. Sometimes, being ordinary is achievement enough. That's how we'll make it to 2025.
Yesterday, the Journal of Radical Wonder posted "Desert Highway, New Year's Eve," one of the bleaker poems in my catalog. I have never ended a year on as despairing a note as the poem's lead character does, but I know that others have. Still, every dark night is followed by a new beginning. That is the cycle that we go through every day, and the new year makes it more decided.
So today's poem -- part of an unintentional trinity, written at different times but set on consecutive days -- takes place on New Year's Day itself. It describes a day years ago (2016, I think; that's when the poem was first published) when my wife and I drove to Laguna Beach to enjoy the sea breeze and the spectacle of unaffordable homes. The poem is not about New Year's resolutions, or really even the lack of them, but simply about gratitude for the nice things in life and acceptance of the things that we can't change. That is the feeling that I have now as I write these words, and the feeling that I have had more or less on every New Year's Day in the past. The start of January is a pause and an intake of breath. Given the prognostications over the last week ("What strange things does 2024 have in store?" a Washington Post headline rhetorically asked), perhaps a deep breath is what we all need.
"To Rachanee, Laguna Beach, Jan. 1" is a love poem. I have always struggled at writing those, perhaps because I get too practical-minded when writing about romance. My inner Pablo Neruda gets cantankerous. Perhaps this poem made it to completion because it's about practical-minded love. I have seldom felt more sincere as a poet than when I wrote:
We are one day — always a day, not a year —
closer to broken, our bodies counting
toward an end whose only secret is time and place.
If we are lucky, someday, we will plan our letting go,
but this year is marked for holding what we can.
I love you, Rachanee. Let's hold as much as we can.
Note: When I blogged about "Elegy for a Rhythm Guitarist" last May, I mentioned that the poem first appeared in the Sonora High School literary magazine in 1998. The advisor of that magazine was Marilyn Middleton, who also served as our 12th-grade English teacher, student body advisor, philosophy teacher, prom organizer, and probably several other capacities that I'm forgetting. Ms. Middleton (as she will always be to me) was a genuine force at Sonora High, and on Dec. 29, we received the news that she had passed away at the age of 84.
Tributes are piling up for her online, as befits any teacher who dedicated decades of her life to helping and inspiring young people. I will remember her for her toughness, her warmth, her brilliance as a teacher (among the works she guided us through were Oedipus Rex, Othello, Death of a Salesman, Heart of Darkness, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and her support of a young poet who was probably more nervous than she realized. Twenty-six years ago, I was a senior in high school and anticipating what we would learn in her class over the six months to come. That was a good way to start a year.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.