Visiting Stanley Kunitz
The September 1st 2003 issue of the New Yorker
The September 1st 2003 issue of the New Yorker
had an article in there about the poet Stanley Kunitz
but it finished without a single word as to how Stanley
was so nice and encouraging to me.
I'd written him a fan note, wowed by his translations from Akhmatova,
and he wrote back saying hey, come visit in Provincetown.
When I got there he was working in his famous garden.
We both paused to smell the roses.
His then wife, a blondie, much younger, you could see
how proud Kunitz was of her, giving off that kind of smirk
of the well-fixed poet, because all that matters to poets (face it)
is sexual vibrancy, providing the honey-vinegar in their poems.
This wife, whose name I'm sorry to say I do not remember,
painted paintings on glass, on large sheets of glass.
Stanley and I talked po'biz; then we talked poetry,
agreed that the avant-garde's presumption
in besmirching true poets with the dowdy label "mainstream"
should send the perpetrators directly back to the end of the line.
We puzzled a bit over the need (of male poets, anyway)
to desire to undress every sweetie in sight,
concluding that the energy involved in making anything new
was like the sperm's feeling as it comes around the bend into the homestretch.
We shared tea and cookies and a certain amount of learned reference
(none of which -- oddly -- turns up in that New Yorker essay)
while I appreciated the stirring painter-muse of aging Kunitz,
she with her art you could see through like a transparent dress.
Each poet is teamed with a scientist,
mine the newly married Sadie Ryan Simonovich
who works mainly in "human-wildlife disease interface
with special concern for the way
primates infect one another."
She speaks Elephant, Chimp, Cape Buffalo,
not to mention Afrikaans and such.
Mostly Sadie likes to count, to fill spreadsheets,
to sample populations, invent software, oh
scientists do like to count, while we slovenly
poets need wild elixir for our work,
want something whacky, unaccountable
to mix in there, something not quite sane
(this in order to court, best we can, the depths).
Along these lines, Einstein once wrote
"the most beautiful and deepest experience."
underlying the principle of religion, was
"serious endeavor in art and science"
and "the mysterious," so the poets
get to seem whacky, even childlike,
this causing many of the scientists
to smile or chide. For their part, the scientists
natter on in a language drained
so very dry that poets rush in
with flagons of wine -- Here, drink, drink,
dance in the streets, dear Scientists.
"Not now," says Sadie the Scientist.
"I must count,
"but perhaps later, after work
when you talk about me in a poem?
as I dearly hope you will,
O, you so smitten,
smug with your careless carefreeness."
The Poet pauses with a wry smile at this.
He sighs: "Oh, my Scientist!"
For child-years I pronounced it "young kipper,"
"kipper" a fish, "win one for The Kipper."
Solemn the music, Kol Nidre, allowing
the wicked to share in the penitence.
We wicked kids knew the call to atone,
but really the day seemed an "At-one-ment"
with God the sin-checker, neglected guest,
looking on. I loved the Yom Kippur joke:
"No ticket? Okay, go talk to your uncle,
but don't let me catch you dovening."
After the long day of prayer, ah, the fine harsh
wavering ram's horn croon: Go eat!
We raced home to glory: the fast-breaking meal,
burst in crying: "Shofer bloozen!"
Nothing could ever go wrong after that:
contrition, and then: holy chicken soup.
"Why?" There's a question.
Why this cancer of the spleen,
this palmetto branch where the white moths hover...
why these particular clangs and scrapes
from the brutally dumped-out recycling collector?
And why this romance between Tim and Brenda
Why of all the Brendas Tim might have chosen,
this particular Brenda, and why, to get down to it,
why Pope Joan,
or the Albigensian Crusade?
Why must a dawn song be called an "Alba"
in Spain and instead an "Aubade" in France
when there's only just a few miles between,
and what can anyone do about that?
And what is poor Tim ever going to do
when the pressure within builds up to a point
that wants him to get so far into Brenda
he'll reach for the chocolates and reds lying hidden
beneath her whiteness? Just asking.
Brenda has put up with a hell of a lot
during her 23 years on earth.
She's hoping she and Tim could have, like,
conversations, like in the movies,
pert and sassy: he'd do Hugh Grant
and she'd reply in ecstasy,
overwhelmed, as in wandering
the aisles at Sur La Table, all these
little medallions for placing around
the necks of wine bottles, this to tell them
"You're white," "You're red,"
plus those gizmos for measuring
portions of pasta, all depending
on how many guests may drop in that night.
This Dreamy Place the World
To paint no more than her lips
I studied waves,
how clouds hover
above the mountains
offering shade, reviving rain,
I kept flirting with this girl, she wore
from my youthful, hard-wood view
it seemed the only thing she wore.
Walking through campus puddles,
students with big umbrellas;
others, with smiles,
playing wetly at home.
After the grey, the blue.
We're free to imagine anything
if only for freedom's sake:
like clouds raining upward.
well, each feature of this
dreamy place the world
is equally, madly, unlikely:
willows, baseball, hate,
cloud-drops on the windowpanes
that slide sideways
like clear tadpoles
(becoming invisible frogs)
and still it rains...
that madly inscrutable "it."