There ought to be a name for it, the apprehension we feel before meeting for the first time a poet or writer whose work we’ve long known and loved—what if the wit who’s soothed our deepest anxieties or kept us up laughing all night turns out to be a joyless curmudgeon, a strident piss-ant, in person? Or what if they’re great to everyone else, but they just don’t like you? There should be a term derived from Greek or Latin for this fear: poetametus, maybe, or scriptorconventusphobia. There’s even a kind of event-planner’s shit-list of authors—an informal collection kept up by word of mouth, from reading to reading, of writers who are notorious for their shocking rudeness, bad behavior—people that you only invite to your campus, conference, library, or book store if you’re feeling brave. (You know who/what I mean.)
Earlier this week I wrote about how I learned this anxiety the hard way, by dating the daughter of my then-favorite poet. Today, though, I’d like to turn to Don Share, a poet whose work I’d known and long admired before we met, and who, in person, turned out to be true to his words: funny, generous, witty, well read, well spoken, able to engage virtually anyone in a sincere exchange. Don Share may be the nicest guy in poetry—just ask anyone who’s met him or worked with him as an editor. He’s been around in that capacity for years, logging time as poetry editor at Partisan Review, Literary Imagination, and Harvard Review before becoming senior editor at Poetry in 2008.
Don taught me long ago that editors who write poetry can have it rough: just think of all the people—many of them first-rate poets—you’ve said no to. How excited to read your book are they going to be, and if they do, in what spirit will they read it? I suggest you read Share’s new book, Wishbone, just out from Black Sparrow, with an open mind, sense of humor near to hand. The mixed presence of the elegiac and the comic, in evidence in his new poems, may well be Share’s trademark and unifies the poems of his fine breakout book, Squandermania (2007, Salt Books).
Squandermania has three epigraphs by Isaac Singer, references to Samuel Beckett, Paul Tillich, William James, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, even Gary Becker’s Rotten Kid Theorem, and it’s eponymous poem is subtitled “Falling Asleep Over Delmore Schwarz”; as these allusions suggest, the mood here is equal parts terror and redemptive—or at least extenuating—comedy. “Meaning,” the second poem in the book, begins, “It don’t mean a thing/ if it don’t mean a thing,” and this warning note to self launches Share’s attempt to make meaning or sense—and, alternately, to challenge meaning, risk non-sense—of language, family life, and the politics of a dishonest government perpetually bringing the world to war.
Share is equally adept at the long free-verse poem, the jeremiad, the sonnet, mock-heroic couplets, puns, and epigrams. His lyric hero hasn’t followed Philip Larkin’s commandment in “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”): he has become a father, and now he faces the consequences. “On Court St. I am innocent/ on Highland I take the high road/ on Ames I am aimless again”—all life and all landmarks have become “alike as eternity!” The book progresses backward in time, with Share implicitly comparing his experience as a father and husband to the experience of his parents, the mode of family life in his childhood to his present family life. “Honi soit…” offers a surprising response to his father’s use of corporal punishment and complicates one of the book’s central questions: can we escape the routines and mistakes of our parents, and, better, do we even want to?
In Wishbone, his third and strongest full-length collection, Share picks up where he left off in the previous book, riding the poles between vaudeville and theology, politics and the domestic microcosm, comedy and elegy. But here the short poems of the first three sections are sharper, fast-cooled and condensed, more focused—his wit has become a scalpel in the office, a switchblade on the playground. In the fourth and last section we see Share unleashed: he free ranges over North and South, East and Midwest, addressing the living, the dead, and the never-been-born (but often conjured). The poems include meditations on Moses and King David, Jack Spicer and John Berryman, references to Memphis rock hero Alex Chilton and the Rolling Stones, Rabbi Eleazer and Joe-the-Plumber, and bring it all back always to family life, the family the poet was born into, and now the one he went and created himself.
(You may notice that Wishbone, the new book, is dedicated in part to me. I’m grateful to Don for this, especially because the only previous book dedicated to me was A Carnivore’s Inquiry, by Sabina Murray, a novel about a brilliant young woman who knows a lot about cannibalism in art, history, and literature, and who eats her boyfriends. I’m Sabina Murray’s husband, I should note.)
Here’s the title poem, which we had the pleasure of publishing first in the inaugural issue of The Common , and “To the Sister I Never Had,” an absolute tour-de-force from the book’s fourth and last section:
I have a bone to pick
with whoever runs this joint.
I don’t much like
being stuck out in the rain
just to feed on the occasional
vole or baby rabbit
and these wet weed-salads
confound my intestines.
A cat can’t throw himself
into the Des Plaines River,
not even in the luscious fall.
I get yelled at in human
language every single day
for things I can’t begin
to comprehend, let alone change.
But I go on cleaning myself –
why shouldn’t I? –
and so I think I smell sweet,
even though I suspect otherwise.
I wouldn’t harm a fly normally,
but why doesn’t anybody
take care of me? How am I
supposed to know that it’s Easter,
that I’m not allowed to die
in my own bed, and that neither prong
of this wishbone is meant for me?
-- Don Share
To the Sister I Never Had
“Sleep quiet and smiling and do not hanker / For a perfection that can never come” – Louis MacNeice
Sister that I never had, take the initiative, like Eve, against nature!
If kindness is its own reward then you have been paid, but not repaid
For your love, and because you were never born you are losing your mind
And I don’t know what the best escape for you is other than the gates
Smitten with destruction that lead away from our garden where, when
We played as children, you cradled the mallow – Gossypium, cotton –
In an uprooted case of the slows: I can’t help but think back, think
Back on your telling me that dry light is the best, the very best,
And your saying, When I’m gone, say I was fascinated the whole time!
You asked me about the mean streak in the goyim, about the faith
Of our faithless fathers, about the untranslatable doom of the Yiddish-
Speakers infausting us with their right-to-left letters and flames -
Sister, I respect the ambient and believe in the dove that lifts your eyes,
And I am old enough now to apologize to you for the lies I told
To survive you, and I remember you better than people who really
Lived, or those crows on the wire who taught us Hebrew, got drunk
As a drum on a pennyworth of settlebrain, and who pulled you
Out of the rolling waters so you could sit in the kitchen highchair
Kicking the legs like a little girl… and when you were older, which
You never were, you understood all the things I never said
And taught me a little about how to cook for myself; you made
Sure that there were always fresh flowers on the table no matter what,
And above all said grace before each meal in a strange language.
You showed me how to dress for success, gave me courage
When my haircuts and skin and nose and belly let me, inevitably,
Down, and you required that I be and remain a mensch, in exchange
For which you baked the black-and-white cookies I so adored.
But when the earth froze, making burial difficult, you saw to it
That Kaddish was still said by sons for their fathers, and so
The ritual washing continued, and so on, even though the war
Kept up in which those same sons did things that women could
Neither forgive nor understand, and so they repented giving us
Birth, in spite of which all the prayers got said, and on this same
Subject of the departed I thought it only a small sin to have held
You beautiful even when, especially when, you were angry. God
Why did you make off with the only sister I never had when
There was so much more I could have learned from her, including
How to stay human no matter what? Sister, you hugged me when you
Were mad even when the crust didn’t come out right and your joints
Really ached, and your heart, too, and it’s as if I interrupted
A dreamer saying all this now, and in such relative freedom:
Sooner or later even salamanders stop burning, so my dear,
I throw myself on your mercy now that I can’t get you
To speak! Once, the boy I was tried to explore some of your heart
Which was perched out on the black bowed tension wires running
Though our back yard, and you said Here, and I then and only then
Could comprehend your Bible and cookbook, left open forever
On the table – you were, well, so brutally practical, saying
Sometimes Many hands make light work and sometimes on the other
Hand, Too many cooks spoil the soup, and nothing made you more crazy
Than my being sick, which happened a lot, for which I am sorry.
There was a newspaper headline I saw on the train one day,
I couldn’t see the whole thing but it started out: Science
Uncovers Clue to Mystery of… What was the mystery?
I never found out, which you thought was very funny.
But now that I try to remember you I realize how sad it was that
You spent almost every night teaching yourself how to knit
Impossible dilemmas together… You made yourself into a great
Cook of seething stews and heavy loaves, and above all you loved
To call the kettle black. And when you were tearfully hanging
The X-mas lights that last year we spent together you said
Honey, most Jews have had a longer journey than Odysseus
So put down that book, will you? Which made me laugh
Because our father was born in Detroit, and when you were a girl
You pronounced it Troy: where all the men fell, and somehow you
Tunneled from your nightmares all the way to theirs as well as mine
In successive choirs because you were never born but I was.
-- Don Share