Illness borne with grace
shames the chronic complainer.
Moon over bare trees.
I help you store the “Number One”
foam fingers in their box;
and clean the grease of hot dog stands;
and check the many locks;
and help you stack the bleachers up,
douse house lights in the gym, while listening to your baleful cries,
your curses thrown at him
who turned the spheroid over,
or flubbed the easy pass,
or watched the orb go unretriev’d,
as it bounced off the glass.
You weren’t the only one to boast
his team would be the king,
only to hear instead the taunt
cheerleaders love to sing,
the lonesome sound of dreams denied
that makes the true fan cry:
“Na na nana, na na nana,
hey hey hey, good-bye …”
-- James Cummins
Ed. note: The poem, though it may or may not have been written on March 15, marks the end of March Madness this evening and subtly welcomes the baseball season, which annually proves the wisdom of Alexander Pope: "Hope springs eternal in he human breast."
At funerals you get a sense of 'team':
"He bore his burden well"--stifling a yawn;
"She wasn't someone you'd enjoy tea with,
exactly, but--"; "They kept on keeping on."
Each mask that hides a life receives tribute:
"He was adored by dogs"; "She set a tone";
"Behind her drinking lay a golden heart"--
old age become a village of its own.
I was too young; I couldn't comprehend
how deficits increase over the years--
I shunned their ledger-faces for my books,
determined not to end up in arrears.
What will they say of me? "His load was light."
"And for all that he didn't seem too bright."
-- James Cummins
They think they're wags,
but they're really tails.
The Wags of Fear: fantasizing
they carry nitro, but it's
really 'Nite-So' ('night soil,'
a green product developed
by the Self-Importance Movement).
Scorpions--not sorcerers or
'Scorpios'--but actual scorpions.
They're all looking for a Frog
to carry them across the river.
You can find them posing
at poetry readings, whispering,
-- James Cummins
Note: See The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot (with Yves Montand) and the remake, Sorcerer, by William Friedkin
To dinner you bring the Scotch matching
the beautiful friends who are hatching
this glorious meal
and the glorious feel
of the moments from Time you are snatching.
There once was a man come to dinner
whose outer life stood in for his inner;
he ate with great gusto,
till his waistline did thrust-o,
and he left most decidedly not thinner.
There once were two gents from Glenlivet
who agreed great Scotch could greatly rivet
your attention and command
to the great task at hand:
life, and the friends who help you live it!
-- James Cummins
If you read Brooks' reply you see immediately the man's intellectual dishonesty and bad faith. His first sentence launches an ad hominem attack: since Lehman is "already on record as a vehement detractor" of de Man, this naturally discredits all Lehman's opinions about de Man. This obvious ploy conveniently allows Brooks to avoid addressing any of the documented evidence that led Lehman to his (supposed) vehemence in the first place. (By the way, is calling de Man a "scoundrel" really vehemence, or just a simple statement of fact?) In this manner, Brooks is able to occlude and dismiss the real issue(s) at hand! Incredible.
But this is in keeping with what Brooks does to Barish: he substitutes his own trope--in her case, "Mr. Ripley"--then attacks the trope as if it were her argument. Again, as with Lehman, he conveniently allows himself the freedom to smear Barish with a trope that has nothing to do with Barish, Paul de Man, or the facts at issue, thereby relieving himself of the responsibility for answering any of her actual arguments. A few flaws in her book somehow dismiss the overwhelming case she makes against de Man? I don't think so.
There's some poison in the Charles River that has been seeping into the soil and air there since 1620 at least. I did a study a few years ago in which I researched three books of essays on Mark Twain. These books were from a series called generally the "Twentieth Century Views" series--each volume was a collection on one major writer--that were published in the 1960's and sold widely to undergraduate populations as basic critical support of the pantheon. I forget the precise figures, but the essays had something like almost an 80% correlation to Harvard; that is, nearly 80% of the authors of the essays had been educated at Harvard, or taught there, or both. One of the authors, Leo Marx, is primarily responsible for the negative reading of the last third of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that obtains even to this day for most readers. From our perspective, Marx's reading can now be seen as a whitewashing, unconscious or not, of the smug racist (and anti-Semitic) "liberalism" that permeated the genteel WASP boys'-club culture at Harvard (not to mention the other Ivies)--a culture that Twain sought to razz and expose and demolish in HF.
Peter Brooks took his B.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard. Throw in the disgraceful actions by Harry Levin, et al, and the entire American side of the de Man saga ends up being a Columbo episode, where the whole Harvard muck out of which Brooks surfaces becomes apparent to the viewer, if not to the villain(s). With this tasty addition: the irony of deconstructionists and their apologists pulling in an authority-system from "outside" the "language game" is rich, very rich, indeed.
of Archie Ammons’s Garbage
out loud, twice, in an empty room.
Then listened in embarrassment
to hear if anyone was listening.
I’d bought the book so many years ago
and carried it with me to New York
the only time I’d ever meet him.
I’m not one for book signings, autographs;
I always figured if what I had left
at the end of life is a bunch
of signatures I’d be very sad;
so rely on my imperfect memory,
that rarely jogs or kicks in
to recover what is lost;
like what is lost from that evening,
me, standing, sweating coldly, empty,
waiting to read, the fixed rictus grin
what those around me fled from,
including Archie; and then he couldn’t
stay after because his wife was ill,
so was gone before I could get up
enough nerve to ask him
to sign my Garbage. At the late
dinner, I sat between two women
who were interested in me
up to a point, and then that point
was reached; and I sat for a while longer,
listening to some lunatic who later
became a professional poker player,
or perhaps already was one;
and then it was time to go.
I went back to the hotel alone—
I always do, the rictus, you know—
thinking death is an interesting display,
and maybe I’m caught in the grip
of a final illusion—that the light
reaching me on a given day is truly
the light of that day—and maybe
I still exist for now in an infinity
that will be revealed as an illusion,
when the countdown to death begins,
when hope is replaced by a number,
the number of days. So I walk out
each morning under many different suns,
some causing my shirt to stick
to my skin, some covering the park
in an antebellum light I sometimes feel
in certain parts of Kentucky. First,
Archie died, then that good man's love,
Phyllis, and I was never known
to him, nor he to me, except in “Part Ten”
of Garbage; and in his face as he stood
on the stage and introduced me,
and I got up and pretended my poems
were a reality as real as morning light,
or the willfulness of dinner-speak,
or the light a true poet’s face can have
as he stands in a spotlight looking
at his watch, wondering at the illusion
he has set in motion, but only
with a sidelong glance, as it were,
while he gazes beyond it, helpless,
to the numbered days, and feels
the need to get home quickly, quickly.
-- Jim Cummins
The Incredible Ubiquitous Sestina
“Our first poetry forum of the season
is scheduled for Tuesday. The guest
is Dan Nester, editor of The Incredible
Sestina Anthology, and the program
will be devoted to this exotic and appealing
form, the sestina. Please come.”
Did you know a sestina can make you come?
It’s true. Try one of mine. The silly season
is upon us; over there, that appealing
blonde woman looks like a hot guest
on “My Favorite Dames,” a program
I always turn on after watching The Incredible
Mr. Limpet, with Don Knotts. He’s incredible
himself: Sheriff Andy always waiting for him to come
around? I could see him trying to program
a computer, if the series had lasted, oh, forty seasons
longer. They say a TV show is like a guest:
the longer it hangs around the less appealing
are the same traits you used to find so appealing
in its heyday. Floyd the Barber was incredible,
too, but in reruns he looks like an unwanted guest.
Forget about waiting for your turn to come—
get a better head job down the street! Like seasons
of shows, we come and go; it’s God’s program.
(Or Boy George’s? I never got with any program,
so what do I know?) I’m appealing
to you, Reader! I’m an old vet—season-
ed, ripe. Overripe. Have you seen The Incredibles?
Funnier than Limpet. You’re incredulous—“Oh come
on!”—but it’s true! Aarrgh. Back on topic: The Guest;
Or, The Sestina. A sestina can be an unwanted guest,
too—it drops out of its step program,
knowing it can always come
over to your house—drunk, high, appealing
to your better nature. “You’re incredible,”
you grumble crossly. “There is a season …”
it comes out with, trying to be appealing. “Just incredible!
… Ma!” Your mother’s watching her programs—
Breaking Bad, fifth season. “Ma, an unwonted guest!”
-- James Cummins
He sends his regrets in the form of a sestina. . .
Silly Sestina for Dan and the Sestina Masters at Poets House
"This Saturday we will have the launch reading
for The Incredible Sestina Anthology! Spread
the word and please come if you can.
There will be lots of incredible sestinas
read and sestina masters in the house.
Would love to see you there."
Ah, it would be so great to be there --
"where all the barrel hoops are knit" -- a reading
after my own heart. And in the House
of Poetry itself! Some places you can spread
yourself too thin, but not there, where sestinas
flaunt their ankles like the French Can-Can.
You remember whispering, "I think I can ..."
back then, opening your notebook. "They're
the toughest poems to write, sestinas ..."
You needed models, eagerly reading
as farm implements and rutabagas spread
like a prairie fire through your little house,
warmed by a Marvel Stove. Like Poets House
itself--where you can sit your can
down in a comfy chair all day, spread
your mind out wide--they love it there,
the sight of anybody reading--
as Mark Strand ate poetry: sestinas
running from your mouth! You are the House
now, you've become its Reading
Monster, poking out of a garbage can
on a 'Sesame Street' by Denise Duhamel--& there
is Morgan Freeman intoning the point spread
for the Super Bowl--& Ma Barker's bedspread--
& Newt Gingrich--all inhabiting sestinas
you wish--oh how you wish!--you could be there
for. Alas, we play by the rules of the opposite 'house'
and as Larry Joseph says, you do what you can.
So I won't be able to make the reading,
but my heart spreads wide, thinking of friends reading
their 'can-do' poems that I love, in Poets House!
I'll be there in spirit. Go now, you silly sestina!
-- Jim Cummins
The event that Jim can't attend is at Poets House at 3 PM on Saturday February 1. Moderated by Daniel Nester, editor of the Incredible Sestina Anthology, with contributors David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Iam Sparrow, Jade Sylvan, Victor Infante, Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Carlin, Sharon Dolin, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Costello, Jason Schneiderman, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Jenna Cardinale, Brendan Lorber, Ned Rust, and others TBA! Poets House is at Ten River Terrace (at Murray Street), New York, NY 10282. Subway: 1, 2, 3, A or C lines to Chambers Street Station.
I sat in Miss Reynolds’s biology class
the day we all remember what we were doing.
I seem to recollect dissecting a fetal pig;
but perhaps, like Vardaman, I only conflated
physical and metaphysical horror
in one obliterating flash. More likely,
recalling myself as student and young man,
I sat there quietly, watching the others
poke, carve, discover. But at 1:30,
when the intercom coughed without preamble,
and we listened in growing fear to what
resembled a phone conversation broken into
by mistake (ellipses of questioning; sobs;
once, a loud shout) turn slowly into
the focused statement that went through
each of us like a bullet—that he had, in fact,
been murdered—we all sat up and still
then, the radiant pigs forgotten forever.
Who can explain the oracular impulse?
That day, they told us to “vacate the premises”;
no shoulder to cry on in those spare times; no counsel.
The Phys Ed teachers and the coaches, who would pull boys
from the hallway scrum, and slam their backs against
the walls to make a point, stood there sullen, sour,
as we filed past, silent, not even allowed
to use the phones—but then, who would we have called?
There was a strip mall off the high school lot;
we’d meet there at the bakery before class,
the rich kids in a restaurant nearby.
That day we wandered aimlessly along the storefronts;
what I remember most is our stunned silence.
In a television store I saw
a woman clerk who looked the way
I felt. I blurted out, “We’ll never get past this”—
I could feel the fear distort my voice,
as if I knew. She stared at me, as if I knew.
Miss Reynolds had good bones, as the connoisseurs
of beauty say, but wore so much make-up she seemed
a mannequin or doll. Or Lady Elaine Fairchilde,
on Fred Rogers’ TV show, or Punch’s wife, Judy—
an alabaster reach of flesh in which soft
eyes seemed trapped. I’ve often wondered since
if she were the first transsexual I’d known,
her perfect over-lipsticked lips a truth some
lonely man pined for in his own mirror.
I was fifteen: desire needed no abyss.
Even wrinkled old Mrs. Benedict—
even hoary old Mrs. B.—would writhe beneath me
in my bed at night, while I sucked her ancient
leathery nipples, and groaned aloud.
I wasn’t rich or president;
the Beatles had yet to play on Ed Sullivan;
RFK was still alive, like me.
And everywhere I looked desire fused with death.
"Got the mail. Here's a list of 'Easter Fun Facts,' straight from Jesus.
Did you know He suffered from 'Dysfunction, Resurrectile,'
until His Father threw a thunderbolt projectile?
It broke the stone to pieces--"
"--'and scared all the feces
out of Magdalen, Peter, and John the Reptile'?
No, I didn't know that. Let me open their 'Dreck File'--
maybe there's a paparazzi shot where Mary 'V's us."
"You're disgusting. Did you know if you have a Resurrection
lasting longer than 'Eternity'
by Calvin Klein, you should consult an attorney?
Or that John Calvin was saved in a run-off election?"
"Well, he had a lot of followers. He was a Twitterer,
after all. Is that from the 'Atheist Collective'? Do they want money?
Okay, I'll lighten up and try to be funny--
although the guy who wrote 'Snowbound' was Whittier."
-- Jim Cummins
Empty bell. Sex with
a narcissist is the sound
of one hand clapping.
-- Jim Cummins
Of "Leonard Koan Haiku," Cummins writes: "I see this poem wearing a hat."
When I moved back to Cincinnati in 1975, I began collecting Cincinnati quotes—references to the city in books, magazines, the popular media, etc. Sort of along the lines of Berryman’s reference to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in one of his Dream Songs: “I saw in my dream the great lost cities, Macchu Picchu, Cambridge, Mass., Angkor … “ Or Eliot’s, in a letter to, I believe I remember correctly, Conrad Aiken, or was it MacLeish: “Cambridge seems to me a dull nightmare now … “ Of course, Cincinnati wasn’t as bad as all that—and it was certainly prettier than Cambridge—so I was just being defensive. I’d put off adulthood for as long as I could; it was just that starting out seemed worse here. Staring into the dark, empty Ohio night brought to mind Nietzsche’s abyss—except, instead of staring back at you, it fell asleep.
Hence, my Cincinnati quotebook. A particularly good one was Wilfred Sheed’s crack, made in The NY Times Book Review, which I quoted in my last post. There were many others; I really do have them in a notebook somewhere. But my all-time favorite was one from a TV series I never watched an episode of, though I saw the particular excerpt not once but twice. Serendipity, of a sort. It was from a Columbo scene, in which the rumpled, passive-aggressive sleuth knocked on the hotel door of a high-priced hooker played by Valerie Harper. Valerie’s character was pretty jaded, and she was expecting a customer from Ohio, a dentist, I think. When she opened the door, instead of the condescending sonofabitch who was going to namby-pamby her ass into admitting something crucial, she saw a crumpled ball of repression from the hinterlands. She left the door open, turning away and waving him in, as she flung back patronizingly over her shoulder, “Oh, don’t be so Cincinnati!”
“Don’t be so Cincinnati!”! From Valerie Harper! We were being condescended to by Rhoda, for god’s sake! That was brutal, a new low. But this was the hotbed of provincialism that John Ashbery, the most sophisticated poet on the planet, the Genius of the Age, flew into in the winter of 1979, to be the Elliston Poet-in-Residence for ten weeks.
I’d begun reading John’s work in 1970, introduced to it by David Schloss, starting with The Double Dream of Spring, a life-changing experience for me. I suppose I should say I didn’t have a clue about the work, but in truth I had many clues; your life doesn’t change without clues. But I was staggered and perplexed and in awe of those poems. More than that, I was thrilled. What I felt but couldn’t say then was that we’ve got it turned around: the unconscious isn’t images we try to find language for, try to describe. The unconscious is language, words working together below conscious restriction and ordering. The whole word, if you will, wholly felt. Words bond in the unconscious, creating pictures for us, or pathways of new logic.
So I didn’t look at words as flat, two-dimensional, but as many-sided, with volume, capable of combining in a multitude of possibilities. Remember that toy from way back when, the Magic 8 Ball? It had a many-sided ball in it (an “icosahedral die”—I looked it up!), on whose flat planes “answers” had been printed in raised metal letters, that floated in black ink. You asked it a question, then tilted it to one side, and read the answer. One can only see the top of the word on a printed page, but there were many more sides to it in the ink below. I saw JA’s language as containing this power—my pathetic description of it pales in the face of its dynamism, its depth and range—yoked to surface recognitions of sentence structure, pattern, clichés, pastiche, etc. John’s process to me seemed the essence of “negative capability,” and his work a prodigious poetic achievement that would begin to come clear to us over the next fifty years or so. Anyway, I thought The Double Dream of Spring was a great book, the depths of which were—to me, certainly, at 22—unfathomable, inexhaustible, yet palpably glorious and overwhelming as I held it in my hands and read it.
Okay, so I’m a fan. So sue me. But these were some of the thoughts I had in mind when, a better part of a decade later, I entered the room where John sat, in a suit and tie, his belly churning with the aforementioned chili, his mind trying to drop down low enough to take in a confrontation with our chairperson, the aforementioned horsewoman from the Tidewater area of Virginia, and her riding crop. She’d been determined to make damn sure John Ashbery—despite (or maybe because of) the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize, and a resume from Hell-On-Wheels—wasn’t some city slicker who could just waltz in here like any ol’ body and pull the wool over our eyes! We were the “Harvard on the Ohio,” after all! John smiled weakly as I sat down, and said, “Is she always like that?” I laughed. I don’t remember which of us used the term “Professor Montezuma,” but I did reassure him it was safe to drink the water here.
For years, decades, really, I counted time by Elliston residencies; but spending time with JA stays in my heart for the sheer fun we had. John was hilarious, brilliantly witty, of course—punning at three or four levels, in a couple of languages, is fairly standard—but a Cincinnati residency in those days cut you off from your life, your friends, your routines, and the loneliness that can develop wasn’t uncommon. So we spent a lot of time drinking and, um, “inhaling,” and hanging out. John would bring a record over to play, and we would get zonked and listen to the Firesign Theater or Monty Python. This is how I got to know Dame Edna Everage (“I’m just a woman, who loves other women/I’m funny, that way …”; “The Night We Burned Mother’s Things”), and her partner, Norm—stoned, and singing along, of course. God knows what we sounded like. One day I got free tickets to see The Deer Hunter at a preview showing. For some reason, lost now in the sands of time, this seemed like an important thing to do. John couldn’t go because he had to give a poetry reading at a local college. Would I drive him over? Of course, but I made clear, in no uncertain terms, that I had to see this movie—I was quite the serious filmgoer, I assured him. “Andrew Sarris on the Ohio,” I was. Naturally, we ended up getting stoned in the car outside the reading hall, and when I took him in, the most amazing succession of faces greeted us, ending, no kidding, with a scene straight out of Bunuel. Five identical small round nuns, all under five feet tall and wearing exactly the same glasses with black plastic frames and “coke bottle” lenses, and dressed in full penguin regalia (this was 1980), filed past us. “Hello, Mr. Ashbery, Hello, Mr. Ashbery”—five times. Their eyes were swimming behind the lenses. JA literally sagged against me; I believe there was actual terror in his eyes. “Don’t leave me,” he said plaintively; and I didn’t. How could I have possibly thought The Deer Hunter could be better than this? John then went onstage and gave probably the greatest reading I’ve ever heard him give.
John’s humor can be very quiet, but no less devastating for that; through it all, though, shines that incredible, luminous love of words. Once we were going to see a locally-famous restored home, on Dayton Street in the West End. I’d left the window of my VW Bug open the night before, and water got on the back floor. I wasn’t aware of this until JA lifted an exquisitely-polished shoe as he exited, saying, in his inimitable way, “I think your car needs a sump pump.” I can’t tell you how funny this was, the commentary mixing with his obvious delight in speaking the phrase, “sump pump.” It’s funny what you remember best. We were driving along one day, and John asked about an opera that was being performed at our College Conservatory of Music. I said, oh, well, you know, “business was punk at the opera”—quoting, I thought, a line from his poem, “Faust,” in his second book, The Tennis Court Oath. He corrected me, in his best professorial manner (which of course cracked us both up): “Business, if you wanted to know, was punk at the opera.” Italics his. But if I claim a special memory with John, it would be from a couple of years later, when John visited again, and this time, somewhat in a rush before I drove him back out to the airport, I was able to arrange a lunch at the Maisonette, a five-star French restaurant downtown, now defunct, with John, myself, my wife, Maureen, and Jean Valentine, the current Elliston Poet. Jean had never met John. It was pouring outside, a real deluge, and we were cozy in French elegance within. Once in a rare while, an hour can have the texture, the density, the richness of several hours. That day the world shrank to just our table, and we had an hour like that. John was the sweet, kind, generous man he always is, and I was my usual happy-to-be-there self. Rowf. But toward the end of our stolen hour, I looked at Jean, whose eyes redeemed “shining” from John’s cliché bin. She truly, beautifully, sparkled. Afterwards, she told Maureen and me how much it meant to her to meet John, that she was thrilled to have had that time with him. Only an hour out of the rain, but perfect. Jean sent us flowers the next day. How long ago it seems.
(ed note: John Ashbery will read at the New School, Sat. Dec 8, 7:00 pm. Details here.)
-- by Jim Cummins
(Paris Review & Harpers)
Ed note: Read more about Millay in here.
This post originally appeared on Dec 28, 2009
This week we welcome back Jim Cummins, as our guest blogger. Jim is the author of Still Some Cake (Carnegie Mellon, 2012) The Whole Truth, (North Point Press, 1986), Portrait in a Spoon, (University of South Carolina Press,1997), Then & Now, (Ohio University Press, 2004). He is co-author, with David Lehman, of Jim & Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press, 2005). Jim's poems have been selected for The Best American Poetry anthologies of 1994, 1995, 1998, 2005 and 2009, The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), and 180 More, edited by Billy Collins. Cummins has been curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection at the University of Cincinnati since 1975, where he is also Professor of English. Read his BAP blog posts here. Jim's poem "Reading Hemingway" was recently featured on The Writer's Almanac. You can listen to it here.
Welcome back, Jim.
In other news . . .
Our Year in Review continues. We're posting selections from each of this year's guest bloggers. We're sure you will be inspired to look for more work by our contributors and to buy their books as holiday gifts. And you can read posts by all of our guest bloggers, from the blog's beginning to the present, here. You will find remarkable work.
Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit
“Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit”
I was leafing through the Times, heading
for the sports page because I’ve become
a bit of a Yankee fan though I live in
Cincinnati, and even in Cincinnati I’m
aware of the chaos in the housing industry,
but all the exigencies and catastrophes had
eluded me until there, eye-poppingly, I read
“Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit”!
Oh I’ve acted perfectly disgraceful when
it comes to amortization, and the date
due remains for me an approximation but
I’ve never actually defaulted on anything,
and I’m making progress, I’ve learned
debentures aren’t false teeth, oh I can’t
imagine closing an entire unit of loaning!
Lehman, we love you, keep forking over!
-- Jim Cummins
They flee from me who sometime still had sought me;
I was for sale, and everybody bought me.
When I was young, you never could’ve caught me.
You lusted for some fancy; then you got me.
I didn’t have the heart to say it’s not me.
They flee from me who sometime still had sought me …
You were dismayed. You’d thought I was a hot me.
Maybe you no longer knew how to slot me.
When I was young, you never could’ve caught me.
No, it’s a little bit you, but a lot me.
I’m sad I don’t match up to what you thought me.
They flee from me who sometime still had sought me.
Now I’m imprisoned by the wealth Time’s brought me.
I’m the palimpsest over which you jot me.
They flee from me who one time still had sought me.
When I was young, you never could’ve caught me.
-- James Cummins
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.