Lots of changes coming to the blog, starting next week, including podcast plans. Meanwhile, between Brexit woes and the dangerous situation that is American politics right now, I thought we could use two Saturday Songs this week. A double-shot reminder that we should hug someone at least once a day because we’re all in this together.
The last few weeks in the news have been . . . Well, honestly, I don’t think I have words for them yet, and so I have retreated this weekend into poems, and into handling such delayed tasks as (finally) working out the settings between the microphone and the new laptop, and avoiding other things I probably should be doing. And so there arises this post. Poems like this, along with others I’ve recorded this morning, help give me hope. In beauty, in humanity–good words to cling to, even if they seem unrelated to our current heartaches.
I first heard this poem read by Dr. Mary Brown about the time that the last Horn and Hardart’s closed its doors in 1991. Her reading left quite an impression on me. And I’ve been in love with Gerald Stern ever since. The original recording of this was from 2010, and the audio was just bloody awful, so I decided this morning to redo it with the newer Rode NT mic.
I apologize now for the parade of schmaltzy images. But some of them were just too hard for me to let go of. Like the speaker in the poem, I decided that they “were not a waste,” and while I could update the audio, the rest would stand pretty much as I made it, an imperfect creation, by the fumbling, but enthusiastic YouTuber I was six years ago.
Perhaps it’s not necessary to know all the details of how the waiter-less automat diner met its demise, done in by the changing lifestyles of American diners and the rising popularity of fast-food chains. But you may enjoy reading a bit of Horn and Hardart’s history in the Smithsonian Magazine.
My apologies for not crediting the images, but this was put together with what I think were mostly copyright-free photos. If I am using something that belongs to you, please let me know and I’ll be glad to remove it, or to give credit where it is due. Like most of the things I’ve recorded here, it is done without seeking official permission from the poet. I hope the good man takes it as a compliment, and I hope you go buy one of his books!
There Is Wind, There Are Matches
by Gerald Stern
A thousand times I have sat in restaurant windows,
through mopping after mopping, letting the ammonia clear
my brain and the music from the kitchens
ruin my heart. I have sat there hiding
my feelings from my neighbors, blowing smoke
carefully into the ceiling, or after I gave
that up, smiling over my empty plate
like a tired wolf. Today I am sitting again
at the long marble table at Horn and Hardart’s,
drinking my coffee and eating my burnt scrapple.
This is the last place left and everyone here
knows it; if the lights were turned down, if the
heat were turned off, if the banging of dishes stopped,
we would all go on, at least for a while, but then
we would drift off one by one toward Locust or Pine.
— I feel this place is like a birch forest
about to go; there is wind, there are matches, there is snow,
and it has been dark and dry for hundreds of years.
I look at the chandelier waving in the glass
and the sticky sugar and the wet spoon.
I take my handkerchief out for the sake of the seven
years we spent in Philadelphia and the
steps we sat on and the tiny patches of lawn.
I believe now more than I ever did before
in my first poems and more and more I feel
that nothing was wasted, that the freezing nights
were not a waste, that the long dull walks and
the boredom, and the secret pity, were
not a waste. I leave the paper sitting,
front page up, beside the cold coffee,
on top of the sugar, on top of the wet spoon,
on top of the grease. I was born for one thing,
and I can leave this place without bitterness
and start my walk down Broad Street past the churches
and the tiny parking lots and the thrift stores.
There was enough justice, and there was enough wisdom,
although it would take the rest of my life— the next
two hundred years— to understand and explain it;
and there was enough time and there was enough affection
even if I did tear my tongue
begging the world for one more empty room
and one more window with clean glass
to let the light in on my last frenzy.
— I do the crow walking clumsily over his meat,
I do the child sitting for his dessert,
I do the poet asleep at his table,
waiting for the sun to light up his forehead.
I suddenly remember every ruined life,
every betrayal, every desolation,
as I walk past Tasker toward the city of Baltimore,
banging my pencil on the iron fences,
whistling Bach and Muczynski through the closed blinds.
From Early Collected Poems 1965 — 1992
Copyright, 2010 by Gerald Stern
Good Sunday to you. And if I haven’t said it already, happy National Poetry Month from the Northeast of these United (sort of) States.
At last the April snows appear to be over here. It’s sunny, but with that brisk chill that somehow returns me to childhood, not for any particular memory or event, but the emotion associated with tactile memory. The taste on the breeze, of cool moisture on a spring morning, the warmth of sun contrasting with cold air on my skin.
I sat on my back steps in my bathrobe, waiting for my coffee to be ready. Through my pantry window I had seen Mamma Robin again, and it made me think of a new poem by my friend Joel. So I had to go out and see her in person, her rufus breast puffed out, the feathers on her head peaking up just a bit; she was not going to be intimidated by my presence, and soon seemed to accept my company as another fact of the morning. This was the first time this year I had noticed actual dew drops sparkling in the grass, dew drops, not frost.
It always comes back around, doesn’t it? If you wait out the winter, keep going, sometimes pushing through snow, hibernating when you can. It always comes back around. There were other birds in nearby yards, the House Sparrow landing on the eves of the house next door, the coo of a Mourning Dove, but sadly no Bobolink. Ah, Miss Emily. We do what we can with what we have. I nodded good morning to Mamma Robin and returned inside for my coffee.
I found this video this morning, and the date for its creation is the last day of February of this year. From the stark beauty of the bare trees, and the patches of remaining snow in the shade, as well as those winding roads, it feels like home in the hills of Central Pennsylvania. I even remember being a crazy youngster, walking in my bare feet in the cold woods like this.
The memory of what YouTube used to be to some of us. Yeah, that’s probably part of the nostalgia I feel in watching this simple video. Back when it was a group of creative upstarts with microphones and cheap cameras, back before it became corporate-tube. Yeah, some of you might remember. It’s lovely to find something like this is still being done.
I was once a believer in deity, but I have come to be a believer in people instead. I think it makes more sense, and is certainly no more dangerous. But I confess, I’ve always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson, number 236 as it is cataloged. Though she did not entitle her pieces, we generally find them easier to sort through by their first lines. If a touch of glossary helps: *Sexton *Surplice.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University press, 1999)
Since I am too impatient for (or intolerant of) Throw-back Thursday, and since Flash-back Friday has become passé, I will attempt, while back-gazing, to get ahead of what’s fashionable, and call this post a “Way-back Wednesday.” But here, alas, I see Twitter has already hash-tagged this. So be it.
From the Way-back Machine, here are two videos from my past. The first was recorded as a response video (back when YouTube allowed that activity) to a Billy Collins reading by the great SpokenVerse, who goes by the nome-de-net of Tom O’Bedlam. I was stunned and so pleased when he actually wrote back to me. What a voice that man has! He still corresponds with me from time to time, and I consider it a great honor.
The second is from 2009 and the very beginning of my YouTube channel under the screen name SonofWalt, and what has led to over a hundred and fifty poetry readings on YouTube, and later another sixty-plus tracks on SoundCloud. My son Micah decided to start filming while I read a different Billy Collins poem (the first of his I had ever read I think–when it appeared in Poetry Magazine) to my friend Miranda.
First the Poem News:
The editors, Jeff and Tobi are wonderful, and I really like their choice of poets. If you have any poems that reflect the American South West, you should consider sending to their next themed issue on that topic. Submissions open in January, and instructions for sending your work are on their home page.
Now the Poet News:
One of the most popular, and oldest pages here on the blog has been finally updated. Well, completely overhauled really. The re-invented Poet page is part of the bio section, so there is a bit more of my story there now, and even more links to works of mine that can be found in various places online. That includes writing, video and audio material. It all feels so thoroughly narcissistic!