Categories
poetry publication writing

Transitions

Transitions: Early Poems
Cover of the paperback version of Transitions ($12.95 through Amazon).

In my efforts to promote a first book of poetry just published, I drafted a press release and sent it off to a couple of arts groups. Without blowing my own horn or strumming my own lute too much, I have to say that this analytic exercise was illuminating for me.

The collection is called Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989, and is available at Amazon in both paperback and epub formats. With a name like Transitions, long the working title for poems I wrote in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poems deal with passages or rites of passage in one’s life. But readers and reviewers have readily discerned the theme of growing up or awakening in these poems.

To quote myself (sorry) in the press release:

As several readers have pointed out … the collection is a coming of age series. The struggles to find a voice are enacted against the background of conforming institutions — church, family, marriage, and academe. “I failed to get tenure at the college where I was teaching,” Zeck says, “and began through the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, a struggle to find out just who I was, unmoored from institutional supports or detaching from them. There were the night sweats, and the day sweats, as John Berryman might have said, and the constant if unconscious need to make something of myself and to make it on my own.”

There’s nothing particularly novel about such a theme. We all struggle, in one way or another, to come of age, to mature, to grow into our own skin. What makes my struggle different, could be, is the confluence of these particular pressures: the church, family, marriage, and academe coming together to produce a collection of particular utterances about the struggle, which results in or enacts a voice and an identity, finally, of my own.

The poems testify to the Catholic puritanism of my upbringing, a streak that runs through my dad’s Polish-American family like a toxic vein. He himself was very reticent about sex, and his father guiltily mourned his bastardy to the end of his life. This kind of childhood was not Blake’s Garden, where the happy childhood is succeeded by “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” The childhood itself was marked by fears and doubts of ever being worthy, of ever escaping the all-seeing eye.

One poem, “Something for My Cousin,” testifies to the complacencies of faith purveyed by the church. At the funeral of a first cousin who died by her own hand,

… the goateed priest, half through the mass,
capered to the lectern. Ours, he said, comfortably,
not to question why this dread thing happened
but to know the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Capon! Mumbling of resurrection and eternal life,
he got on with the job, hoisted the chalice, wiped
his dribbling chops, handed out communion, leading
the faithful up faith’s candy-coated mountain.

In “Suburban Sacraments,” an elegy for a youthful friend,

Machinegun-style, our alcoholic pastor spat out the Latin
of the Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” And, hands folded,
Mark and I fired back: “Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutem
meam.” It was not the ideal preparation for life the cataclysm.

But the church and family were not all dregs and disappointments. Humor leavens this bitter loaf, often in things sexual. In “Physical,” the examining Catholic family doctor intones, writing on his chart, “No signs of impurity,” and the kid wonders how the doctor has not seen or suspected his masturbatory habits.

Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

And in “Transitional,” part of “Onan Suite,” the longest poem in the collection, the narrator wonders about the futility of the sacrament of penance. He confesses his lusts, his impurities, and is forgiven, but knows he will once more be “beating off” when he sees the girls in the neighborhood:

I could go on and
on counting the ways,
telling the beads
of my onanistic rosary,

a sly and unrepentant
teenage Catholic boy
who could never quite
make it across.

It’s not only the content, of course, but the form of the poem that gets it across, that makes a bridge, or a transition, for the poet and, he would hope, his readers. In my case, the Latin of the mass and sacraments instilled in me a love of language, a love of form, that became transmuted into a secular but still, in a way, hieratic voice, if only the voice of the fallen priest or angel — and then professor — and then one who had to come up with his own words entirely to profess and convince, without institutional support of any kind.

The large question here is how do any of us make it across, wherever it is we end up going? What kind of transitions can we make, if we’re left largely on our own, the mysteries and terrors of institutions like church and state and family pushing us away not embracing us?

Poems themselves, or other art objects, may become “transitional objects,” in the terms of W. D. Winnicott. They stand for mother and family, of comfort, of home, and at the same time are the means of moving away into one’s own sphere of being and accomplishing. They are home and not home, mother and not mother, finally altogether, if the bearer of these objects is lucky, an other.

I pushed through a difficult boyhood, did well in Catholic school and then at the university (I was too afraid not to), where I earned a B.A. in English and German and a Ph.D. in American literature. Such an education naturally immersed me in language, especially poetry, which proved as rich as, no, richer than, the Latin of the mass and the sacraments. But when I began to teach college, in Detroit, in the 1970s, academe became for me, a reiteration of the authority of church, family, marriage.

No, I didn’t get tenure at Wayne State University, where I taught from 1972 to 1979 (tenure: meaning the ability or capacity to hold on, as for dear life). I was too young, too immature. I didn’t write enough, or enough of the right kind of thing, using the right “methodology” (the totem of the English Department, which yearned for the power and responsibility not to mention salary of the sciences). I didn’t make connections, or pretend friendships, with those in the department who had the power to confer tenure. I did, however, get immersed in the alchemy of language, anxiety, identity, so that when I would try out an academic paper on my colleagues I’d hear back I didn’t know what I was talking about … but sure could write. By the time I was ejected from Wayne, and then after a Fulbright year teaching in Serbia, trying to make a living through freelance business writing, I was ready to remember and record the occasions, and gifts, that led to my being me, including, if I may conclude thus, this love poem to my wife and apologia for the poetic vocation too.

Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer

In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.

Categories
poetry politics writing

History & Nostalgia

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the oracle of the Jazz Age and our age too.

There’s a wonderful Sarah Churchwell essay in the New York Review of Books called “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, local boy made good from St. Paul, Minnesota (where my wife and I lived 16 years). The essay explores a facet of Fitzgerald’s work on the so-called “Jazz Age” (a sobriquet he took credit for) that is not much remarked on, the connection between the horrors of WW I, just completed, and the ebullience and drunkenness of the ’20s.

The essay ends in a summary warning at this political and cultural junction:

Fitzgerald became America’s poet laureate of nostalgia because he understood its perils as well as its allure: nostalgia wants to falsify the past, whereas history tries to clarify it. Gatsby, the emblematic American, is destroyed by nostalgia, his dreams of reclaiming paradise shattered by the “hard malice” of Tom Buchanan’s plutocratic power. Gatsby’s incurable faith in the false promise of renewal—“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”—is America’s. Like Gatsby, we want to recover some idea of ourselves that we’ve lost, to return to the past and find there, intact, our own innocence. Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” is our own—and ensures we keep willfully forgetting that his great aspirations ended dead in the water.

We’ve all read The Great Gatsby, haven’t we? And I hope we continue to read it in high schools and colleges through the nation. Now, almost 100 years after its publication, it sounds the same alarm about plutocracy and democracy. Do we fight, in wars, in elections, merely to keep the rich in place, atop the pile, piling on, adding to their advantage? Or do we demand a little room to breathe for fellow citizens (like George Floyd) and ourselves?

The air may be rare up there, where even the toilets are gold plated, but down here on the ground, in the trenches, “the mud of Gallipoli,” as T. S. Eliot put it, remembering a friend’s death in WW I, we need to sweat and bleed in the common way to make any progress at all.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, British poet and soldier. He died at age 25 one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Or course, conservatives constantly prattle about “the city on the hill,” “American exceptionalism,” “Make America Great Again,” and, most facile of all, “patriotism” — the patriotism of the great dead white men and of course the live ones, most of whom didn’t and wouldn’t go to war themselves (can anyone say “bone spurs”?) but would be glad to send the deplorables and the inexorables to the mud for the sake of the country, sure, and the munitions manufacturers.

They haven’t read (what’s reading?) or haven’t heeded the warning of Wilfred Owen’s poem (what’s poetry?) about the Great War, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends in exhortation of those who have not been to war:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Patriotic bullshit. Toxic nostalgia. It’s not sweet, nor is it just, to die for the country. Don’t let ’em tell you that it is. Don’t let ’em wave their flag in your face. Read your history, fight your own fights, and the hell with filial or final piety.

(For an analysis of a more recent misadventure in patriotism and American arms, see Frederic Wehrey’s “This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie,” also in the Review of Books.)

Categories
poetry politics writing

Politics

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)

Categories
poetry publication writing

First-book musings

On the eve of my 73rd birthday, in early October, I have published 50 poems, about 100 pages’ worth, via Kindle Direct Publishing, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989. (Available in both paperback and ebook versions from Amazon. You can download a sample of the ebook version free and see a few of the poems. Or just write to me.)

Paperback version of Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989.

The book may not soon be a major motion picture, and may not sell in the hundreds of thousands. Still, launching such a boat even at this late date makes me a bit giddy.

The main point, at this point in my life, is neither financial success nor personal validation per se. It’s not to prove that I’m rich, a great poet, or admired by legions. It’s simply to show what I have done with a bit of my life, now that I’m entering the home stretch. And to leave something behind. (The way the astronauts on the moon, I read in today’s New York Times, left bags of poop? Well, poop and footprints and various other detritus, which some would safeguard as historical heritage like earthbound artifacts.)

When my older brother Gerry died a few years ago, of brain cancer, he regretted especially not publishing a book of his photos and illustrations. He was an excellent and zany sketcher of the mythical and impossible. I have a few of his sketches and his notebooks to establish the point, so may show you examples from time to time. (Or some day launch a postmortem collaboration of some kind.) But Gerseybro, as he called himself, regretted not publishing more on his own.

Gerry Zeck’s sketch “Sinister Accident.”

Gerry wanted to make an account, I think, or to settle accounts, it could be. He’d been given this gift, and needed to give back. To show the world, at any rate, what he could do and, in fact, did.

And isn’t that enough?

Naked come we into the world, but it would be a shame to leave without a stitch on, a garment we have woven, however modest, of the gifts we have been accorded and, in our own sweet time, developed. As Lewis Hyde suggests in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (a book I gave Gerry, and he gave another copy back to me), nothing is so giving, and fulfilling, as giving back.