I’m a man who likes poets … and poetry

April is National Poetry Month, so this one is for all ye poets out there, and all ye who read poetry.

I’ve been told that if you want to be a poet, you should support poets. And not just the old dead ones but the living breathing ones. By buying their books. Well, I have my share of poets on my book shelves. There’s a special place because I believe poets deserve better than they’ve gotten over the years. Don’t know any that make a living off of their poetry. Just talking, better known as lecturing, and teaching about poetry.

On my shelves, it starts with Old Man Gilgamesh himself. Compared to Gilgamesh, Homer was a modern. Then there’s the ultimate anti-war novel, The Iliad, and his partner, The Odyssey. Both are translated by Robert Fagels. I like him. I like him a lot. Haven’t gotten his translation of The Aeneid yet. And then there’s The Divine Comedy about a man who suddenly goes middle-aged crazy. That’s the male version of menopause. Some might blame it on Beatrice. I blame it on middle-age. You can tell that’s what the man is suffering from by those opening lines of The Inferno, Canto 1:

“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.”

He couldn’t buy that new red Ferrari, so off he went on a journey, to hell and back so to speak. And right by his side is another fellow I like a lot, Geoff Chaucer. Geoff is English for Jeff. His journey begins in April and “When in April the sweet showers fall….” Elmore Leonard says don’t begin with the weather but it seems to work well for old Geoff. Course, next door is the Poet Supreme, the House of the Bard. I’m talking Shakespeare here folks, and my version is the big fat volume of The Norton Shakespeare. A lot of Shakespeare in a lot of book. Not sure about what to say on Elmore’s advice about the weather cause here’s another writer starting off with the weather:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York….”

Guess these guys can break the rules if they want to. Beside these fellows is Alfred Lord with his Idylls of the King. Must admit that one of my favorites of his is “Ulysses”. Ulysses is Roman for Odysseus. In the poem, Odysseus is an old man and longing for the adventures of his youth. When you get old, you too will understand his meaning.

Now I am not partial to Walt Whitman and Emily D, though I have a volume of her stuff on my shelf. Though her poems don’t fit the form, I think you can call her the American haiku-ist. I’m sure Basho would be honored to have her in his company. They do fit the spirit.

I even have a couple of T S’s volumes but he’s not someone I would call a friend. Too brainy for me. Nor do I care much for Robert Frost. I lose something of the meaning of the poem because he depends so much on rhyme. Oh, I know how hard it is to do what he did, but it gets a bit distracting.

No, it’s Basho, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Dylan Thomas, Pueblo Neruda, Jane Kenyon, Derek Walcott, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Sexton, James Dickey, Seamus Heaney, Naomi Shahib Nye and Garcia Lorca for me. Some dead, some living. I tend to turn to these friends when I am looking for some good companionship. They all wear well on me. And I even have a local poet, Summer Rodman’s “A train came by and slow ed”. Reminds me a bit of John Ashbery. And these are just a few of the two or three shelves of poetry I have.

There was a time that I found e e cummings interesting. But I tired of his gimmickry, although I still pull out “On Being Brand New” for a good laugh.

I’ve always read and bought poetry. I’m not sure why. I just like having them around to whisper in my ear their secrets and their beauty. It took 9/11/01 to make me value their value. Afterwards I picked up Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, Anna Akhmatova’s “Reading Hamlet”, and the one Whitman I like. Though it is awfully wordy and seems to go on way too long, it is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. In it, Whitman mourns for Abraham LIncoln. There are moments in that poem that are intensely moving. As far as Akhmatova is concerned, I keep coming across those words,

“To the right, wasteland by the cemetery,
beyond it the river’s dull blue.”

That seemed to measure my feeling after 9/11. Guess I am a little bit strange to feel that but I did, and sometimes still do.

I don’t know how I came by this love of poets and their poetry. It certainly does not run in my family. No poets among my kin. Nary a one. Maybe it came from reading The King James Bible and The Psalms early on. I sure do like reading Jesus’ Blesseds and Psalm 23 in the KJB. Haven’t found a better translation. Maybe those were the sections Old Will worked on. I just know that poets give me great comfort and I wish there were a hell of a lot more of them. Perhaps if there were, we’d have a bit less war and injustice.

I’ve often wondered why I have watched and studied politics so much over the years. If Boris Pasternak and his Zhivago should have taught me anything, it is don’t give a damn about politics. It never solves anything. And often makes matters worse. Then there’s Yeats’ wonderful lines:

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 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!

Again maybe I should have embraced Zhivago as a role model. Maybe I would have been much better off. I know politics gives me a headache these days, hearing arguments about things that most of us don’t take any comfort in. A lot of this and a lot of that. Mostly tweedledee and twiddledum. Why don’t they just get on with it? As the fellow said on Saturday Night Live a while back, “Just fix it.”

One of my favorite intros to poems and poets is Molly Peacock’s How to read a poem … and start a poetry circle. She introduced me to Jane Kenyon’s wonderful poem “Let evening come”, one of my favs these days. In all my poemer-writing years I have never come close to something so lovely, so beautiful. It reveals to me how much beauty there is in the world if we only look and see.

So here I am late on a Saturday night. I’ve finished my weekly chores and I find myself turning to a poem or two for comfort. Not sure what has gotten into me. But I raise my glass and toast them all everyone. Thanks for the poems that have been spoken and that are to be spoken.

Lookin’ for Number Three

By the time Jimmy Lee’s grandmother rode to Florida with him, she was working on her third husband. She felt that it was another chance to get the husband thing right. But Jimmy Lee knew that his Gran was the kind of woman who would fall for anything in pants if the man threw a smile her way.

Her wandering eye was how she lost her two husbands. If another man smiled at her just right, she could not resist. As soon as they did, she took off after them. Come hell or high water she was going to enjoy the pleasure of that man. In Moslem culture, she’d have lost her head for looking the wrong way at a man who wasn’t her husband. Thank Allah she wasn’t a follower of Islam. She belonged to that congregation known as barely a Christian.

Husband Numero Uno was a jackass anyway. That is a Jack with a capital J, Ass with a capital A. So she didn’t mind foolin’ around on the side. Served him right. Thing was he took her for everything worth taking her for. Jimmy Lee’s mom was the only good thing to come out of that marriage.

Husband Numero Segundo was a preacher she met when finalizing her divorce from Uno. The Reverend Lyle Taggart counseled her right into bed, then into marriage. That was where she got the Barely-Christian from. As she recalled, this husband was as good in bed as he was a-preaching. Unfortunately she got bored in her role as Mrs. Perfect Sunday School. So her eyes began  wondering in the wilderness. But it was a mighty long dry spell. There weren’t that many men in the small congregation of two hundred folks who would give her the smile she was craving. Pretty soon she was craving it something bad.

Then the church got itself a new deacon. Before you know it, she was diddle-dadling with that Deacon. When she took a liking to the Deacon and the Deacon took a liking to her, all hades broke loose in that church she was barely the Christian of. One Sunday that preacher husband of hers looked down from his pulpit like God must look from On High. It was a couple of weeks into her adultery. He pointed his finger right at her and said, “Repent, Woman, or thy name is Jezebel.”

Right then and there she decided Jezebel might be a good name to have. It rolled off the tongue something easy and it was downright Biblical. She stood herself up in that pew, the special one that was reserved for the preacher’s wife and other VIPs. She gave that husband of hers the finger, you know the finger I’m talking about, then she grabbed the hand of her eight-year-old daughter. With that child in tow, she sashayed herself right out of that church. There would be no more praying or Bible studying or singing the praises for her.

Last she’d heard of that second husband of hers he went and married one of the good sisters of that church six months after that marriage was dead and buried. Good riddance to the both of them.

On the trip south to Florida in her grandson’s automobile, she smiled, thinking of the what-for she’d given to those hypocrites that day. It was a real hallelujah, five-star perfect day.

From that time to this, she’d spent running from man to man, looking for Mr. Perfect and mostly settling for less. It was like her mother used to say, “A good man’s hard to find.” Nobody could say she hadn’t tried though. Thing was her wandering eye was ready to settle down on one man if’n he was the right man.

She was sure her luck had changed. Her astrologer told her it was written in the stars. He ought to know. He’d laid her life out for her so many times before. She was absolutely certain, as certain as a being can be, that Florida was the place she was about to find a jim dandy of a husband. She’d heard that the Sunshine State was the place a lot of men hightailed it to when their wives passed on to the other side. They went there for a good tan and a new lease on life. She was the very one to give one of them that lease. She wasn’t even going to pass up a younger man if he’s a good ‘un with a fat wallet.

She took a good look at herself in the rearview mirror. She looked ten years younger at least than her true age. And she still had a damned fine figure. She could cougar with the best of ’em. One thing was for sure. She wasn’t about to spend her last days in the poorhouse. She had done that way too much.

There had been a time she’d thought she’d just give up. She’d about given up hope. Finding her a husband she’d be pleased as punch with was almost as impossible as a smarty ass Yankee saying a proper y’all. It couldn’t be done. Then Jimmy Lee came back up from a semester of his cooking school. Cordon Bleu Something-or-Other he called it. He offered to take her to the Promised Land. As they say in church, she was reborn and ready to give that old demon Discouragement a kick in the backside.

Jimmy Lee crossed the Florida-Georgia line on I75 and continued southward. Then he looked Gran’s way and said, “You’re going to love my fiancée, Gran.”

Gran knew she would. Gran was the only family Jimmy Lee had left, his mama and his daddy killed in an accident five years earlier. Going to Florida and school there had been the only way the twenty-year-old could escape his grief. And she knew that he knew how to pick ’em. He’d never go for a girl that didn’t have a good heart. He was a good boy like that.

“And you’re going to like her dad too. Emmy Jo’s dad raised her all by hisself. His wife. the one he calls his one-and-only, she died in a car accident ten years ago. Drunk driver hit her.”

“Sounds like he is a good man,” Gran said.

“The best,” Jimmy Lee said.

How ’bout we stop for some refreshments?” she said. “My legs could use a good stretch.”

So they stopped at a Cracker Barrel. Had themselves a fine meal. Besides the food, it gave Gran a chance to brag on her grandson. And one thing she loved to do was brag on the boy which she did to the waitress.

“You do have a fine looking grandson there,” the waitress responded to her praises. “I’m sure I’d be proud if’n he was mine.”

On the way back to the car, Gran said to the boy, “I sure do like this Florida hospitality.”

Jimmy Lee opened the door for her, then he said, “I knew you would.”

Before she knew it she was in Orlando. There was so much sun out she swore she had never seen so much sun. After a couple of nights settling in at Jimmy Lee’s apartment, it was time for him to take Gran to meet his girl.

The two of them drove up in front of a two-story house with a white picket fence. The kind she’d always dreamed. Jimmy Lee straightened his tie in the rear-view mirror, turned to his Gran and asked, “Do I look okay?” He was as nervous as all get-out in that suit and tie of his.

“You sure do, ” Gran said.

The two got out of the car and walked to the door. Jimmy Lee pressed the doorbell. Before you could say “Hallelujah. Praise the Lord” three times, a tall, gray-haired man answered the door.

“Well, hello, Jimmy Lee,” he said, then asked, “Melissa Sue Maryann?”

“I’ll be,” Gran said and laughed. “If it ain’t the Reverend Lyle Taggart.”

“Jezebel, may you rot in hell,” Tall-and-Gray said, then slammed the door behind him.

Jimmy Lee stood there in front of that door, surprise all over his face. “What was that?” Then his voice turned to anger. “How dare him call my Gran that name.”

“Didn’t I tell you it’s my second name. He give it to me a long time ago. He’s my second husband, and he always was a son of a bitch.”

Getting Jimmy Lee away from that door was like pulling a thing glued with crazy glue from another thing. But she did.

Jimmy Lee reluctantly started the car and turned to his Gran and said, regret in his voice, “Guess that’s one girl that won’t be marrying me.”

“I’m sorry,” Gran said. And she was. She really was.

“You know I always thought there was something about that man. He seemed just too good to be true. Seemed to not have one fault.” Jimmy Lee pulled away from the street parking and drove straight toward the stop. When he stopped, he took a deep breath and said, not so much to his Gran but to himself, “Well, there’s more fish in the ocean. I’m sure I can catch a good ‘un sooner or later.” Too bad thing’s had turned out the way they did. He sure liked that girl.

“One thing is for sure. There goes another of my not-so-Mr.-Rights.”

She laughed and laughed and laughed like she hadn’t laughed in years. And Jimmy Lee laughed right alongside of her. They didn’t stop laughing till they were back at his apartment.

When Jesus Came East Out of Texas

Happy Easter, y’all.

-1-

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He came out tan,
even dark skinned, brown eyes, black hair. A Somebody
He could’ve been, being Jesus. Instead He was
a cotton chopping, dish washing, toilet cleaning, hard working
Man of a Jesus, His hands calloused from the fields He’d worked,
His muscles aching so tired He could hardly sleep most nights.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He came out kicking-up dirt
along the lonely, dusty road leaving Nazareth
coming into a country that don’t allow a kicking up dirt.
Run out of town He was
near tarred and feathered for saying a thing that was true.
You see, a prophet don’t get a bit of respect in the town He’s from.
Nazareth folk knew His mama and His stepdaddy,
claimed they’s always acting uppity like his kin was closer to the Almighty than anybody,
keeping the Sabbath and testifying,
yes testifying they’d been touched by the Lord’s own hand.
Said they’d seen an angel too. “Imagine that,” some said.
“God can’t be that real, just one big myth and no place to be found.
We townspeople been praying way too long for the Expected One
and we’re not about to be taken in by a bastard Son of Joachim’s child.
If this Jesus is a messiah, the town drunk must be Moses.
After all, that drunk would part the Red Sea too if there’s a bottle of whiskey on the other shore.
And he can quote the Scriptures better’n any Baptist preacher.”

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He scrounged up work wherever He could,
roustabouting on the rigs out in the Gulf,
picking peaches over Georgia way,
digging the black rock out of West Virginia hills.
Even cleaned stables from time to time—
some said He felt home there, being He was Mary’s Baby Child born in a stall.
Right good with animals too, God’s own creatures He called them.
Able to gentle a horse nobody else could.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He met up with a river.
Went and got Hisself baptized in that great Euphrates of a river;
yes, baptized down yonder in the Old Muddy Mississippi
near Jericho where the seven walls fell,
baptized by His own sweet cousin John,
you know the Baptist who preached
John three sixteen once saved always saved amen.
Straightaway a Dove
whiter than the snow white robes of the saints washed in the Blood,
that Holy Ghost Dove rose,
like Excalibur He rose out of the waters and into the heavens
calling out in dove-talk words only a prophet would know.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He shook Hisself free,
shook off that river, pulled on His sneakers.
Spent a time in the Delta and ran up against Doctor Hoodoo at the Crossroads,
gave old Scratch such a whacking
right then and there Beelzebub invented the Blues.
Then it was on down to New Orleans for Jesus,
that Sodom and Gomorrah town
where sinners cut their eye teeth on the Seven Deadlies.
Amongst the smells of remoulade and gumbo drifting through the Vieux Carré,
Jesus changed the me-got-troubles-and-the-troubles-me-got-cut-down-deep-to-the-bone
Beelzebub Blues into Jazz when Jesus came east out of Texas.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He hopped the night train to Memphis.
Hoboed Hisself up to Graceland and the Land of Elvis,
that motherlode of Rock and Roll born wearing Blue Suede Shoes
cradled alongside the Mother of Rivers,
where Mary Mag in a room at the Heartbreak Hotel called out to her lover, “Love me tender,”
where Simon Peter, like his daddy and his granddaddy before, worked the docks, loading and unloading,
where Beale Street opened its arms wide, welcoming a Man named Jesus,
for Jesus loved sinners, and the sinners loved Jesus.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He told stories,
and He told them ‘bout prodigals and rejects,
‘bout a beggar name of Lazarus and a mustard seed
with faith ‘nough to move a mountain cross the State of Georgia.
But the sinners had heard them all before
from the holy ghost healers and the Bible thumpers and the tent preachers,
from the theologians and the priests and the social gospelleers,
from the Billy Sundays and the Bishop Sheens and the Billy Grahams
they had heard the stories and were none too partial to hearing them again
till they heard the “fear not” in the voice of Jesus who came east out of Texas
and the Beloved He took to calling them like they’s somebody.

-2-
When Jesus came east out of Texas, he moved from town to town
making His way through places with names like Shiloh and Rose of Sharon and New Hope,
just dots on a map for some but home for others.
Wherever He went walking, a rag-tag band followed after,
souls in need of learning how to swim, souls drowning in a sea of storms,
souls like Mary Mag come begging for love,
a woman the gossips dubbed Slut from the shantyside of town.
She Sunday-dressed and fancied herself up and dropped down on her knees
in the grass, in the dirt to beg the feet of Jesus for forgiveness.
He gave her what she wanted much;
He loved her tenderly with words that forgave her many sins.
And them sinning folk, my how they loved Jesus.
Would have followed Him anywhere the sun rises and sets.
But at the edge of the crowd stood a preacher name of Caiaphas.
He heard all the Truth that Jesus spoke and he didn’t listen ‘cause he was so full of hisself.
He turned and walked away from Jesus with a “how dare he” on his lips.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, He preached a sermon,
preached it on the banks of the Chattahoochee.
Said a lot of strange things, things like “Blessed”
and “Forgive” and “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your neighbor.”
Told one fellow, “Take up your street and walk.”
That man, who couldn’t walk, did just that, stood hisself up
and walked, walked away with no limp at all.
Another time He said, “If you begat the sword, the sword will begat you.”
Called God, you know the Almighty Jehovah, He named Him Father.
Said, “God is Love.” Of all things.
“How ‘bout that,” said the sinners who had always thought
God was Judge and Jury, and Sheriff too.

When Jesus came east out of Texas, some of the upstanding,
well they had themselves a meeting,
an Upstanding Citizens Committee Meeting.
Seems they didn’t like the rumors coming their way ‘bout this Man Jesus
Like He could walk on water, heal the sick, cast out demons.
“Everybody knows there ain’t no such thing as demons,” they said.
“So how can He cast out a thing that ain’t?”
There was even talk that Jesus raised a dead man right out of his sleep.
“Downright blasphemous was what that was,”
the citizens said. “Let the dead lie in peace.”
From the mouth of Preacher Caiaphas, they heard
the words they felt deep down in their hard-hearted hearts, they heard,
“We can’t allow any more of His Good News stuff being spread around.
Why, what will happen to law and order, to hellfire and brimstone, if the sinners believe?”

When Jesus came east out of Texas, the citizens
dressed themselves up in hoods and in robes like it was Halloween and went out looking.
When they found Jesus, they watched and they watched ‘cause watching was what they did
till one night they found Him alone down by a creek a-praying.
Arrested him on a trumped-up charge. “Baptisin’ without a license,” the hypocrites called it.
Had themselves a trial. But it was no real trial, just a sham of a justice.
“So you think you’re a Jesus?” Preacher Caiaphas said, his spite spitting out the words of Satan
who’d known he’d have his revenge for the whacking he’d taken from the hand of Jesus.
“You ain’t nothing of a Jesus. Our Jesus
is a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, fair-skinned Jesus, and you ain’t him.”

When Jesus came east out of Texas, the whip came down,
it came down hard on Jesus,
and the whip came down hard some more
till it had come down hard on His back some thirty-nine times.
“Let’s hang the nigger,” one of the hoods shouted out.
The citizens carved King of the Niggers into His face,
into the face of Jesus and they lynched Him from a tree.
Strung up in space He swung halfway ‘tween earth and heaven
till He died that dark and moonless night.
Then the hypocrites one by one slunk away, saying,
“Well, that’s the last we’ll hear of that nigger.”

Later, later in the dark, later in the night, His friends came to the tree,
that lonesome tree where the Good Man hung—
Mother Mary, Mary Mag, Simon Peter, Little John, they came
and pulled His body down, bruised and scarred.
They laid their broken Jesus into a grave by the river He’d loved.

Out of the darkness came a great shout of light when
Jesus who came east out of Texas stepped out of the ground,
His body now whole and new, and the world could not hold Him,
He ascended into eternity like He’d said He would,
promising, “Mi amigos, viyo con Dios, and remember
I shall see you again.
Soon.”

So look east, my friends. Yes, look east and perhaps,
just perhaps….