9 Poems and Commentary
Writers of all stripe habitually kick around the notion of voice (some might call it style). I don't know that a writer, over the course of time, settles ultimately on a single voice, nor should he. But I do think there is the imprimatur voice, the core voice, the baseline voice, perhaps the DNA voice which, once arrived at, remains the guiding light regardless of those other voices a poet finds himself employing. More than anything, it's this practiced voice that allows the poet to venture into unexplored, often fraught, terrain: his best pitch, the one he goes to in the late innings with a mere one run lead, men on base, and a formidable hitter at the plate. It's the voice of confidence.
Carrying a smith's tools
in a land which would not brook his fire,
he planted seeds,
and each year the birds
took his first fruit, leaving him
to rave woodenly like a false prophet,
one eye blind,
the other like a smoked marble.
When his wife died, he buried her
out of country in a hill
filled with Lutherans
and never returned.
Hiding in the grape arbor,
I felt his anger coursing through me.
Even then I knew
I was his Hercules.
One eye squinted, I can see
his now-boxed body alive
in the shuttered room
where he slept alone
and danced the Tarantella
in Sunday shirt and gold watch,
brooded over Chianti and fierce Parodis.
His daughters, whom he could not distinguish
from fishwives, pulled me from the door.
But after he was drunk,
we all heard him: rasping
in dialect, roaring
with the blasted mouth of a soldier,
and Garibaldi in one breath.
There are relics of him strewn
throughout the garden:
watch chain, cigar stubs,
shards of shattered bottles,
a broken spade.
His shirt flaps in the wind.
The scarecrow wears his fedora.
I lift my hands to bless the birds
that swoop down on these elegies.
I had been in North Carolina almost five years, writing poems and prose, when I started "Paolo Mio," in long-hand, at my parents' dining room table, while visiting them in my boyhood home in Pittsburgh. The poem signaled a kind of milestone on a number of levels. Suddenly, it seemed, I was finished casting about for subject matter and realized, apropos of Flannery O'Connor's famous injunction -- The fact is that anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days
-- that my central store of material was autobiography.
Thus, a portal to my own private mythology, that had been there all along, swung open and I discovered inside a labyrinth of material -- in fact, a trove I'll never exhaust, and to which I habitually return: my old world Italian, Catholic working class sensibilities rooted in a very specific place (Pittsburgh). "Paolo Mio" also had to it a shape that emerged organically, a narrative (I simply told the story), a schema, all informed by concrete visceral images that I not only could see, but smell, hear, taste, and touch -- that, as an eye (I) witness, I could authenticate. I knew my subject. Not only that. In discovering that subject, I suddenly realized I was passionate about it.
Washing Her Ruined Boy
That he would not cry this way
in front of his father
is no measure of greater love.
He simply apportions me what is mine.
As I run his bath
I watch him through the mirror,
YANKS piped gravely across his chest
in maroon block, as he undresses.
He's smooth and pretty
as his sister, but unlike her
he covets fame's witness.
I can hardly lift him
over the lip of the tub
where his regatta lists,
dry-docked and forgotten.
Tonight he does not buck my cleansing hand,
but leans into it, crying, as I bathe him --
still not sure that what he's assailed by is loss,
for what is there to lose in seven years?
Already he's bent on making
this mourning his life.
Each night he prays to be a champion.
I yearn to tell him he is right
to despair as I towel and wrap him,
languid, weeping, across my knees, wondering
if tonight he'll cry out in sleep as he kicks
that same elusive grounder through his dreams.
The one he's told me over and over --
incredulous that something bad could happen --
that had all the world to choose,
yet chose the earth he stood on
to pluck off and ruin him.
"Washing Her Ruined Boy," like "Paolo Mio," is also an older poem. On one level, it is very much about a mother giving a bath to her Little Leaguer who has come home vanquished because his team lost the game and he made a crucial error that led to the loss.
Baseball is probably the first love of my life and it made itself manifest in powerful ways roughly at the same time that I was beginning my immersion into Catholicism (and I've written a number of baseball poems, in particular, and quite a few sports poems in general). Thus, all my life I've tended to conflate baseball and religion. In fact, "Washing Her Ruined Boy" was inspired by Michelangelo's Pieta
. But there's no way on earth readers, simply by reading the poem, would ever be privy to this without an inside tip from the author. "Washing Her Ruined Boy" is, if you will, the Pieta
. That's all in my head, however, merely anecdotal, and relates to what I reference above as "private mythology."
But let's put that aside for now. First off, I wanted to write a poem in the voice of a woman, a mother who understands perfectly the depths of her boy's despair. Even though her son is still just a very little boy, competitive sports jars children quickly out of their innocence and makes them feel badly about themselves if they don't perform perfectly. I also wanted to get at the fact that children live and die in the moment and that this little boy is disconsolate. Nothing so monumental has ever happened to him. He wants to be a man, to "be a champion," to enter that ruthless world, even though he has no knowledge of it whatsoever. Nevertheless, he is beckoned by instinct. Yet he's child enough, baby enough, to still be bathed by his mother, to still play with boats in the bathtub, still unashamed of his nudity in front of a woman. This is, of course, all about to change, but on this particular night only his mother can comfort him. It is only with her that he'll allow himself to be vulnerable.
The boy's father is noticeably absent. My father was a loving, gentle, and understanding man -- and not incidentally my Little League coach -- yet I never permitted myself in front of him the kinds of vulnerability, even what I would have termed "weakness," that I did in front of my mother. It was to her I went with my feelings. As the father of two sons, now grown, I've noticed a similar bent among my boys. There's a kind of comfort that exists outside the ken of men that only a mother, a woman, can provide. Within the context of the poem (rooted as it is inscrutably in the Pieta
), this act of comforting, borne as it is of the most selfless love, is not only archetypal, but sacred, even sacrificial. I wanted the mother to be the voice in this poem because she understands every bit of it. She reads her son's mind. Her own heart is broken. She knows, too, that the days that her son will allow her to see him naked and weeping dwindle, that she and he will necessarily enter into a much more guarded relationship. My own mother was fond of reminding me: "I had you. You didn't have me." I never had an adequate comeback.
My mother and father remain for me my most enduring subjects -- the two most fascinating and mysterious characters I have ever known. Now, after writing seriously and habitually for 40 years, I have written about them so often -- across genres, in various guises, creating their alter-egos and doppelgangers as I go -- that they doubly fascinate me in all their incarnations. However, were they to chime in on this commentary, it would be in embarrassment. They would declare there was nothing at all fascinating about them at all. They were born in the teens of the 20th Century to European immigrants, my grandparents -- three from Italy, one from France -- and they grew up poor and sturdy, tempered by The Depression, and, by my lights, rather extraordinary. My father was a steelworker and my mother was a seamstress and they nurtured great dreams for my sister, Marie, and me. Because my mother was a seamstress, a real artist in that vein, she was extra canny about men's clothes and made certain that I (and Marie) was always dressed for school and church fit to kill.
At any rate, the kind of ceaseless, selfless toil in which my mother and father indulged willingly for the gleaming futures they imagined for their children remains to me unfathomable -- and I never contemplate it without thinking of the heartbreaking last two lines of Robert Hayden's famous "Those Winter Sundays" (a poem I'll never tire of teaching): "What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices."
Brooks Brothers Shirts
Ten hours a day,
my mother hunched downtown
in Brooks Brothers tailor shop -- fretting
cuffs and belt loops, pleats, vents,
button-holes, lapels into ruthless
wool suits, unthinkably expensive,
for men who spent their days unsoiled,
whose soft hands never raised a callous.
After she punched out,
caught the streetcar, and high-heeled home
two icy downhill blocks
from the Callowhill stop,
she often breezed in with packages:
icy broadcloth shirts she'd monogrammed
with my initials,
swathed in smoky silvery tissue.
The deep navy boxes piped in gold,
the gold band that bound them,
and in their centers
the Brooks Brothers coat of arms:
a golden ewe lowered on a sling
into a sacrificial grail.
The Agnus Dei
My mother dressed me like a prince.
"Apparel doth proclaim the man,"
I'd one day read in Hamlet
Those luscious shirts:
the forbidden glory of plenty
(of too much, really),
they privileged me
among my parents' oppressors.
Every day with neckties, blazers,
oxblood penny loafers, Princeton wave
that swooped my yearning brow,
I wore them to school: blue, pink, yellow,
charcoal and burgundy pin-stripe, tattersall,
blinding ecclesiastical white.
I wore them to church.
I adored those shirts,
my immaculate patrician destiny.
My mother washed them by hand,
hung to dry in the winter sun,
spritzed with water from an Iron City pony,
then shelved them in plastic bags
overnight in the freezer.
She loved them as much as I did
My father, a steelworker, a crane-climber --
he loved them too.
He didn't want me to get my hands dirty.
He wanted me to work for myself.
My mother ironed in the cellar
where my father shaved
out of an enamel basin with hot water
from the washtub, a small mirror
on a nail pounded into the block wall
he whitewashed every year.
On his work bench she stationed
a sleeve board for the long tedium
of the crease, true as a plumb line,
dabs of starch at collar and cuff,
shots of steam from the iron's black button,
Mother's needle hand steering
the hissing wedge just shy of scorching
the frozen fabric (which is the charm).
My shirts were sharp enough to bring blood.
Monday through Friday school,
then Sunday, High Mass,
the shirts awaited me, dangling on hangers
from the cellar's copper ceiling pipes,
six of them in a skirmish,
nudging one another in the darkness,
complicit in my certain future,
swaying slightly, like a slow dance,
in the heat vent's tepid whisper --
at their throats the oval writ:
Brooks Brothers Makers Est 1818.
In 1976, I left Pittsburgh and moved to North Carolina as a brand new extra-green VISTA Volunteer. I had just finished graduate school, was aching to write, and did not want to be pinned down by a job I had no passion for -- or any job for that matter. By happenstance, I was assigned by VISTA to the North Carolina Department of Correction -- the state prison system. The adventures that occurred as a result are legion and I will not trot them out here, though the prison poems that follow are rather dire and, more than that, utterly true. Apart from the sensational and outrageous things that I witnessed, good and bad, and the fact that joining VISTA charted the path of my conscience forevermore, my time on prison yards gave me as a fledgling writer a gift that I recognized immediately, the bounty of which I would realize more profoundly as I began to mature as a writer. That gift was place, a new place apart from Pittsburgh, which I would come to write about, slowly but surely as North Carolina became my home.
When I first arrived in North Carolina, the state's prison system still had one foot in the old feudal chain-gang system and the other stepping forward into a more progressive less custody-oriented treatment model. The following poem illustrates a brutal and mesmerizing tableau, lifted right out of Cool Hand Luke,
something at the time that was unimaginable, terrifying, but from a writer's point of view, seductive. I suppose, I believe more than anything else in the image, its indelible power to haunt and imprint itself in the psyche. This poem was written about 35 years after what I write about occurred.
The Dogs at Salisbury
The bloodhounds were caged in a skirmish of wire lots --
the same wire that penned the convicts --
along the left field line of the Salisbury camp
softball field in Rowan County.
Doped and clumsy, the dogs paced
their tiny allotments, waiting
to be sprung on the trail
of some wayfaring booster turned rabbit.
The penitentiary contracted an old fire-
faced free man named Luther
to run down escapes they couldn't collar
once into deep country.
Bounty hunter's what he amounted to.
Went horseback: convict Stetson hat,
khaki work fatigues, cartridge belt, and pistol.
An awful throwback man, and no believer.
A band of lifers, dog-boys, so-called,
strange and beholden to Luther, tetched
from too long in jail, ran, on all fours
if need be, with him on the track of an escape.
They babied those dogs like lovers,
loosed them on long chains, and swabbed their faces
with the ratty tattered gray bunk-clothes
their prey had slipped out of just before
dawn shift change among the guards.
Luther cantered up on a sorrel gelding,
rolled a tailor-made from a can of Stud.
Sat there in a scud of smoke,
then wordlessly led them out.
It had a stylized filmic tint to it,
but stripped of movie stars and allegory:
just shackle and Leviticus;
the infernal antebellum geography,
impenetrable wet burning green;
Luther, his catamites, and a pack
of chain-gang bloodhounds,
their obscene shimmy and piss,
the slavering coiled bray,
Jesus dragging his tree
through swamp and nightshade.
Obviously, "The Dog at Salisbury" is also very much a political poem. My fourteen month stint in VISTA coincided with my first sincere and sustained engagement with writing. Therefore many of my earliest pieces, because I was writing about prisons, were necessarily political, though I didn't conceive of them that way at the time. In 2013, a book of mine, called Concertina
(a lovely little Italian squeezebox and also the hideous simmering coils of razor wire that surround prisons), was published. It was comprised solely of prison poems, more or less, triggered by my involvement with prisons and prisoners over the years, mainly teaching creative writing. I've never hedged about how I feel about the United States' shameful incarceration epidemic. Nevertheless, delicacy must come into play when writing about the overtly political. In writing about politically charged subjects, like prisons or the death penalty, the writer does not want the reader to see the writer at work: no placards flashed, no slogans shouted. I tried to write objectively -- to keep myself, my "I," but not my "eye," out of the poems -- to simply run the film without narration or voice-over, to not in any way prod the reader, or create a hierarchy between the guards (with whom I sympathize on so many levels) and the inmates. I don't know how thoroughly I succeed with this so-called objectively. In truth, I'm not certain objectivity exists.
The next poem is another from Concertina
. I showed the guys I taught at Huntersville Prison (just north of Charlotte) Alan Resnais's documentary, Night and Fog
, narrated in French with English subtitles, and featuring ghastly footage from Auschwitz and Majdenek concentration camps.
Night and Fog
(after the film by Alain Resnais)
It's an old print, black
and white, spidered, spliced,
as though shot through gossamer.
The film chops through the projector
sprockets and pulleys and splays
itself on the Ed trailer wall.
Bulldozers shove corpses into craters.
Naked, spindly, like dolls,
the same wooden apathy, arms
and legs tangling as they tumble in.
The inmates can't believe it.
What is this shit?
Who made this movie?
Outside it's raining.
The yardmen carry umbrellas
and wear long black State macks,
emblazoned Department of Correction
yellow on their backs.
When the film clatters to a halt,
there is for a moment the white square
of light, cigarette smoke
coiling through it, then just the black
trailer wall and the glow of the yard
lights profiling the prisoners.
As they watched the film, the men remained silent for its 32 minutes, except for murmurs of incredulity; and one of them yelled for me to shut it down. Many of them had not heard of the Holocaust. They could not at all fathom -- even as they sat in prison greens and surrounded by a high fence topped with concertina -- that what they witnessed in Night and Fog
-- indescribable mountains of sanctioned, orchestrated death, dismemberment, and torture -- had actually occurred.
In 2013, I teamed with nature photographer Carl Galie who photographs and researches mountaintop-removal. The result was an exhibition at Appalachian State University's Turchin Center for the Arts called Lost on the Road to Oblivion: The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country.
Carl mounted 59 of his breath-taking images and I responded to a number of them with poems, also displayed in the exhibition. Essentially I found myself writing ekphrastic political poems. In my suite of seventeen poems on mountaintop-removal, I again strove for objectivity and wrote almost exclusively in 3rd person. Like Carl's photographs, I wanted my poems to have documentary integrity.
Vast white sheets of hay bale wrap
sail through the flume --
like the mine has stripped its beds
and flung the linen, sluiced
through a blown shaft -- stupendous
as clouds in the black spindrift --
to the runoff . Up Agnes Ridge,
panicked angus slue the flooded swale.
Purple Virgin's Bower, twined
to rusted barbed wire, rends
in the spume. The sun,
93 million miles off,
yet kin to water, created on the same day,
appears behind the curtain of rain --
everything at once antithetical.
We pretend with the children
that making for higher ground is a game.
Born to elevation, gravity tugs them.
Lording above brims the slurry pond,
quaking with raindrops.
The Horton girl -- not but three --
like reading from a ledger
names the swept-up matter:
Miss Shipley's iris,
Pollyanne's mule cart,
Jordan's Caddy hubcaps,
that vain vexed rooster of Galloway's.
The hoard defies tallying:
goods wrested from folks who bled for them.
The valley's oldest farm is underwater,
the house to its blue gable wings.
Fate Biddix's cabbage field flashes by,
heads bobbing -- a tale of epic slaughter.
We cover the children's eyes,
and scurry for the knoll.
I mentioned a little earlier in passing how moving to the south, North Carolina, to be precise, has supplied me with another literal place (as trope), in addition to Pittsburgh, to write about as a citizen of that place and surrounded by its native geography, flora and fauna, customs and culture, its own inimitable people. I'm fond of saying that Pittsburgh is my beloved home town, but North Carolina is my beloved home state, and I've written so very much about rural landscapes and loci. As a native outsider, one approaches this kind of appropriation a tad gingerly. But after 39 years in North Carolina, I can hardly apologize. In the main, I'm thankful, often ecstatic, that I landed here. I have two places that I can write about -- Pittsburgh and North Carolina (so wonderfully rich and different) -- with authority and precision. My range as a writer, my diction, my eye and ear have been augmented by living in this "new" place. I'm also convinced, and I harp to my students about this, that being able to write convincingly, and with imagistic depth and acumen about place, tends to authenticate a piece of writing as well as its author.
"God talks in the trees."
-- Thomas Merton
-- The Sign of Jonas
All day chainsaws
ring us and rave their litany
of cut and cut.
There can be no tomorrow.
It is five o'clock and already
the icy moon tethers above
the church of Mount Zion.
We see it from our bedroom.
Its white, spike steeple
points toward heaven.
Its clapboard walls are like snow,
much with us -- a winter Purgatory.
Smoke fills the house with musk.
Ants spill from the wood
at the first trickle of flame.
Beneath the buckling bark,
grubs and glowworms disintegrate.
Forget that dirt is the last refuge.
In the split pit of wood so sharp
it sparked at the maul,
I have found chain,
a hatchet head,
even a swatch of calico,
a coffin nail and small bone.
We live in the trees, without knowing;
we live in the fire.
The Woods Behind the Tenant Shack
" ... it is important to realize where you
are put on the face of the earth."
-- Thomas Merton
-- The Sign of Jonas
The tenant shack faces east.
From its splintered porch
I see Mount Zion's white steeple
rising from the frozen plowsoles.
No one remembers who lived here --
only whose crop was tended.
Hail pings off the corrugated roof
and rakes the glade above gullies
where beds have swollen, then dried,
swallowing fences now no more
than brittle strings to walk across.
We head south for the confluence
of boulders, theories of map
and compass delicately
balanced between us.
Jersey puts brown eye to the wind
and, with his ounce of Husky blood,
paws the first fork of Cedar Creek,
silvered in blades of ice.
Its banks are shaved,
pocked with moonstone and muscovite.
Morels push out around ferns
and crusted moss on the white root weir.
I plunge into a wall of black stumps
and broken bricks, begin the climb,
disquieted by whispers
and freezing apparitions,
tricked again and again
by the Cedar's serpentine branches.
It is the ruse of fear to hook a man,
build a wall between him and God,
name him lost
when he is somewhere in Anson County --
night falling -- with a black dog
on the trail of a hermit thrush.
I hear a whistle
from the old Willoughby Trestle
as a freighter, packed with dead wood,
reckons its milestone and hurtles
through a world of forgetfulness.
I wrote the two poems above when my wife, Joan, and I lived in Anson County, North Carolina, in a two story shotgun house, without any conventional heat, in deep country, eleven miles to the nearest quart of milk. I was reading a lot of Thomas Merton and cutting a lot of wood. It was the first time I had ever lived in the country -- so miraculously antithetical to the teeming Italian-Catholic-immigrant neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I grew up -- and I've never resided in a city since.
Since I just mentioned Joan, my beloved wife, Muse, and life companion, my intrepid fellow VISTA Volunteer, without whom I cannot imagine ever having gained an inch of traction as a writer -- and because Alice Friman ends her wonderful retrospective essay in the inaugural issue of Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review
so elegantly, so lovingly with poems to her husband I thought it fitting to conclude this piece with a love poem for my dear wife.
You come off the bed
as if expecting me,
take my hand, the morning
of your thirtieth birthday.
Not quite light, perfect
for the movie we've talked of making.
We bicycle the 8 ½ mile loop --
the dogs, one of them blind, lope
ecstatically -- gravel
the first two miles,
the ruined church on Savannah Creek,
in a cottonwood swamp that floods
every spring; then a long tar road:
abandoned farmsteads. The last crop --
corn, give-out haggard, by late July,
left to hang into Advent -- down
by the Pee Dee, the Ingram Plantation
where Andrew Jackson stopped
to have his hair cut by a slave girl.
The light is like Petrified Forest
You're Bette Davis. I'm Leslie Howard.
You read Francois Villon
and work in a diner in the middle of the desert.
I arrange my own murder
at the hands of Bogart, so you, Davis,
can cash in on my insurance policy.
We avoid making a sad film,
Instead ride into the rising sun
among the regal bucks,
algorithmic racks, gathered
in homage to you, roaming
McAllister land --
what I had wakened
you so early to witness.
Former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti is the author of over a dozen volumes, including poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book of poems is Concertina.
"Paolo Mio" was first published in Manhattan Poetry Review
, and later appeared in the chapbook, Communion Partners
, Briarpatch Press, 1986. The poem was then included in the full-length collection, This Metal
, published originally by St. Andrews College Press, 1996, and reissued by Press 53, 2012.
"Washing Her Ruined Boy" was first published in the The Chattahoochee Review
, later appeared in This Metal
, published originally by St. Andrews College Press, 1996, and reissued by Press 53, 2012.
"Brooks Brothers Shirts" was first published by The Progressive
"Burn Season" was first published by St. Andrews Review
and included in Anson County
, published originally in 1989 by Williams & Simpson, Inc. and reissued by Press 53, 2013.
"The Woods Behind the Tenant Shack" was first published by The Wayah Review
and included in Anson County,
published originally in 1989 by Williams & Simpson, Inc. and reissued by Press 53, 2013.
"The Dogs at Salisbury" was first published by New Letters
and included in Concertina
, Mercer University Press, 2013
"Night and Fog" was first published in Poetry International
and included in Concertina
, Mercer University Press, 2013
"Runoff" was published in New Letters.
"Anson County" was first published by Connecticut Review
and included in Anson County
, Press 53, 2013.