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Jim Crenner Retrospective

three recent poems referred to in the interview


FAILURE TO MOURN


The phone call from the hospice, where my friend

had been hovering for days, came in the midst

of a dinner party, and, as I rose and left the table,


his wife’s voice explained, haltingly, that he was already

beyond talking, but she would hold the phone to his ear

so I could say goodbye. I half-whispered a phrase or two,


but after a long minute of his scant breathing

into the silence, I lost all feel for that crucial distant

event, so alien to the quotidian ease of where I stood

that I barely managed an apology to his wife


before ending the call and slipping back

into the humdrum of the party, sinking gratefully

into the lassitude of small talk, decent wine, and soft

strains of jazz from hidden speakers—while

my closest friend, as I would learn the next day, died.


I grieved for him, truly, but could not cry, though

I wanted to, and even, at his graveside, tried.


When—over half a century ago—my sweet-tempered

three-year-old brother died, I was outraged by the helpless,

worthless grief of the adults, and balked, when, at the funeral,

the priest assured us all that Billy was with the angels,

as the organ intoned the mournful recessional,

and my mother, sister, and aunts keened uncontrollably.


Dry-eyed and bitter, I clenched myself silently, longing

for the courage and the words with which to exclaim

that all the ceremony, consoling lies, and animal wailing

were pathetic treachery in the face of the real, indifferent,

and absolute void that had revealed itself.

This evening, though, heading into town to pick up take-out,

I turned on the car radio to find Louis Armstrong singing

“What a Wonderful World,” and suddenly found myself

overcome by an uncontrollable rush of tears.


But over what? That gentle, gravelly voice?

All of life’s anguish that the song leaves out?

The foolish, ego-strapped and solitary self,

driving clueless through the dusk?



THE COMPANY


Watching a grainy documentary about the CCC,

I thought of my dad, a silent enigma of a man,

Who had served in that corps in his twenties,


in the Great Depression, and has been dead now

for over twenty years, so there is almost no one

left alive who would remember him. On the way


to bed, I paused at a window to watch the numberless

quicksilver waves on the moonlit lake follow one

another to the shore, only to vanish on the slope.


And for the first time ever, I felt the dead as real—

this vast company of anonymous former lives,

shoulder to shoulder over the whole surface

of the earth, forming a single great monument


to the noble acceptance of being forgotten—names,

lives, and all—forever. And I felt what an honor

it would be one day to be admitted to their company.



BACKYARD POULTRY


I once considered sending away for some live pullets—

could see myself soothing ruffled feathers, gathering eggs,

pan-frying those sunny-side-ups with deep orange yokes.


But, as with most of my ideas, I put off acting on it,

and totally lost interest when I heard how our poultry-

raising neighbors were losing all their hens to foxes.


The old ambition to be a poet still hung on though,

if forever haunted by the suspicion that it’s just a version

of the ego’s infantile wish to have all its musings aired,


if not necessarily admired: “Okay,” it says: “Scorn this

if you must as just another might-have-been pipedream

about keeping chickens. But at least read it first.”


five recent poems


ABOVE VIA CORONARI

Some mornings we catch one another

opening our shutters at the same time

and have to nod acknowledgments,

this medieval Roman street being so

narrow I could conceivably leap across

to her living room balcony and help her

vacuum the Persian rug visible beneath

her slippered feet and nice ankles—were

we not four stories above the cobblestones,

and were I at all conversant with Italian

vacuums, or she at all inclined to dally

with an academic gray-haired foreigner

who wouldn't, anyway, risk the fractures

or scandal of such a leap. Nevertheless,

on the chance that she might speak, and,

though my Italian wouldn’t permit me

to tell whether she said, “Close your

eyes and jump, Signore, and we’ll get

down and dirty on the rug,” or “Close your window, old man, I'm about to

shake out a dirty rug!" I’ve rehearsed

a “No, grazie—perche…” speech, and

looked up the words in my Italian

dictionary for “too much I love my wife.”



RAKING LEAVES BY MOONLIGHT

for Elena

While far outnumbering those dancing

daffodils of Wordsworth, this host of leaves

did not in truth my heart with pleasure fill,

despite the giant close-up moon glamorizing

the darkness with the silver nitrate gloss

of a 1930’s movie—so I was Fred Astair,

two-stepping with my rake to the tune of nice

work if you can get it—until a scrim of cloud

drew its gradual curtain across the spotlight,

and my 1938-model back began to ache,

and with about ten million leaves remaining

I dropped into a rusted lawn chair, lamenting

the pile-up of the years. I might have dozed,

had not the image intervened of you, upstairs

in bed, just starting to nod over your book,

so I might still go up and weave my tale of how

it would have been out here tonight had you

been with me, us holding hands by moonlight—

how we’d have raked and sung together,

and together danced our full wheelbarrow

to the mulch pile, with you, like Ginger,

doing it backwards but in slippers! And then,

how gratefully would we have gone together

to our bed, to touch and sleep together

all that night, and in what nights and days

of our unscripted story might yet remain,

their winking iris-outs and moonlit dreams.



AT THE SUMMER SOLSTICE


Our birds, on Daylight Saving Time, began at five,

one clock-hour later than when Dickinson’s “begun.”

So I was out at six, with coffee, watching the sunrise


muddle through the maple’s breeze-shuffling leaves,

and bearing witness to the sly stealing off of the lighted

hours of summer’s longest day—just another of those


“hypocritical dervishes” Emerson watched parade sedately by—

as maybe they really did seem to do in drowsy Concord, in 1860,

if you were not, say, a woman in labor, or a runaway slave.


But feeling noon already bearing down here, I say Waldo

would not deem the day’s pace so stately now, could he know

that, since his last one on earth, 50,000 of them have passed.


The kind of immortality he sort of has—in print or when

some lecturer invokes his name or quotes a line of his—

is inaccessible to him, as absolutely nothing penetrates


that last oblivion. Our knowledge of that oblivion,

however—mixed blessing!—does diminish the likelihood

of the days becoming truly tiresome—as we can't guess


how many more we’ll yet see passing by, and—as Larkin

asked—"Where can we live but days?" Ah, nowhere, sir!

And tomorrow night the dark once more begins to grow.



EXPLAINING NIETZSCHE TO THE WASPS

“Caution! Nozzle will project a lethal foam twenty feet,”

the label warns—auguring ill for the yellow jackets

that have colonized the molding around the screen door,

as they levitate above its unsealed corner seams,

and now and then blunder into the house, where, so

far, one grandchild has been stung, leaving me no choice,

or so I tell myself. At dusk, when all the little creatures

are drowsing in the nest, I take my stand, from nineteen

feet away— shake well, and open fire. From all four

corners of the door-frame they emerge in a sticky, muted

frenzy, testing my reflexes, as I sweep the deadly white rope

from escape hatch to escape hatch, and scores of bodies

mound up like wads of vaguely writhing tooth-paste all

over the porch, but won’t stop coming, their unintentional

collaboration in the massacre stoking in me such baleful

loathing that I could not stop now even were they suddenly

endowed with the power to offer me a long life of wealth

and fame in exchange for mercy. And seeing myself

in their eyes—the pitiless executioner—I know that,

in their place, I’d promise me anything for a truce, then re-

group and never rest until I’d raised an army and returned

to visit upon me the Death of a Thousand Stings, and then,

in a drunken conga line, kicking and singing, stagger their way

in and out of the nine openings of my bruised and swollen corpse.



READING A WINTER MORNING

Sipping green tea at the window as the year’s first snow

gradually sequesters the holly shrubs, hedges, and mailbox,

I recover a touch of that childhood glee of watching

the world gratefully surrender its tired familiarity—

the old Toyota becoming an ancient burial mound

in the driveway, the bare trees becoming marble icons,

the barn and distant hillside merging with a vast and vertical

white screen, as snowflakes mound steadily upon snowflakes,

the way the meanings of words are always more words,

strange, but with lost old friends under their hermetic hoods.



Five poems from DRINKS AT THE STAND-UP TRAGEDY CLUB (Hobart & William Smith Colleges Press in conjunction with Wolf at the Door Press, 2008)



THE CONSOLATIONS OF POETRY


At four years old, William Blake

saw God in an upstairs window,

and, at ten, angels in a tree.

With me, it’s the other way


around: glory flashes off glass

and I see cataract problems down

the road; wings flutter in the maple

and I see tossing leaves forecasting


rain. And whereas Blake considered

death a mere “removing from one

room to another,” I figure that

once that door slams behind you,


there’s no other room, and no you

to remove to it. So, though Blake

is said to have died singing, I won’t.

But I won’t grouse about it either.


As Dr. Johnson said, it’s foolish

to confound annihilation, which

is nothing, with the apprehension

of annihilation, which is fruitless.


This life is accidental, temporary,

capricious, and without meaning,

and that’s why (just in case you

couldn’t tell) I’m singing now.



MNEMONICS


Indifferent to our infamies,

the earth retires them under kudzu,

scrub growth, weather, and the long


slippage of tectonic plates, hills

and oceans—until the landscape

betrays no trace of our rusty


implements, spent rounds, fouled

bandages, or the clouds of flies.

Teeth and bones sink, and scenery—


amnesiac and innocent—blooms

again. We alone resist the geology

of forgetfulness, and go on filling


up the pages, setting the record

straight, the statistics and stories,

so that no matter what atrocity


occurs, we can always open a book

and say, “See? It says right here:

we have done this before.”



COFFIN NAILS

The subject of a poem is poetry

--Wallace Stevens


There must be now a hundred million poems

about poetry. All anybody writes poetry about

any more is poetry. From this stack of books

here, let me take two at random: sure enough,


despite promising titles, Corvus and Garbage,

they both turn out to be about poetry. In this

old issue of Poetry, almost every poem is about

poetry. One is about how the poet has forgotten


some lines of poetry he just made up on a walk

in the woods, so instead he tenders us a poem

about the loss of that other poem. In a Georgia

Review, this same guy has a long poem about a haiku.


Some of the poems in these journals are about

how the poet is trapped inside the poem, some

are about how poems are trapped inside the poets;

some are about how everything is poetry, some


about how nothing really is; others are about

how poetry either is or is not news, therapeutic,

salvific, toothsome, worth a good goddam, etc.

It’s understandable how someone who spent


his whole life in the legal offices of an insurance

company might be reduced to such desperation,

but the rest of us should be able to find other

things to write about. I’m trying. This poem


for example is about how the vivid metaphor

for the hero’s arrows in Fitzgerald’s translation

of The Odyssey—“a quiver spiked with coughing

death”—inspired me to finally give up smoking.



MISDIRECTION


If there were a language for talking about death,

it would be Greek to everyone except

the Greeks, to whom it would be Martian.


Wittgenstein said death is not an event in life.

He can say that again. But no matter how often

he does, it will never be a useful fact about death.


To produce one of those, you would have to use

a language a lot less rational than German,

a totally uninflected language in fact,


without even words, or signs of any kind.

Not even nuanced silences. Speaking it,

you would look like an old-time vaudevillian


doing a perfect imitation of a bald corpse

combing its hair. People wouldn’t know why

the tears were streaming down their cheeks,


or why their stomachs hurt from laughing.

They would start babbling about other things.

Baseball. Stocks. Recipes for pickled tongue.



THE TROUBLE WITH MEANING


It was as undemanding as being dead (without

the unawareness-of-it part), sitting there

under the maple in a summer rain, notebook


guiltlessly blank, the gray air as palpable

and cool as pewter, the asphalt road beyond

the tree’s drip-line turning silvery dark


with drizzle. Our ape-like ancestors

must have felt that same voluptuous shiver,

gooseflesh under the fur, as they huddled


amidst the acacias, ears cocked to the hypnotic

tapping overhead, eyes shining with enraptured

thoughtlessness—until the first drop,


having worked its way down through all the layers

of canopy, hit the page, snapping me out of it,

and I repeated the age-old error of looking


for meaning in what was happening, started

my pen—“it was as undemanding”—and sacrificed

the experience to a record of the experience.


And for what? For you, dear reader? Would you,

then, please read through it again, and tell me

if you think the meaning (that seeking a meaning


was not worth the cost) was worth the cost?



Five poems from MY HAT FLIES ON AGAIN (L’Epervier Press, 1981



ANOTHER SUMMER MORNING


Up at six, craving meaning,

I watch the sun trying to rise.

My life hangs before me


like the face of a stranger asleep

on the subway. The FM radio

fires a burst of terrible news


and my hat flies off. The sky

is the color of that spiritual

gray that deepens in the cheeks


of my grandmother when death

is mentioned in a certain tone.

Everyone who comes to mind


is either dead or still asleep.

I walk through the cool church

of the streets, my trouser legs


whispering like altar boys

faking their Latin responses.

As the threatening black tunnel


of a Cadillac slides by silently,

a woman in the back seat glares

out at me. I smile cordially,


and she sticks out her tongue!

All of a sudden it starts to pour,

and my hat flies on again.



THE AIRPLANE BURIAL GROUND


Shoe towns and soft-drink towns, towns

of yard-goods and death by Sterno, an auto

oxidizing in every pond, the silent torchlight


parades for hangings and elections—there

is more mystery under Yankee Stadium,

in the metal lockers filled with cufflinks,


than in all the drunk-tanks of Egypt; more

ghostly whimpering in our motel walls, stranger

delirium on the New England Turnpike


than in the oldest Scriptures of the Earth.

Our rich, our sober and industrious rich,

are the occultest sect of all, fasting


and praying for a way to stop the moon

from exporting so much straw.

And our brother in the blue workshirt,


who cannot stand tears, administers

to the faggot Whitman, dead drunk

in the alley behind his neighborhood


laundromat, one last kick in the ribs

before going back inside to watch

the mothers sipping vinegar and neglect,


the gall being passed around like cigars

after some monstrous birth. It is raining

in The Airplane Burial Ground. A movie


flutters on the outdoor screen: cowboys and

Indians, the soundtrack a dark hiss. Weary

Poe reciting. The tinkle of stars and saloons.


Hester staring into the eye of the needle.

A submarine breaking apart. Dickinson

humming to herself. Herman Melville….



AMERICA AFTER KENT STATE


A stand-up comic might survive in a ghost

town on the Great Salt Flats, a mantilla


of finest ash over everything, a dog curled

up, probably dead, under a table, and Lord


Jim sleeping one off on the barbershop floor;

The government mule packing in a fresh-killed


addict and a roll of blood-money once

a month: things he could count on. But this


business of professing literature to targets,

this is not funny. They can talk back, mock


you—any second now the heckling should begin:

How come you haven’t spoken from The Other Side,


Yeats? Cat got your tongue? Hey, Blake, tell us

The one again about—holding their sides and


wiping their eyes—mutual forgiveness

Of each vice / such are the gates of Paradise!



OLD STORY


Today The Mastery of Life

came, from the Rosicrucians.


Tomorrow, perhaps, The Mastery

of the Common Cold. And I just


read in a dull and Latinate

book that the pulverized bones


of a hundred thousand Stone Age

horses were found at the base


of a sheer cliff in Yugoslavia.

I like to think that I too,


had I lived in Yugoslavia

in the Stone Age, might have


risked seeing if I weren’t

the one capable of sprouting,


on the way down, the world’s

first pair of horse-wings.



THE LIFE I NEVER LIVED


Even a corpse has pennies

On its eyes, or one secret.


This poor, un-attempted life

doesn’t even have a pocket


to turn inside out, proving

its emptiness; or a death


to look forward to—

it would not know the difference.


Once, though, it reached out a hand

for my pencil, to tell its story with.


I tore it from its flimsy body,

and ever since then, the hand


has hovered about my flesh and blood

hand like a hand of sifted ash,


a double exposure—so that I am forever

reaching for one thing and touching another.



Five poems from THE AGING GHOST (Golden Quill Press, 1964)



CASEBOOK

For J.N., English Instructor


A thousand times, or more, or so it seems,

The calendar’s come round and you’ve come back,

As everyone, if only in their dreams,

Comes back at last to where at first their luck

Went bad, to sickening losses in a string:

Fresh deck, but same old markings, same old game,

And same old feeling you’ll be broke come spring.


Well, risk is in the blood, old buddy: you

Could no more stay away than hold for hell’s

Existence. It’s hope that makes a sucker, Joe.

Looking for all the world like someone else,

You take your seat, adjust your eyeshade, gaze

Away, and count the reasons why you’ll lose.

You’ll drink between the deals, as the old pros

Would never do; and while the other guys

Are calculating odds or bluffing, your

Lax mind will make a wish and slip away

To wander down the block, and try the door,

Or press against the glass, face all awry,

To glimpse the scattered odds and ends of art,

In the rifled Sears-and Roebuck of the heart.



ORIGINS


I have made careful, long excursions,

Searched through the galleries of memory

Down hallways diced with intersections,

And found no evidence to verify

The things I feel about the way it was:

No blurred daguerreotype of that embrace

Of ours the first night when I took your breast

And saw your face, that it was my own face;

No record of the things you told: how I

Would find a world beyond your body, love,

The weather—Mother, that we all would die.

Yet I recall these things as from the start.

Such memories as desire and art are made of

are real: old tunes the heart has got by heart.



TWO GIFTS FROM CHILDHOOD


The book

The trip to Treasure Island done,

He tapped for days along blind streets,

Was mad in the cellar and was Ben Gunn,

Or he lost a leg and sailed the sheets

All night. But the men went mad to war

That year, and some were never seen

Again, or never saw. And more

Were wooden where the words had been.


The air rifle

All that winter long the hunter

Stalked the sparrows grazing on the lot

And killed. Until an older gunner

Came and let him feel the shot

From his own weapon. There was no blood,

But tears, and shame swept like a bird,

And a hunter put up his gun for good

Who has not hunted since, nor hurt.



SONG FOR A CRIPPLED CHILD

So tell me, Julie, does it hurt

Your heart to watch the others run?

Or does the ache perhaps revert

To limbs that you wear just for fun,

poor useless toys, their tension sprung

So young?


The way you toss your head and peer

Hen-like to follow their swift play,

Why, one might think you held it dear

To sit and supervise all day,

As though without a choice you chose

This pose.


I feel there’s one thing you should know:

Not one of them will run for long,

As time’s curt stiffness soon will grow,

For speed stays only in the song,

The song in motionless review,

Like you.



POEM TO WILLIAM, MY BROTHER

(1945 – 1948)


If will can move

a ghost, or love

direct one, you

and I will kiss

one midnight. True

though death be, I

am truer: this

I swear in verse.

Since you first died,

murdering me,

and slipped

time’s curse

for order’s sake,

time absently

has watched us seek,

and has done most,

not meaning to,

for the aging ghost

that has sought you.



And, in a final 50-year time-leap forward, one last recent poem


PLACES, EVERYONE


Reading “Six Characters in Search of an Author,”

It dawns on me that I’m acting in this play

called “Reading a Play”—the world being

pretty much an infinite number of plays


on the same vast stage, all unfolding at once

like amateur works of origami in a windstorm,

most never encountering most of the others,

but some colliding and interleafing like badly


shuffled decks of cards, soap operas with no

dramatis personae other than anyone, tangled

in half-baked plots and shaggy dog stories,

everything from a routine home birth


or a mass genocide to the borrowing of a book,

a random twist turning suddenly as wild as an out-take

from A Night at the Opera or as fraught as the meeting

at the crossroads for Oedipus—our improvisations

like random slips of paper drawn from a hat.

Be someone discovering your spouse is in love

with a stranger. Now be alone at a friend’s deathbed.

Now be startled by flashing red and blue lights


in your rear-view mirror. Now be the middle body

in a drunken threesome. Now soothe a beloved pet

about to be euthanized. Now play the ass at a party.

Now be a parent in despair. Now be yourself.


 

JIM CRENNER was born in 1938 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, grew up there and as a student at nearby St. Vincent College, from where he went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop, acquiring more degrees along the way than a hypochondriac’s thermometer (BA, MA, MFA, and PHD), and, after teaching for 46 years, finally retired in 2008 from the English Department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where he still makes his home with his beloved life partner, Emeritus Professor Elena Ciletti.


In retirement he has had the pleasure of continuing to teach ESL adults for the local corps of Literacy Volunteers, and to work at the free food pantry of the Geneva Center of Concern.

His fourth (and, at least up to this point, last) book of poems, DRINKS AT THE STAND-UP TRAGEDY CLUB, was published in 2008 by Hobart & William Smith Colleges Press in conjunction with Wolf at the Door Press. Across the decades, his poems have appeared in such journals as POETRY, THE ATLANTIC, THE IOWA REVIEW, THE NEW REPUBLIC, TRI-QUARTERLY, POETRY DAILY, THE LITERARY REVIEW, AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW,

STONE CANOE, NINE MILE, and HOLE IN THE HEAD REVIEW. His other interests include his three wonderful adult children, four wonderful adult grandchildren, and four wonderful single-digit-aged great-grandchildren.


He contends that his 46-year-long career as a professor amidst the podiums and carrels of academe (and on sabbaticals from it) was the ideal (if, yes, privileged) way for a dedicated and moderately productive poet to write and put beans and greens on the table while enjoying life in its infinite variety. He presumes, for the moment at least, to describe himself (contentious political issues aside) as a reasonably contented secular humanist octogenarian supernumerary, who is zooming (in more ways than one) through his 86th circumnavigation of the Sun, all the while enjoying a regimen of reading, writing, travel, gardening, pissing up a rope, listening to classical music, and attending operas and playing Boggle with Elena. Oh, yes, and then there is also their 16-year-old, slightly dotty cat, Smoky.






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