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?
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.
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
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.
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.”
The subject of a poem is poetry
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.
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!
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)
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.
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 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
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
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,
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,
for order’s sake,
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
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.