The poem “Gentle Readers” appears on page 23 of my new book of poems Too Bright to See (Simi Press 2021). Unfortunately, it appears as “Gentile Readers.” This poem is not about people who are or are not Jewish. It is about gentleness. Future copies of the book will carry the corrected poem.
Two young friends read a single book at the same time, together. One of them sits at a table while the other stands behind him, reading over his shoulder. The problem is that the one who is sitting is both a much faster reader and the one who turns the pages. The problem is solved without a word spoken. The one sitting rereads passages, while the slower of the two, so as to match his friend’s pace exactly, only pretends he is reading. He prefers the closeness of his friend to the unfolding story.
A father explains to his son how the stock market works while they walk the trail around Percy Priest Lake. The whole time his father is talking, the boy can’t take his eyes off an owl watching them from high in a tree. The father is so irritated by his boy’s distractibility that he stops the lesson and climbs the tree to merge his own with the owl’s being. The moon is in the tree near the end of daylight. The owl’s wingspan astonishes the boy as the bird flies north to Ohio.
One day he’ll jump from the ledge
and upon hitting the water
turn instantly into a fish.
The other boys will leap after him
because given such a great height
he wasn’t supposed to go first.
[He isn’t The Brave One.]
Thrashing around in their old forms
they’ll wonder which way he went
and swimming ashore empty-handed
wager against cold silence
as to where in the wild
blue bodies store.
The fish found themselves
at the surface of the parted wave.
No hooks meant no fear.
Gamble your gills to the air!
He wasn’t invited to the quarry today
but paced above the boys in plain sight.
Who can stop his watching
after such long falls
sudden caudal wakes?
At the edge of the forest, his sister complains that everyone, mother, father, all friends combined, hates her. How exasperating, the light she puts herself in. She receives more than her fair share of attention. “The only way anyone will hate you,” they’re stepping in with the trees by now, “is if you make them.”
“How can I make them?” she says.
“By letting them know that you think they do,” he says, “when you know in your heart it isn’t true. Keep close. It gets a little steep here.”
“But even if I could make them,” she’s finding her footing by now, “why would I?”
He raises his finger to his lips, but instead of shushing her he complains that everyone, mother, father, all friends combined, hates him. This is exasperating given how wildly we dote on him. “The only way they’re ever going to hate you,” she explains as they enter the forest, “is if you make them.”
“Why would I?” He’s hardly found his footing.
She raises her finger to her lips to shush him, as some kind of animal is passing through. If they stay both still and quiet, she frantically waves him in behind her, they might get a peek at it.
Just as a tulip is revealing to young Rory its upright stance, green stem, and yellow petals, Old Sis claims its color to mean “hopeless love.” The way she makes “hopeless” sound bugs him as much as the sound she makes of “love.” Anyone calling anything hopeless is hopeless anyway. As for love, it comes with its own quandaries.
Though he may have planted the same flower in the backyard two years ago as part of a biology experiment, Rory can bring no such flower to represent anything more than Little Brother’s personality, small and vibrant.
The word tulip, says Old Sis, comes from the Turkish pronunciation of a Persian word meaning “turban.” “For God’s sake,” says Rory. “Why is it always the sounds of things with you? What about the tulip itself? Where does it come from?”
For Rory, whether the tulip is supposed to match the shape of a turban or evoke the prettiness of bunches of bright turbans adorned with parading flowers, the love it means, though somehow meaningful, is neither hopeless nor romantic.
he secretary sits in his car outside Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, its Rosetta window reminiscent of the one inlaid in the gable wall at Otey, his boyhood parish. A drooping melaleuca languishes beneath the window, in the light of the entryway. Men gather to smoke there, in this light, before flicking their butts into the wet street and entering the church to find their spots. The secretary must join them, as he’s joined them a thousand times before—to read aloud bylaws and meeting norms and to ask if anyone has any announcements. Tonight, the grand poobah Max will open the floor to the men’s experiences with a recitation of Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,”
I have walked though many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being, abides, from which I struggle not to stray…
To coax himself to give his fellow men his undivided attention, the secretary makes a game of it: He will sit quietly and take notes more copiously than the anonymity of the members’ permits. He will not doodle. He will not daydream. He will quietly write out everyone’s remarks in the first person, parroting each guy’s voice to the best of his ability.
I’ve rarely felt more intimate with my wife than when we went shopping for a couch. I was going to tell her this, but I know it doesn’t match her definition of intimacy. It takes two, you know, to be truly intimate.
When the various ways of getting an erection lowered my blood pressure too much, we tried alternative ways of sex. My wife likes them a lot, but I’m not sure she needs me for it.
Has anyone heard about this male platonic touch method for keeping a marriage interesting? My hugging you is supposed to make things better between Nance and me.
My ex told me she was still grieving after our divorce and I wondered if I was grieving too and just didn’t feel it. Is that possible? Can you grieve without feeling it?
When I pee it dribbles out. I used to have a steady stream. My doctor tells me I have an enlarged prostate.
Tell me about my aspirational clutter. I’ve got camping gear, fishing gear, scuba gear, rock-climbing gear, a long board, a short board, wetsuit, a mountain bike, a road bike, a home-brew kit, never been touched, an untouched saxophone, a post-hole digger, a treadmill, a rowing machine, a Serbo-Croatian language course, a half dead bonsai tree, a camera with an endless array of lenses, and stacks of how-to’s and historical novels. My question: should I have a garage sale?
My daughter’s stepfather bought her a Prius. I can’t believe he bought her a Prius. I could never buy her a Prius.
Max F reading again from Kunitz
Live in the layers, men, not on the litter. Live in the layers!
Stanley Kunitz called his poem “a summing-up poem.” Max enriches the meetings with the summing-up poems of poets of his generation and silently urges praise of his choices. This sounds judgmental. The secretary doesn’t mean to judge. He loves Max. Max checks in with him before he can slip out: “You good?” How can the secretary tell Max his wife’s biopsy has come back and, with it, news of an advanced stage of cancer? How can the secretary explain his wife’s crazy insistence that he find someone new, only to turn around and say, “You’d better not, Brian, if you know what’s good for you”?
“I do,” he tells her.
“You do what?”
“Know what’s good for me.”
“Go see your friends,” she says.
“I want to stay here with you.”
“Go,” she says, “and don’t take it personally.”
“I’m not taking it personally.”
“Then go,” she says. “Tell them what’s happening to me—to us—and take down whatever advice they offer, so as not to forget. Come home afterwards, no drinking, and crawl in bed. Try not to wake me, but yes, please do wake me. You can if you want. I want to see you all the time now. It’s complicated though, isn’t it? In the time we have left, our shared time, I’ll need more alone time than you’re used to. So go to your dumb ole meeting, Brian, and come home quick and, yes, I think I do want to hear: tell me what the men say about us.”
Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it.—Francis Ponge
With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, Arkemy’s experimental film Bingo! features two-dozen senior citizens playing the parlor game in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced into the film for thirty seconds every twelve minutes, footage of snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves.
Another of his tedious films, Topiary, some call “introspective.” Horticulturists shear shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. Tell me this: How is a view from a distant rooftop of abstract laborers silhouetted in glaring sunlight introspective? Every once in a while, a snail inches over tears in rancid linoleum.
In Terra Firma, his best for how short it is, we peer through openings in reflective glass at milling tourists who sometimes crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Look fast, though, at snail-infested grow bags!
In Interstate, a film shot like Formerly a Forest from a circling drone, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north out of town. In the clutter of a people-less picnic set in the shadow of an oak tree, a snail crests a rim, pouring itself into a Tupperware container.
Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. It’s hardly an act when a snail in the public garden below propels itself forward on a single, flat foot, secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” a mechanical voice announces, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, doesn’t he? He overdoes it with incidental noises. Human voices run together.
He’s made a name for himself filming strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. The mollusks he glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers. “Snails,” he tells me one afternoon, “are faceless.” So his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form lines around whole blocks, anticipating blockbusters. They wait at bus stops in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. “You’re going to have to help me with this,” I tell him. “Is not the mundane at some point just mundane? If your films are statements about the environment, why not send a more urgent message? If this is a spiritual thing, tell me about the spirit.”
Arkemy, whose real name is Glen Olson, smiles and asks me what I see when I walk through a wet park. I think of matted leaves. He says, “Get a whiff of it, young man. Scoop our share of soil.” He tells me in a tone that frankly I find condescending, typically Boomer, that like the snail we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to silence me, and it does (it disgusts me), he says triumphantly, “If you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”