Future tense

My father checked himself into the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be able to leave again. He’s been managing congestive heart failure for a while. Now he needs surgery for a leaky valve and just isn’t well enough to undergo it. Every time I think of him my heart starts racing, triggering a tickly cough that faintly echoes my father’s wet gasping. It’s funny how you can be annoyed by your body’s speech—the symbolism of this sudden ailment is too obvious, like bad writing—but your body refuses to shut up.

May 22, on the train from New Jersey to Penn Station, I review the poems I’ve decided to read in Bryant Park. Then I pick up Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Before the Pulitzer, I’d ordered it for the David Bowie/ sf title, read it quickly and liked it but put it away for a while. Recently I started rereading it slowly and had arrived at section two. Rushing past Princeton Junction towards Newark, I open to “The Speed of Belief.” It’s about sitting in a hospital room with a dying father. Soon I’ll be walking through the city at the center of the world—I think Smith and Bowie both live in New York—on my way to the library. I’ll admire the rotunda, pore over the Shelley exhibit, take my turn at the microphone, and then listen to the human voices of poets I know through their smart, kind books: Ely Shipley, Scott Hightower, Richard Blanco. Behind each of them will be a statue of William Earl Dodge, only visible to the waist. I’ll study it, imagining him young and happy and relaxed, and be surprised by his upper half when I google him days later. Stern businessman’s face, bushy mutton-chops.

I will visit my father the next day after a harrowing drive into Philadelphia. Only my sister has been there; his young third wife has never shown up, although she served him divorce papers in hospital, probably afraid of being stuck with his bills. My sister has seen some bad days, but the nurse tells me this is a good one. He’s sitting calmly, sometimes coherent, sometimes disoriented. I see relationships in his newly-gaunt face: a resemblance to me, my siblings, my children, but also to his Swedish mother and grandmother. Martha Carlson’s slanting blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, there all along. Suddenly his dentures seem too big for the smallness of his jaw. “I don’t need much in my old age but I’m not getting what I need,” he says. “What do you need?” I ask. “Peace and quiet,” answers the former sailor who still fights with everyone he meets, whose three ex-wives, five children, and many old friends and girlfriends can’t tolerate his company. He chose life on Mars, is choosing it.

He’s still friendly with his roommate, though; that hasn’t exploded yet. I chat with Harry, who grew up in Puerto Rico and then taught social studies to elementary students in Camden for many years.  Harry lights up when he learns I’m a writer. “Ah, poetry,” he sighs. “Poetry makes life bearable.”

I need to write about Smith’s Life on Mars, although my head’s too noisy today. I resonate like a bell whenever she alludes to Bowie, but there’s a lot more—the poems are skeptical-spiritual, a paradox I love. Certain poems about reincarnation made me wonder if she’s a fan of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. And all the science fiction! I’ve been wondering why no one seems to write poems in the future tense, and there on page 7 is “Sci-fi”: “the word sun will have been reassigned/ To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device/ Found in households and nursing homes.”

My physical heart is rushing, so part of me wants to know the ending of my father’s sad story. The projection booth in my head, though, is just a big tangle of film, past-present-future looped together. The tangle is upsetting but also sort of beautiful and interesting, at least when I can regulate my breathing, anyway. The soundtrack helps.

Conversations and mixtapes

Around the time I started reading Ginsberg and Keats, enraptured by anaphora and alliteration, I was also spending all my babysitting dollars on record albums by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop—and when the money ran out, checking beat-up Janis Joplin LPs out of our town’s tiny cedar-shake library, a repurposed chapel. All this art addressed the same longing: I was lonely and bored in my single-sex Catholic high school. I had too few friends who cared about books and music. The time I spent plugged into a Walkman, or lying on the floor next to speakers at the softest possible volume (audible music irritated my parents), didn’t seem all that different from the hours poring over City Lights paperbacks. It was all about tuning into those anguished, sympathetic voices however I could.

I still read and write poetry when I’m lonely. I know it’s perverse to open a book when you want conversation but, off campus, it’s often hard to get down to serious talk: the intellectual, emotional, shockingly impolite high-stakes stuff good books are full of. I bring this need to music much less often than I used to, partly because poetry occupies center stage—but also, ridiculously, because my eyes went bad. I lost the argument about keeping LPs downstairs (I’m re-waging the war this summer); Chris insists on stacking the CDs in a dark corner where I can’t read the spines; from the beginning I found the celebrated tininess of iPods just irritating. And while I can’t read music or carry a tune, my spouse and daughter are musicians with strong opinions, and so far teenage eye-rolling has thwarted my desire to get to know old-time music better. In the eternal spousal divide-and-conquer allotment of skills, commitments, and obsessions, I just threw up my hands: OK, Chris, music is yours.

I’ve been thinking, though, that I need to bring music back into my classrooms, beyond the occasional illustrative track for a class on blues or jazz poetry. My colleague Gordon Ball at VMI has been talking about an undergraduate poetry and music symposium in 2013 and I’m having fantasies of a Claudia Emerson/ Kent Ippolito concert. I just taught “Introduction to Poetry” again for the first time in years—it used to be my big major-recruiting class, sacrificed during my stint as department head—and I don’t know why I let slip that little unit on poetry and music I always closed with. There are certain students who will follow you to the ends of the earth if you let them write a paper on their favorite Bob Dylan song; it’s a good thing to snag those kids early. A lot of my very best students came to poetry through music. John Melillo of Algae and Tentacles, for example, is now an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona and basically specializes in noise. The day he recited “Howl” to my class through a voice changing device, I laughed so hard I achieved a sort of anoxic nirvana.

When I started teaching, students would sometimes make me those labor-intensive mixtapes, involving hours of recording vinyl to cassette. The mixers were almost always male, the memorable exception being the always exceptional Jeanne, who offered up a compilation of lesbian folk singers. Listen to this, they’d urge, pressing the Maxell tape or, later, CD into my hands, because that’s how boys tell girls what they’re thinking about. I studied James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” with Brandon, knowing it would take root it him, and he insisted I study The Decemberists, knowing those songs would take root in me. Lately, it hasn’t been music, but the impulse is the same: Marino emailed me links to his favorite spoken word tracks on YouTube and Drew to podcasts from The Moth. Drew muttered that I needed a better phone for listening to them, too, as he programmed his number in; I complained I can’t see all those tiny little buttons but I expect he’s right. It’s good to listen to, for, with each other. To stay in the conversation, I probably need to make friends with machines smaller than microwave ovens.

More immediately, though, I’m reading student portfolios for a Poetic Forms workshop, arguing with sleep-deprived Tal about whether he needs an article before “pose” (I’m right, but he doesn’t believe me), and writing back and forth to Annie, who reports having a hard time chatting about her poems but, in poetry’s sacred space, is honest about the very hardest subjects. Max surprised me with a poem that talks back to my own “Horror Stories,” which responds to Frost’s “Out, Out–,” which itself cites Shakespeare—that’s a discussion with some legs (audio of my poem is allegedly here, although I can never bear recordings of myself so can’t check). As I listen to them all, my window’s open to pelting rain and cardinals chip-chip-chipping in the maple. Some neighbor’s playing Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And I’m thinking I need to make copies of “Boy Breaking Glass” for Jack and “Southern History” for Amy, unless they’re reading this, I guess. You never know who’s going to pay attention, or when.