You’ll argue as long as you can. We’ll put it to bed. Maybe in a year you’ll say, I was thinking about that thing you said way back again, you’ll ask me what I meant. And I’ll be a year ahead, no longer questioning, practicing philosophy all of my own, which advises me heavily against teaching people who they are. No. I can work with why. How. I can work with not today, tomorrow maybe. But no. You confessed every reaction to a new situation or life change you’ve ever had before was no. Rather take it slow. Prefer to accommodate this stiff lactic acid choked emotion that hardens the stomach into cartilage and makes perfectly mobile situations sit stagnate and static and cold to the touch but hot like acid. I can’t help. To you, I can’t be shepherd or farmer or friend. To you, child of doubt, progeny of woe, I am no more than a sign post. I can point you to where I found God spying on me, I can tell you what it took to finally see what it is my eyes and ears and mind and fears feed. I found the fractal that gave me the shape of the birthmother of this place. I have seen what we were before. The ghost white pearl in a swirling cape of blackness, gravity radiating like energy, a pull that outreaches, a proactive desire, a cosmic pairing of opposites like the very first lovers weren’t necessarily more complex than dark and bright. But from their union all forms grew possible. I’m a piece of wood nailed to a stake that only says to you, ‘The Garden is This Way’.
The eyes wear a mask. As does the mouth.
Many a closing flap. To keep in and let out.
A mask for the mask of lips.
A mask to hide the shapes of hips.
A mask with laces and rubber soles and leather
to cover the leather we swing like levers
to power this whole mess on.
The worry isn’t the ask to mask,
it’s how they told you to.
To do it. Breathe through it. Lose hope.
Renew it. Take it in stride,
how much there is to hide,
if you want to be accepted.
But do you?
Human not humane. Can a mask be worn on a name?
Is it a guilty face that’s to blame, is that why we wear our shame?
Though the hands do the deeds of love,
they call their masks gloves,
and it hides from whatever you touch,
and no one ever called one tyranny.
But a mask to filter your breath,
shouting give me liberty or death,
like they’re not the same damned thing.
Trees like still-frames of fireworks. Palm leaves off golden white.
Pink pom-poms on ends of sulfurous smelling stems.
Lone doves on frowning powerlines.
Trucks with cracked windshields in teacher’s parking lots.
Surgical masks rotting in the gutter. Rocks and robins
and cracked orange clay in places grass won’t grow.
We were six weeks in outside for a mask-break and I could not recognize them.
They all had different faces than I ever could have imagined. It’s the damnedest thing.
I’d known them for weeks. Yet I had never seen their smile.
We loitered on green grass until the birds grew bored of us.
I didn’t like it. I wanted to tell them they had their faces wrong.
Before I could, thank God, they’d stuffed them back under masks
sighing to their self. Smelling their own breath. Confidential grin.
Spied on by the birds and the trees
who have waited a long time
for all of us
to take a mask-break
and step out
This is a more prosaic toned poem, but chopped up in stocky, poetic lines. The work functions for me as a hybridized experience, an offspring of the overlap between fiction and poems. Ascribing a poem a personality, giving it action, physical description, played out brilliantly in this piece. “…I offered it all my money, my clothes, my car with a full tank. But the poem stared at the floor.” Not just ‘my car’ but a full tank. One can’t entice a poem out from hiding with a vehicle empty of the fuel that makes it move. The poem is a journey. It gets hungry. Tired. And then inspired, and fat and full. Greedy.
We don’t get rhyme. We don’t get flowery language. The poem really lacks in most archetypal elements of poetry except for having that exact subject as its theme. Which is in and of itself a very poetic thematic twist. A literary contrast, examining lofty, often put up on a pedestal subjects with pedantic tone of voice. The reader sits somewhere in the middle pulled in two separate directions by the same detail. “…beat me and took my money, tore the faded clothes off my back, said Shit-” This really is a poet’s poem. Haven’t we all been beat up by a piece or two of our own writing? Not that we had much to begin with anyhow, but it takes what we do have, the abusive poem likes our faded clothes and running cars and greasy hair. Prefers it, because it was needed once, worn. The shine has almost always worn off the preferred. And the poem of Larry Levis is coming for all faded things.
Almost everyone who pursues this craft can relate in one way or another to this poem. I would also feel comfortable stating that anyone who pursues intentionally creative endeavors of any kind on a daily basis can relate to the all too often overly familiar, needy, and abusive habits of the muse. Being a poet is like keeping a pet bird. It’s like sliding a sleek silver bit in the crotch of a horse’s jaw. It’s a lover you struggle to shake. In spite of both your sakes.
All of that to say what poetry is not: a thing connected to a remote control, mindless or incapable of revolution and resistance, a thing to do to pass the time. Not an object. Not a skill. Not a subject. “And the poem…Said it was going over to your place.” The ultimate mystery and power of inspiration is that it has a will of its own. And it will leave you when it wants to. And it will refuse to leave you when it wants to.
I am a teacher. One part courtroom jester. One part dunce. One part dad and one part mom. I am the voice of books, and the ears of reason. I love it when they confess, what I am about to say might be wrong. And I get to tell them. There’s no such thing. Not here. Not in this classroom, in this group of peers. The most important part of recognizing right is the memory of being proudly, loudly, defiantly wrong. My most important lesson. Make a mess. Make mistakes. Fumble my words. Forget the definition of hyperbole. ‘How can you be our teacher and you don’t know what hyperbole means?” he says. I’m no saint. On the inside, I’m eighteen years old again and I want to embarrass him into the ground for having done so to me. But, on the outside, I’m thirty three, on the clock, first year in a new job, honesty is maybe an incentive they add one to two years before retirement, but for new hires like me it’s improv. I laugh at myself and agree. I tell him the most important thing you learn in school are directions to the nearest library. No one, no matter what they tell you, remembers everything. Every time hyperbole comes up in discussion from then on I sound it out slowly and ask them what it means. We laugh. Adults mess up. Forget. Lose track. First and foremost, we’re teaching them how to handle that.
I am a teacher because I was hired and presented to them as a teacher but I never earned them calling me Mr. Homesley, it’s required. Even in lectures I often use my life as my example and I keep wanting to call myself Jeremy. I am a teacher so I am Mr. Homesley and I had never met that man before and I still don’t always recognize him as me. Like hyperbole. Some great exaggeration of my maturity and capacity. One of those teachers who likes to say I am learning just as much as you are. And I am. But that’s a secondary lesson. Secondary to the next six to eight years of sure to be harder than we ever imagined life. I’ll get an email one day. Just shy of a decade. One of these kids will reach out and tell me they heard that great deafening click I spoke of hearing right around when I turned twenty six. It’s eerie, and inescapable, and undeniable. I called my dad, my mom, I apologized to them. I felt my weight, finally, my age, my height, my mortality, everything, all the sudden like that. Hit me.
You don’t grow up. You don’t graduate. You don’t stop learning and gain some wisdom and maturity because you hit a hand-drawn checkmark on a coffee-stained desk calendar. Speaking hyperbolically now, just kidding, that isn’t a word, oh wait, it is? Well anyway. I am a teacher. And as a teacher, the greatest piece of information I really have to offer, is directions to the nearest library.
Life may as well be called school. And while we’re here, all of us, on equal terms, students.
That’s the thing about journals and wine, they’re nothing but juice without time. Your grocery lists and garden designs will be worth at least a sideways smile in four or five years. But in ten to twenty, or thirty, to eyes still reading long after yours have entered the book, your handwriting, not just that one of a kind chicken scratch, but an undeniable image of your hand, alive, writhing, a little list that led you on your way out into town, strangers who stared you down, held the door for you, nodded hello. It takes fifty years to even know the value of what we’re losing when we exclusively hunt and peck every thought under threat of the launched arrow of a backspace key. You can type a cocktail, squeeze words, add liquor, pour out every sort of juice. But you have to hand-write wine, and more than that, be patient for it. One virtue that has been entirely and purposefully written out of education. Society. Culture in general. Patient people make poor consumers. Patient. Stubborn. Frugal with money, but always giving away food. Journals, and handwritten things, and stubborn, patient people who like to work with animals every day, who like four chores and sixteen memories and three bruises on every dinner plate. Who get a bit of therapeutic benefit from shedding tears over a thirty year old grocery list that somehow grew into a treasure of incalculable value with nothing else added to it but time.
Life. All have same secret ingredient.
If you don’t know, don’t worry, it comes for you too.
Be patient. It isn’t thyme.