Words for My Daughter, J Balaban

Tags: Copper Canyon Press, Erhart, London Erhart, London, Middlesex hospital, Pennsylvania Erhart, praying mantis, War, Literature & the Arts, mirror sunglasses, cyclo driver, Wall Street Journals, Middlesex, Humboldt's Gift, Maxine Kumin, Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, Humboldt Humbert, William Meredith, Hayden Carruth, Saul Bellow, Peoples Bank, Richard Wilbur, John Berryman
Content: John Balaban Four Poems Words for My Daughter About eight of us were nailing up forts in the mulberry grove behind Reds's house when his mother started screeching and all of us froze except Reds--fourteen, huge as a hippo--who sprang out of the tree so fast the branch nearly bobbed me off. So fast, he hit the ground running, hammer in hand, and seconds after he got in the house we heard thumps like someone beating a tire off a rim his dad's howls the screen door banging open Saw Reds barreling out through the tall weeds toward the highway the father stumbling after his fat son who never looked back across the thick swale of teazel and black-eyed susans until it was safe to yell fuck you at the skinny drunk stamping around barefoot and holding his ribs. Another time, the Connelly kid came home to find his alcoholic mother getting raped by the milkman.
Bobby broke a milk bottle and jabbed the guy humping on his mom. I think it really happened because none of us would loosely mention that wraith of a woman who slippered around her house and never talked to anyone, not even her kids. Once a girl ran past my porch with a dart in her back, her open mouth pumping like a guppy's, her eyes wild. Later that summer, or maybe the next, the kids hung her brother from an oak. Before they hoisted him, yowling and heavy on the clothesline, they made him claw the creekbank and eat worms. I don't know why his neck didn't snap.
Reds had another nickname you couldn't say or he'd beat you up: "Honeybun." His dad called him that when Reds was little.

***
So, these were my playmates. I love them still for their justice and valor and desperate loves twisted in shapes of hammer and shard. I want you to know about their pain and about the pain they could loose on others. If you're reading this, I hope you will think, Well, my dad had it rough as a kid, so what? If you're reading this, you can read the news and you know that children suffer worse.

***
Worse for me is a cloud of memories still drifting off the South China Sea, like the 9-year-old boy, naked and lacerated, thrashing in his pee on a steel operating table and yelling, "Dau. Dau," while I, trying to translate in the mayhem of Tet for surgeons who didn't know who this boy was or what happened to him, kept asking
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"Where? Where's the pain?" until a surgeon said, "Forget it. His ears are blown."

***
I remember your first Halloween when I held you on my chest and rocked you, so small your toes didn't touch my lap as I smelled your fragrant peony head and cried because I was so happy and because I heard, in no metaphorical way, the awful chorus of Soeur Anicet's orphans writhing in their cribs. Then the doorbell rang and a tiny Green Beret was saying trick-or-treat and I thought oh oh but remembered it was Halloween and where I was. I smiled at the evil midget, his map-light and night paint, his toy knife for slitting throats, said, "How ya doin', soldier?" and, still holding you asleep in my arms, gave him a Mars Bar. To his father waiting outside in fatigues I hissed, "You, shit," and saw us, child, in a pose I know too well.
I want you to know the worst and be free from it. I want you to know the worst and still find good. Day by day, as you play nearby or laugh with the ladies at Peoples Bank as we go around town and I find myself beaming like a fool, I suspect I am here less for your protection than you are here for mine, as if you were sent to call me back into our helpless tribe.
Collected in Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press (1997) and reprinted by permission.
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The Lives of the Poets
The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. . . . So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift*
Fact is, it's a reality that grinds us all, even those who whisper to themselves: If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either. Still they collapse at meetings, on tennis courts, pig valves going ka-boom in their hearts, pitching into their Wall Street Journals as the train lurches home to the Hamptons, as the cab crawls uptown to the condo on the Park. Dying in their dandruff, on their treadmills, taking their sips of dioxin seepage, eyes fried by computer screens and boredom. The huge need for cocaine said it all.

***
Well, these were the thoughts that came to me on a high wooded bluff outside Port Townsend just after Levertov died. Her Times obit ran next to some admiral's from the Vietnam War, apparent adversaries, now side by side, true to their conflicting truths. The hand that gives. The hand that takes.
*All italicized quotes are from Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (Viking, 1975), p. 117.
All about me clumps of sweet pea, purples and pinks, cascaded down the grassy hillsides as dawn mist raveled a wreath through inky tops of Douglas Firs. Far off, the distant Strait of Juan de Fuca pulled tides below a cloudbank and ferry foghorns called, each to each. Can sung words calm the guns of a steeled fleet? (Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system.) At Sotheby's, Ginsberg's top hat went for $258 after the bad gray poet launched his last exhalation.

***
Unsettled, I drove to Seattle's Blue Moon Tavern where soon I annoyed a man in straggly hair and baseball cap, reading Cicero through wire-rims, hunched at the beat-up bar and railing at me, "Man, I told you. I don't know those people!" My mistake. He looked like he might have perched on that Barstool reading Latin for decades since abandoning a dissertation. But he didn't know Roethke, or Hugo, or Wright, whose framed lugubrious black-and-whites still hung from the rough plank walls where once they drank and howled like Humboldt. The only woman among them: Carolyn Kizer, with her huge sultry eyes and severe French hat, Dorothy Parker to this Algonquin of moonstruck boozers.

***
The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. . . . They succumbed, poor loonies. One thinks of Roethke weeping over a dead mouse cupped in his huge hands. Of Hugo sweating out a hangover in THE BLEACHERS of a sandlot game. Lew Welch walking off forever into the scorpion Sierras.
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Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. (And Plath and Sexton gassing themselves.) Delmore Schwartz, Humboldt Humbert, shouting from the moon.

***
So, praise to those still coming through on song, a bigger tribe than one can name and tough as anything put up by corporate America: Maxine Kumin with her horse-broke neck, still writing, still hitching up and riding Deuter. William Meredith struggling back toward speech. Hayden Carruth raising a toast with his "poet's cheap, sufficient Chardonnay." Richard Wilbur calling us to morning air awash with angels. Merwin in Hawaii, Snyder in the Sierras, both taking the nothingness of sunyata to conjure up a habitation.

Walking
their Sonoma farm with Kizer's husband John,
we stopped before a storm-struck, twisted peartree,
a remnant from an orchard of 100 years ago.
Out of the hulk of its blackened trunk,
one smooth-skinned branch sent forth some leaves.
"Still blooming?" I asked. "Madly," he said.
Collected in Path, Crooked Path, Copper Canyon Press (2006) and reprinted by permission.
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ERHART
Birds have nests; men have ancestors.
--Vietnamese proverb
1 Standing in a soybean field, on a rocky scarp above the sea, the two of us, in dispossessed thirties, scan nude bathers on the shore below, as gulls, winged flesh all salt, might scour for shellfish. Angry and red on Erhart's belly the football stitch stings with sweat where they cut into his cancer. But look at him here today: climbing cliffs, getting his peek, dismayed only that the naked man below who sidles into a tide-cut cave lures not a girl, but another gay. As I watch him watch a girl in the surf, Erhart remarks that "birds have nests; foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head." "Birds have nests," I add. "Men have ancestors." Erhart's father died manic and alone. A whore-child gave birth to Erhart at twenty-seven, in Asia, across the Pacific that glints on these bathers and defies our stare.
Wonderful news today: Cambridge MAn receives letter-bomb. --Newshawker in London 2 Outside Middlesex hospital the student unions queue, marching behind a rent-all truck from which a band plays "Hello Dolly." They want bigger scholarships. Inside Middlesex, a blonde moppet zaps Erhart with cobalts to make his cancer go away, those narsty nodes, that ugly clavicle blossoming into a Kali-flower. She says it will be all right: Never once has she died for all her patients she's radiated. Erhart is going to India to meet a wonderful Indian guru, leaving England to its henna-haired boys and big women. Outside, the Bobbies badger the crowd. Inside Erhart's insides his ionized cells are blue with rage like Tantric demons blue-faced with rage.
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Rocket Man burning up in the highest sky.
--Elton John
3 At night, by the Ganges, by a pyre guttering foul smoke and gaseous licks of flame-- by a dog gnawing the ankle and foot of a woman cremated during the day-- Erhart, hunched as if he had a chest cold, pisses on a flat rock and looks up at the stars, at Bernice's Hair, at the Lost Pleiades, at Orion about to hurl his spear of stars. In L.A., a G.P. thought Erhart had an ulcer. The surgery didn't work. After the vegetable diet, the German carrot-juice treatment, the yoga chants, the asanas, the "breaths of fire," after the sautйed-lemon-rind cure, the acupuncturist, the Reichian masseuse, after all the death-defying fucking in London Erhart has come to see Sai Baba who can materialize Swiss watches and pillars of holy ash. (But can he kill the Big C?) What else is left? Filipino psychic surgeons? If one plays at dying, he doesn't die at all. (In a closet in my farmhouse in Pennsylvania Erhart's manuscripts fill his flight bag, stories and articles, published and unpublished, the film clips he shot on battlefields in Vietnam.) The river tide washes the embers of the dead. Erhart, diving and flying in a whirl of methadone and realization, watches for star-nesting birds; spies a man-bird: beaked, crimson-winged, with a body of gold--Garuda, who routed the gods, their wheel of blades who severed the snake guard, spat back its poison, whose wing-beat rush could stop the world. Who spat back the poison. Who dwells in the sun. Keep moving, friend, and don't look down.
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Collected in Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press (1997) and reprinted by permission.
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Dead for Years, Erhart Arranges to Meet Me in a Dream So the cyclo driver, looking like a praying mantis with his mirror sunglasses, straddling his blue-and-orange detailed, lawnmotorized chair, and sucking a toothpick, met me at the corner just like Erhart said. Neither the driver nor I, befuddled by the phone call that woke me from my dream, registered much surprise. In one's post-war sleep, the dead still ring up and Vietnamese cabbies hustle American streets. So I just plunked down on his saggy vinyl cushion and he varoomed a blue cloud all the way to Saigon. Trouble was, I forgot the address. The driver got skeptical. Did this American know how to behave in a dream? I said I'd pay double fare, and we tooled around old streets with new names, looking for familiar bars, the PX. Finally, I just gave up. I bought the driver a beer at the Bo Da cafe. He said it all looked strange to him too, get used to it.

J Balaban

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