New Poetry : February 2007
To Orpheus, If You Had Been My Brother…
For Jim Simmerman, poet and friend (1952 -2006)
Okay so we wouldn’t have moved
no cuffing by dad
no Air Force Base with its codes
against hair and staying put
but something else would have driven you
out into the road trip
the night talk the jitter and flex
you turned into song
Brother if you had two broken legs
in our house
someone would be charming
someone would be witty and smart
and someone would pour you a second martini
holding the ice at bay
with a gin-colored stick
To this party of chilling cheer
you could have added a good sulk
a good rant something brusque
with overtones of sweetness
your vintage music
that might have stopped me
from cutting off damaged limbs—
Ha, what happens when it’s life
that’s damaged the whole kit
and ka-boodle so that throwing up
a wall of rage no longer
makes a safe-house.
Orpheus needs a black belt,
a Harley and a dozen stray dogs
But still he can’t get back
to the woman he loves,
he can’t get outside of his pain.
Brother give me your face
again one time and let it be calm.
Your poems and mine were lovers
though we never were. Thanks
for liking my spondee and metaphysical conceit.
Why couldn’t you just trust
that I would follow?
Now I’m left dodging
hijackers in hell
who can’t stop looking
for the virgins they
were promised, while back
on earth you sing to
the almond trees and
lemurs your beauty
made great by your loss.
If I came as close
as I dared to the
border, if I begged
you, if I prayed, would
you come down to the
plane of my suffering,
would you touch me not
as the god you’ve become
but as the man who
returns from wounding exile?
Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa. . .
When Zeus paced in front of the class
professing how in a line of Horace
the words describing an embrace
displayed in form the action they
described—sense and syntax
clinched closer than English could
allow—I got it. How close the poem was
to the growing tip of life. I knew then
language could reveal divine pleasure
in the human mind. Zeus had a pate
like the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
He was Greek though not Roman—
his name rhyming with metropolis.
This was the summer of 1963 and I was a junior
in high school studying fifth year Latin
at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut,
the city of my birth, of my daughter’s birth.
I had wanted to take sociology or psychology,
a science to assemble the puzzle I felt myself
to be. Everyone may feel this way—we arrive
somehow whole and childhood breaks us
into pieces we spend our lives reassembling.
My parents said no. You can go if you take Latin.
No one cared about dead languages even then
except the scholarship office which bought me
a ride out of the house of denials and into the “dorm”
on the “campus”—every word of the new world
springing up from its burial on the page. It was
like sleeping in a starry field out in the open
after being confined too long in walls.
Zeus wore a gray suit to class
every humid Hartford day that summer.
I fell for my first radical there in the cafeteria,
an organizer for SNCC, he had traveled
to Americus, Georgia to enfranchise poor blacks.
He wore the clothes he’d learned in the South,
Levi’s and blue work-shirt, smoked Pall Malls,
the red cellophane pack so attractive
in contrast with his blues. Black coffee,
New York Times—I read all of his signs
and found another god in my desire. Call “him”
Zeus too my own undressed imperative to know.