Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Season's Greetings

One of the collateral benefits of reviewing for Kliatt (see previous post) was that when I went to choose books, there were often a number of books of poetry on the shelves, mostly from writers I had never heard of. So each time I went, I would take four or five books and read through them, and in this way I began to educate myself about the current state of poetry in America. I discovered, for example, that the University of Pittsburgh published a series of small, elegantly formatted works under the imprint of The Pitt Poetry Series, and over the years I was reviewing I discovered and writers who have continued to give me pleasure throughout the years, including David Huddle, Peter Meinke, Ted Kooser, Larry Levis, Carol Muske, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, and Richard Shelton.

Here, in honor of the season, is a poem by Leonard Nathan, from his Pitt Poetry book Carrying On: New and Selected Poems. The poem consists of three sentences, which is part of its humor. I often read it with my students during the week before the holidays; it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on, well, desire. And responsibilty. And the meaning of Christmas. And li' dat. It's worth reading through slowly, out loud. Enjoy.


Waiting for the signal to change
in her favor, she saw him again
between sweeps of the windshield wiper,
the same man on the same corner
last Christmas, remembered now
because he was so wrong for seeing
this time of year in this part of town
where furs and jewels stared back
at one another in shop windows
that he passed unseeing and unseen
in a peacoat blotched and misshapen by age
and rain, himself blotched and misshapen
under a black stocking cap,
in one hand a brown paper parcel
tied with string, and now suddenly,
she was anxious—no, fearful,
because if life, her life anyway,
meant something (and she wasn't sure
it did), meetings as odd as this
might have some purpose, a sort
of repetition to make a point
she knew she wasn't getting yet
and didn't want to because now
she wasn't just fearful, but guilty as well,
and felt the petty cash in her purse
turn to ashes, the gifts piled
in the back seat. become a reason
to look away ashamed, and then
it came to her—a vision—to her
who always saw in things mere things:
There was a box wrapped prettily
in shiny red foil, and in it,
she knew, was the future, its top torn open
to reveal a little room
with a cot, one rickety chair,
an old card table, on it
a dish and cup, both plastic,
and three black wire coat hangers
hung in a closet otherwise empty,
and the smudged window stared blindly out
on smoky brick—the right place
to meditate on soup kitchens
or on the intensive care unit,
but it was the honking behind that woke her
to this world where the man, whatever
he meant, had crossed before her, his eyes
ahead, his heavy face neutral
as worn stone that asked nothing
on its way into the darkening air,
and she saw she had the green light
to move, still shaken, to where
she must to get on home to the tree
the children had put up for her,
the grandchildren were now trimming,
and eased into quieter streets,
feeling boxed inside steel
and black traffic, driven below
by a power she never understood,
and feeling—well, sort of—followed,
and, glancing in the rear-view mirror,
smiled at her little panic, but drove
faster, recalling that this was the time
for exchanging gifts and she had given
that man (somewhere behind her) her guilt
(as if he needed that) so now
it was his turn, and she drove faster,
wondering with a cold thrill just what
he'd picked for her, and slowed down
when she saw ahead through rainy dark
another vision (her lucky day!):
Under the tree, almost buried
in glittering golds and greens and reds,
a brown paper parcel tied with string,
with her name on it, to be opened
the morning of Jesus' nativity,
and what it contained to be held up
in shaky fingers to her breast
(where her heart now worked unwilling
as a windshield wiper) to find,
of course, it was a perfect fit,
a garment made for her alone
centuries ago, and the roan would be there
nodding in the corner, unseen
by the others—not really a man,
a thing older than humans, older
than Christmas, as though a stone or log
could, with terrible effort, take
our shape to tell us something, something
we had to know but didn't want to
because there was no remedy for it,
not even children (it was much older
than love), and she thought of all that ruin
of beautiful torn wrapping paper,
the afterbirth of giving, and saw
also she was simply home, parked
in the driveway, sitting motionless
to stare at the fragile strings of light
melting in the drops that ran
across the glass, and it was then
she put her head down on the wheel
and cried softly because she knew
the reasons for crying and knew too
that if nothing was saved of all the works
of joy, nothing would stop wanting
to be reborn, which made life
a kind of defiance. Yes. Well, then,
drying her eyes, she was ready now
to go in, ready to receive
whatever the children thought she wanted.

No comments: