Impromptu After Frost

America,

Land of opportunity:

Imagine the poor, the hungry, the hunted

Young and old

Trudging forever on foot,

No longer having a home

Or even a place to go to.

We used to be that place

Where, when you got here,

We had to take you in.

But we now espouse

A road less taken,

Choosing to love a wall

Instead.

Which, for them ,

(and us)

Will forever

Make all the difference.

60s Music / a poem in progress by Tom Evans

50’s music — straight standards with strings —

Sinatra Fatha’ Hines — my parents’ music

Schmaltzy corny square, any way you

Want to put it — understandable

After a Depression and war.

 

I was a captive audience,

Who, while hearing, wasn’t tuned in,

Much less turned on,

knowing there must be a better way.

 

And there was.

 

My music, when it finally arrived,

Meant freedom of a sort,

Which, while not total,

Took me to another place In time

Just in time,

A place from which I never came back.

 

It meant more to me, you see,

Being the soundtrack of my life,

And why I was so

Opinionated about it,

Perhaps to my detriment,

Eclipsing everything else as it did.

 

In fact, like Fiddler Jones,

To this day I’d drop everything

For even the briefest strain of

Music or lyric that caught my ear

Hoping it would last forever,

Knowing it wouldn’t.

 

A quick study, I almost instantly

Had the words of a new song by heart,

Except when I didn’t, some impossibly garbled

Beyond recognition.

(“Louie, Louie” being the most famous example)

 

With some songs it didn’t matter,

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” for instance,

Many of the words unintelligible,

Like the line I thought was

“As the metal tore his chest,”

Until looking it up recently

Found it was really

“As the miller told his tale,”

Which, while good to know, didn’t change a thing.

 

I decided I liked my way better,

The song being so ethereal,

Not meant to be construed but felt,

And so many memories attached

to my version.

 

There are the exceptions, some songs

You need to get the lyrics exactly right,

Fit them to the music to make it complete,

A song like “Dangling Conversation”

For example, or most of Dylan’s songs

(especially when covered by others and

you can actually understand them)

 

As with all good music It not only

Evokes your past, if you’re receptive

(Or high) enough it can take you right back

To where or when you heard a particular song,

Perhaps recapture the same feelings

You had whenever or wherever

You heard it, recovering

Your youth, if only in part.

 

Listening lying down, needle in groove,

Vinyl slightly warped, static and hum,

Stacked six records high,

Light some candles and incense,

Your magic carpet ride would begin.

 

It was going to be a while,

Might even make a day of it,

Nothing else, or better, to do

Nowhere to be,

It was a necessity,

And what kept me going.

 

Stoned, drunk, sober, tripping —

Each a vastly different experience

Requiring different music, if not bands –

Something mellow when stoned

(Though at that point

Almost anything will do) –

Jackson Browne, Byrds,

After the Gold Rush

Something loud when drunk –

Stones, Allman Brothers, Moby Grape –

Something trippy when tripping –

Dark Side of the Moon, anything Hendrix,

Sergeant Pepper

Everyone had their go to music.

 

The blues were an entirely

Different category:

Being Introduced to it Relatively late,

And then, by an English rock band

On the album English Rose,

With several authentic covers of

Elmore James tunes — also hearing

Slide guitar for the first time,

Which, to this day, is still my favorite style.

 

Definitely drinking music,

The blues didn’t really hit me until,

Well, I had the blues, which I

Didn’t realize until I heard the blues.

 

Whose Muddy Shoes, my first real blues album,

Played over and over, was all

I would ever need to get me through

The tough times — they understood, I didn’t

Need to say anything, it was as if I was

Talking to myself, and they to me.

 

Until I was turned on to

Mississippi John Hurt,

A completely different style

Bred on the Mississippi Delta,

Acoustic fingerstyle guitar,

Much more mellow than the

Urban blues, though at times even

Sadder because it was so wistful;

He was the ultimate raconteur –

Funny, sly, wise, spell binding,

One of his several (among countless

Others by others) versions of

“Stagger Lee” the best

I ever heard, talking for the

First several minutes, giving

The back story of Stagger Lee

And Billy DeLion, leading into

Masterful fingerpicking

And his rendition of the song;

In “Payday” and “Casey Jones”

He’d sing a line and then, seamlessly,

Would have his guitar sing the same one,

And I swear you couldn’t tell the difference.

“Rediscovered” nearly

Forty years later and trotted

Out on stage at the

Newport Folk Festival,

He brought down the house

With his performance,

Was signed to a record deal

And made several albums

Before he died a few years later,

And several more posthumously.

Better late than never, I suppose,

Though he was never one to be bitter.

 

Everyone had their own first concert story,

But none could beat mine:

Hendrix at the Aud, sneaking out to

See it, wearing yellow bell bottoms

With blue pinstripes, the only I ever

Wore or stole;

It was a night of firsts: first concert,

First smell of pot, first toke on a joint,

First snowball fight with Mitch Mitchell and

Noel Redding, first time in a taxi,

Paid for by them after I missed my ride;

“Take your hat off,” someone in the cheap seats

Yelled at Hendrix, “I’ll take it off

If you take your pants off,” Jimi replied,

I don’t even remember the music

I was so overwhelmed by it all,

And, after having the taxi leave me

At the top of my street, I shed my

Bell bottoms and tossed them in a

Neighbor’s bushes, never to be seen

Again, then made my way down my street

In a blinding snowstorm, nobody the wiser

As far as I would ever know.

 

Steppenwolf, with songs like “The Ostrich”

And “Monster” were a Howard Zinn

History lesson in the guise of a

Rock song waiting to happen,

Turning out to be the most prescient

Lyricists of their generation

(Who would have thought?)

Though I doubt many listened to them for

That reason, but not surprising for those who knew

John Kay had been through the shit as a child,

And was lucky to be alive.

 (But I Didn’t Die) / a new poem by Tom Evans

A.A.’s kidnapping and drowning

When I was a child, horrified me,

And still does.

It was an image of my

Own childhood —

To be taken away

In the midst of play —

What to say to the little

Brother (almost a twin)

Left behind?

He, too, came home

To an empty room.

 

You say — “We have packed your things

And are moving away.”

Away, today, from Jewett Parkway.

 

 

 

 

 

Say It Isn’t So / a new poem by Tom Evans

Days of summer gone.
If I had written a line like that,
Joe Bolton, I would have died
A happy man.

Why did you do it,
Were you half in love with
Easeful death?

How did you do it?
Did you bite your tongue?
I would understand
If that was the case.

You see, I have these questions.

The seasons, each one wistful
In its own way, but especially
Summer, which you chose, Joe-
Evanescent- lingering echoes,
Distant strains of music
Fading in and out,
Vestiges of the past that you can
Imagine, remember, and even see,
But never quite put your finger on,
Much less grasp.

And though you grieved
Summers past
You did it in
Marshy spring,
Not wanting to see
Another summer come
And go, I suppose.

Your poetry is full of
Lost loves, ghosted memories
And empty beds—
All unrequited.

I get that
Joe Bolton
And who am I
To say you nay?

But summer
Came anyway.

And couldn’t you
Have at least
Stuck around
To tell us
If it was worth
The strength it takes
To see another
One through?

Instead you
Left us
With a wordless
Answer.

Say it isn’t so Joe Bolton!

Heat Wave / a new poem by Tom Evans

Heat never bothers you

As a kid, play until

You drop, brown and dusty

Then haul ass on your bike

To the corner store,

Grab an ice cold pop

From the cooler

And you’re good to go,

Ready to play two

Before you’re called home for dinner.

 

It turns up a bit as a teen, though,

Hot to trot seemingly every second,

Flushing with embarrassment

At every faux pas committed,

A frequent occurrence

At that most awkward age,

As I’m sure we all remember.

 

Then in your prime, the biological clock

A time bomb ticking,

The procreative urge at white heat

Intensity, making you even

More prone to lapses in judgment

That can have a life-long impact

(choice of mate being one).

 

And perhaps a mid-life crisis

Or two, one last chance to

Recapture your vigor

(such as it was)

Ruin everyone’s life

(including yours)

Revisit your youthful aspirations

And do something about them

If it’s not too late

(it’s never too late).

 

Even now I love being out in it,

(Though admittedly mostly in my

Imagination these days)-

Reading about it in Faulkner,

Recalling the stillness of days past

In the shimmering heat.

Just the thought of it

Gives me some warmth

In the depths of winter.

.

But as you grow older, and the

Vital heat paradoxically wanes,

You can’t escape it, and notice it

In many different ways, though often

Retreating to desert cities,

Where, even if you wouldn’t

Be caught dead outside in the

Scorching air, you can still

Enjoy it vicariously

Through the picture window in your

Air conditioned abode.

 

I suppose it does warm your bones

A bit to do that

Although you know

Your time has passed

And you’re preoccupied

With merely trying to survive

Desperately attempting

To control your temperatures

Within and without

All the while allowing

The planet to burn up.

 

 

BASEBALL, OR THE MYTH OF THE ETERNAL RECCURENCE / a new poem by Tom Evans

Dear Ken, FDR wrote to Judge Landis

shortly after Pearl Harbor when it was

being decided whether major league games

should continue during the war,

America needs baseball as a recreational diversion for a nation

that will of necessity be working longer and harder than ever

 before in the coming times.

 

My friend Rich, when I stood beside him

in his hospital bed during his last days,

echoed a similar sentiment,

asking me to talk about baseball

for a while. I knew, that despite having

the mathematical mind of the engineer

he was, it wasn’t the facts he normally

craved- standings, statistics, playoff probabilities

of each team (especially those of his beloved

Phils)- that he wanted, he had the newspaper

lying next to him for that.

 

I chose instead to talk about the beauty

of the game we loved beyond measure, its

history, the evolution of its

rules, some of the players we loved- Cobb, Wheat,

Ruth, Mathewson, Parker, Stargell, Omar

the Outmaker, Schmidt, Carlton, and Richie

(call me Dick) Allen, the fact that it had

brought us together, what we would do

after the final out was made, but more particularly

of the time Ferris Fain (of the other

Philadelphia team) went 5 for 5

against Vic Raschi for his team (including

a game-winning  home run) in our

Strat-O-Matic baseball game.

 

Thank you for the diversion, he said,

looking up at me when I had finished.

I leaned over and kissed him good-bye.

Afterward, when asked by his wife to give

his eulogy, I declined. I couldn’t- wouldn’t-

discuss our friendship in front of strangers-

it was private, cherished, and ultimately ineffable.

 

I offer this elegy instead.

 

for Richard Swiniuch (1952-2001)

The Dream Songs / John Berryman

A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.

But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz,  Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.

Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel.  An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.

The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet  who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”

Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious,  but can also bring you to tears.  Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.