Poetry Porch: Poetry


by Richard J. Fein

Where in my life of teaching was the glowing coal that might touch my lips?

I came to hope that poetry might couple my furtive and my outward lives,

that I might become capable, as pride of soul and sympathy for the world

        stretch and balance each other,

and that I might make poems I never could before,

finding my childhood a source,

finding in my grainy truths what I need to know,

finding the words of my untenured life,

finding in supposéd retirement my real work,

like my double take when my three-year-old grandson’s fingertips tested

        the little blonde hairs that have come to sprout on the ridge and

        slopes of my nose,

and it was my skin that animated his curiosity, his puzzlement at what

        adults carry around with them,

my body transmitting all that material of wonder to him,

just as my aunts’ and uncles’ did when my child-eyes studied them close-up:

red nails drumming on fruits stamped into the oilcloth,

or an oval ruby in a class ring above the pudgy, hairy finger,

or a mouth-soaked stain garnishing the tip of a cigar, and at the stump

        end leaves singeing into a lacy cylinder of ash.

Paths taken and re-taken; paths I peered down; paths I derided . . .

yet now residing in rooms where poems lurk, murmur and near, perhaps

I can say what I have stumbled over for most of my life is a kind of

        appointed ground,

my own lot littered with my own refuse,

I, still crossing a corner in Brooklyn while walking the streets

        I'm on now,

the poems and novels I taught now speaking to me as never before, my

        finally taking them personally,

and the revelation of my own slowness, too, had seemed to make all

        stupidity sacred.

After all that training and application, I wonder if I entered teaching

        only because I had to learn how to leave it finally

finally the books becoming mine, no longer attached to degrees, no

        longer the materials of insulation,

and I walked away from the desk at the head of the class,

divorced my titles of success,

cast away the grades that encouraged or stifled,

left behind those young people I helped to read, and the handful

        perhaps I inspired,

abandoned explications of a line, an image, an ambiguity, a career

released now to enter the very material I taught, premonitions of

        possession having come to me before, as when,

one afternoon, the greatest moment of my teaching,

I swivelled toward the tight shelves in my office, housed in an old dorm,

and crooked two fingers, steadily working out my Pound

(in the New Directions Selected, so deftly formatted for the holding)

and read to a student the first of the Cantos because I wanted to show

        him how poetry works on you before you understand it

and then reveals itself more and more as you read again and again, come

        to watch the poem materialize

as when the lens of a microscope clarifies more and more and you see

        sperm wriggling and dashing about

and in my urge I delivered the lines for both of us, my voice surging

        over the desk and the book, as if we, the student and I, were

        discovering poetry for the first time,

                But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,

marvelling at how we surrendered to what we knew or did not know,

        or had only glimpses of, or began perceiving as we went further

        (leaving footnotes for later), or sensed in the transformations

        of old sounds, we,

carried by the poem to the lands of death and life, friendship and task,

carried over water by the power that irascible poet brought to his words,

that overbearing man, the master of the snarl, eventually so broken

        and self-betrayed, so tormented in the disjointed strolls, deranged

        beard and rugose face of his old age

like an Odysseus who foundered on the rocks he himself had lugged out

        to sea,

an exhausted wanderer who never reached home, washed up on an obscure coast,

though once his goatee was jewelled to the drilling point, and he

        prompted Yeats to shed his old green cloak

that even a Jew might feel sorry for this pitiful spirit,

this man whose first canto summoned fellow veterans, a dead mother, a

        farseeing mentor, and an old love

the student and I, sensing the powers that dwelt in my office as I

        read aloud from that book, as I held that red binding in my

        hands, and tested its grainy texture with my fingers.

I quit teaching, and poetry came to me as never before, at 62.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Fein.