Case Study

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For Alice


Of an evening maybe thirty years ago,
A woman I was getting to know
Had the misfortune of asking me
How I’d found my way to poetry.
I answered till the east was coming to.
She didn’t seem all that put out,
But that’s as far as my story got
(I.e., not halfway through).

Ten years on,
I was trying again
To tell it, this time not to her
(At least not just, she being still there)
In the form of a monster poem: an abortus
In the event, though enough of it got born
To exhibit rigor mortis.
You’d think I’d have forsworn
The effort for good in the wake of this, but no:
You’re hereby warned (assuming you’re
Still there) that another go
At the story’s in store.
Not overly to worry: I’ll cover just
The cruxes and give the bulk of it a rest.
(Which reminds me of an Edo scroll
With painted scenes selected from The Tale
Of Genji: maybe a score all told,
Emerging intermittently
From a mist of gold.)
If the beast this method yields turns out to be
A turkey, at least it was served without the stuffing.
Enough of my intentions: here goes nothing.


As a little kid,
I wanted to do what my father did:
Write storybooks for grownups. One of my
More primal memories is of the sound
Of typing—a rat-a-tat back then—behind
A door I’d been repeatedly
Told not to open. It wasn’t long
Before I was at it myself, though plying the trade
With a pencil instead of a Royal. Among
The more major works I essayed
Was an unsolicited
Addition to the Tom Swift books.
In fairness it should be said
That I had a collaborator
On this—our split of the megabucks
We’d get for it we agreed to settle later—
In the person of a puppy love from school.
This girl was all
You’d want at concocting a story,
But it was an extraliterary
Gift of hers—a penmanship
So regular it made me weep—
That explains the words at the head of a stapled sheaf:

Tom Swift and His Flying Car
……………by Danny Brown
…..Written by Marjorie Schiff

The text? As you’d expect.

…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..So far
So something, I guess. I also made, on my own,
The occasional stab at poetry:
Some decent doggerel for a bard of seven. . . .
More notably,
If not til I was eleven,
The lyrics for a musical
Comedy I authored, songs and all.
Which actually got put on
At school, inducing there a jealousy
I’ve never shaken off entirely . . .
But in “musical” you already had a sign
Of a dream that found it child’s play
To sweep Dream One away.


It isn’t like music hadn’t always been there.
Initially some 78’s
Passed down from a gramps. A long-hair
Side he’d had, to judge from the collection:
Red-labeled discs of the Russian greats,
With the single, signal exception
Of a Mozart set (his 40th). Blue-labeled, these,
Befitting not only this music’s utter
Difference from the Rimskys and Tchaikovskys
(Which even at five I had no trouble sensing)
But also its other-
Worldly cool (if fire-filled: as though
Philosophy had taken passion dancing).

Nor was a love
Of music wanting. I’ve no
Lack of early memories that say
As much, though an especially probative
One is of ingraining, on my way
To sleep one night, a melody
I’d heard that evening on TV.
God forbid I should wake next day bereft
Of this unexampled gift
(Which caused a spine’s first beauty-triggered chill);
Better I shouldn’t wake at all.
(“In the Hall of the Mountain King,”
In case you’re wondering.)

Still, it came a little out
Of nowhere when at thirteen, give or take,
I up and wrote
A fugue: a Bach-
Ian knockoff, natch, yet goosed
With its share of the present century’s
Signature astringencies.
A kid could be excused
For thinking this showed some promise, yes?
A subsequent success—
This one mod-Mozartean—
Was all it took by way of confirmation:
Put me down for a dream of composition.
And toss my dream of writing in the can.
Why spin a yarn when I
Could spawn a soniverse?
Writing words,


My twenty-second year could be
Described without too much hyperbole
As one long struggle to keep my dream
Of writing notes alive.

…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..Odd, what with the stream
Of pieces I’d purled out
In college—ever finer ones, I’d thought—
Only to have things go
South (and rapidly).
This turn had mainly to do
With Bartók: he
Of a Fourth Quartet
So rife with wrangles of dissonance
That when I first met
Up with the piece, at around eighteen,
I welcomed it with all the jubilance
Of an angler with a Gorgon on his line.
No way to have known
That a few years on—I’m now
A composition grad—I’d see this same
Creation as a touchstone
Of the art. A thing can grow
On one, is as close as I can come
To explaining it (although
It’s also true that one can grow
Into a thing).

…..…..…..…..…..…..No great surprise
That what I’d come to recognize
As a masterwork would raise the bar
A foot or three for me.
This went especially
For some chords that, unfamiliar though they were,
Were as though already known
In the grottos of my soul. To sound within
Myself such chords . . . but that’s where I
Ran into a debility.
Not that I couldn’t hear
Kindred ones in my mind’s ear,
But blurrily, like visions seen
Through a lens some imp had smeared with Vaseline.
Apparently I couldn’t quite conceive
Of chords that weren’t in tradition’s trove.

Though what of that? Take Gershwin: hadn’t he played
A winning hand with cards of harmony
That never went beyond the stock-in-trade?
He had, but with a gift
(Called sorcery)
As beyond me as Bartók’s. I’d come to this
Conclusion in venturing a shift
To the popular, and never even
Scenting any magic, much less
Running some to ground.

…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..I might have given
This flailing up right there if there hadn’t been
Another straw that seemed worth grasping at.
That Bach-ish fugue of mine from way back when:
I’d had that in me, hadn’t I?
Why not write more of them? They’d be old—make that
Ancient hat, but after a century
Of newness, wasn’t newness getting old?
Wouldn’t the world
Be only richer if additional
Bachian works were in it? So what if they
Were written only yesterday?
(More than rhetorical,
This question, though why it is would be a topic
For another epic.)
Of course the crucial word within
All this was Bachian.
A word that—could it be?—
Applied to my erstwhile fugue like great
Applies to squat,
My chastened self could see.
No wonder I never began to pen those desperate
Measures. The nature of my deficit
In talent had come clear to me:
Not one of degree,
But rather a total want of the requisite
Equipment (a sort of gills and lateral line
That let composers navigate
An element as alien
As the aqueous
To the rest of us).
The knowledge that I’d never measure up
Befell me like a stomp putting a stop
To the wriggling of a wounded
Worm. This phase had ended.


I’ve looked up “overdetermined”
And it means what I thought: “Having more
Than one determining psychological factor.”
A word, then, that I’m right to find
Of use in retroflecting on my coming
Back to writing. There they are,
My reasons, all seeming
Principal as far
As memory can tell: my wanting to have
A project in life; to exercise
What I had to believe were capacities
Of mine; to leave,
With luck, some good behind . . . all running together
Into a river whose noteward flow
Was dammed; that would, for all I know,
Have broadened like many a thwarted other
Into a lake that lapped its shores
In peace, had it failed to find another course.


I didn’t recall this happening the last
Time I’d tried to write (but then
That hadn’t been for an age): my paring down
A morning’s page to a fraction of one at most
In the afternoon. Not many stories
Would ever get written at such a rate. Whereas
Such a rate just might
Suffice when it came to poetry.
(As motives go for getting into it
Can you think of a more prosaic one?)

It happened that a friend had recently
Been trying to turn me on
To Ashbery. Geez his poems were heavy weather—
I hadn’t yet learned better than
To think they’re mainly meant to mean—
But for want of knowing any other
Current stuff, I waxed Ashberian.
Tried, anyway. One specimen
Of how I did has stayed with me:

Christmas Day at Coney Island

Grey gulls, arrayed
on a duned instruction floor,
sighting the edge
to Point Particular
as, fixed at most provisionally,
a city puts to sea.

Is that Ashberian?
(I thought so then.)
Maybe a bit of a bow to the mystery
In him, though nothing approaching him as far
As his—what to call it—je ne sais quoi?
A question that’s moot
As matters turned out,
Since it wasn’t a month before
The arm of chance had steered me down
What couldn’t have been a more
Divergent path. Which is to say I’d run
Across a book by someone called Jarrell
On poets and poems. A godsend overall,
It was flat salvational in firing me
With the greatness of Whitman and Frost. Especially
Frost, whose work appealed more, perforce,
To the pattern lover at my core of cores.
I also loved his wit.
I’d never call it a fault,
But as far as being a wit-man, Walt
Wasn’t much for it.
If my preference for a less oracular
Sort made me a smaller soul, so be it.
(Ditto if it made me a smaller poet.)
You can’t be any larger than you are.


By a Pond

Upon some fallen cloud a cloud’s reflection
Is standing for a cloud. I’m standing by
Entrancedly (so goes a recollection).

Of what we know, there’s only one for knowing:
The sky in ricochet is still the sky,
It always has the latest weather showing—

Though moments prior, a sunny shower had proved
The other side of seeing once removed
(As if it needed any demonstration)

When sense suspected it was being mocked
In pond at once sun-spangled, shower-pocked,
And wavered in the face of transformation.

Imitating Frost
Was nothing I’d set out
To do, but post
Ingesting him per Jarrell, that’s what
I’d fallen into. At first
This felt forgivable. After all,
As Frostness goes, mine didn’t seem the worst
Oh, out with it: why not confess
That within my derivativeness
I saw a certain adequacy
To the man. Maybe poetry
Was a facture I had a knack for
For a change.

…..…..…..…..…..…..But just how far
Could Frostness get me? Especially
Since any extended run of it
Would have to rely
On a knowledge of the country.
My knowledge of which, Manhattanite
That I was, was rudimentary
At best. What really brought this home to me
Was a chat I had with a guy from someplace sticks-
Ish even for New Hampshire. He
Was telling me how when the locals there
Would snowmobile on frozen lakes
(Would what?) they’d steer well clear of anywhere
A creek came in. Apparently
A creek could run some even in mid-winter,
And its flowing in could thin the ice nearby
To where a Sno-Cat might fall through.
(The truly prudent would keep to near the center.)
Here was the sort of lore Frost knew—
One sees it giving rise
To one of those dark narratives of his—
And I didn’t begin to: a fatal deficiency
For a poet hoping to work the rural side
Of the stree—er, road.


From evening on, she’d had the bass alone
For company, abuzz, in her bedroom wall,
With veiled intimations of the rest:
Of lyrics, tunes—yet nothing manifest
Beyond the insinuating undertone
Of dawn-bent bacchanalia down the hall.
One couldn’t any longer call it late…
More cause for 15-C to be apprised
That 5:00 to 7:00 tossing and tantalized
Was nothing she would have to tolerate[ . . .]

This being city-set was probably
Why it didn’t sound like Frost:
A departure that came at the cost
Of its failing to sound
Like anyone (including what I’d
Hear as myself, in time). Yet stepping away
From something’s a stride of a kind. . . .

More city poems ensued—
Sayerless, whatever they might say—
And then they’d stopped ensuing.
Ideas for such kept coming—to all of which
My inner doer-upper of
Ideas said “Nothing doing.”
I’d entered a stretch
Of silence: a quietus long enough
To suggest that poetry had run
Its course in me in having just begun.
And yet this stretch meant not—please let this be—
A death but just a dormancy.

At length there came a day
When I found myself wanting to say
As much. As in aloud, as though to another.
Specifically, to my ever-doubting mother.
Though that would require giving her a call,
Always a borderline-advisable
Move. To tell it to
The page might also do
(The view to be expressed
Was one I simply wanted off my chest).
A thought no sooner had
Than I sensed that it could do some good
Where my poetry, or lack of it, was concerned.
Not that, just like that, a worm had turned,
But something told me this could be the day
When a will, long thwarted,
Had finally started
If not to have, at least to see its way.


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain.


Whereas I had a theme:
How a fallow stretch in my twenties
(Common in the apprentice)
Wasn’t a dying dream
But a moratorium,
To borrow Thoreau’s word
For a ripening required
If a harvest is to come.

A harvest now at hand,
I felt. Perhaps begun,
If words to reap it in
Had been at my command.
But these were what I lacked.
For all my hours of trying
To bring about some saying,
I couldn’t get untracked.

Door after door I pounded
On—to no avail.
This snippet gives a feel
For how the pounding sounded:

What it never was was indolence,
Not for an epoch all but given over
To idleness. [ . . .]

I see no need to dwell
On the troubles with this: a touch
Annunciative, too much
In elevation’s thrall . . .

Door after door, all shut.
Each more averse to budging
The harder I tried to bludgeon
The shutness out of it.
Till finally, having run
Short of energy
Even for standing, I
Fell through an open one:

Indolent I wouldn’t know because
I never was that, forget how
It ever looked. What I was was getting

Ready, and the getting’s over now.

Where did that come from?
Yet didn’t I know its note
From somewhere…? My own throat!
Nor has a single poem
I’ve managed since—at least
Not one of any worth—
But sounded it from birth.
(Examples on request.)

To think that the voice I’d found
Was mine, if less quite that
Than a kind of distillate,
And not precisely found . . .
More like authorized
As worthy of the art
By one who, for his part,
Couldn’t have been more surprised

If he’d woken up with wings.
Add that he’d prevailed
By a process that entailed
His really saying things
He really had, forget
Poetry, to say
(In, hence, his real way)
And we’ll call the thought complete.


Launched at last,
I would have bet. But not so fast:
The poem I’d pegged as next one up presented
An obstacle that couldn’t be surmounted.

It was going to be about how as a little kid
I’d acquired a competence at “feeling
Death,” as I’d taken to calling
This thing I did. How oftentimes in bed
I’d attempt some auto-suggestion, as in You’re
Nothing, like you were not just before
You were born but before George Washington was born,
Or even (to give this screw the furthest turn
I could) Columbus was: a way
Of helping myself conceive what I still
Found only shakily conceivable.
This worked, it’s fair to say.
A moppet getting the chair
Couldn’t have jerked more
Strongly than I jerked as the juice of
Getting it surged through me:
A jolt that would imbue and reimbue me
With a sense of death dead opposite of delusive.
(“Nothing more true,” in the words of the hands-down best
At giving this sense expression.) All
I had for recourse was the beating of a fist
On a bedroom wall.

So then: a thing to say and a voice
To say it in. Equipped with these
Essentials, I prepared to versify—
And stalled in the preparation. This
Was in itself no major cause
For concern: there was always another idea to try
To realize—except that in this case
There wasn’t. All there seemed to be
Was a need to do
Such justice as I was able to
To my grasp of death’s on me;
A need so huge that I didn’t feel
Free to turn to another poem until
I’d put this one to bed. Unfortunate
That the poem I felt obliged to write
Was one I couldn’t even start.
Only after several months (and a heart-
To-heart with myself) was I able to see
What was preventing me
From picking up my pen:
My having—I wouldn’t have said outgrown
My dread of death, and yet grown somewhat
Out of it: enough that, primed to write
A poem on “feeling death,” I couldn’t begin it.
As one might half expect
Of a heart not wholly in it.

So for a couple of years I’d been when a way
Of breaking through the block occurred to me.
(“Going around it” would be
A truer thing to say.)
If my dread of death had waned to the extent
That I couldn’t even start
To write about it, why not write about
That (the waning)? Reorient
Things so and you had an aim my heart
Could get behind. And did, as things turned out:


When I think about how
We deal with our mortality
I think about a sense in which it’s like we
Deal with an injury.

About how, on first
Comprehending the ultimate
Hurt, we harrow it more nights than not:
This at the behest of that

Cave-old, even
Ocean-old imperative
To reckon at its maximally grave
Any injury we have.

How, years having passed,
We find ourselves assessing it
Far less frequently, and more by rote
Than necessity: our purpose not

To sound the wound so much as
To remind ourselves it’s still there.
How one day we’re suddenly aware
Of its no longer being there.


On my way
For real now, with only a delay
Of another couple of years: a period
During which whatever time I had
To write was largely given over
To chasing the fever dream we call a lover.
(The urgency I saw in this pursuit
Made diving into poetry
A plunge that had, for living’s sake, to wait.)
In time, and all improbability,
I landed a lights-out beauty who would prove
To be, besides your truer sort of love,
The truest friend
My poems have ever—will have ever—had.
(In being, among much else, the editor
On whom I most depend.
It’s the odd
Try of mine that’s not the better for
Its spell beneath her narrowed eyes
And magic hand.) That she’s the she
With whom the present poem began won’t be
A huge surprise
To anyone who knows the rounded ways
Of tales. As this one nears its close,
It’s now or never per
My thanking her—
Or rather, Alice, thanking you—for all
You’ve done to make my making possible.


Finally free to come,
They came, some poems: not in a burst—
Writing was the same
Slow go it had been from the first—
But as products of the steady occupation
Poetry had always figured as
In my imagination.

The road to this
Arrival, moreover, long as it was,
Had left me ahead of the game
In its very lengthiness.
Sure I’ll explain. The quests, for poem and femme
That had brought my productivity
To all but a halt for a number of years
Hadn’t stopped my having poem ideas.
Though next to none were being executed,
What seemed the better ones were being jotted
Down in a little list.
Which grew, as silent seasons passed,
Into a bigger one. To the point where, when
I’d gotten to writing poems again,
A heap of seeds was there to start
Them from. The real beauty part?
That even as I drew down this store
I continued adding to it. This, what’s more,
At a rate that saw the accretion
Offsetting the depletion.
Which made the store a greater good
In that it stood
To stand as undiminished,
At least while it was being replenished.

How long did that turn out to be?
I’d say “in perpetuity,”
But it’s a little soon for that.
My generative epoch could
Of course expire on me yet —
But so far hasn’t, knock on wood.
I lift my gaze and high in the blue
Some flights of mind I’ve come into
(By grace of—why not go with God?)
Are ever circling overhead.
Manning a landing tower, I’ve but
To talk one down—admittedly
A dicey exercise—and see
Just what, if anything, we’ve got.