NOTE: Dick Allen and I were close friends for many years. In 1981 we met with Frederick Turner at the Minetta Tavern where we began to develop the principles of the movement Wade Newman named Expansive Poetry. Later it became known as Expansive Poetry: The New Formalism and The New Narrative, opening poetry up again to all genres, especially in meter and rhyme. The three of us brought others like Dana Gioia, Molly Peacock and Timothy Steele into the larger movement. I collected some of our best essays, including a fine one by Dick -- "The Forest For The Trees: Preliminary Thoughts On Evaluating The Long Poem" -- into an anthology that Story Line Press published in 1989. What follows now is "Celebrating," a long poem I wrote to Dick about our 45th birthdays which we celebrated on the Lower East Side where I come from and Dick's Thrushwood Lake. It's been written about but no one has noticed that the content -- the difference between our backgrounds which might have separated us -- is counterpointed
by the style which put us together: the rhymes of Part 1 are repeated in Part 2.
to Dick Allen
To celebrate your turning forty-five,
We toured my past where you had never been:
The 1950's Lower East Side, alive
With second generation Jews,
Poles, Ukranians (like your wife Lori);
Each block a town, with flower boxes, clean,
Where you could cure pathology with art,
Where I first met my comic, street-wise Muse,
Playing the violin for a gang that jumped me.
I took her to my roof that summer night
And, while the city snored, she kissed and hugged me
And talked in double stops and won my heart.
Thus at Ratner's I began a history
While ordering a travelogue of food:
Cheese and blueberry blintzes, eggs, onions and lox,
Kasha varnishkes, borscht, mushroom and barley soup
-- Enough to keep off thought of our mortality,
As they kept me from scratching chicken pox.
The waiter, looking like his Jewish mother,
Eyes a traffic cop's, held up his hand and smirked:
"Tell me, do you want your coffee perked,
Or just the beans with a side of boiling water?"
"I used to be the kid who fucked your daughter."
"I never had a daughter ... What else?"
So I explained to you our being rude
Was just a tribute to our tenements, throngs
Jostling through pushcarts, haranguing on and on
About the union, poems of Glatstein, Schwartz,
Itinerant knife-sharpeners singing ghetto songs,
Gypsy musicians, horses wearing flowers,
Relics among the cars -- as I am old
Among my memories ... Where have they gone,
Those intricately lived-in hours?
Avenue A has tiny pieces of quartz
Or mica in its concrete slabs. "We're flush!"
I joked as the sun struck immigrant gold.
But then I saw the rubble in the park
Where I would practice jump shot way past dark
And once outscored Russ Cunningham. "Who he?"
You asked, knowing if you asked that seriously,
We'd both be pained. "Like What's-his-name, the star
Of your unchanging Adirondack town."
Like some rejected lover trying to revive
Memories more for comfort than for passion's sake,
I called the ghost of Garfein's restaurant
From behind its boards. This was where plush
Weddings and bar mitzvahs enthralled the slums
Surrounding it -- with spreads of caviar,
Scotch salmon, Beluga sturgeon, where
My parents' generation foxtrotted, gallant,
Till after cake and coffee clasping hands,
Stamped the hora to Victor Goldring's band's
Alto and tenor saxophones and drums:
The notes now simply molecules of air,
As indistinctive as my mother's kiss.
You grinned, considered the lengthening ash
Of your cigarette, then flicked it in the trash
Heaped in front of Garfein's. "I can't reminisce
Like you, being a self-denying mystic
Whose life -- and yours -- are parentheses
In Time, yours maybe more extravagant
With all your Lower East Side tumult, these
Boarded up Kosher catering halls,
These discount stores."
"No, they were elegant.
You see the decorations on these walls,
That fortress of a building up ahead?
We lived there on the fourth floor." "Who's that, Fred?"
"Frieda Goldring. Victor's wife," I said.
"God!" A face, drooped from stroke that once was tough.
"Remember me?" I asked.
"I've had enough,"
She said, "of the indignities of age.
But I remember you on Victor's stage
At twelve with such a passion to create
With your fiddle only for the music's sake.
Do you still play?" We both looked in the void
Where memory, then effort crumbles. "I hate
To say I don't. But I write poems."
"Promise me, make
One of this place, one that can't destroyed."
To celebrate my turning forty-five,
We slowly circled Thrushwood Lake, the scene
Of poems I knew by heart, but now alive
With your reciting --urgent mystical news
You divined from an ordinary story
Of a muskrat, willow, and a doctor lean-
Ing with his violin to finger Mozart,
While you were swimming sidestroke with your Muse
Of science fiction and philosophy.
You told me details of your soul's dark night
That you transformed into an allegory
About the future of the Sacred Heart.
These were the birthday gifts you gave to me
As we meandered through the willow wood,
Cautioning each other over icy rocks
Till in a clearing, halved our age to scoop
Snowballs we smacked against a dying tree.
I broke a branch and traced a batter's box
And challenged, "Try to throw one past me, brother."
You kicked back, then exaggeratedly smirked
As I mocked-tipped into the freezing water.
"You know an aging poet gives no quarter!
You'll write carping confessions now -- or else!"
"Oh? I will pin your ears, Decrepitude.
You'll write in academic free verse, little songs
Of life-long adolescent carryings-on,
Of hippie days in Oriental ports
Where you sold drugs, draped girlfriends in sarongs
(Their Middle Western braids done up in flowers),
All Yuppies now, perfectly self-controlled,
Ironically recalling days long gone
Only when crocked, only at Happy Hours."
But then you gave the best of all retorts,
"People Through The Train Window ... born to rush
Out on the earth and die." You sang of "old
Gravestones, mystic restaurants, familial dark,"
As if we were standing at the opened ark
And davning for Frieda's spirit. She
Was laid to rest with Victor silently
Only the night before (wasn't that bizarre?")
In New Montefiore, what's now my small hometown,
A violent place where nothing can survive
Except, as Frieda said, the poems we make.
But if our efforts aren't permanent,
If they are crumpled into that great hush
With Jim Croce's voice and Goldring's drums,
Among the molecules of Garfein's caviar,
Then what? You squeezed the freezing air
And cried, "Oh, seize the day," exuberant
That you possessed this winter in your hands,
As if to say, "A mystic understands
What you couldn't notice in your busy slums."
But what about what Frieda made me swear?
When Time clicks shut its black parenthesis
Around Allen, Dick 1939 dash,
Will all our poems disintegrate to ash,
Even your masterpieces, even this
Passage I am writing now? Tell me, Dick,
Will everything be gone, your cry to seize
The day, this, that, that mystic restaurant
With all the Catholics, Muslims on their knees,
With Cohens pleading in their prayer shawls,
With Hari Krishnas madly jubilant,
With widowed Sufis shrieking caterwauls,
With all your dreams of histories ahead?
Will nothing keep of this poor Dick and Fred
Even the echoes of the lines you said,
"Can we imagine that? All dead, all dead,
All of us dead who never lived enough?"
Oh no, dear friend, though sensitive we're tough
And as we have survived our crazy age,
We'll talk forever, this page with your page.
And so we nattered on to celebrate
My 45th, circling Thrushwood Lake
To find our families still alive, annoyed
We took so long, that we had made them wait
For me to wish upon my birthday cake:
Once upon a time, we were overjoyed.
-from New & Selected Poems
© 2018 Frederick Feirstein
Editor's Note: If this poem(s) moves you please consider writing to the author (email address above) to tell him or her. You might say what it is about the poem that moves you. Writing to the author is the beginning of community at Verse Virtual. It is very important. -FF