April: my birthday month: the 19th. I tell you this not to elicit congratulations or condolences (61!), nor to observe the tragic events which lately have plagued this star-crossed date: Waco and the Oklahoma City bombings. Terrifying, incomprehensible. Yet: one recalls Braudel’s observation: “Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.” And so these great catastrophes, and great they were, pass by me like those fireflies on my birthday now; neither managing to silence much less dislodge from its perch the ratty little songbird that trills each new year, ensconced in its perpetual cage of 1967, when at 13 I smoked my first joint and drank my first beer in the woods near my home in Louisville, Kentucky.
I say “woods” but of course, in a city, even one as pint–sized and southern as Louisville, that is a relative term. Indeed, these woods amounted to little more than a half a dozen un-developed acres a few blocks from my house. Still, it was here that, like the confluence of two great rivers, my childhood and adult life commingled as never before or since. Here, or more specifically, the fort – again a term of art, whose definition was fluid – referring sometimes to readymade structures – large drain pipes and abandoned packing crates – and sometimes to those of our construction – treehouses, tunnels, and the like. This fort in the woods belonged to the second category. It was a tar paper shack, really, the sort that would not have been out of place in one of Mr. Evans’ photographs. Perhaps 8’ x 10’ x 8’ with a trap door cut into the first floor’s ceiling that led to a truncated second chamber, whose image I recognized immediately in Being John Malkovich. All of the fort’s constituent parts, from 2 x 4’s and plywood sheets, to nails of all sizes and the hammers used to drive them, to remnants of shag carpeting and even an intercom system, were stolen from the new-home construction sites that bounded the woods and would soon encroach upon and finally obliterate them.
And what did we do there? Not much, until that birthday – and even that was largely symbolic: if it hadn’t been for the good fortune of an open garage door and its case of Schlitz left unattended by its owner, and the generosity of Mike R.’s older brother, who left also unattended on his dresser drawer a dime bag of Kentucky’s finest (a derisory moniker even then) nothing would have transpired that wouldn’t have transpired in a week or a month, anyway. But that, of course, is the stuff of fact: indeed it might have been around that time, but in memory, it is always my birthday. The point is, it happened, and happened at the fort, which was like all such habitats defined not by its form but its day-to-day function, by nature vestibular, an intersection at which to pause, a place of shadows not entirely one place or the other, where slowly we became what we were not yet but shortly would be. A place where for a little while we might shed our shells in relative safety, and the preoccupations of our childish selves – candy, baseball, bicycles, cartoons – coexisted not-unnaturally with the more complicated circumstances of teenage-dom. In practice, this meant many things – one afternoon that casual appropriation of building supplies (hovering, appropriately, in monetary value between petty theft and grand larceny) in the midst of which an earnest debate erupted regarding the relative powers of Two-Face and Mr. Freeze; the high-enhancing property of Kool cigarettes versus the superiority of grape to any other color of Kool-Aid; the smiling visage of Alfred E. Neuman beside a Playboy centerfold.
But what of that birthday? Honestly, I don’t remember much. A burning in my throat, quenched by fire: the acrid malt of that (warm) beer. A slight discombobulation and then a great big one. Nausea. Whoops of laughter, some queasily manufactured, evidential; some more real than I had ever experienced, body-shaking to the point of exhaustion and fear they might never subside. Heart-pounding paranoia at the passing paw-steps of a dog, and feelings invincible: which girls’ bras we would expertly defuse, what cars roll silently from which parents’ driveway, what cleverly encrypted graffiti we would spray-paint on the walls of Grant’s. A game of Tonk. Funyons, Slim Jims. The immense shudder of night’s mystery as we exited into the evening air, cooler now, and the strobing of the streetlamps on Eleanor Avenue. Spearmint gum for my breath. Home. Where my family awaited, with bigger fish to fry (my siblings’ illnesses) and so unconcerned about my previous whereabouts. Did I race to my bedroom, or in a magician’s feat of misdirection stoop to casually pet the cat? I don’t know; I do know I wasn’t caught. Perhaps there was even a cake and candles I blew out and presents I opened gamely, though apparently they have been left on the editing room floor.
Still, I felt something had transpired that would not be undone: or rather feel, now, that something had transpired, yet so stealthily I might not have noticed then. To take Billy Collins’ famous lines from “Tipping Point”
Like the sensation you might feel
as you passed through the moment
At the exact center of your life
or as you crossed the equator at night in a boat.
And so we come to our secret poem this month, towards which this brief reminiscence has pointed. A poem by Mark Jarman that gets at what I mean, aslant – he, or rather his narrator, at age 16, three years older, and his poem widening into an everything I have not remembered here, and so poorly! — transfigured into an exquisite mediation on surfing, joy, and death – a poem about when and where in the inextricable knot of place and age, things begin, for many of us, in earnest.
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen,
Going on sixteen, like a corny song?
I see myself so clearly then, and painfully–
Knees bleeding through my usher’s uniform
Behind the candy counter in the theater
After a morning’s surfing; paddling frantically
To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,
Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor’s
Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.
Is that all I have to write about?
You write about the life that’s vividest.
And if that is your own, that is your subject.
And if the years before and after sixteen
Are colorless as salt and taste like sand–
Return to those remembered chilly mornings,
The light spreading like a great skin on the water,
And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges,
And–what was it exactly?–that slow waiting
When, to invigorate yourself, you peed
Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth
Crawl all around your hips and thighs,
And the first set rolled in and the water level
Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck
The water surface like a brassy palm,
Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed.
Yes. But that was a summer so removed
In time, so specially peculiar to my life,
Why would I want to write about it again?
There was a day or two when, paddling out,
An older boy who had just graduated
And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus,
Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water,
And said my name. I was so much younger,
To be identified by one like him–
The easy deference of a kind of god
Who also went to church where I did–made me
Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed.
He soon was a small figure crossing waves,
The shawling crest surrounding him with spray,
Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name
Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise
To notice me among those trying the big waves
Of the morning break. His name is carved now
On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave
That grievers cross to find a name or names.
I knew him as I say I knew him, then,
Which wasn’t very well. My father preached
His funeral. He came home in a bag
That may have mixed in pieces of his squad.
Yes, I can write about a lot of things
Besides the summer that I turned sixteen.
But that’s my ground swell. I must start
Where things began to happen and I knew it.
Mark Jarman, From Questions for Ecclesiastes, Story Line Press, 1997.
Or as I say didn’t know it, or sort of knew it, as the case might have been.
And so to business, scant this month, as I write before leaving for AWP, hoping that my anxieties – people, small talk, public speaking, people – are not realized quite so vividly as I imagine them. But, honestly, I do look forward to meeting many of you, poets and readers, who have been so kind to Plume, to me, over these last almost four years. You who have, most of you, remained incorporeal figures represented solely by your emails and submissions, sprung to life in the best version of yourselves, which is the one I carry in my mind, of course,
I urge you, too, to subscribe (as almost a thousand of you have) to our Newsletter – brief, with a monthly link to each new issue. But, more important, where you will discover our other “secret poem,” introduced of late in a new feature by an evolving list of emcees. This month: Dore Kiesselbach ushers in with cogent commentary Stuart Friebert’s poem “Submarine.” Next up, Marc Vincenz, with a poem as yet unselected. ( If this task appeals to you — if you have a poem you wish to present – please, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org )
And, this, filed under “bears repeating”: We’ve made a small change to the anthology, moving from the year designation to simply a number, in the upcoming case “3”. Something, I am told, to do with the advantages of securing an SPD number. And, I can tell, immodestly, it is going to be…something: living up to our Mission Statement’s (so audacious in in its pre-first issue conception!) promise to publish “the best work by the best poets working today, nationally and internationally.” E.g. Shamsad Abdulloev, translated by Alex Cigale; Kim Addonizio; Kelli Russell Adagon; Sandra Alcosser; Meena Alexander; Kazim Ali; Kelle Groom; Ralph Angel; Rae Armantrout…and, obviously, that’s just the A’s. Copies will be available at AWP and thereafter through Madhat/Evolution Arts, Amazon, etc.
A sneak peak at the continually evolving, but very close to the final, cover:
Next up, after this issue’s Featured Selection, a round of “Orgasm” poems from Nin Andrews with a splendid introductory interview (that looks like way too much fun to be enlightening, except it is both) with the author by Plume’s Nancy Mitchell, Associate Editor for Special Projects, look for extended work of Gennady Aygi and the great Russian Tatar painter Igor Vulokh, also in collaboration; a revelatory essay on revision by Carol Moldaw; and portfolios of poems by Kelle Groom, Linda Pastan, and Chris Kennedy. (Here, too, again, let me add as always: those with projects that might be suitable for the Featured Selection please do contact us with your proposal at email@example.com ).
Our cover art this month is from Eleanor Leonne Bennett, an internationally award winning photographer and visual artist. She is the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of The Year 2013 and has also won first places with National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography and The National Trust to name but a few. Eleanor’s photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, The British Journal of Psychiatry, Life Force Magazine, British Vogue and as the cover of books and magazines extensively throughout the world. Her art is globally exhibited, having shown work in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Washington, Canada, Spain, Japan and Australia among many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run “See The Bigger Picture” global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010. In 2012 her work received coverage on ABC Television. Her website is www.eleanorleonnebennett.com
Finally, New Work Received this month includes pieces from Jürgen Becker, translated by Okla Elliott; Philip Metres; Paul Nemser; Peter Leight; Suzanne Lummis; Brian Swann; Elaine Equi; Lloyd Schwartz; Sydney Lea; Margo Berdeshevsky; Jerome Sala, and others.
As always, I do hope you enjoy the issue!