My First Double Dactyls

In the past, I have posted about double dactyls here and here.

In 1966, or 1967, When Hecht and Hollander published their book of Double Dactyls, Esquire magazine held a competition where readers could submit their own double dactyls.   I wrote the three that follow, but I didn’t have the courage to submit them.

Jiggery-Pokery!
Wilt-the-Stilt Chamberlain
In real life is really
About five foot two.
He dunks ’em because of his
Superplasticity,
So eat all your spinach,
It could happen to you.

Higgledy-Piggledy!
Romeo Montague
Parting with Juliet
Did, in a word,
Call it “sweet sorrow” so
Oximoronicly,
Thunderous silence was
All that was heard.

Higgledy-Piggledy!
Andrès Segovia
Told a young student
To pick out a tune.
After a bar, he cried:
“Misericordia!
“And Madre de Dios!”,
I should play the bassoon!”

 

NOTES:

Wilt Chanberlain (known as “Wilt the Stilt”) was the greatest basketball player of that (and probably any) era.
Andrès Segovia was a famous Spanish classical guitarist.
Superplasticity means extraordinary ability to stretch.
Misericordia is the Latin for Mercy.

 

 

 

Is Your Mother Home?

In 1952, my family moved to the upper floor of a house at 1412 North St in Beaumont, Texas. As was common in Gulf Coast homes of the period, the house had ceiling fans in every room (except the bathroom), and a screened-in sleeping porch at the front. My four-year-old sister and I were given beds at either end of porch, and our parents had a bedroom at the back. It wasn’t much, but it was all a Professor of Mathematics with a family could afford in those days.  Almost every night, after my sister was asleep, and I was tucked in for the night, my mother used to come, and sit on my bed, and sing to me.

Her singing set off a complicated set of reactions in me. I liked the attention, but even as a child I could tell there was something wrong. Part of it was that she couldn’t carry a tune, but there was something else, an odd sensation that she was not really in the same room as me.It was many years before I realized that she was drunk.

My mother was many things: a talented actress who could command an audience even in minor roles, a splendid card player who was also the best chess player in our family, and a hopeless alcoholic who gave herself over completely to the bottle as she entered middle age. The following poem is about this last aspect of her character, but my memories of her better side linger as well.

 

“Is your Mother home?”−
I want to please -− always, always.
So I agree to look.

My Mother’s bedroom door is open wide;
From the hallway,
I see her asleep upon her bed,
Her hair and clothes in disarray.

I step inside and glance around –
An ashtray with a butt still smoldering,
Empty wine bottles lined up neatly on the bedside table,
An alarm clock ticking mercilessly.

I sigh, and breathe the smoke-stale air.
Outside, a branch scrapes against her window.
I find it comforting.

For a while, I listen to her gentle snores.
Then I return to my Mother’s bridge class−
Four bewildered women
Standing by the oil stains in the carport.

“She’s not feeling well,” I tell them with a grunt,
And close the door firmly, to their dismay.

I am only fourteen;
They will forgive me.

On The Satisfactions Of Verse

My late wife used to describe me as a combination of a poet and an engineer.   She was right.  Sometimes, for me, the sense of having created art is the primary motivation; and sometimes, the process of writing a poem has its own rewards; its own satisfactions; its own frustrations.

For example, I imagined the following little verse as a story poem — the protagonist visits his aged parents in order to convince them to move to some sort of care facility.   At the time I wrote the first version, some years ago, i created a rough draft, divided into stanzas  that told the basic story.   Then I added a new challenge — a complicated rhyme scheme.  I added the complication for two reasons, one good and one bad.  The good reason was that I felt that by making the rhyme scheme complicated I would disguise the fact that the rhymes existed — always my ideal when i was using rhymed verse to convey an idea, a message, or a strong emotion.  The bad reason was that, as often happens to me, the technical challenge got in the way of the story I was trying to tell, and I ended up with a satisfying rhyme scheme, but a muddied story.

The version that follows is the usual compromise; the story I was trying to tell is much clearer, but I had to give up some of my favorite lines., and the rhyme scheme is simpler and more obvious.

Tired and frail, the old house stood,
With termites eating at the wood.
I walked through the door.

Too well I remember my sense of despair
On seeing them still living there,
Bereft, bewildered, and ignored.
I had come to ask them to move out,
The proper thing to do, no doubt.
Did I want to succeed?

I sat, and listened to the past.
Agreed, that it had past too fast
— My obligatory deed.

Age resembles poverty —
A kind of blameless misery
Insufficiently deplored.

Because my aged parents couldn’t cope,
My talk of care homes gave them hope.
They walked through the door.

 

Death Looms

Several years ago, I became interested in the cinquain, a deceptively simple verse form invented (or, rather refined) around a hundred years ago by a poet who died too young.  The poet’s name was Adelaide Crapsey, and part of my interest was simply that my mother’s name was Adelaide, and I’d never known a poet by that name.

The talented Ms. Crapsey was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain at the age of 32, and died a few years later.  All of her later work is focused on the idea of approaching death. The following cinquain, to which I have given a title in the Crapsey manner, was written in her honor:

ACCEPTANCE

Death looms.
Once, I cowered.
Now, I give anxiety
Another name; I turn my head
And wait.

My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.

 

MY FATHER’S FACE

My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.

Vietnam and Iraq

In 1966, I thought my life was over.  I had just graduated from college with a degree in a subject I wasn’t interested in — Chemistry, and had determined that I wasn’t going to go to graduate school, at least not yet.  I was caught in what seemed to me an unresolvable moral dilemma; on the one hand, I thought the Vietnam War was obscene and unsupportable; on the other hand,  I thought I had a moral obligation to serve my country—a feeling that was surprisingly strong.  Unsurprisingly, considering how immature I was, I drifted.   I went through two draft interviews in Texas, and was able to hold things off by asserting my right to be inducted  in my home state of California.   At the same time, I was going through what an earlier age would have described as a nervous breakdown, and I had not one, but two letters from physicians attesting to the problem.  When I went through the draft process in Texas, no one bothered to look at the letters; when I got to the Oakland induction center in 1966, miraculously, someone read them.

My Vietnam experience stayed with me, and when it became clear that the Bush administration was going to do something even more stupid, I wrote several poems; this is one of them.

A Thought on the Eve of Destruction – 2003

I remember my induction;
I remember sitting there
Listening to the oath of duty,
Listening to the oath of death.

Through the glass, I saw the others,
Through the glass, I heard them pledge,
And I thought: “I’m not a killer.”
And I thought: “I will be killed.”

And as the door began to open,
I felt a hand upon my back,
It was the doctor, come to tell me:
“You’re not fit to go to war.”

Now we find that we are heading
Into another deep morass,
Blindly stumbling, deaf to reason,
Led like lemmings to the fight.

And as the door to this new battle
Begins to open, ever wide
Where is the doctor come to tell us
We’re not fit to go to war?