Learning to Fly

“The Road Not Taken” ~ Robert Frost, 1915

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Learning to Fly–Tom Petty

All good things must come to an end…

Early last January, I found myself with eight other grad students waiting for Frank X. Walker to introduce himself to his Advanced Poetry class. Within a few minutes, I found myself wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into.

“This is a graduate-level poetry class. I assume you’re all advanced poets, and I expect nothing short of your best writing.”


Before this semester, I had never written poetry, except for the occasionally dabbling in creative writing I fancied as pseudo-poetry. For our first assignment, Prof. Walker asked us to gather together ten pages of our best poems so he could use them as a before class/after class gauge of our poetry-writing skills.  So I pored over blog entries and equivalated the homework from my creative non-fiction writing.

The next week, eight of us (one apparently dropped the class) presented our poems to our professor, tasked with choosing one to read aloud, along with a reading of our favorite poem. (Mine was a transcription of  Alvin Lau’s Full Moon. “Usually,” Frank said, “people choose poets who are similar to them. You? You broke that mold today.”)

For the next several weeks, we were taught about various poetic forms and charged with writing one of our own (hence the reason this blog has become a temporary home for experimental poetry).  Personification. Mirror/Imitation. Double-Jointed and/or Hinge. Historical. Haiku. Recipe. ‘Where I’m From.”  We also had to choose poetry books from our instructor’s expansive library and review/present them to the class, books that had nothing in common with who we are or what we write.

But the meat of any creative writing class is the workshop aspect of it. You either love it or hate it.  There’s nothing quite like the experience of presenting what you consider to be your very best creative writing, only to have it politely ripped to shreds by your peers. Artists understand constructive critiquing of their craft is a necessary evil and ultimately a Good Thing.  Alternating with wanting to run right out of that class is knowing you will become a better writer for this experience.

And then it happens–it always does–this subtle shift in the air of the classroom experience. You notice, hey, this guy’s not the asshole I thought he was, and, wow, she’s really just trying to be helpful. And everyone around you seems to be noticing the same thing, and out the door goes hurt feelings and rejection, replaced by camaraderie, collegiality and friendship.

And respect.

Knee-deep in revisions, I only have one more poem to write and a final workshop. Our “final” for this class is an essay detailing everything we have learned from reading the aforementioned poetry books. I’ve learned more than enough to fill the requisite six pages, yet my mind wanders more toward what I’ve learned from this professor and this particular group of seven other students.

Because of them, I am a better writer.

I was reminded of the utility of the craft last weekend while watching a skateboard competition on TV with my son. “It looks so easy, but I know it’s not.” And that is the crux of good writing, economy of words on a page carefully crafted with just the right words, expressing just the right sentiment. Only the writer knows how many hours and revisions it takes to find the perfect word combination to express and share thoughts and musings.

This semester is almost behind us. I would love to take another class from Prof. Walker but, alas, that is probably not to be. A rising star, he will find success wherever he lands, but our university will have lost one of its finest writer/teachers, and English students here will miss out on a rare opportunity to learn from one of the best. 

Write on, Frank, and Muhammad and CB and Amber and Tanya and Ryan and Kelley and Mary Anne. I know I will.

An Ounce of Prevention (Salk’s Miracle)

I could have prevented the epidemic.

Now everyone knows someone

or knows someone who knows someone

who knows the loss of limbs or lungs.

I’ve never met those beneath sterile sheets

attended to by white-capped nurses

in beds adjacent to large rooms crowded

with angled missiles that power breath and life.

Parents gather around over-polished Zenith TVs

to watch Walter Cronkite report on crippled

legs and withering arms pushed in wheelchairs

by teens in their loafers and horn-rimmed glasses.

They’ve been awake for hours, waiting to meet me,

these parents who revere the miracle in hushed voices

in lines that wind around this research hospital.

I see it in their faces: worry, a prayer, a hint of relief.

Nurses jam needles into fleshy, upper arms,

releasing me into biceps and axillary arteries,

creating scabs that will fall off and leave wrinkled scars,

flesh-colored tattoos memorializing Dr. Salk and me.

Polio vaccination line

Polio vaccination line

Coffin Nails (10/10/35 – 5/4/04)

(a villanelle)

I step ouside and smoke a cigarette.

Your death’s the final verdict. I’m afraid,
and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I’d quit smoking last winter, but fuck it.
Addiction–no match for this bed God made.
I step outside and smoke a cigarette.
I thought your stroke punished you enough yet
your basal cells made other plans. I caved,
and there’s nothing you can do about it.
No one can save you now. All that is left
are comfort measures from nurses’ aides.
I step outside and smoke a cigarette,
trying not to wallow in fear, regret.
You, my mama, will soon begin to fade,
and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“See you tomorow.” I find the exit
door–I can’t wait to end this all’s-well charade.
I step outside and smoke a cigarette,
and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Dora Salk’s Lament (NYC, 1916)

[During the summer of 1916, infantile paralysis--or polio--raged through New York, home to Jonas Salk, announcing its arrival in several homes where one morning, for no apparent reason, children awoke paralyzed. Befuddled city health officials blamed the outbreak on their usual suspects, immigrants, whose communities were overcrowded and assumed to be filthy.  The epidemic began in Brooklyn, where 9,000 cases emerged, resulting in 2,343 deaths. Before the summer's end, polio had traveled nationwide, attacking a total of 27,000, mostly children, and killing more than 6,000.]

While Jonas naps, I sweep the sidewalk

and watch for the goyim in fancy black cars

who prowl the boroughs looking for a sick Jew

to ship off to Swinburne Island for confinement.

Anyone here got a fever?

they ask.

I’d like to give them a fever,

God forbid.

Paralysis of the morning, they call it.

We call it the Summer Plague.

You wake up the children for matzo-bry

except today, they can’t get out of bed.

Daniel, I says, take off your shoes

before you come into this house.

Dora, he says, a little bit of shmutz

never hurt anyone.

But how would my husband know that?

No one knows anything, except the fear

that drives sane men to bludgeon stray cats,

then drown them–seventy thousand last week–

and purify city streets with a ceremonial cleansing,

four million gallons of soap and water every day, I hear–

and mothers to fill nasal syringes with saltwater

and jam it up our children’s noses.

In the evening, I feel Jonas’s forehead one last time—

still cool, thank God—

while he sits on my lap, fighting sleep

as we rock to the lullaby my mother sang to me:

Sleep, my child, my comfort, my beauty,
Sleep, my darling one,
Sleep, my life, my only kaddish, lulinke lu-lu

Sleep, my life, my only kaddish, lulinke lu-lu

By your cradle sits your mama,
Sings a song and weeps,
You’ll understand some day perhaps
What is on her mind

then I place him in his crib,

so smart for his age,

and I count off the days left of this lousy summer,

count off the days till the morning frost of October.

And I kiss his little cheek, still cool.

Thank God.

Nigerian Independence Day (a tale of two African postcards)

Cast in metal, carved in stone–
fear painted on a cotton cloth–
he seeks comfort in his mother’s arms
amid swords and soldiers, a death on a cross.
His eyes find a window where
an Igbo child waves then performs
cartwheels and acrobatics choreographed
to the groove of an udu and an ogene.
Mom, he says, mind if I play with him?
Go ahead, she says, you need a break.
But don’t make us have to search for you again.
Then he jumps out of her arms and runs away.


Tears for Jkay

Candles light again.
Virtual flames burn brightly.
Our Jkay is gone.
The puns, the laughter
We will never be the same.
Our Jkay is gone.
Go on now and rest.
Kisses for Jack-the-Juggler.
Our Jkay is gone.
Hours   minutes   days
you’ll find yourself in our hearts.
Our Jkay is gone.
Tonight, toward heaven
I will raise a toast to you.
My friend may be gone…
But you will live on.
As long as there are puns, breath.
You’ll live on in love.

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