Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lucky Life

Lucky life isn't one long string of horrors and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows. -- Gerald Stern

On days when I have nothing, I hold the yellow pad in my lap and look out the window and remember days up the upstairs classroom in Morgan Hall with Bad Gerry. We called him that behind his back because, in the mid 1980s, the word "bad" meant great, and because he made you feel that poetry, while written by devoted madmen channeling God through quirky filters of discipline and learning, was accessible to all of us.

And Stern tempered his rage at Reaganism and its echoes of McCarthy with a heart that bled like a great viola. In the late afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Stern--bad sciatica and all--would lie on the classroom floor and read Howl aloud. He wore glasses with soda bottle lenses and with his thick lips was often mistaken for Allen Ginsberg. When I later met Ginsberg, I saw there was no true resemblance. For Ginsberg's was the syncopated flurry of Coltrane, a cool hipster rap sung in crowded bookstore reading rooms thick with tobacco smoke and a counterpoint of cheap Mexican weed. Bad Gerry was sung to Vivaldi played on a sturdy hi-fi set as you gazed out a dormer window across the Monongahela River where black sparrows alit like a puff of factory smoke in a tree laid nude by winter.

Big-Head Tom, Devens, Chilly Willy and Dr. Z (of the spider-wife-nerve disorder) would fill our overcoats with cans of Dixie Beer and walk across the quad to appease the writing faculty whenever poets came to town. You went through the darkened first floor of the natural science building, past fossils and dioramas of nocturnal riverbank critters, up the marbled stairway to the room reserved for the reading.

If you sat in the back of the hall, you could sneak sips off the beer between poems. Poets would often spend more time weaving a listless tale about the poem (Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so!) than it ever took to read it. Or you'd get the personal poet who used their finger to trace the meter of the poem as they read aloud, assuming you either lacked auric acuity or that you had a secret love of mimes.

One night Phil Levine raised his water glass in homage to the tire plant that spread its stink across the Black Warrior River. "Good year," he proclaimed after taking a sip.

Afterward, we'd retire to a student's apartment or faculty house where the reception coursed on the heavy tide of whiskey as we watched the visiting writer finesse a student to bed. If we made fun of the poet on Friday nights, the sing-song rendition, the absolute fawning over a well-honed article, we drew ourselves up with genuine glee when Bad Gerry's class reconvened the following week.

Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Poland and studied in Paris in the early 50s. If there were honors in the craft--the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lamont Prize--he certainly snagged them. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. But in our upstairs room, he was simply Bad Gerry, ranting about "that bastard Reagan" who chose Alabama for his only campus visit during his re-election campaign.

I'd stop by Stern's office every time I walked through the English building, just to see his face, to share a complaint about throwback idiocy and racism after a cross was burned on campus to protest a Black sorority petition to have a house on frat row, to talk about the Beats, to sit where I was never judged or unliked for my threadbare poetic bandwidth.

Years afterwords, I'd read Lucky Life or Paradise Poems, or Lovesick to my students, showing them that poems entered the soul through the ear, not the brain. That everyone could have poetry. That on the most droll days of our lives a beam of crepuscular light could part the clouds and raise us from the shit of mediocrity.

And on days when I have nothing, nothing to say, and the yellow pad looks like an impossible list of demands from my kidnappers, I can turn to Bad Gerry and think how nice it is to think of you, kind father, tears running as polliwogs down your face, my favorite cardinal hopping in the Tuscaloosa dirt, the red dust rising like an arpeggio where the pain had been.

3 comments:

tangobaby said...

"Bad Gerry was sung to Vivaldi played on a sturdy hi-fi set as you gazed out a dormer window across the Monongahela River where black sparrows alit like a puff of factory smoke in a tree laid nude by winter."

"...tears running as polliwogs down your face..."

Who writes sentences like this?! Some days I think I should just stop writing when I read your posts. And then I think, he's gonna make me a better writer if I just keep reading.

Please don't give into the kidnappers. Just keep writing so we can learn from you.

Char said...

what a gorgeous love song to oh so much...and I could identify. It reminds me in my brit lit prof at UAB who sat on his desk barefooted and read us Keats and Joyce. well, some of the same but different.

Jennifer said...

I think it was the two bird descriptions that did me in, "black sparrows alit like a puff of factory smoke in a tree laid nude by winter" and "my favorite cardinal hopping in the Tuscaloosa dirt, the red dust rising like an arpeggio where the pain had been."