EVEN DURING THE RUT OF THE PANDEMIC, WE CHANGE EVERY DAY—AGE, GROW, LEARN, MATURE, DECLINE

It’s easy to get into a rut during the Covid-19 pandemic, captive at home, apart from most family, friends and work acquaintances, unable to engage in virtually all of our favorite activities. Many describe our current situation as stagnant, stale, boring. But the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, reminds us that even during the statis of self-quarantine, the world is changing and we are all of us becoming different people. And I don’t just mean growing longer, unruly hair and packing a few pounds of blubber around the beltline.

Heraclitus believed that all of existence was changing at every instant. His metaphor for the universe was to imagine a river. If you stick your hand in the river, then do it again a minute later, that part of the river will have changed entirely. He didn’t spell it out, but he was right: new water, new set of insects, different bits of plant life floating along the current, different wind causing a slightly different wave pattern, a different angle to the sun. For us during the pandemic, the apparent sameness of each day conceals our various internal changes—aging, growing spiritually, learning, maturing, overcoming mental obstacles, but sometimes also declining physically, mentally, or emotionally. 

Implicit in Heraclitus’s emphasis on change is the idea that we can’t capture a moment—that all experience is transitory, a melancholy thought that gives a sad tinge to all experience. During the pandemic, happy times that pass immediately (and therefore too soon) may include a shared moment with a parent on Zoom or the burst of oregano that explodes in your mouth as you take a first bite into a piping hot piece of pizza that has just been delivered. Or the realization, once again, of how much you love a foible of your significant other—her habit of cleaning up while she cooks, his frequent outbursts of angry sarcasm at television commercials.

In today’s poem, “Heraclitus at the Water’s Edge,” I transform the outing of a man terminally ill with cancer into one more drop in that ever-changing river that Heraclitus said was the world of experience. The poem was originally published in Peralta in 2002. I then revised it for a chapter in my novel The Brothers Silver, which Owl Canyon Press is releasing on June 15th.  

HERACLITUS AT THE WATER’S EDGE

Days after doctors pruned his time,

six months of life support,

we split a plate of oysters

and spoke of grains he loved:

kasha with noodles, barley in soup.

 

His hands, once precision tools,

measuring, numbering, 

now flapped like aimless claws.

 

His eyes, once sparkling mouths

that swallowed things whole,

now pursed in languor.

 

Outside, the Chesapeake sun

crawled along the brick walkway

toward cooing waves.

 

And I thought of Heraclitus

at the edge of another water:

His eyes pursue a head of spume

as it skirrs by in circular path

 

and dissipates to bubbles

one of which he tracks along the streamline,

gliding past rocks, between floating twigs,

around a leaf and disappearing.

 

Marc Jampole

Peralta Vol. 1 #2 (2002)

VIRTUAL EVERYTHING FOR WHICH PEOPLE GET PRAISED OR REWARDED COMES DOWN TO LUCK

The argument that the rich deserve their wealth because they earned it serves as the basis for a lot of governmental social policy, including our taxation system. But even for the billionaire who started with nothing—and by the way, there are few of those—luck always has more to do with their success than anything they may have done. Drawing on the thoughts of Daniel N. Robinson in Praise and Blame, we can identify several kinds of luck:

  • Being born to a wealthy or connected family
  • Not being born in poverty
  • Not suffering frequent food insecurity, violence or abuse as a child.
  • Being born with a special skill or physical attribute. No matter how much you practice, you will never run as fast as Usain Bolt, block as many shots as Shaquille O’Neal, or crunch numbers as well as Alan Turing, because they were born with special skills that cannot be developed.
  • Being born at the right place at the right time. Having a degree in television production was worth more in the early days of cable than it was in the 1960s. Or think of a math genius with extreme vision problems, now correctible, back in prehistoric times.
  • Having a skill that is honored and well-paid by society, which is really part of being at the right place at the right time. For example, an investment banker and a taco stand owner put in about the same amount of work a week and they have similar ancillary skills (e.g., good with people, good with numbers, entrepreneurial). But society deems the investment banker’s contribution to be worth literally hundreds of times more than that of the taco stand owner.

 

I summed up this idea of luck mattering more than any other factor in a poem that imagines Willie Mays’s life if he had been born in Alabama a hundred years earlier, a heavily-worked slave, not a professional baseball player recognized as one of the greatest athletes of his generation. “Willie Mays in 1850” was originally published in Cutthroat, and later reprinted in Jewish Currents.  

 

WILLIE MAYS IN 1850

 

Willie is always the first one selected 

when the overseer commands two slaves

to choose up teams for cotton picking contests

because the master gives a cup of sugar 

to the slaves on the team that amasses the most.

 

Willie is the only one who anyone remembers

feeding cotton into gins for hours on end

and pulling out his fingers fast enough each bunch

he never gets injured, not even a scratch.

 

Willie sometimes wakes from restless sleep

filled with yearning, something he can’t describe,

something with neither shape nor name,

so he steals away to Black Warrior River

and under moonlight pitches stone after stone 

into the air across the water and to the other side.

 

Marc Jampole

Published in Cutthroat #16 (2014); reprinted in Jewish Currents (Summer 2015)

WE OFTEN REMEMBER EVENTS MUCH DIFFERENTLY FROM HOW THEY REALLY HAPPENED

The mind can sure play tricks on you! I remember years ago, when we lived in Miami during high school, my brother and I once saw a rainstorm three blocks away, moving in our direction like a forest fire or a line of attacking soldiers. We decided to run as fast as we could away from the oncoming storm. We were able to stay dry for about three long blocks before the rain caught up to us. At the first thud of the heavy drops on our shoulders, we both stopped and stood there like two fools in the rain, laughing and splashing. I wrote a poem about the experience that Slant published a few years back. I also used the incident in my novel, The Brothers Silver, set for release by Owl Canyon Press in June. 

What a shock then, to read recently in a personal journal from decades ago that it was not my younger brother with whom I tried to outrun rain, but with my friend who lived across the street from us and ran second seed on our high school’s cross-country team. I could have sworn it was my brother! I have to believe that I have mangled other cherished memories. Fortunately, poetry and novels are both fictional, so I don’t have to change anything in either work. Art remains eternal, as Schiller once noted. But my memory is now short one happy time with my brother, who passed away at a young age almost twenty years ago. 

OUTRUNNING RAIN

In Coral Gables with my brother,

together we saw it

 

down the street about a mile away,

headed towards us,

 

a dark, obese leviathan of cloud,

its teardrops pouring on the city,

 

heavy waterfall of rain

as packed as dirt against a grave,

moving quickly our direction, 

murmuring like a banshee folding clothes.

 

Together we had the same thought:

try to outrun it as long as we could.

 

Together we sprinted, listening behind us,

hearing rainstorm’s ever-growing roar

 

as it plunged the cars and houses

into mesmerizing chutes of water

 

splashing at the surface of the street,

bouncing up and down like jumping jacks,

 

settling into potholes,

pooling into flashing floods,

 

until the pounding grew so loud

we knew it was about to overtake us.

 

Together we stopped, 

let our arms go slack

 

and felt the rush of tepid water

drench us like a benediction.

 

Marc Jampole

Published in Slant #31 (May 2017)

A FEEL-GOOD POEM FOR A DREARY PANDEMIC THURSDAY IN FEBRUARY

Someone asked me to post a feel-good poem. What could feel better than a poem about playing word games with a three-year-old on July 4th, then feeding the ducks and watching them glide away from the pier when you’re out of bread?  

Enjoy!

JULY 4TH

And the three-year-old at the picnic

said she wanted to play the violin

and I said, just like Joe Venuti

and she said, you’re a Joe Venuti

and I said, you’re a Joe Venuti

and she pulled a tuft of grass and said,

here’s some Joe Venuti

and she pointed to a sparrow scratching in the dust

and said, there’s a Joe Venuti

and from a plastic bag she dumped

a bunch of Joe Venutis

and barbecue flames caressed the grilling Joe Venutis

and men threw the Joe Venuti, popping their gloves,

while women slurped the Joe Venuti and spit the seeds

and the sun played hide and seek in dissipating Joe Venutis

and through poplar branches Joe Venuti shadows danced

across the baby’s sleeping smile.

 

Later, like Marcus Aurelius

observing models of human behavior,

we watched the ducks glide away

after the bread was gone.

 

Marc Jampole

Published in Oxford Magazine, Volume 5, # 2 and Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007); reprinted in Poetry in Performance #46 ((May 2018)

THE PANDEMIC PROVES AGAIN THAT NO ONE CAN ESCAPE FROM THE WORLD

Rich folk live in gated communities or on private islands to escape from the world. Many well-off people send their children to private schools hoping to avoid having their kids come in contact with anyone who might make them doubt their parents’ beliefs or values. Many people try to escape the real world through alcohol, excessive drug taking, spending all day playing video games, purposely avoiding news shows and newspapers, conspiracy theories—the ways to try to hide from the world are endless.

Thinking about escape from the world, I conjured a poetic conceit: what if someone hid at the most remote points on the Earth: the most northern point, the highest point from sea level (which is different from the tallest mountain), the lowest point in the ocean, or the spot of land furthest from any sea or ocean. All of these locations experience terrible weather conditions, so even if you have hidden from civilization, you have not escaped from the sensations that define the world for all of us: sight, sound, smell, cold, wetness, exhilaration, pain. From these thoughts developed a poem, “The World is Always with Us,” which Evansville Review published about ten years ago.

The pandemic reminds me of the poem, because try as people might, it has been virtually impossible to escape the health, economic, psychological and social consequences of Covid-19. The plague is another proof that the world is always with us.

THE WORLD IS ALWAYS WITH US

Hide, hide, where can I hide?

At the north-most point of land,
birdless, seal-free bar of frozen silt and gravel
bobbing in and out of Arctic waves.

Away, away…

to the highest point,
a glacial hood conceals a stormy past,
pebbled whirlwinds batter yellow bands
of limestone ridges rising lifelessly beyond the pluck-line.

…from reminders of pain…

at the lowest point
below the ocean,
plant-like microbes gobble acid spewed from boiling vents,
soft-shelled shapeless microscopic beasties
float in hiss.

…remote from living things.

Furthest point from any ocean,
landlocked pole of inaccessibility,
tent-spotted desert
spider thirsty withered parched
and dry dry white white…

Hide, hide, where can I hide?

Marc Jampole
Originally published in The Evansville Review #20 (2010)

TWO VICTIMS OF THE EXPECTATIONS SOCIETY FORCES ON WOMEN: SYLVIA PLATH & A HOUSWIFE NAMED DOT

One of the main characters in my soon-to-be-released novel, The Brothers Silver, is a mentally ill housewife literally beat down by the expectations that others place on her. In creating the character, I used as my models the poet Sylvia Plath and a housewife named Dot.

Years earlier, I wrote a poem that depicted the many ways these two women—one a well-educated, erudite poet and the other a high-school grad—suffered because they didn’t feel they could ever fulfill the roles that society had set for them as women. I have read both their diaries and it’s uncanny how similar they were: the way they lavished those they loved with food and favors, their many competencies and insecurities, their hidden fears and feelings of worthlessness, their ugly words, the demons that haunted them, their suicides. I put these similarities into a poem called “Dot and Sylvia,” which appeared in Mississippi Review in 2003.

DOT AND SYLVIA

Both plunged beads of boiling fudge through frigid water
at the perfect point, without thermometer,
beat egg and air with effortless wrist spins,
created endless games with plastic dinosaurs
and pieces of paper on rainy afternoons,
peeled fruit for all children and adults she loved,
fell to knees in mock anger and pointed index finger
to emphasize a discrepancy in height,
played Stravinsky and Carmen with Leontyne Price,
taught children funny words to the Toreador Song,
listened tenderly as others told their lives,
loved to talk about books she read,
to feel big wet drops fall on her hair and face in an open field,
to close eyes and imagine making love
to the warm flat stone on which she was sunning,
wanted a strong and brilliant male to obliterate her
then hated him for doing so,
spoke often of what others thought of her
of what they thought she thought they thought,
stewed about public snubs that no one else could see,
said nasty things when she couldn’t hold her liquor,
would suddenly turn on others, then seek forgiveness,
requested permission to loathe her mother,
mouthed troubling phrases:
stasis in darkness
the brown arc
the dew that flies
she never loved me
he touched me in that spot,
fluctuated between loving every stranger
and abhorring her own flesh,
savored jolt after jolt of current
piercing her body like a lover gone wild,
stayed in bed by day, paced halls by night,
found it easier to remember
moments of gloom than moments of radiance,
examined several forms of suicide
until selecting one, and here they differed:
Sylvia stuck her head in an oven.
Dot swallowed pills.

Marc Jampole
Published in The Mississippi Review Vol. 31 #1-2 (Spring 2003) & Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007)

FROM SCHOENBERG’S LIFE, WE LEARN THAT REMAINING TRUE TO THE SONG INSIDE YOU IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SOCIAL CLIMBING

One of my most requested poems at readings is “Schoenberg’s Second Conversion,” my version of the life of Arnold Schoenberg, an important composer of the 20th century. Schoenberg created what is called “12 tone music,” a technique of composition that gives all 12 notes of the chromatic scale equal weight, so that the music is never in any key. 12-tone composition yields strange but beautiful music, lush with dissonances. 

Schoenberg lived a typical life for a wealthy Jew in the German-speaking world in the decades before Word War II. He converted to Christianity via baptism as a child as part of his family’s climb up the social ladder. But after fleeing Nazi Germany a few days following the Reichstag fire in 1933, the first thing Schoenberg did on disembarking in Paris was to find a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and reconvert to Judaism.  The mikvah, central to Schoenberg’s Second Conversion,” also plays a major role in my new novel The Brothers Silver, set for release by Owl Canyon Press on June 15th.

“Schoenberg’s Second Conversion” appeared years ago in a small literary press called Orphic Lute and in my first book of poetry, Music from Words. It has also been reprinted in the anthology, Along These Rivers and in the 2018 Jewish Currents annual calendar. 

SCHOENBERG’S SECOND CONVERSION 

When I was a boy, they told me,

submerge your head in water, count to ten.

Instead I counted heartbeats and there were twelve

and I made my song.

 

I dreamed of Jacob’s ladder,

angels flying upward, angels flying downward twelve rungs,

each a tribe, I thought, or perhaps a tone

and I wanted to raise my song.

 

There is one temple in heaven that only music opens

and for it I searched, dragging my twelve tribes of sound,

the modern Jacob, I thought, whose children are syllogisms

giving birth to law, giving birth to song.

 

Rung by rung, learning what I knew,

posing a problem, then solving and re-solving,

then seeking a precept behind all solution

until I had climbed twelve rungs and prayed my song.

 

Now, fleeing Hitler in this month of fire,

I listen for the law of sound in train’s blunt rasp

and read of Jacob’s dream and understand my blunder:

The ladder is beside him, but he does not climb.

 

When the train stops, it will be Paris

and I will disembark and find a ritual bath

and dunk myself a second time and, head submerged,

count heartbeats till twelve, and this time

the song will make me.

 

Marc Jampole

Originally published in Orphic Lute and Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007); reprinted in Along these Rivers (Quadrant, 2008) and the 2018 Jewish Currents calendar

WALKING AWAY FROM A CAR CRASH WITHOUT SCRATCH

Sometime in the summer of 1984, I was driving my wreck of a Toyota stick-shift on a rural Georgia backroad, exhausted from driving for ten hours straight from New Orleans. I fell asleep and ran the car into and out of a ditch, stopping against a tree about ten feet in the woods. The crash pushed the entire front and driver’s side into a metal accordion. There was a deep crack in the back windshield. Luckily, I was wearing a seatbelt. I walked away, literally without a scratch. After pulling both fenders away from the tires, I made my way to my destination, very slowly and carefully.

That close brush with death or severe injury changed my life. Realizing how fragile I was—how mortal—made me understand, almost in an epiphany, that I had been living my life in a constant drift—drifting from one city to another, one profession to another, one relationship to another. I decided to become more serious, more structured, more stable. Within a few years, I set up permanent residence (at least for three decades) in Pittsburgh, got married, had a child, and opened a successful business.

Years later, I wrote a poem about the accident called “The Walkaway” that a now-defunct journal A capella Zoo published. Still later I revised the poem and embedded it into a paragraph in the last chapter of my new novel, The Brothers Silver, set for release by Owl Canyon Press on June 15. I’ve been thinking about the accident and poem lately, I suppose because so many of us are going to find ourselves making resolutions to change our lives dramatically for the better in the wake of the near-brush with death that all of us have had facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s the poem.

THE WALK AWAY

He walks away without a scratch

upended car impressed against a tree

transitioned from the flash of dream-world dead

dissecting tires and piston trickle near 

his face and hands enflamed with fear of ceasing 

movement, frieze of jagged branch mosaic 

tumbles with his skidding tug of seatbelt round around

around a crack in snake-skin windshield fallen, stiff, 

caressed by weeping blood is why he’s here is why he’s here,

who cares whose turn it is to turn away

and still to see the maul of dead, the scrum of auto parts

in duck blind ducking hurtled arrows’ aching 

screams of stopping wake awake awake to stagnant cipher,

toasted sweetness reek of drunken leaves and peat

becomes a thing that neither touches nor is touched,

eternity in an instant, an instant in eternity

and then the real: he walks away, a different me in him, 

a me exhausted but inflexible, drained of mystery, 

stripped of all-impeding them and theirs.

 

Marc Jampole

Published in A capella Zoo #1 (Fall 2008)

 

MISSING THE SIMPLE PLEASURE OF A WALK WITHOUT ANXIETY

Going outside during a pandemic resembles running an obstacle course, especially in a city as densely populated as New York. The obstacles are maskless people and the poisonous invisible monsters they spew everywhere. I walk cautiously, crossing into the street to avoid the ignorant fools who haven’t covered their mouths and noses. I’m always on the lookout for these moral scofflaws, so full of anxiety and in such a rush to get back to the safety of my apartment, that it’s impossible for me to enjoy the beautiful trees and plantings, the exquisite and diverse architecture, the glorious sun on the days it is out. Most frustrating of all is to be so distracted by my fear that I do not hear the singing of the many birds that make Manhattan their home. Living in the middle of Manhattan, I miss Manhattan mornings. I’m sure others feel this sense of dislocation within their locations. 

A few years back, I wrote a series of poems dominated by the use of kennings, which are compound expressions with metaphorical meaning that characterize medieval Icelandic poetry; for example, “battle-sweat” for blood or “breaker of trees” for wind. My intent was for my modern kennings to dislocate the readers from the poem to make them think about the narrative and scene through a new verbal lens. Here is the one I wrote about a morning walk along the streets of the Upper East Side that appeared in BigCityLit.

MANNAHATTA MORNING

 

Light-and-life-giver splashes the earth-turn,

dries the flashy rain-holders in towering flight above

gusts of fish-home air-shakes swaying to iamb trees,

 

the here-to-there of singing wings, the baked and baking 

mud and stone of schist island, churned-down yellows, 

blues and whites still flowering or fluttering in petals

 

on mistless cattle-graze by the trochees of bowers and gutters, 

and there we in-and-out the lungs for no other why-it-is 

than to feel the yearning flow of here-and-now.

 

Marc Jampole

Published in BigCityLit Fall 2019

STORY OF AN OPPRESSED PEOPLE IN FOUR WORDS OF A SONG

When I was a pre-teen, my favorite song was Dee Clark’s “Raindrops,” a sappy ballad of lost love sung straight to saccharine strings. The thunder sound effects in the background gave “Raindrops” just enough kitsch to make it a hit. But at the end of a very standard rendition in which he seems to be smiling through his tears, Clark suddenly lets out with a soul-stretching phrase, “It keeps on fallin’,” that echoes extreme emotional pain.

In college and as an adult, I read a lot of American history and learned that from the start the United States was cursed with a virulent racism that long outlived slavery. From my African-American friends and from watching the news, I learned that racism in its many forms still burns strongly in our country, and that it’s not just a matter of what racists think, but the terrible things they actively do to hurt African-Americans (and other minorities). 

Now when I listen to “Raindrops” as an adult, I hear the pain of centuries of oppression in the four words Clark screams out at the end. I wrote a poem about Dee Clark singing those four words, which Slant published a few years back. I also put a different version of the poem into prose, and used it in my new novel, The Brothers Silver, set for release by Owl Canyon Press in June.

Here’s the version of the poem in Slant:

IT MUST BE raindrops, SO MANY RAINDROPS

In the time it takes to sing four words,

Dee Clark wails the pain of centuries,

 

pain of smelling death and feces 

in the hull of a ship sailing westward,

 

pain of searing brand on thigh,

of hours of cranking up a cotton gin

half-dead from the bruises of everyday beatings,

 

of gawking dazed as trafficked children 

roll away in shot-gun guarded carts,

 

of knowing master takes his woman

whenever he wants to, 

 

pain of acting 

deferential to people who curse him,

pain of losing land for lack of twenty dollars, 

 

pain of fear of seeming proud or clever,

 

fear of scaring women with his looks,

fear of beatings, lynchings, firebombs,

 

pain of shame of sitting 

in shabby schools, at the back of buses, 

standing outside while they grill his burger,

 

the pain of sniper bullets, rubber hoses, 

ugly curses, spittle in face, 

 

pain of whispers that assume

thievery, laziness, incompetence,

 

pain of being forced by the record producer

to smile as he sings of pain,

until the fadeout of a sappy power ballad

after two minutes of grinning through 

a sweet conflation of raindrops,

it must be raindrops, it feel like raindrops,

against the rising obligati of the violins,

now burning a suddenly hoarse and harsh

ear-splitting, fog-cutting cry that forces 

centuries of pain to four short words,

 

it keeps on fallin’…

Marc Jampole

Published in Slant #30 (Spring 2016)