The Story (After Stanley Kunitz)
Poems collected from participants in Dave Johnson’s 10*10*10*2 Workshops!
Episode 14: Stanley Kunitz & The Story
Miss Allie invited us over
on Saturday after a full day
of plowing the fields. Fresh
butter and cornbread, she insisted
we stay for 7 o’clock TV and dinner.
Her pig, a pet of several hundred pounds,
sat at my feet as we watched
Green Acres and ate till we couldn’t
do anything but sleep.
I dreamed is this TV or really how we live?
Things Will Work Out
When my grandfather lost yet another of his daisy chain of grocery stores, my grandmother said things would work out. She also said they would work out when her favorite brother walked out of the house one day to get cigars and never returned, as if he’d fallen off the earth. And that they would work out when one son was called to fight in German mud, and the other lied he was 18 and went the same route.
Things will work out was what she said when she was fifteen and her father died and the older of the twelve children had to leave school to work in drab jobs to keep everyone eating. And she was right because she kept the books for an art supply firm that gave her the colored pencils she used to draw bright airy birds in flight. A skill she never used as she raised those two wayward boys and her crass husband.
She said things would work out when the husband croaked from a heart attack at 54, leaving her a debt-ridden store with a pay phone for the relatives. But the sons pointed out that she never ever said how. That was settled long after she too left this world. She never heard the answer when her grandson – the one who knocked her down the stairs – said that things would indeed work out…. with a laugh.
Behind the worn marble counter
at Plogman’s Drugstore, the boy asks
to see my money before taking my order.
A friend in third grade had bragged
about something called an allowance.
My mother agreed to 25 cents a week.
I give a quarter for a cherry phosphate:
one pump of red syrup in a tall glass,
seltzer sprayed from a flexible faucet,
fizzy pink liquid served on a white paper
napkin now stained bright pink. I sit and sip,
watching myself in the mirror above a row
of chrome handles on the soda fountain.
Here’s the poem for Day 3, based on Stanley Kunitz — I forgot to send it.
My kindergarten teacher, Grace, repeated our names
On our first full day of school.
Two days past my birthday: five candles on the cake with marzipan butterflies.
Mama’s black almond eyes were still shining through the window of our classroom door.
A lion’s roar made me turn towards the huge windows —
An airplane entered the glistening tower,
Flames burst out like a cannon.
Frozen, I kept looking,
But I can’t remember…
The sky was full of colors.
No. I don’t remember…
A fireman flying on a log?
“Sit at your table” Grace said, and pulled down the blinds.
Outside our door, in the hallway
Running, shouting, crying;
Grace told us to color, and smiled.
Then she told us to walk slowly, down the hallway.
Grace and Mama gave us snacks.
We watched “Arthur” cartoons til the police told us to leave.
The sun was hot but not bright—
a pitchless sound, so loud we couldn’t hear.
We turned around —
The tower, crumbling, like a sand castle at high tide —
Grace and Mama took our many tiny hands and pulled us quickly up the highway
With no traffic, just a jam of frightened people
Who couldn’t go home.
There were no empty boxes in the recycling bin,
so I pulled out a plastic-waxed bag of stale Cheerios
and left it in the cupboard without its shell.
Aluminum foil was on a higher shelf,
and I found a roll of duct tape under the sink.
“What are you doing?”
My husband wandered into the kitchen.
“Making a camera obscura.
Haven’t you heard there’s an eclipse tomorrow?”
— E.B. Fouts-Palmer
“Thanks so much for another great episode!”
My husband called to me
Honey, there’s a beagle on the deck
No, a beagle — a dog
Well, shoo him away, I cried
He doesn’t look too well and he has no tags
Gray faced, patches of missing fur, skinny, leathery, oozy with something, eyes still bright somehow
The beagle looked at us beseechingly
We’ll name him Marvin, I said.
When it was Nanny s birthday a celebration was to be had.
Homemade cake, ice cream and if we were lucky a trip to Conover s Drug Store for a new Archie comic.
This one was different. It seemed bigger, brighter and way more important.
How did I know?
The tv trays came out and were set up like a cafe in the living room all pointing to the brand new RCA console COLOR t v.
The snacks were more extravagant with cake, cookies and Nanny’s famous rugelach to share AND the
party started later….much later.
All clad in our jammies and exhausted from a day at the Jersey shore , we waited and waited for the
festivities to begin.
Round about 10:45 pm the tv was turned on and we saw a scratchy image of what appeared to be a large insect on
a dusty surface. For what seemed a forever, we watched the crackly image burn on the screen.
Shush…quiet…be patient our grandparents reminded. It will come…….
Finally, a hatch opened, a large figure covered in white and wearing a helmet, descended the insect’s back and stepped
foot in the dust…..there was an inaudible sound coming from the t v which we later learned was a phrase of excitement,
exclamation and zeal that would be used to mark important occasions like these.
We felt the necessity to be excited too…the universe seemed to be shifting at that very moment but, is all I remember was my little brother’s voice reminding us ….I thought this was a COLOR tv????
Prayer for a Pony
Willie James around seven or eight years old
really wanted a pony because
he was too small for a horse.
Most of the little white kids and a couple
well-to-do relatives’ kids had ponies then.
He learned through going to church
that through prayer your prayers would be answered.
He used to hear Grindaddy Willie pray a lot
for things he needed. And sooner or later,
what Grinddaddy prayed for came through.
So, Willie James prayed for a little pony,
Lord, please let there be a pony
In the packhouse, please let there be a pony
In the packhouse. Please Lord, please…
And early next morning,
he came out to the packhouse
to see if the pony was there. The pony
wasn’t there. So, he got a little angry and upset
with the Lord for a while until he learned
realness of the Lord and how the Lord works.
Maybe at that time, unbeknown to Willie James,
he didn’t need a pony because of incidents
that happened to him later
with a mule and a pony.
A mule kicked him over the eye
when he was about ten years old, and a pony
kicked him in the chest when he was a young man.
Both incidents happened on Grindaddy’s land.
And Willie James sits here sixty something years
later laughing as he thinks about all of that now.
He was hurt more from those incidents than
he was hurt by not getting his pony. Maybe
that’s why he suffers chest pains and shortness
of breath today at age 71. Doctors call it CHF.
“I never got that pony and I still have
scars around my left eye yet
I yearn for a horse farm,”
utters Willie James.
My father pushed me neath the
turnstile, flashing his conductor’s
pass and we boarded a downtown train.
Finally, war had ended and streets
again were filled with a thankful
throng of children held aloft.
Trumpeting horns, the rumble of drums,
signaled the marchers were near.
My father put me on his shoulder
to see above the crowd.
A boost not needed to see the
sky where giants bobbed and flew,
Superman strung high, tethered
by tenuous ropes. The Ball
Player with weathered mitt, searching in
vain for the ball. And Mickey Mouse,
escaped from watch, streamed above the street.
I cannot say for sure the highpoint
of my day, perhaps the presence of
my dad as I watched for Santa’s sleigh.
So many balloons had come and gone
before I came again and shouldered
my own two daughters to watch
the passing parade.
Never begin a story with “there” for any reason!
Since he was the prof, he was the one who got to tell the story—
There was a poet in one of his undergrad courses who was
a dark horse, who no one liked, whose work everyone was
hesitant to remark on…
And then he turned to me as if I was the dark horse
in his class, as though
I was the one no one liked, and I was the one
whose work everyone was
hesitant to remark on…
And what could I say to this?—
It wasn’t for me to decide my status in all their minds, and
it wasn’t my place to step out of line.
He was the professor,
he was supposed to have many wonderful things to
impart to me, to teach me, to prompt me to think about.
But this whole idea of me being the bastard of his class—
this was not one of them.
I didn’t want it to be one of them.
You look at me now and ask why I didn’t say something,
why I didn’t stick up for myself,
why I didn’t put him in his place,
tell him I didn’t appreciate being the analogue of
a dark horse.
Why I didn’t tell him I’d been a dark horse all my
life and that I had been working hard to re-invent
myself, my world, and everything in it so
that I wouldn’t be so lonely when this phase was over
so that when it was time to start my life I’d have no regrets…
I was scared I’d miss out on whatever came after
this story, that there were bits and pieces I might fashion
into something workable, something wonderful, something
I’d never thought of as being good for me.
I deferred, I was silent…
And, as ever, all I learned was all I had to teach myself—
as ever, no one cared about me but me.
No, sir, not self-pitying—only truth, there is only truth here.
Oh, here you are. I am not quite ready,
though I’m quite like a lifeless stone
in the depths of a tide pool.
You might drop a stone down my throat,
or surprise me by fishing out the stone
that is lodged in my chest
and getting me up on my feet.
I seem to be shrinking. Easier to understand that
than that all around me the universe expands.
Perhaps you had better pick me up
before I scuttle under the baseboard.
Do you have a pocket perhaps?
Tucked into your lapel! That’s perfect,
a wonderful way to say hello and good-bye.
I am feeling like a candle wick —
I am still able to be surprised
that I know how a candle wick feels.
Does this mean, perhaps, that now is the time that is set
for you to take me between your thumb and forefinger,
like magic, a pinch, a flick, quickly, quick…
Mi abuela called us down for Sunday morning breakfast.
Pancakes with apricot jam
and we sneakily sipped the last of the orange juice.
But she just smiled, and with her hands
she swept our flyaways behind our ears
and spread some more jam
till it tasted like pure sugar.
The sun laid lazily across the dining room
cloth, the checkered pattern a soft napkin
for young hands.
In this moment, though child, though unknowing,
I closed my eyes to remember the moment
that we were all alive.
A New Play
I phoned my buddy Joyce
In the evening
Disenchanted with the current scene
Had it with New York
Time to get off the Stage and
Write a New Play
She had booked passage to Italy,
I was brimming with excitement
O.K. “I am in”
Soon on our way
Arrived in Rome early
Greeted by an intense red/orange sun
I gazed out at a Marble Stadium
From my room
It was Magic
Transported from the Mundane
To the Magnificent