Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers' Conference, and Writers' Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews (U of Akron P) and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and a new collection, No Other Paradise, due out in 2010 from Red Hen Press. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006. He teaches poetry workshops and craft classes at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and was recently the McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia and a visiting writer at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah.
That street lined with poplars, elms and oaks,
shadow-webbed, star-ceilinged, wind-trafficked
by blowing snow—is it still there, its shimmering
pavements and empty lots, its hedged-in back
yards with their plastic pools, their toy balls
scattered by one-car paint-flaking garages?
And the sad, brown houses sinking into earth
with their many-peaked sun-crowned roofs,
their windows from which tears and laughter,
bits of screams drifted out into slow moving dusks,
are they standing with their grim chimneys,
their coal bins and wide stoops like stone tongues?
And what about the lawns, squares of sparse grass
edging up through sand, acorn-drummed,
squirrel-haunted lawns where a boy’s bicycle
lay abandoned, guarded by somnolent dogs
who barked their displeasure at each lone walker
whistling for night to come, come lie at his feet?
You can walk down that same street, right now,
but it’s not that street. It still exists, but do you?
Even now it is within reach, there across the river,
though this sentence will never find it, these words
that wander blindly in their meanings looking
for its leaf-lined adjectives, its lost nouns of light.
Lung-sore in summer heat
we scrambled up a bank
to steel our legs while coach yelled
Go! Go! and sweat pebbled
our brows. The bank
rose steeply rank with sumac
from a field behind our school
and we strove up sucking wind
with every step, four abreast,
then broke into pairs at the top—
two left, two right—and straggled down
again to get in line for more.
It was only August, but our team
held practice every weekend
to shape us up before the season
was an uphill grind, bodies
growing stronger and alert
to possibilities we’d only dreamed of
watching heroes duke it out
on drive-in screens, then sweep
the ladies off their feet.
No pain, no gain! coach roared,
so up we labored, dull-eyed Sisyphuses,
hearts pounding, heads packed
with big ideas. But all the while
the future waited with its certain failures,
its disappointments and defeats,
no matter how hard we worked,
how much we sweated
towards the top to stumble
down again, red-faced, aglow,
undaunted in the burnning afternoon,
full of ambition to Go! Go!
The home team spreads itself
into the shape that baseball makes,
a busy diamond of quick boys
whom coach bullies in a hectoring voice:
Jimmy, come on in; Mike, wake up, now!
And Davis, back up in case it’s long!
Chatter leaps among them, shouting
encouragement or hurling taunts as a batter
steps into the box and paws the dirt.
The first pitch floats down the pike,
and the batter steps forward
to send it out to right where Davis waits
almost casually, not moving from his spot
until the ball begins to curve
downward in its flight. We hold our breath
as Davis rises on one leg and thrusts
his glove into the air to snatch it
in one clean swipe, the way a trout
drifts upward to seize a fly. Such a mundane
moment never quite disappears
but keeps recurring in a hundred guises
as it flutters back down to us through the years.
Freddie Fisk—that was his name— tall, loose-limbed
and string-bean skinny, whose arms flailed
when he beat time on his traps, a sharp-elbowed hammerer
with a skeletal smile. Freddie owned the hardware store,
having left drumming for turpentine and the price of nails.
He hailed from somewhere in the South— Jersey or New York—
where he must have drummed one night a week
in one of those seaside haunts that crowd the coast like barnacles
on a rusting boat. In New England he was out of place,
a quick-witted Ichabod with city roots, shifty-eyed and sleek.
My parents made a fuss over Freddie’s “real” career,
and I thought Freddie was a star. But looking back,
I see Freddie was a part-time sideman who never got his break,
but drummed up something else: a wife and two small kids
as lank and wiry as him. Maybe that was his mistake.
Or maybe he just stood back drop-jawed one night when someone
played so brilliantly it felt like he was beating Freddie
right out of his dreams; some jive-ass jazzman born to rhythm
and the blur of speeding hands and feet. Sometimes
something cures us by defeat and leaves us lesser, but alive.
However it was, Freddie only drummed for us, Sunday evenings
in his cramped apartment there above the batteries and saws.
We’d stand around, goggle-eyed and awed, while Freddie
crashed his cymbals, and we thought, Freddie’s really something!
And grinned like blazes, and beat our hands together in applause.
First, we broke in. Then we broke every window
in the place. It was quick work, and we were well suited
for it, being young, and inconsolable, and angry.
Of course, the windows were symbolic, but what
did that matter? They broke as well one way
as another, shattering with an unconditional sound.
And who started it, him or me, made no difference
either. We were equal to the task, our bodies
not separate, but a pair of hands ready for the wrecking.
Then we fled, he to his gloating satisfaction, and I
to mine, though I soon began to understand
how actions cause equal and opposite reactions.
When the police arrived, my parents wondered
how I could have done it, hadn’t they raised me
better than this, and wasn’t I ashamed of myself now?
I was. Which is what led me to implicate him,
and claim he’d started it. In fact, that he had
done it all, and I’d only stood by watching, aghast.
The cop who took this statement eyed me coldly.
He knew better. And soon I broke down, sobbing,
ready to say anything, ready to tell him then
what I had no words to explain until now,
that betrayal is sometimes the greater part of friendship
and friendship’s as fragile as glass, as easy to shatter.