Visiting What?

Last week Porter-Gaud honored my colleague Bill Slayton and me by naming us Visiting Writers for 2019, joining such luminaries as Billy Collins, Dori Sanders, and Pat Conroy, to name only three.  Of course, the head of the program chose us not on the merit of our canons but to honor us in the year of our retirement.  To be honest, my publishing history is as thin as Donald Trump’s skin, though I do have both a poem and a short story in anthologies catering to South Carolina writers.

Although Bill and I both felt a bit odd about reading unpublished works to a packed auditorium, the students were quietly attentive and asked good questions when we visited English classes.  One of the highlights for me was having my poem ‘The Grill” projected on a screen and analyzed by the teacher, Dr. Lehman, and his students.

I wrote the poem in the wee hours after having almost burned my house down.  I had placed a charcoal chimney on a log on my deck as I had dozens of times before; however, on this night — perhaps the log had dried out over time– in the course of two or three hours, the log caught fire, igniting the deck.  Luckily, Judy Birdsong and I were sleeping with the windows open, smelled the smoke, called the Folly Beach Fire Department, and they put it out before it could spread to the house.

After they left, knowing that sleep was out of the question, I got on line only to discover that one of my sweetest friends from childhood had succumbed to cancer, so I sat down and wrote the poem, a bitter comment on the transitory nature of life.[1]

Here’s the first stanza:

I’m tearing apart paper,

newsprint, the obituary page,

shredding descriptions of lives:

of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,

bachelors, partners, husbands, wives,

shredding their black-and-white

faces, their smiles, their stares,

ripping also the memorial verses

loved ones have left,

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

Dr. Lehman and students asked about diction and line breaks.  For example, did I break the first line after “paper” and the second after “page” to create an alliterative and assonant pairing at the end of the line? Why repeat the word “shredding?”

The sad fact of the matter is that what I do I do by instinct.  My ear, not my brain, told me to break the lines there, and “shredding,” like so many words of Anglo-Saxon origin, sounds like what its conveying, the sibilant sound of paper being ripped.  I did, however, consciously add “partners” to my catalogue of decedents to include gays.

Then comes a one-line stanza, quadrupled spaced.

Yet not enough.

Dr. Lehman cut the line and moved it to join the preceding stanza, changing it from this:

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

 

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

 

to this:

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

The change actually bothered me, and I asked him to put it back in its proper place.  He told the students that we poets are very meticulous about matters such as these, and I guess I proved him correct.

He then highlighted the following stanza, which he admires most about the poem.

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

dropped, paper ripe for ripping,

ripped, balled, stuffed, ready

for the match’s fiery effacement.

“Lots of plosives there Mr. Moore,” he said, and I said, “Yeah, it’s an angry poem. “  I mentioned that I did consciously end the second line with “flies” to sort of simulate dropping a baseball.

Anyway, what I learned about myself is that I’m not very analytical when I write a poem; nevertheless, it might seem as if I am, which suits me.

So let this self-indulgent post end a week of self-indulgence, so I can go back to my little life as an English instructor.  I will leave you, however, with the complete poem:

 

The Grill

In memory of Paul Yost 1955-2014

I’m tearing apart paper,

newsprint, the obituary page,

shredding descriptions of lives:

of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,

bachelors, partners, husbands, wives,

shredding their black-and-white

faces, their smiles, their stares,

ripping also the memorial verses

loved ones have left,

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

 

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

dropped, paper ripe for ripping,

ripped, balled, stuffed, ready

for the match’s fiery effacement.

 

And that poor chicken! Hatched, harried,

pecking its food among hordes,

pulled from transport crates,

shocked for the throat cutter’s convenience,

plucked, eviscerated.

 

This one’s also been

deboned, yet not sold soon enough,

skewered by butchers along with

aging onions and overly ripe peppers.

 

* * *

 

After its scraping, red and black,

slightly rusted, the grill stands ready,

top open, at attention.

 

I place the chimney

upon the barred metal, pour in

the briquettes, and torch the

shredded lives of others,

their wins and losses,

and watch the smoke

rising into the dissipation

of the silent, cloud-shifting sky.


[1]What we didn’t know at the time was that Judy, too, had cancer that would be diagnosed at the end of the month.

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