Standing in Line with Gerald Stern
I remember Stanley Kunitz had just read
a poem about a slap from his mother.
I remember I had to get up and into line
for the john, and the line went on and on.
You were there, humming an old blues tune.
Singing, always singing. Your happy Jew
could barely contain himself at the joy
breaking like noonlight after the poems.
Your windbreaker flapped its red wing.
Twenty-third and Water Street would have
bloomed with singing whores
on their way to death or Bridgeport, Ohio,
but the last of those houses closed long ago.
You stood, great heart, by a long window
in the overcast March light of Ohio.
I said to myself, If that's what it's like
to be a poet and sixty, I can do that.
Then we went in, in turn, making smalltalk
about Dutch Henry's, a bar I'd passed time in
playing shuffle bowling and drinking Iron City.
"Those beer signs can be blinding," you said.
We zipped upnot in unison, thank God
and went our ways, separately smiling.
I said I'd write this if I lived, and meant it,
though I had no idea I'd begin a year later
on the reverse side of a McDonald's placemat,
my son Scott gorging himself on orange juice
and having to be told twice how to spell the word men,
interrupting before I'd gotten far enough
to know whether to speak of other lines
those into Auschwitz or Buchenwald, lines
of smoke above the daily rigor of being a child,
lines of shrill-whistling trains arriving
on time for years, the lines of track
singing a blues but singing, always singing.
What my son wanted in his line wasn't poetry
or song or love's slap but that
which you wanted that day in Martins Ferry
a place to let go, after that
to walk out of the theatre in the sunlight
and live a while by mercy and innocence.