We read our poetry last night in a second floor venue called The South Orange Studios on South Orange Avenue in my hometown, the place where I grew up and left as a teenager.
It was over an Indian restaurant. There were no Indian restaurants when I was a kid.
It was across the street from the Junior high School where all my siblings went (I took a bus down South Orange Avenue to a Catholic boys’ school in Newark in the last few blocks of the ghetto before it became downtown Newark, where my mother and me shopped at Bamburger’s for a new suit every year for Easter for me).
The red brick Junior High you could look in the windows of and see the kids sitting in rows in their classrooms was torn down after I left town and replaced with an ugly gray cement office building with slits for light to penetrate the interior but through which you couldn’t see a thing (the Junior high became a “Middle School” placed blocks away from this little business center, out of sight and mind).
That happened after the “riots” of the 1960s, when overnight, or so it seemed to me then, banks and grocery stores and schools that had huge plate glass windows you could see through into the activity going on inside were replaced with buildings more like windowless fortresses that could withstand thrown bricks and Molotov cocktails or just plain scrutiny from outside.
The venue where we read our poetry was also just a few doors up the Avenue from the old Town Hall, which they were going to tear down too but some local citizens saved.
When I was a kid the part of town hall closest to where we read was the police station, the same one my Irish immigrant grandfather was the first town cop on, and a cousin’s son is on now (there has been a Lally on the force there as long as its existed pretty much).
When I was in my teens before I left, I could walk through the door of the police station and often see my brother, a sergeant, behind the dark wood railing that outlined “the desk” all police stations seemed to have then when you walked through their doors, a raised platform that made the desk sergeant seem like some celestial gatekeeper with the authority of a god behind him.
Now that old wood is gone and it’s just another office for the town administrators, the police long ago moved to a squat, ugly, cement building closer to the border with Newark.
Simon came over from New York with his beautiful lady Sarah. She lives in Canada and was down for a visit, it was his birthday this past Thursday. Simon lives on East 12th, in the same building Ginsberg lived and died in for the last few decades of his life on a block that has also been drastically altered from what Simon found when he arrived from England in the 1970s, and I discovered on my own as a teenager in the 1950s.
Back then it was an ethnic enclave, now it’s been delivered to gentrifaction forces that have surrounded Simon’s building with remodeled shops and restraurants that could be Soho after it went through the same process in the ‘70s, or the Upper West Side, or anywhere that caters to the upscale and trendy.
But Simon has remained the same, a bulwark of an older way of life for poets and artists and the bohemians of the Village, East or West, when I was young and Simon was younger.
He’s a unique poet, whose presentation of his poems is like no one else’s. He often repeats each poem after reading them, with slightly different rhythms and emphasis, and sometimes even changes the gender of the pronouns, to give audiences a second chance to appreciate the beauty of his artistry.
One of our most highly honored poets these days, Alice Notley, cites Simon as “…contemporary American and British poetry’s most meticulous craftsperson.”
As he repeats poems and takes various pairs of store bought magnifying reading glasses from various pockets of his dark jacket, fringed with a bright blue scarf, and the glasses slide down his nose and the audience wonders if they will fall off, as they sometimes do, and strands of his still partly red hair stick out from under the tightly knit cap he almost always wears, the entire performance becomes that rare experience of an artistic eccentric whose persona is so real and vivid and original you feel you’re not only witnessing some kind of private cultural history but basking in the presence and the brilliance of an international treasure, one whose work crosses any border where English is understood, and more where it is translated.
He read one of my favorite poems, and acknowledged it as such, that I find the best expression of what we’ve been through these past eight years:
“There is a cruel, messianic, dim, tribal intransigence
That gains you nothing
There’s a bull-headed childish baby-tantrum
That can unleash untold consequences
I am appalled by the darkening sky
I watch my love
It is always my love that I watch”
If you say the above outloud, in an English accent, and slowly, separating each word so it can be heard on its own, and each line even more so as indicated by the extended spacing between them, you may grasp the beauty and depth of how so few words can capture the experience a lot of us felt at some point in the past seven or so years.
It was a small audience, in a small venue, in a small Jersey town (“village" actually, as it was originally incorporated as back in the 1800s), but there were new friends, and one of the youngest brothers of an old friend from back in my day, and good food and hosting from the producer of the event, Nance Boylan, with the help of her friend Lisa Robins and others.
[Okay, not that "small," it was set up like a night club with tables and chairs and had a cabaret feel that made it intimate and friendly. It probably could seat fifty or more folks and was about two thirds full or more, a nice turnout on a rainy Fall night, and a very enthusiastic and attentive one.]
My eleven-year-old was there and enjoyed it too. And afterwards we went to the local Irish pub that came after I left town as a kid, but which I had been in many times since for the parties after funerals I came home for.
It was one of those special times and events that always fill my life with the satisfaction of knowing I chose the right path, the one that took me from this place and brought me back, I only wish so many who has passed were still around to experience not only Simon’s poetry, and mine, our takes on lives lived in accordance with our souls’ desires, as well as our hearts’ and minds’, but on the events of this past week which cannot be simply summarized, but nonetheless I tried in a sonnet I wrote just yesterday for the reading and ended it with:
“It should be a no brainer, voting in the church
around the corner, walked to from my apartment
over sidewalks covered in such amazing
colors from the fallen leaves I feel incapable
of describing this scene, so vividly Autumnal,
such a range of hues, like us, thrilled and
overwhelmed with gratitude, there’s nothing
to compare it to, and yes, I did cry—
“think of the children” they constantly cried
back when I wanted a “black girl” for my bride,
now it looks like that argument was as
backward as I labeled it as a kid, ‘cause
here that theoretical child is—proving
yes we can—create a new world again.”