pure poetry, 2000

Readers who like unlikeable characters will love Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Lila Moscowitz. Lila is stubborn, spoiled, angry, bitter, promiscuously self-destructive. And, frosting on the cake, she’s a poet. That’s not to say she’s without redeemable qualities. She’s funny, hilarious, in fact, a natural wit, and as honest as a person can be without losing all of one’s family and friends and readers. Her humor is laced with sarcasm and irony. She’s quick, street smart and intelligent, independent. Experienced readers will recognize that Lila is not Binnie, that the narrator of a novel should not be confused with the author. This narrative truth is emphasized toward the end of the book when Lila takes some questions after a poetry reading:

“‘Did you really dance topless at the Baby Doll Lounge?’ Another one of the college girls is contemplating a career move, no doubt.
I smile as if I’ve got a secret, and I say, ‘I refuse to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate me.'”

Lila may be a poet, but she’s not stupid:

“That I never danced topless at the Baby Doll Lounge or anyplace else either is not what they want to hear.”

Does she “write every day,” another student asks, and Lila pretends for the audience that she does write every day. She’s then asked “how much money do poets make?” Here she tells the truth (192-193).

But while the perspicacious reader knows Lila is not Binnie, we all know that poetry does not sell, so why not only does Binnie put “poetry” in her title but structures her book with poetic devices, informing each chapter with epigraphs, definitions of poetic conventions? Didn’t she want her book to sell? The answer has to do with wheels within wheels, or how to turn a stand up routine into literature:

“Many of the poems I write are about sex. I have a gift for the subject. The ins and outs of it. My poems lean toward the sordid side of the bed, the stuff of soiled sheets” (21).

We don’t get to hear those poems, but they apparently are full of the tension created by want harbored in inhibitions freed in seduction, romp enclosed in forms, procedures, praxis, which express mores without which somehow sex is not nearly as much fun. The fun is enclosed in a box of gravure etchings. The notion of form as enclosure is conservative. The poet might want out, not in. Lila’s own explanation might solve both Binnie and the reader’s questions:

“There is freedom within the confines of form the way a barrier protects you from the elements of disaster. The way there is love in the bonds of marriage. ‘Without boundaries, you can be only adrift,’ I say. ‘Lost. Without lines drawn on the map, you are nowhere. It is better to be a prisoner of war than to be without a nation, a place, a people'” (194).

Jesus may have said the opposite – Come, follow me, and leave all that nonsense behind. Of course, most of his followers wound up wanting it both ways.

“Maybe they should stay in their cages and sing their hearts out. Unbridled passion…results from being tied to the bedpost” (194).

Which is to make of Lila a dynamic character, one who’s changed over the course of the work. She finds love only by losing love. She’s human, fallen, having slipped on her own banana peel, but she gets back up, and writes a book that stirs and calms the forms.

Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novel, Simon & Schuster, 2000, 203 pages.

The Old Busker

He stood beneath a bank of trees
near the beach of a green spring
the wily busker taking deposits
of fruit in his cowpoke hat basket
a few choice purple cherries
a couple of greenbacks
and a nugget of fool’s gold.

He sang of broken hearts
paper torn into many pieces
litter along the roadway
how love collects like dust
up against the bent guardrails
that’s my heart in pennies
he sang out on the highway.

He worries the strings of his guitar
with his bent wire fingers
flap slaps the hook smacks the box
shapes his fretful music
the earth wants a cover
creeping vines and grasses
if any have many piled carpets.

To Forgo

For days on end we go without
disavow our yielding yellows
surrender calls our voices
You knew what was coming

The abyss, an abyss anyway
I often want to share mine
with you but then I forget
your name your hands

Every morning now I finish
flex the memory stretch
credulity as they say no
more evidence than an empty

basement the attic too
the whole house spotless
not a speckle or a flake
of what used to take place

the romp stomp jerkings
the peaceful long sleeps
no need to hark but now
lend an ear or a hand.

Marine Layer

Loveliest of evenings long passed
close kissed in dark dwelling alley
irate tenants hissing us go away
and we felt the marine layer coming.

Felt with our youthful tongues day
and night passing slowly into the mix
of salt and hair and wet sandpaper
rubbing away our persistent presents.

And while yesterday we had sun
today we have none though they say
the globe is warming you wear your
flannel nightgown winter and summer.

About Nora

Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.

Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.

But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.

Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.

Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.

Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.

Add Title

You say primordial like it was a long time ago,
but look around, see the ooze from the same
old sores seeping through the bandages of time.

Of universe you birthed forth, blind at first,
then you thought you could see, with eyes
no less, your ears and nose full of dark matter,

and through every pore of your skin comes
and goes all the bugs of a family fortune,
a species come true, true to life.

But you are not true to type or form.
You mix and mingle and wander,
one day fins, the next, feathers,

anything to get ahead, until one day,
you fall in love with another just
like you. Well, almost.

Love with the Proper Structure

Zeroing in on the yawing wound of her loss, Minerva had said she had loved Hotel Julian. There are lots of other buildings in Los Angeles, I offered, to assuage her pain – penalty, I thought to myself, for not taking better care of what she claimed to love. But it wasn’t the building she loved, the structure, all those parts lovingly dismantled and carried out by the scroungers, scavengers, salvagers. To love a plate of hot salty fries cooled with catsup, the same love as for a Coney Island hot dog and a cold beer at the ballpark on a summer afternoon as the crowd settles in to a quiet fourth inning, is not the same love one might feel for a fearless fox terrier, or an alley cat rescued from a winter rain, or a baby of necessity given up by its teen mother, or the love for an abusive father or mother whose needs can never be satisfied by the child. Jesus said to love the Father with all your heart, soul, and mind; he didn’t say you had to be happy about it. Likewise, he said to love others as you love yourself; but he didn’t say what to do if you don’t love yourself, if you suffer from anhedonia, if your self esteem has been lowered to the level of a creeping worm. But a worm will turn, as the saying goes, and pressed to love, will. Love is desire that never dies. We often want something that may not be good for us, and the satisfactions those loves might provide quickly peter out, but true love (to coin a phrase) is a want for something that is always good for us, even if that good does not produce the same kinds of satisfactions or gratifications we’ve come to enjoy and want again and again, and which we eventually might come to realize are actually insatiable, and we can only want more. To love is to want less, not more, to be fulfilled, not emptied. To structure is to build, compose, make up.

“Love with the Proper Structure” is episode 43 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

In Another Clean, Well-Lighted Place

He turns to an empty
whiskey barrel,
wondering if there is life
on the red planet,
or under the Venus cloud cover,
or inside her
granny panties.

He reaches for his watering can,
always a few drops to go,
dribbles a few words
of too late love.

They sit across the bar
from one another,
smiling back and forth.

The water runs out his mouth,
over his lips,
and down his chin,
his clear-cut neck,
a waterfall of love’s
last cleaning.

If You’ll Be My Love

I’ll paddle out through sharks for you
live on Desolation Row with you
burn all my books for you
if you’ll be my love

I’ll walk the pirate’s plank for you
smoke a cigarette or two
join the National Guard for you
if you’ll be my love

I’ll sleep with deadly snakes for you
crawl through caves of spider nests
I’ll be a bee for your nectarine
but I won’t sting your sweet flower

I’ll barbecue my ribs for you
wash the dishes and take out the trash
change the cat litter and watch TV with you
if you’ll be my love

I’ve nowhere to go to take you to
no gold ring from Saks Fifth Avenue
I’ll write a letter of love to you
if you’ll be my love

Now these days I sing to you
memories of long-ago
don’t you think it’s time that you
let me be your love?

But you don’t want to live yesterday
and not necessarily for all time
and love seems so far away
in a song like some kind of oldie

The song “If You’ll Be My Love” performed Live at 5 (PST) from the Portland Joe Zone on June 20, 2020.

Note: the last two lines in the third stanza were substituted in the live version with these:

I’m a bee flying around your room
looking for the flower of your love



Words of Love

Honey,
I’ve looked everywhere
for the lost words
telling your love for me
in the kitchen compost bin
in the basement of my heart
in the attic of my ass (what
a Fantastic Voyage that was!)
through the crawl space
between my breasts
in the curls of my hair
in the fishnets between my legs
between my toes and under my nails
Alas! nowhere to be found,

she said, subtle armpits open
to the heat of the night

Baby, she went on,
I can’t love you if I can’t
find the right words of love
come back tomorrow or next week
I’ve got the College Dictionary
here and the Bible
and a stack of noir paperbacks
I’ll find your words of love
if it’s the last thing I do

Up my nose, under my eyelids
around and around my ears
maybe stuck in earwax I’m thinking
his words of love where could they be
could someone have stolen them
who would want them
someone else’s words
could they be buried
in the cushions of the couch
lost in the halo of my navel
tangled in the curlers tossed
across my dresser in the old
35 millimeter slide box
in the china cabinet in the corner
(which has not been opened
over a decade of Thanksgivings)
in the medicine chest upstairs
in the hall closet
in the glove box of the Buick
under the rug
in the dirty clothes hamper

Maybe, Sweetie, you told them
too slant, or to another
words of love must be true
if they are to come back to you.

20180705_185322