I’m remembering a poem I wrote in college, in which I reflected on a photograph by a fellow student and aspiring photographer. It appeared in the first issue of the literary magazine I founded and edited at Suffolk University; a magazine that survives to this day. Its subject is a man, seemingly an old man — though probably younger than I am now — standing in the sallow overhead illumination of the marquee above the doorway of the pensioner’s hotel called The Beacon Chambers at the heart of Beacon Hill in Boston. (The brick building on Myrtle Street that was The Chambers is still there — but probably a boutique hotel now, or expensive condominiums. Ghosts, old-man ghosts, must flock all around it. )
Time of the poem: It is the mid-to-late 60s. The man is glancing sullenly toward the camera, aware he is being photographed, though I’m certain the photographer, a fellow named Phil Bailey, hoped he was a good distance off in the shadows near the corner of Joy Street.
And I wrote of this man: Wind made him from careless ashes/ Leaning him where history wriggles vermin-like behind the honored stones/ And evening laughter, falling out of orange windows/ Blows along the bending streets/ And brushes, dead, against his feet.
Kind of a leaden echo where one hopes for a silver or golden echo in the words of a poem.
Is it any good? Not really. My favorite English professor didn’t think so, either. But — 50 years later, how about a little analysis of what was swarming about in 21-year-old Greg Wayland’s “poetic” brain.
The man, probably smoking though you do not see a cigarette, looked like a column of ashes to me; careless because I imagined all the burned-out ashes of every gutter in the city swept up into this burned-out human form. After all, we’ve just marked Ash Wednesday when we hear the words, “dust (or ashes) thou art and to dust thou shalt return…” T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem “Ash Wednesday” ultimately lets a sea of burned and blackened images collapse upon the prayerful, liturgical appeal, “And let my cry come unto Thee.” I now much prefer this recourse to the divine to the sentimental nihilism of my 21-year-old self.
As for “where history wriggles vermin-like…” Just a surly undergraduate’s pseudo-cynicism, his aspiration being to denigrate Boston’s and Beacon Hill’s much ballyhooed urban corpus, it’s “honored stones,” where, in fact, as every college renter might have attested in those days of the 1960s, cockroaches abounded. So history is just so many bugs infesting very old, possibly “historic” buildings. So I chose to see it, through a glass darkly, at that moment.
“….evening laughter, falling out of orange windows…” As I walked up, down and across Beacon Hill during those young, sometimes overly-idle years, I would hear voices, laughter coming out of lighted (“orange”) windows — or did I? Did I just imagine such voices, such laughter? Surely, there were people within those buildings; surely from time to time, I was among them, visiting here or there. Doesn’t every old city of the world have these old, crowded brick or brownstone sectors and can’t you hear the voices, the laughter? So that image, that imagining, went into my little “poem.” And the laughter could have “drifted” out, but I, clumsily, imagined it a physical thing “falling” out of those windows like strands of ribbon, and landing on Beacon Hill’s narrow “bending” streets; being blown thereafter along those streets by the same imagined gusts that blew the ashes into the form of a man in the Beacon Chambers doorway; a man whom I, sadly, deprived of his humanity by imagining him merely a pillar of ashes.
And I imagined these strands of laughter, after traveling like blown debris across Beacon Hill, ending up “brushing, dead, against his (the man in the doorway’s) feet.”
So there you have it. And, because I do not have the poem before me, I cannot show you how I broke up the brief stanzas, some of the words floating out there –“blown” out there — by themselves. The poem, by the way, had no title. It ran alongside the grainy picture of the man.
I feel some resentment now for that English professor, a favorite as noted, who should have given me a little encouragement. Writers, especially young writers, need praise, or, at least, encouragement. Surely this effort was not entirely without merit. He might have told me — he did not — exactly what was “wrong” with hit, or how I might have “improved” it, or told me how it did or did not compare with poems that had earned the name of poems. I, these years later, see the awkwardness, the (again) clumsy, leaden use of words. And a poem is all about the words. But the images — might this have been akin to the Imagists? Where might I have learned what little there might have been of merit in this poem? Whom was I imitating?
In truth, I do not always entirely understand poetry, especially modern, less accessible poetry. But I know I love it nonetheless, and that this means of talking, soul to soul rather than just ear to ear or eye to eye, is worth my time, like music that does not always reward my first listening. All the more reason to read it, listen to it, divine what, as one poet said of another poet’s poems, “how this contraption works.” Like paintings, abstract or representational, we, the viewer must make up our minds about the worth of the art object.
Whole epics from ancient times are often viewed through their literature, including, perhaps especially, their poems. One thinks of that ever-so-brief and yet so passionate and anonymous poem that has survived from the obscure Middle Ages, being, apparently, the longing of some lonely traveler or warrior — Western wind when wilt thou blow/ The small rain down can rain/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again.
It is a prayer, really. With weather.
But that lonely poem of mine is– to date, the only one I’ve written: I just might, someday revise it, as a more supportive professor might have encouraged me to do. Its subject can now become a source of abstract poetic speculation — about his humanity and his ultimate fate. His certain, long-ago death. Who stayed at the Beacon Chambers but lonely, nearly impoverished, often alcohol, even sick or dying men? It seemed to be a place only for men — and such men as this.
And what shall I call this poem?
I suppose it should be called, “Man in the Doorway.”