MAN IN THE DOORWAY

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.”

LET’S BE CLEAR…

Baffled but overawed, we might now and then browse the work of some renowned contemporary philosopher or social theorist (plug in a name here) and, while finding their paragraphs impenetrable, nonetheless feel obliged to assume a great mind is spawning truly original ideas way over our humble, ill-educated heads. But we might also look down at those words and wonder….does this guy, this woman, this “great mind” really need to be so obscure? Can’t obfuscation hide pretention? I maintain that the superficial — and what I call “super feces” — often lie among the thickest patch of verbal weeds.

In other words, it could be that you’re reading a big load of crap.

In The Elements of Style, Shrunk and White’s slim, well-thumbed and endlessly famous handbook on verbal clarity, there is a chapter on The Elementary Principle of Composition. George Orwell is summoned to provide an example of strong writing being “deprived of its vigor.” Orwell took a passage from the Bible, where you find plenty of strong writing, and, in Strunk and White’s words, “drained it of its blood.”

So here’s the bloodless example:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

What is missing, besides blood, is any concrete language. And now, from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes, courtesy of George Orwell, comes the Biblical verse that untangles that coil of verbiage and renders it into comprehensible, rhapsodic, very concrete verse for the ages.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Clear? Yes, in a biblical way. Concrete? Solid!

You understand this, though it is essentially poetry, in a way you could never understand the other. The repetition seems to dance the words into your head. (Hey! Greg! Be “concrete” if you must, but must you keep messing with metaphors? Before you know it, you’ll be mixing metaphors like someone mixing a batch of concrete. There! Another metaphor! This, too, can be the enemy of clarity.)

Anyway, class, avoid the verbal “super feces” that lay hidden among the verbal weeds like cow plop. Yuk! (Does that make any sense? Metaphorical or other?)

Right about now, George Orwell can be heard groaning.

To be clear, the best writing is clear writing. Clear? Class dismissed.

JOY ON TAMPA WATERS

Tom Brady just wrapped up a joyous SuperBowl victory boat parade down the interlocking waterways of Tampa’s core. The celebration continues. Time was when wheeled Duck Boats carried Tom and fellow champions through the frozen gray heart of old Boston. The sun must be agreeing with Tom as he pilots his own boat, surrounded by family, Rob Gronkowski on somebody’s aft deck cavorting joyously and drunkenly, naked to the waist. Tampa and Tampa Bay are “new” in ways old New England isn’t. The Bay has won the hockey’s Stanley Cup and baseball’s American League Pennant.

Now that St. Petersburg has come into its own, I hope this sprawl of water and real estate and core cities can congeal into one cooperative urban base. People are fleeing the expense, weather and politics to the far north.

I guess I’m glad, though an unreconstructed Cod, to be here for this. And I’m glad Tom Brady actually grasped my hand once with that legendary right hand of his when I greeted him and he said, “Hi, Greg.” He didn’t and doesn’t know me, but I trotted behind him up and down the stairs of the Mass State House the day he, Drew Bledsoe and Troy Brown took a victory lap among legislative offices getting their “attaboys” for their combined win that began the Brady years. He was just a lanky unknown then. He belongs to sports history now.

And all this in plague times. (There were masks in evidence over in Tampa. I think it’s a city ordinance for the time being. But I saw no masks, lots of bare skin and plenty of booze onboard those boats.)

Through all this, there is that abiding reality about all our lives and our moments in the sun being brief — but it seems nothing is more evanescent than the career of an athlete. I just mentioned Drew Bledsoe and Troy Brown. Where are they now? Injuries, bodily limitations under the best of circumstances and the cold business realities of professional athletics necessarily mean that pro careers will, in most cases, be very brief. Small wonder they demand high salaries while the glory last and while they earn millions of dollars for their franchise overlords.

In this respect, Tom Brady has been blessed with an unusual long and brilliant career. It’s no accident. He works hard. He is not, from all accounts, the best at any one aspect of what he does — doesn’t throw the hardest, can’t really scramble, etc..But he is great in the combination of all he does. And he seems to be a master strategist, mentally tough, very competitive. I guess I’d like to take a leaf out of his golden playbook.

Enjoy the interval, Tom. I know you’re dying to get back to work.

THE DEATH OF A MOUNTAIN

For this winter’s early February night, as snow closes in again on my old home turf in New England and I sit in the surprisingly cold bluster of a Florida night that resembles a chill — if milder — winter night in the north…on this night, I say, I offer the Russian master Boris Pasternak’s recollections of his life, from a little volume I’ve been toting about in move after move for perhaps two decades. I finally read it and found within the poet/novelist’s account of the wake, if that is how they thought of it, for that mountain of a man that was Leo Tolstoy. He gave us, among many other things, War and Peace. What literate soul doesn’t aspire to read it? I read some version of it around high school age, probably an abridged version. I own an unabridged version and dip into it now and then. It remains a mountain I mean to climb. It defines that long, unread novel on every serious reader’s bookstore and library ‘to do’ list. It also continues to define epic literary greatness. Few have disagreed.

Yes, a mountain of a man and artist was Tolstoy — but Pasternak, in a room in a Russian trains station where Tolstoy’s body was taken before its journey home, writes…

“It was not…a mountain that lay in the corner of the room, but a little, wizened old man, one of the old men created by Tolstoy, one of those he had described and scattered over his pages by the dozen. Little Christmas trees stood all around the place. The setting sun cut across the room with four slanting shafts of light and formed a cross over the corner where the body was lying with the thick shadow of winter-bars and other little baby crosses with traceries of the young Christmas trees.

“The railway hamlet of Astapovo was transformed that day into a discordantly noisy encampment of world journalism.”

I guess some things never change: the media gaggle descending with all its collective feet. I used to be a member of that gaggle — and would love to have covered the wake and funeral of the Russian literary giant; the Russian “mountain.”

And, Pasternak writes on….

“The station buffet did a roaring trade, the waiters were run off their feet, too busy to carry out all the orders of their customers and serving underdone beefsteak at a run. Rivers of beer were consumed.”

Sounds like an Irish wake! We’ll call it a Russian wake. Well, it was fitting that the literary giant — the mountain — should be grandly observed and celebrated upon his passing.

Pasternak continues:

“To the chanting of a requiem, the students and the young people carried the coffin across the little yard and the garden of the stationmaster’s house to the railway platform and put it in the freight care, and to the accompaniment of the resumed singing, the train slowly moved of in the direction of Tula.”

Tolstoy had died at 82 of pneumonia. It was 1910. He was buried at his home estate, Yasnaya Polyana near Tula, Russia. The estate operates today as a Tolstoy museum and park the master’s unadorned grave can be found on the property.  

Russia is not a congenial place for many, especially merchants of truth, including artists. But it’s good to know the remains of Leo Tolstoy lie there peacefully in the country he loved and that his memory is treasured, even if disingenuously, by Russia’s indigenous enemies of a free society and free speech who, in bygone days, made life so difficult for that other Russian master and writer of epic novels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Pasternak offers here his own assessment of Tolstoy as a man and and artist who “all his life and at any given moment… possessed the faculty of seeing things in the detached finality of each separate moment, in sharp relief, as we see things only on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-embracing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory.

“To see things like that it is necessary that one’s eye should be directed by passion. For it is passion that by its flash illuminates an object, intensifying its appearance

“Such passion…Tolstoy constantly carried about within himself, ” Pasternak concludes.

The memoir from which I drew this recollection is called, simply, I Remember.

I’m glad the poet and author of the novel Dr. Zhivago recorded these moments, both solemn and festive. Indeed, how could he have forgotten being present the moment a “mountain” was borne away — into posterity.