The Re-creation of Sam McGee

My father, Arthur Enright, different ties, 1927, 1960

 

The Re-creation of Sam McGee

                                                            for Art Enright

There were strange things stuck inside my head

            By that bear-all of a man

At those parties in my mother’s kitchen

            Where the whiskey always ran.

Those Buffalo snows enclosed it all

            But the guests were warm and free

When me Dad would stand bottle in hand

            And declaim The Cremation of Sam McGee.

 

Now me Dad was born in the nineteen-oughts

            When Mr. Service was a hero

Because his poems let the people know

            That not all poems were infernal,

That some were meant just to calm a crowd

            And tell a well rhymed story,

And me Dad was there to share the tale

            And in telling share its glory.

 

My place was on the kitchen stairs

            In the shadow of the landing

Where my parents knew all us kids would be

            Out of sight but understanding.

The party would progress apace,

            My Irish uncles would be singing,

Then me Dad would stand and take his place

            His moment just beginning.

 

Someone would tap a knife to glass

            And the circle would slowly center.

The women would turn, my Mom would smile,

            The men would cease their banter.

Me Dad would stub his Camel out

            And take a drink for voice and luck,

Then looking off, he’d start the piece

            That he’d learned when just a pup.

 

His voice was grand, it filled the room

            As if it were a castle.

His face transformed from the man we knew

            As he became the ballad’s vassal.

No bottles clinked, no chairs scraped back,

            The silence went unshattered.

For a stretch of time unmeasured still

            His words were all that mattered.

 

Sent off to bed I’d repeat in my head

            The verses I’d retained,

And the snow’s cold fall re-enforced it all,

            The source of Sam McGee’s pain.

Long after sleep as in a dream I’d feel

            A hand press down upon my head

And a whiskey kiss as warm as bliss

            Would press my cheek into the bed.

 

Many years went by before I found

            That Service poem inside a book.

I checked it out and took it home

            To take another look.

The poem’s alright, but I’ll tell you this

            And this is not a lie—

The way it’s writ is not as good

            As me Dad could tell it on the fly.

 

 

 

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North Korean Soldiers

North Korean Soldiers

In the photo of the North Korean soldiers
can you zoom in on the woman marching
on the far left, the one with the fewest
medals on her chest and a mouth
like the petals of a baby flower,
the one holding her Kalashnikov
as if it were a Stradivarius?
God, she doesn’t want to be there.
Is that why she’s the prettiest?

 

After The All-Star Break

Willie Mays catch

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, the simple pleasures of a summer night—

a warm breeze of cricket sound through the house

a cold pale ale and news of

both the Yankees and the Mets

victorious against their closest rivals

—pain pills kicking in.

Canisius High School Class Of ’63

Canisius RingsIt’s that time of year. Caps and gowns time. Canisius is the Jesuit high school in Buffalo that I graduated from 52 years ago.

 
 
 

Canisius High School Class of ’63

They say that armies are always trained
to re-fight the war that they last won.
Four years of Latin and a whole homeroom
lost to Greek; Father Riesert’s giant
slide rule above the blackboard of his
physics classroom; the unheated pool
where we naked water polo warred.
All the past was invested in us—
Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Shakespeare,
authority’s unquestioned dominance,
the sport coats and ties, dictated haircuts,
pride of place, and fear of jug.

All that was before.

Before Nam and napalm,
before Jimi Hendrix and the pill,
before foot prints on the moon,
before Joan Baez or hash brownies,
before satellites linking and stealing
our lives, or all the glaciers melting.

We who were born with the bomb
can bear witness to the before and after.
We have watched it all change—
black holes replacing purgatory,
irony supplanting orthodoxy.
Even the number of dimensions
has expanded beyond comprehension.

Amo, amas, amat — the first Latin
we were taught in freshman year.
Those Jesuits, they just sent us out
as raw recruits onto a battlefield
that Ignatius could never begin to imagine.
Would he have a website or a blog?
It has all been an end-game of sorts.
Whatever comes next will be more desperate.
But we did the best we could.
The end of the past follows us & just as well.
The future will be its own orphan.

Archival

Everything grows into somethingThe folks at the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Rhode Island Library have agreed to take my journals and papers for safe-keeping. So, for the past few days I have been busy getting all that in order to say goodbye to. The library gave me boxes in which to stash it all—fifty years’ worth, maybe 10,000 pages in all. The oldest of these files have followed me from Harlem to Berkeley to New Jersey to San Francisco to Samoa to Rhode Island. The 26 years of Samoa papers still retain the fond moldy smell of the islands.

There are at least a thousand poems and hundreds of pieces of both finished and abandoned prose to sort through. Every time I moved I threw away more than I kept, but there is still too much. I sort it all through yet another, final filter, filling black garbage bags with the less than necessary. So much paper waste—I have not lived a forest friendly life. But I do get to revisit raising my son in the benign bush of Tutuila and re-fear cyclones I had forgotten.

I’ll share a few pieces here, all from decades ago.

Desire

I want a t-shirt
that says on its back
Use Other Side First.
 
I want a ticket
that no one will question,
a friend in high places.
 
I want a history
where no one is named
and facts have no dates
 
but eons have names
like Nancy and Jane
where nothing happens.
 
Please pass the eraser.
Between us we can
get somewhere fast.
 
I just feel it rising
out of the sidewalk
and into my soul
 
nothing that I ever
needed or wanted
as naked as I am
 
as useless as cops
as salty as sex
as open as a wound.
 
I want an old day
to stop by and visit
to sit by the window
 
and tell me about
what the king will say
to the queen when they
 
finally are left alone
and all her sorrows
have dissolved in tears.

 

Santa Pajama

Santa Pajama was a bedroom community just up the coast from Vaudville. We drove up the coast road. The ocean was so calm it looked asleep. Samantha slathered sunblock onto her arms and face and shoulders. It was May.

When we got there I couldn’t find the place. I kept rereading the directions she’d taken down over the phone and kept getting lost. Samantha pretended to sleep.

What I finally found was the wrong place on the boardwalk above the beach. But the people there knew who Buddy was and sent us to a bar on the Vista Verde where we could find him. He wasn’t there but Samantha knew the bartender — remembered him from a Shinto halfway house up in Nofloss — so we stayed and drank diet maitais.

I found Buddy’s phone number on the on the toilet partition in the men’s room. I left a message for him on the machine that answered at a Swedish phonesex service. When I went back to the bar Samantha was gone and there was a new bartender. Her purse was still on the floor beside her empty barstool.

I slept in the car, in the back seat. I’m short. In the morning a 13 year old girl wearing a pair of men’s peach jockey shorts as a halter top and a pair of Italian roller skates was asleep in the front seat. I married her. We’ve got three kids now. We don’t live there anymore.

 

abc

anyway
because
creation
demands
eternal
fasting
gorging
healing
in order
just to know
looping
meaningless
nevertheless
operationally
pertinent
questions re:
recording
some-
times
unrelated
verasimilitudes
without which
xyz

Specs’ Saloon, North Beach, San Francisco

Specs

Specs himself outside his saloon, having a smoke and a laugh, 2004

Someone observed about the Buffalo I grew up in that there seemed to be a church on every block and two saloons at every intersection. They were all filled with good Christians. The typical neighborhood tavern carried the proprietor’s family name—Strinka’s, say, or Topolski’s or O’Connor’s—and had two entrances, one to the bar in front and another family entrance in the rear to the dining room. As most of the city was Catholic, these family entrances got most of their traffic on Fridays around dinner time, because the tavern’s cheap fish fry was a housewife’s welcome alternative to stinking up the house with the smell of cooking fish. And it was payday.

It was a blue-collar world. A shot of schnapps and a draft cost you fifty cents. For many the corner barroom was like another room on their house—a room free of family and kids. There were no TVs above the bar, no sports channels, and if there was a juke box it wasn’t tolerated during prime drinking hours, dusk to midnight, and for half the year dusk came early to Buffalo. Patrons either quietly conversed or sat alone inside the blessed freedom of their chosen cone of silence, studying their drinks and cigarettes, communing only with themselves and maybe their reflection in the back-bar mirror behind its picket fence of whiskey bottles. Normally everyone there would be a regular, and after a while bits of personal history would become absorbed as common knowledge and the men and women behind the bar became not just the dispensers of self-medication but also the reference librarians of local lore and current events.

“I haven’t seen Murphy in here in a week.”
“It’s his back again. You remember his accident.”
“Did the union ever get them assholes to settle?”
“I guess they’re paying for another operation.”
“How’s his wife doing?”
“She’s off the drink, too, I think. Hasn’t been in. Want another?”

If Murphy didn’t make it, there would be a collection for the widow and the kids.

I entered this world when I was seventeen, and for the next twenty years—until I moved to Samoa—neighborhood bars, no matter where they were, would be my wayside chapels of peace and familiarity. If during that time the Catholic Church ditched Latin as its unifying language, corner saloons still spoke the same lingo of escape and observed a consistent liturgy of nonjudgmental sanctuary, filled with your fellow faithful. Homes away from home, the other room to your ancestral house that you could always find if you walked the streets and could interpret the neon semiotics of barroom windows.

I spent several years visiting, photographing, and researching the scattered remaining historic saloons of the California Gold Rush and Nevada Mother Lode country for a book I never wrote. I used to pride myself if plopped down in a new town—at a Greyhound Bus Station say—of being able to find on instinct the nearest convivial watering hole. I wonder how many thousands of such places I’ve walked into, just a stranger coming in the door and taking a stool at the bar and ordering a drink. Just do it right and nobody will ever question you. It is like entering a church and dipping your right hand into the holy water font and blessing yourself and genuflecting properly before the altar. In twenty years no one ever challenged me or tried to pick a quarrel. From Hong Kong to Belfast, in twenty different countries and every state of the union the sacrament was the same.

And so it was in North Beach where I found Specs’. I never lived in that part of San Francisco, but Specs’ became my neighborhood bar. I am a tad superstitious about talking about Specs’, because the place, which absorbed me forty years ago, is still there, just off Columbus Avenue on old Adler (now Saroyan) Alley, unchanged, ungentrified, and I am afeared to jinx its existence by writing about it as history. (Is this aging, when you begin to feel some responsibility for the past, some complicity with its integrity and survival?) I moved often in those years, both around and away from the Bay Area, but Specs’ Museum and Saloon remained a sort of borrowed nexus, the place where people could find me if I was in town or leave messages for me if I wasn’t. A place to find connections for work or the next apartment to rent or a new lover. But mainly it was a place to talk, a bohemian wayback machine. Again there was no TV set in the place nor a juke box. The bartenders were Irish maestros of gab. I made some good friends there, folks always ready to pick up the talk no matter where it had left off, folks who just wanted cohorts and a space to enjoy the end of their day.

A number of years ago I stopped in Specs’ on my way through San Francisco to somewhere else. It had been three or four years since my last in transit visit. I hung out at City Lights Books across the avenue until Specs’ opened after four. I took my old seat at the end of the bar between the front window and the reading lamp and opened a book I’d just bought. The bartender, a younger man whom I’d never seen before, was busy setting up the bar for business. I didn’t bother him with an order. All the memorabilia of the bar—the flags and shark jaws, old union posters and ironic signs, scrimshaw and Inuit art, framed newspaper headlines and eclectic photos—were all still in there proper places, all sepia stained like Civil War prints by decades of cigarette smoke. Then a green sixteen-ounce can of Rainer Ale appeared on a coaster in front of me. Green Death we used to call it, the strongest, most assertive brew you could buy there, the usual opening drink of the old sundown regulars thirty-five years before.

“What’s this?” I said to the unknown barkeep.
“You’re Enright, aren’t ya?” he answered, straight out of Dublin. “And that’s your usual, ain’t it? Where ya bin?”

I came back late that night, before closing. A different crowd, all younger, only a few of the old, hobbled and roseola-nosed regulars left. I came back to see the eponymous proprietor Richard “Specs” Simmons himself, who, dapper still in his 70s, would stop by to judge the closing crowd. We were glad to meet. We sat at a table near the front and talked the present about the past, as men will, catching up on people and their personal events—Deborah’s kids, Marilyn’s last known success, Kent’s funeral. Since my previous visit San Francisco had passed a law against tobacco smoking in all public places, including saloons, and now the dead-end pedestrian alleyway in front of Specs’ often held the best conversations, as smokers followed one another outside, placing coasters on top of their drinks on the bar. But when Specs lit a cigarette without moving from his table, I did too.

“It’s my place, after all,” he said. “If anyone wants to file a complaint, then fuck ‘em. They’re eighty-sixed forever and may they remain eternally childless.” He took a drag. “And I’ll gladly pay the fucking fine.”

Usual Group at the Window Table
____________________

How in Westerns the wheels of the wagons
always spin backwards the faster they go,
how ice and flame at first touch feel the same.
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

If all my sins were confessed in Islam
my body would have no extremities.
What do you call what you want to forget?
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

There are faults in the sky that insult me,
slick birds with no wings that call themselves souls.
Without your lost beauty no one knows you.
Take a pint and a seat by the window

Slow Motion

No need to surprise.

I’ve been surprised before

and it doesn’t last.

It’s the slow things now

that make me take notice.

Got something slow to show me?

How snow drifts disappear,

ditch water with nowhere to go?

 

You hear how catastrophes happen

always in slow-mo—the car

tumbling once then again,

stretching endtime like taffy

—half way to eternity, then

half way again, ad infinitum.