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“Nothing can remain horizontal or vertical for long” might as well be David Blair’s mini ars poetica. A commitment to the pleasures and terrors of change, you might say. I have been reading Blair’s poems for about ten years now—struck always by his unique pitch and tone, the tensile muscularity of his syntax and vibrational accents. His diction is totally unboxed. He reminds me a bit of August Kleinzahler or John Yau in this—a karaoke of urban hullabaloo sung slightly off the beat, all for the sake of swing.
Blair is a city poet, a cosmopolitan. And thank God! He rescues us from that undifferentiated, vaguely metaphysical neither-here-nor-there of so many poets. He is deep into the nooks and crannies in the tenements behind City Hall. He knows about the balls of cotton wedged between toes at the pedicurist’s. He knows about afro picks and convention centers and the curator with her Jack Russell on a leash. He sees the deaf kid on the subway drinking pineapple soda, and the flaneur who seems to be channeling Joey Ramone. There’s something deeply humane about all this, a kind of observational generosity, but one full of disturbing gestures and ghosts. The honesty in these poems is tied up with a curiosity about people. Blair’s poems make me feel the way I do when watching Fellini’s early films, which is one reason he can make the boardwalk at Boston’s Revere Beach look like a town on the Cinque Terre. An ebullient insightfulness rules the world here, tinged by the elegiac.
David Blair’s acceptance of the world is signaled by his stylishness, provoked by the people and things he encounters. His brain knows that it’s living in an animal body. And it moves among all these other minds and bodies in motion. Changed by the smallest of changes. Unbalanced but at ease. This poet’s energy reminds me of Edwin Denby’s comments about De Kooning’s paintings from the 1930s: “He wanted everything in the picture out of equilibrium except spontaneously all of it . . . a miraculous force and weight of presence moving from all over the canvas at once.” These poems want that, too.
Sometimes the deaf city kids
get down to randy love stares
and flirtations across the train—
that’s when the vibration is softest.
But try passing between deaf thugs
when they get up on the balls of their feet
and thrust their chests out.
It’s hard not to get tangled in offense,
a flurry of hand-chops and quick moves,
insults that sting more deeply for being spoken
with the actual bodies of the deaf
than with sounds that are invisible.
One deaf kid surrenders to the taunts
and laughter that was the promise of laughter
by drinking a pineapple soda
so quickly it must be said he killed it.
Another tears into a brown bread sandwich
with the air of a gored seal. The Daredevil
would be more plausible deaf than blind.
When the train stops for occult reasons,
time feels like a jeep just broken down
where a government has toppled,
and people on the street wonder
who is inside with such a worried look.
When the train starts moving again,
a refugee pulls up black knee socks
and adjusts khaki shorts and proceeds
to a convenience store in Pennsylvania.
Nothing can remain horizontal or vertical
for long. Everything is really curving around,
dovetailing like the flights of pigeons and sparrows
when they decide to fly together in fear—but we can’t
fly with Amelia Earhart in all 360 degrees—
nobody there to hold the map or aim the flashlight.
How nice it must have been when Amelia
took off her leather aviatrix hat and goggles.
She walked around here and saw cats
in the hydrangeas, boxwoods and hosta plants.
Somebody saw her leap over the hedgerow.
When you live near Amelia Earhart’s old house,
you have to think of her walking around.
It’s possible that she was always bundled
muscle, nerve and horse sense.
Standing rigidly against rivers like a dam
named after a president is a dubious way to be,
but I can imagine Amelia fascinated by toasters
and Christmas lights, the large blue bulbs,
and the terrifying orange coils
and the way the toaster cord feels like the root
of a plant when attached to earthen recesses,
and I can imagine a blue bathrobe for her
in the endless morning before anything.
Her house is a courageous hairdo, a curl
constructed entirely of brown, fibrous light.
Free Variation on Poem from Ovid’s Amores
All the fans had stopped. Bedside clocks went blank.
Somebody in air like this was just slicing tomatoes
for sandwiches. Her housedress was flowery.
She was moving around the formfitting brownout
in the clouds after it rains. She looked at unlit radios
while giraffes paused at the branches. Zebras trotted
in single file along their path. The zoo was beyond
the brownout, but still in the city. The rolling finbacks
could probably hear bass lines, drawbridges, crankshafts,
car radios. Some songs get lots of play. Every summer
descends from dolomite mountains and brings with it
the seen as well as the unseen, everything found
above lake waters gone through the rows of corn.
These brownouts are always rolling through towns.
If you spend the hot day between two buildings,
you can speak of the filtering down and drift out.
You will really feel you got your money’s worth
if you saw some animals like the lions humping.
That moving about the kitchen with a long comb
was throaty and abstracted. Some couples were not
just licking their ice cream. They were licking
their new bicycles. They were really licking
their babies. And those with interesting breeds
were licking their dogs. Always, shuffleboard courts
at your feet. Always, a cyclone fence with a deer
on the other side of it. There was a swimming pool
in your mouth. The most fortunate were dropping
their bandanas and blue jeans heavy and salty
as brick, draping shirts over the backs of chairs,
putting wallets and combs and watches in baskets,
taking off scarves, untying shoes, rubbing dry
mud from the soles of their feet, unfastening straps,
pushing buttons through eyelets. Your grandmother
was cutting a tomato in her fourth floor apartment
while somebody else’s grandmother was skinning
dinner. The big, red kangaroos were dreamily peed on
by the less abstract brown ones. Voices also had snouts
but were denasal around a wooden bench. Squash plants
were breathing above the mud. Brownouts were sliced open.
It’s a ruckus in the mezzanine: Shontel, Shontel,
Barry, Barry, Dougie, Wanda, Brenda, Dorie.
The sweat stands out above their thick glasses
and rolls down furrowed brows. The kids leaving
parry wildly and gesticulate. They take the harps
back down from the trees and use them.
The light at graduation is somewhat dressier
than at normal times. This light is from black marble
details at the Syria Mosque and the beaux glass
fixtures in the auditorium and the stairwells.
The dark sphinxes out front have golden wigs
and temperate paws. If you stand in the middle
of graduations, you feel the rivers spread their silt.
The way some people stop and watch weddings
leave the lean downtown churches in white cars,
I climb balconies in expectation. The school chorus
sings about rainbows and landscapes and ideals.
I remember feeling emotional at graduations
with a lingering sense of unseen hips sweating
into control top stockings, the glitter, the sheen.
When the catalpas and horse chestnut trees
were in bloom, the honeysuckle vines
would take over the wooden fences and hedges,
so it was easy to develop sudden but shattering
crushes on somebody a few rows away, seen
and then disappearing into the mirrored lobbies
forever, and good luck to that one. Grandmothers
rose in purple and orange crepes and waves
that washed this way from other big events,
the bat mitzvahs and confirmations and birthdays.
It was graduation for plastic combs and afro picks.
There were rolling mists from aerosol cans
at five p.m. in beauty parlors all over the city,
an attentive patting of so many hands and textures.
And now, pure nothing, the moon and stars out
through the crinkling cellophane of white sprays—
graduations are arisen like fireflies from grasses
in the smoke of backyards and embankments.
The lobsters were sending click code to each other in their paper bag
and tasted of sweat socks once they were cooked
far from the idea of the capitol, which was like a lit runway
seen from outlying areas, from hills and palisades and shoreline.
It was down to the hour when all the signs come on
with a storm pack coming in from the northwest.
Some old cats had slices of pizza by the January seawall in their Cadillac.
The teenaged lovers were getting fluorescent, but had found themselves
and circled about each other on the sand littered with paper cups and napkins
while it whipped in ankle-high sand ribbons towards the pale green water.
When these two kids opened their coats to each other, they saw the skyline far away—
but there were also these men milling around, driving themselves crazy.
Each one of them pulled his cafe blazer and tie against the thaw ending
among empty benches. The steps down from the seawall were obscured by sand.
Sonnet for Robert Reich
Somebody odd who loved him toted twenty pounds
of dried rabbit chow through the subway turnstiles
when election defeats melted into drug store carpets
headed to scrubbers and sponges, cosmetics, sink stuff
and Mr. Peanut on his cane, tilting his urbane body skull
at all the ungovernableness, at former secretary Reich
and his tall wife crossing my path through Cambridge,
seeming decent and happy. Somebody small-mouthing
an Anjou pear with thin lips made health and life measly,
strictly for the rabbits. Put your hands under his arms,
man who would be governor, and lift him up in a light
that melts stubborn icicles, that creates a special tan,
that wedges bits of cotton between toes at the pedicurist,
that arranges old womanly hair into tinfoil chicken wings.
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