The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.
I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.
So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.
“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”
The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”
When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.