Letter From New York

Originally published in Artful Dodge, 1996.

July 26, 1996

Dear Dan,

I’m glad I was able to see you, however briefly, on my barnstorming tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. I enjoyed seeing your new poems, and a few lines stayed with me over the miles. At a remote rest area off I-77 in southern Ohio, I found myself looking on the valley’s surrounding farms and chuckling, thinking “When a sheep bleats what human can resist?”

This was the Wooster-to-Charlottesville leg of my trip, in which I crossed West Virginia on the Blue Highways. I reached the Blue Ridge at dusk, crossing the mountains on the squiggly roads, negotiating hairpin turns in utter darkness. I rarely saw anyone else, though once I caught sight of a group of deer, ghostlike in the penumbra of my headlights, slipping away into the woods.

The next morning the friend I was visiting showed me about the Virginia campus. It was stately and calm, though the orderly brick colonial architecture made me sleepy after a while. We walked across the Lawn, a long courtyard where the choicest housing is reserved for the elite among the undergraduate students, either side lined by arcades that guarded the doors to the student rooms. Outside each room was a stack of firewood, and the New York Times or Washington Post waited on many of the doorsteps. Through a window, I saw a student curled up in an overstuffed chair with a heavy book and a mug of something that steamed. I have to admit, the routine here seemed delicious compared to my daily regimen of overcrowded subways and staring all day at a computer under fluorescent lights.

Yet, I found myself thinking of Robert Hass’s poem, “Old Dominion,” and the line, “Everything is easy but wrong.” How unhappy and lost Hass (a former leader of the graduate chapter of the Berkeley SDS who marched on the Pentagon) must have been in his short stint teaching here in the mid-70s, caught in the squared-off order of Thomas Jefferson’s model military academy. He may even have been wrestling with that same comment of Frost’s you once reminded me of, the one about writing in free verse being like playing tennis with the net down (and to which I’d replied that the net was still there, but was constantly moving). I’m even fairly certain he’d done the fellowship at the Frost Place just before coming to Virginia. In any case, in the poem, he’s perplexed by the “the courts, / the nets, the painted boundaries,” and by the tennis players and their perceived grace.

Hass seems to have been perplexed (and not just in this poem) by all the ease and pleasure at his and others’ disposal, either despite or because of all the inequality and suffering that exists elsewhere in the world. Here in New York, I meet plenty of aspiring writers who aren’t writing, but who feel that it’s important to be decked out in the latest rebellious “garb of the month,” selling for outrageous prices, even though the people who make these clothes are living in squalor either half-way round the world or right here under our noses. As a matter of fact, every morning when I go to work, the train as it leaves the Manhattan Bridge-and right before it lowers down into the tunnel for the subway-passes a sweat shop building, and I can see at eye-level, right out the window, these Chinese women on the sixth floor, bent over ancient sewing machines, surrounded by piles and piles of exquisitely flammable fabric.

Of course, this rage gets me nowhere; after all, I’m as guilty a participant as Donald Trump or the terminally ironic Andrei Codrescu. But when any of us raises a clamor over some injustice, why is it that we all seem to be mostly obsessed with the quality of the clamor-the garb?

Derek Walcott wrote somewhere, “the poet doesn’t complain only on the level of sociology. The poet points out the discontent that lies at the heart of man-and how can that be redeemed? It’s not redeemed by better medicine, better roads, and better housing.”

This is no Golden Age, whatever the advances we’ve made. Nor is it a fall from grace-ending slavery, for example, is surely an improvement. But the question nags me: how do we deal with this discontent, besides ignoring it or using it to entertain each other? What response are we to make, not just to the bleating of sheep, but to ourselves?