Samuel Menashe Reads at the Harvard Club

You're reading your poems at the Harvard Club

in New York City. The hall, rimmed with oak,

sputters a dying light suffused with thick

brown shadows, like intellectual antelope

gazing at their reflections on the wall.

You can't believe you're here. Poems

         leap-

                  frog

from your throat, poems so short

that if you miss a

word

you miss the point. I listen, neither

Harvard alum nor university-bred,

but a young poet seeking encouragement

from an elder. Invited here,

 

I hold your book open and read along.

The light is bad. My clothes are shot. No tie

is knotted in the hollow of my neck.

My shoes, the worn-out patent leather ones

from the J. Crew catalog, are husks

that hug my feet.

                                 In private, you told me

to give up poetry and dedicate

myself to writing narrative instead.

"Nobody reads poetry," you said.

 

Certainly you spoke from experience.

They used to snicker when you'd ramble in

off 47th to the Gotham Book Mart.

"Here comes the poet Samuel," they'd joke.

"Come on," I'd say, "He's really not so bad."

You'd stop and talk about the war, recite

Blake and the Hebrew Bible (King James Version)

and then your own compacted prosody.

You stopped the tourists in their tracks. A pot

poured out fulfils its spout, your voice

intoned. Then you'd explain, to stupefied

clientele, what the poem really meant

based on its linguistic roots ("the pot

fills up the spout, fulfilling it etc.")

You'd sign their books before they'd even bought:

"To Jo, from Canada. Best, Samuel."

 

That said, your poems are now canonized

in the Library of America. You

snagged the first Neglected Masters Award,

the kind of name you always called yourself

alluding to the New Yorker’s "Talk of the Town"

the only place they'd publish you back then.

You felt yourself a curiosity

in your hometown, an underdog, the last

of your generation, a congregant

of Homer's, the Greek café long since shut down.

 

What more could anybody do for you?

Your wish-list is complete, you have become

a famous poet with a style, to boot:

Menashesque. I can almost hear it said

in college classrooms, by professors younger

than I am, too obliviously young

to have attended the Nutcracker with you

at Lincoln Center.

                         Wedged between Masters

and Michelangelo, your volume rests

on my bookshelf. I flip through it, recalling

your evening reading at the Harvard Club

ten years ago. Like Emerson, you blurred

the distance between poetry and faith,

the kind one has in literature, not God.

 

That evening you gave your best performance.

From Italian Americana vol.XXIX n.1,Winter 2011