The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor
The hands of the clock were reaching high
In an old midtown hotel;
I name no name, but its sordid fame
Is table talk in hell.
I name no name, but hell’s own flame
Illumes the lobby garish,
A gilded snare just off Times Square
For the maidens of the parish.
The revolving door swept the grimy floor
Like a crinoline grotesque,
And a lowly bum from an ancient slum
Crept furtively past the desk.
His footsteps sift into the lift
As a knife in the sheath is slipped,
Stealthy and swift into the lift
As a vampire into a crypt.
Old Maxie, the elevator boy,
Was reading an ode by Shelley,
But he dropped the ode as it were a toad
When the gun jammed into his belly.
There came a whisper as soft as mud
In the bed of an old canal:
“Take me up to the suite of Pinball Pete,
The rat who betrayed my gal.”
The lift doth rise with groans and sighs
Like a duchess for the waltz,
Then in middle shaft, like a duchess daft,
It changes its mind and halts.
The bum bites lip as the landlocked ship
Doth neither fall nor rise,
But Maxie the elevator boy
Regards him with burning eyes.
“First, to explore the thirteenth floor,”
Says Maxie, “would be wise.”
Quoth the bum, “There is moss on your double cross,
I have been this way before,
I have cased the joint at every point,
And there is no thirteenth floor.
The architect he skipped direct
From twelve unto fourteen,
There is twelve below and fourteen above,
And nothing in between,
For the vermin who dwell in this hotel
Could never abide thirteen.”
Said Max, “Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight;
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
Ere you peril your soul in murderer’s role,
Heed those who sinned of yore;
The path they trod led away from God,
And onto the thirteenth floor,
Where those they slew, a grisly crew,
Reproach them forevermore.
“We are higher than twelve and below fourteen,”
Said Maxie to the bum,
“And the sickening draft that taints the shaft
Is a whiff of kingdom come.
The sickening draft that taints the shaft
Blows through the devil’s door!”
And he squashed the latch like a fungus patch,
And revealed the thirteenth floor.
It was cheap cigars like lurid scars
That glowed in the rancid gloom,
The murk was a-boil with fusel oil
And the reek of stale perfume.
And round and round there dragged and wound
A loathsome conga chain,
The square and the hep in slow lock step,
The slayer and the slain.
(For the souls of the victims ascend on high,
But their bodies below remain.)
The clean souls fly to their home in the sky,
But their bodies remain below
To pursue the Cain who each has slain
And harry him to and fro.
When life is extinct each corpse is linked
To its gibbering murderer,
As a chicken is bound with wire around
The neck of a killer cur.
Handcuffed to Hate come Doctor Waite
(He tastes the poison now),
And Ruth and Judd and a head of blood
With horns upon its brow.
Up sashays Nan with her feathery fan
From Floradora bright;
She never hung for Caesar Young
But she’s dancing with him tonight.
Here’s the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip
Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll,
And over there that ill-met pair,
Becker and Rosenthal,
Here’s Legs and Dutch and a dozen such
Of braggart bullies and brutes,
And each one bends ‘neath the weight of friends
Who are wearing concrete suits.
Now the damned make way for the double-damned
Who emerge with shuffling pace
From the nightmare zone of persons unknown,
With neither name nor face.
And poor Dot King to one doth cling,
Joined in a ghastly jig,
While Elwell doth jape at a goblin shape
And tickle it with his wig.
See Rothstein pass like breath on a glass,
The original Black Sox kid;
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid.
And smeared like brine on a slavering swine,
Starr Faithful, once so fair,
Drawn from the sea to her debauchee,
With the salt sand in her hair.
And still they come, and from the bum
The icy sweat doth spray;
His white lips scream as in a dream,
“For God’s sake, let’s away!
If ever I meet with Pinball Pete
I will not seek his gore,
Lest a treadmill grim I must trudge with him
On the hideous thirteenth floor.”
“For you I rejoice,” said Maxie’s voice,
“And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see; I had a daughter, too!”
The bum reached out and he tried to shout,
But the door in his face was slammed,
And silent as stone he rode down alone
From the floor of the double-damned.
— Ogden Nash
It wasn’t until 1972––58 years after President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day official––that Father’s Day become a nationwide holiday. On Sunday, June 19, 2016, Americans will again honor and celebrate paternal bonds.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the passing of Ogden Nash. During his long career, he wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. His subject matter, unconventional rhymes and accessibility made him a national favorite. His poetry is often tempered with gentle wisdom. Most readers can relate to his work in certain special ways. In my case, it is because Nash had two daughters. So do I. This particular poem, inspired by one of his daughters, also reminds me of myself over-reacting to own 30th birthday long ago. Rest in peace, Ogden Nash. We’ll always love you.
To enjoy a larger collection of his works, please click here.
A Lady Who Thinks She Is Thirty
Unwillingly, Miranda wakes,
Feels the sun with terror,
One unwilling step she takes,
Shuddering to the mirror.
Miranda in Miranda’s sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty.
Shining like the morning star,
Like the twilight shining,
Haunted by a calendar,
Miranda is a-pining.
Silly girl, silver girl,
Draw the mirror toward you;
Time who makes the years to whirl
Adorned as he adored you.
Time is timelessness for you;
Calendars for the human;
What a year, or thirty, to
Loveliness made woman?
Oh, Night he will not see thirty again,
Yet soft her wing, Miranda;
Pick up your glass and tell me, then–
How old is Spring, Miranda?
Yesterday (April 20, 2016) marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. This annual event, created by The Academy of American Poets, has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Click here to discover what poetic events are happening near you.
In that spirit of celebration, today’s piece is by a most celebrated poet. John Ashbery has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and just about everything else I can think of.
Ashbery approaches the blank page the way a modern artist might approach a blank canvas. The words from his broad palette are applied with a bold hand. He’s incisive about human nature, sometimes poking fun at himself in a way that shows us our own funny human frailties as well.
This meandering stream-of-consciousness piece from the sixties is one of my favorites. Enjoy!
My Philosophy of Life Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough for another thought in my head, I had this great idea-- call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, it involved living the way philosophers live, according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like. Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests, would be affected, or more precisely, inflected by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy, or worry about children and old people, except in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe. Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back, revealing a winding staircase with greenish light somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions. At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender, but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness, the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore. There are lots of little trips to be made. A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well, messages to the world, as they sat and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles, and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort? I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought-- something’s blocking it. Something I’m not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared. What was the matter with how I acted before? But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I’ll let things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies and preserves, against the winter cold and futility, and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well. I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks, or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part, as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea of two people near him talking together. Well he’s got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him-- this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas. That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too. They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one... -- John Ashbery
. . . At least that’s what baseball legend Joe Garagiola said in his book of the same title. Garagiola passed away yesterday at the age of 90. It’s only fitting that today’s poetry post be in his honor.
“Casey at the Bat” is not only the most famous baseball poem ever written, but it may also be our nation’s best known piece of comic verse. Certainly it is pure Americana. Originally attributed to “Phin” when it was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, it was actually penned by writer Earnest Thayer.
The beloved ballad has since seen a geat many reprisals and homages, not only in print, but also on stage and screen. There is so much conjecture about the real life inspirations for Casey and Mudville that I’m leaving that can of worms alone. Nine days ’til baseball season. Let’s revisit that poem. Rest in Peace, Joe.
Casey at the Bat
A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888
The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.—
Fifteen years ago today, America lost one of its greatest modern poets. A. R. Ammons, a humble man from rural North Carolina, started writing poetry while serving aboard a Navy Destroyer in the South Pacific in WWII.
His level, conversational style and wry sensibility make his poems accessible and contemporary. His subject matter varies, and to my delight, he often poetizes the mundane.
The night before last, I found myself in a beer joint conversation with some writer friends––one a Fitbit devotee, another about to embark on an austere Dr. Oz regime. (I was on my humdrum soapbox for moderation.) Had A.R. Ammons been with us, he might have thrown in a stanza of Aubade. (Bosh and Flapdoodle, 2006).
Here’s to A.R. Ammons, harbingers of swimsuit season, and everyday life!
They say, lose weight, change your lifestyle:
that’s, take the life out of your style and
the style out of your life: give up fats,
give up sweets, chew rabbit greens, raw: and
how about carrots: raw: also, wear your
hipbones out walking. We were designed for
times when breakfast was not always there, and
you had to walk a mile, maybe, for your first
berry or you had to chip off a flint before
you could dig up a root: and there were
times when like going off to a weight reduction
center you had a belly full of nothing: easy
to be skinny digesting bark: but here now at
the breakfast buffet or lavish brunch you’re
trapped between resistance and getting your
money’s worth and the net gain from that
transaction is about one pound more: hunting
and gathering is a better lifestyle than
resisting: resisting works up your nerves
not your appetite (already substantial in the
wild) and burns up fewer calories than the
activity arising from hunger pangs: all in
all this is a praise for modern life––who
wants to pick the subrealities from his teeth
every minute––but all this is just not what
we were designed for, bad as it was: any way
I go now I feel I’m going against nature, when
I feel so free with the ways and means, the
dynamics, the essentialities honed out clearly
from millions of years: sometimes when I say
“you” in my poems and appear to be addressing
the lord above, I’m personifying the contours
of the onhigh, the ways by which the world
works, however hard to see: for the onhigh
is every time the on low, too, and in the
middle: one lifts up one’s voice to the
lineations of singing and sings, in effect,
you, you are the one, the center, it is around
you that the comings and goings gather, you
are the before and after, the around and
through: in all your motions you are ever
still, constant as motion itself: there with
you we abide, abide the changes, abide the
dissolutions and recommencement
of our very selves, abide in your abiding: but, of course
I don’t mean “you” as anyone in particular
but I mean the center of motions millions of
years have taught us to seek: now, with
space travel and gene therapy that “you” has
moved out of the woods and rocks and streams
and traveled on out so far in space that it
rounds the whole and is, in a way, nowhere to
be found or congratulated, and so what is out
there dwells in our heads now as a bit of
yearning, maybe vestigial, and it is a yearning
like painful sweetness, a nearly reachable
presence that nearly feels like love, something
we can put aside as we get up to rustle up a
little breakfast or contemplate a little
weight loss, or gladden the morning by getting
off to work . . .
— A. R. Ammons
This Saturday (January 29th) would be his 89th birthday if he were still with us. Sadly, he took his own life with a handgun in 1984. He was 49 years old.
Brautigan’s poems are terse, highly conceptual (some of his abstract metaphors border on synesthesia), and often marked by his famously quirky gallows humor.
His unconventional verses resonate with me, but not with everyone. Here are a few. Decide for yourself:
The Mortuary Bush
Mr. William Lewis is an undertaker
and he hasn’t been feeling very good
lately because not enough people are
Mr. Lewis is buying a new house
and a new car and many appliances
on the installment plan and he needs
all the money he can get.
Mr. Lewis has headaches and can’t
sleep at night and his wife says,
“Bill, what’s wrong?” and he says,
“Oh, nothing, honey,” but at night
he can’t sleep.
He lies awake in bed and wishes
that more people would die.
— Richard Brautigan
Romeo and Juliet
If you will die for me,
I will die for you
and our graves will
be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a Laundromat.
If you will bring the soap,
I will bring the bleach.
— Richard Brautigan
The Donner Party
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.
— Richard Brautigan
15 Stories in One Poem
I hate to bother you,
but I just dropped
a baby out the window
and it fell 15 stories
and splattered against
May I borrow a mop?
— Richard Brautigan
A Cigarette Butt
A cigarette butt is not a pretty
It is not like the towering trees,
the green meadows, or the for-
It is not like a gentle fawn, a
singing bird, or a hopping
But these are all gone now,
And in the forest’s place is a
Blackened world of charred trees
and rotting flesh—
The remnants of another forrest
A cigarette but is not a pretty
— Richard Brautigan
Critical Can Opener
There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you find it?
— Richard Brautigan
She tries to get things out of men
that she can’t get because she’s not
— Richard Brautigan
Potatoes await like edible shadows
under the ground. They wait in
their darkness for the light of
— Richard Brautigan
He wants to build you a house
out of your own bones, but
that’s where you’re living
The next time he calls
you answer the telephone with the
sound of your grandmother being
born. It was a twenty-three-hour
labor in 1894. He hangs
— Richard Brautigan
This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.
By accident, you put
Your money in my
By accident, I put
My money in another
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
It was lonely.
Photographs of Gertrude Stein are typically humorless.
Take this almost stern-looking image of her at work or this one with her Baltimore friends, Etta and Claribel Cone, who later visited Stein in Paris and were inspired, through her, to bring the remarkably large and impressive Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art of Cubist and Impressionist art to Baltimore.
Or this famous Picasso portrait of the author, which seems to capture the pensiveness and glumness of her era.
Even Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Stein in Woody Allen’s well-timed comedy Midnight in Paris is one of the least funny impersonations in the film.
Yet her poetry is nowhere near this sober.
Below is a short appreciation of a few of her poems. Like conceptual art, they create meaning through grammatical disorientation, repetition, and odd angles. And like conceptual art, their strangeness can really make a reader mad unless that reader is prepared, as very few museum-goers are, to find this all amusing and then begin to dissect the puzzle.
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
And as you read you may also wonder (my students often do) whether this writing is nothing more than pretentious word vomit––a clever if silly mind game––or does it contain pleasant, even human levity–even a touch of soul.
Does the humor, if it’s there, come from our own ability to laugh at ourselves, having discovered through her poetry that we are too precious about and at the same time not careful enough about language? Should we feel serious about overturned grammar, or should we feel playful about it, or both? Should we laugh at repetition or feel that it’s meaningful, or both?
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Nearly seventy years after her death, this kind of poetry is rich with the heaviness of her time: world wars; gender prejudice, even from those she mentored and guided; anti-semitism–even perhaps her own self-directed variety; stark inequalities between classes; and perhaps understandably bleak, bleak views of life among artists. Although her words carry this heritage and the mark of her time, she breaks open language and almost seems to free it from its literal certitudes. In this respect she is like Emily Dickinson; both were masters of language, yet in their baffling play, they almost seem to prefer giddiness and silence.
Image of Gertrude Stein’s deceptively dreary home while studying as a medical student in Baltimore:
Gertrude Stein, “Susie Asado” from Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. (New York: Peter Smith Publishing, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Calman A. Levin, Executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Source: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Third Edition (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)
A Substance in a Cushion
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.
What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.
Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.
A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.
A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.
The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.
What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.
A Little Called Pauline
A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.
In seven days the big feast will be upon us. Whether you’re hosting or traveling the time crunch has likely begun. With due respect I’ll keep opening remarks brief. Here are three smile inducing poems dedicated to those facing an eipic grocery trip in their very near future. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
The potato that ate all its carrots,can see in the dark like a mole,its eyes the scarsfrom centuries of shovels, tines.May spelled backwardsbecause it hates the light,pawing its way, padding along,there in the catacombs.
(Copyright ©2008 by Bruce Guernsey. Reprinted from New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Collections.)
I am a Grocery Bagger, and I Have Feelings
The beets pass through my hands
waiting to be juiced by the vegan
they will scream as he juices them
and stain the floor a terrible red
only a dollar
must we then conclude
to be white
is to be cheap?
the pieces of lettuce strewn on the floor
are the discarded cloaks of fairies
the snowy mold on the strawberries
their frost-touched pillows
and they have stolen the price signs
to make the palace of their king
shall we blame mere mortals
for the actions of fairies?
for where others see Incompetence, I see only Beauty
(Originally sent as a joke to poetry.com)
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
(Penned in Berkeley, 1955)
With Halloween just nine days away, it’s time to enjoy a little warm-up scare. The first thing along those lines that came to mind was Room for One More, the classic urban legend style horror story that took place in a department store elevator. The notion of department store elevators got me thinking about the dreaded 13th floor, though the only department store I know of that ascends to those heights is the Shinsegae Centum City in Busan, Korea. That shopper’s paradise is 14 stories high, though this number may be somewhat elastic since I am not sure if the 13th floor was omitted.
This general dread of the number thirteen (Triskaidekaphobia) has been around for a long time. though nobody knows for certain how it got started. A Norse legend states that twelve gods were sitting down to a banquet, when a thirteenth god, Loki, showed up and wrought havoc. Some say Judas was the 13th to sit for The Last Supper.
Thought it wasn’t until 1885 that the first skyscraper was built––and that one was only twelve stories tall––in skyscrapers that followed thirteenth floors were often omitted––officially at least. That hasn’t changed. According to Otis Elevator Company, up to 85 percent of elevator panels today omit the number 13. The practice is so pervasive that emergency responders generally assume that to be the case.
In this uncharacteristic epic poem, Ogden Nash addresses that missing floor. It’s a delight to read any time, but perhaps it’s most enjoyable this time of year. Read it, and get into the spirit of a spooky Halloween!
This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.
Below are a three of his humorous poems.
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.
Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.
But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.
For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.
And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.
Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.
And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.
He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.
‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.
For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?
‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?
— John Crowe Ransom
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.
But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?
Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.