ONE OF POETRY’S mysteries lies in the connection between physical presence of poets and their words. Breath, silence, the pulse, the stride, the heartbeat, have all been evoked as prosodic principles, and when we think of a poet’s body of work, often a human aura comes to mind. Whitman conjures up not just long, strophic lines but the comradely bravura of his form; Dickinson’s pith and tact are as alluring as footsteps two flights up. Unlike Joyce’s image of the artist floating in the clouds, paring his fingernails, poet’s lives are often inextricable from our reading of their poems, perhaps because lyric poetry doesn’t so much create a fictional world as it illuminates the world poet and audience share.
Milton Kessler (1930-2000) was a poet who affirmed the unity of life and work. Reviewing his opus, I think not only of the amazing range, from austere, direct poems culled from the quotidian to such magnificent, dense, orchestral triumphs as “God’s Cigar,” which Ruth Stone called “perhaps the most amazing modern poem I’ve ever heard.” I also think of Milton Kessler’s teaching, which he called his vocation. In the classroom, Kessler was unparalleled, inspiring delight and devotion. Camille Paglia, one of Kessler’s students at SUNY Binghamton, gives some sense of how Kessler’s poetry and teaching fed each other. “With Kessler,” she wrote, “you begin literature and art fresh each time you come to them.”
Kessler brought his poems freshly to life as few that I’ve ever heard. It was his special gift to be aware of the poem’s place in a room — even in an auditorium — and I remember how he once electrified a torpid poetry festival by trudging on the stage, pulling up a chair, and wordlessly starting to undress — untying shoes, unbuttoning jacket, then shirt, and finally — and thank god it was final — unloosening his belt. By now, the listless audience was, of course, rapt. Then he beckoned to a corner where an ASL translator had been stationed. Had anyone else noticed? Kessler had. He invited her to sit next to him, and then with one of his trademark sighs, began reciting,
All these years, tree,
You have been growing from the sidewalk.
Now you are right beside my 5th floor window,
Where I can read my future in your leaves.
While Kessler’s voice filled the room, the translator’s hands rendered tree, sidewalk, window, and leaves visible in the air. This simple act, literally embodying a poem entitled simply “Today” (the first selection in the following sample of his life’s work), is emblematic of the way Kessler wove poetry into life; visible in the air, both immediate and ineffable. As Heather McHugh, in her introduction to Kessler’s posthumous collection, Free Concert: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2003) summed up, “He was a man for whom the memory of emerging from the movies in 1995 is a celestial memory: recorded as a series of simple questions, it holds forever his childlike elation at the simple evidence of the senses, in the face of a breathtakingly unexpected, utterly unshaded, moon.”
The simple and the celestial, the childlike and the utterly unshaded. These were the poles of a life lived with poetry: breath and word experienced and rendered. “Each day,” he wrote in the last year of his life, “is still full of amazement, aloneness, danger, and gratitude.” And, reading this selection in Artful Dodge, I am especially grateful for the life and for the work; I can’t imagine one without the other. —Providence, Rhode Island, December 18, 2002
All these years, tree,
you have been growing from the sidewalk.
Now you are right beside my 5th floor window,
where I can read my future in your leaves.
Tiny Flashlights Always
To sing was the only way through High School and life:
thanks to choral master Scudder, thanks to God and my
father for the bass-baritone I had for my Bar Mitzvah,
the DeWitt Clinton choir, Wilhowsky’s All City High Chorus,
and my greatest day ever, (even greater than my afternoon
with Frost) — Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit, 1944, Herald
Tribune Forum, Waldorf Astoria, where I sang, one of four
schoolboy basses from the five boroughs, photo in the
New York Times in suit and tie, “The Battle Hymn of the
Republic,” Christ was born for you and me across the sea,
and she shook my hand. Years later, saved by the Temple
Israel choir in Buffalo, saved by the Handel and Haydn
Society in Boston, “Messiah,” “Sanctus Civitas,” the old man
Williams, there. At the Met I didn’t sing but walked
with spear, flute, flagon, cape, beside Rise Stevens,
Baccolini of the seven napes and vast Lawrence Melchoir.
At fifteen, my hero, Giovanni Martinelli, rang.
My teacher, Florence Turitz Bower, was rich on Central Park
West. I lay on her carpet and breathed and sweated, her
fingers on the buttons of my shirt, my larynx approved by
a physician. I saw the chords myself in his mirror. Drink
to me only with thine eyes, over and over to be free in
the muzzle as I would never be, but how could she know. I
was very good looking then-dropped out of school and
shining with fantasy and fragmentation or masturbation.
Even Frederich Shaur, Wagnerian bass-baritone of the Met-
ropolitan, his friends in the back row, I sang for him,
shivering, then he for me, and I said I might one day sing
heroic tenor I remember or did I invent it? Did it happen?
What happened? All the roles I sang, the solitary concerts I
conducted with tiny flashlights. Oh rescue yourself with
song, my boy, rescue yourself with song. And of
how Josef Krips struck his breast and cried, Now you
see your God, and I leaped into “Ode to Joy” as if the
greatest German music could save a Jewish boy.
Moshe Ben Avraham Living Alone Gives Last Instructions to His Children
|Children,||All my life
I was not careful of cleanliness.
Your mother complained I didn’t bathe
for three weeks after the marriage which told her
what life would be like with me and she was right.Sometimes, I wouldn’t wash my mouth for months
and would touch a woman’s silk with unclean hands
and smell like a trough in my clothes and woke
to remember my father’s feet grisly
through torn blankets in daylight
and my mother’s nightly grief.
Only on Holydays did I dress like a mensch,
When I die, dear children, honor your royal descent.
|in white cotton and white socks,||behind|
his neck a nice tallis and white pillow
|filled with cool fine sand.||Thus,|
God willing, he will feel a freshness
in death, better than the cold blood of birth
better than the burning urine of life.
When you say goodbye to part of yourself
that life doesn’t ever die
though you will no longer follow it.
We only follow some side of ourselves
and we must say goodbye over and over.
so remember, they are not dead the ones
you said goodbye to. They keep trying
invisibly within us, a secret shining
you know as weeping that sometimes comes
between us and those we would love.
Comma of God
I am nothing compared to the Medicaid sneer
I am nothing compared to the owner of the door
I am nothing compared to the elevator of Heidegger
I am nothing compared to the spokes of Vincent’s Belgian sunflower
I am nothing compared to Rodin’s least mistress
I am nothing compared to the frames of Hamlet
I am nothing compared to a critic or chauffeur
I am nothing compared to my old fire engine
I am nothing compared to the breasts I see
I am nothing compared to a tree in any season
I am nothing compared to the escalator of Duchamp
I am nothing compared to Maronetti’s future
I am nothing to compare with Turner’s clouds
I am nothing to compare with the lens of Claude
I am nothing to compare with my mother in 1930
I am nothing to compare with the cockroach in the drain
I am nothing to compare to the jew-haters’ snot
I am nothing compared to the beak or bill
I am nothing compared to the past or the present
I am nothing to compare with any suit on the rack
I am nothing to compare to a loaf or child
I am nothing to compare with any syllable of Homer
I am nothing to compare with the foot of a chair
I am nothing to compare with the stool of your anger
I am nothing compared with what I failed to do
I am nothing compared with one note of Lester Young
I am nothing compared to the images of Vietnam
I am nothing compared to the furnace of Dresden
I am nothing compared to the last drops of snow
I am nothing compared to a bicycle with wings
I am nothing compared to the command of God
Selected Random Sayings by Kosho Shimizu, Chief Abbot, Todaiji
Flesh deepens spirit. Spirit stings flesh.
Freedom? Try walking.
The dissatisfactions of a happy man, what’s more difficult?
Mud on your hands? Sit. Eat.
Don’t fight it.
Gold is gold. Silver is silver. Lead is lead.
Cedars in a mountain. Sweetfish in a brook.
Saying anything perfectly? Impossible.
Straight searching is good. Loitering on the way is fragrant.
You have to forgive me.
Once you realize it, it’s simple.
There are good days and there are fair days.
A good good, lucky one. A lucky, good good one.
See, even in me there is something good.
To exist is very strange.
Stepping down, be careful, know yourself.
|We have been thinking this or that for ten thousand years.|
|Today is best.|
He complains, and enjoys the sound.
Remembrancing Dancing in 5J
Pop, you are not tiptoe
hanging up your blue wool sweater
and your lips
are not sipping a sweet cup of coffee
and your daily paper
who is cursing it
and your chair
who is keeping it honest
and your ashtray
never leaves the shelf above the sink
and your suit
who is wearing it in the street
and your Ludens cough-drops
who is savoring them
Under your tweed hat
I am saving them
and your pocket pencil
inside with them
and your privacy
safe among them
and who will say
as we skip at the doorstep:
Well, Milton, you’re always welcome.
You got the ocean, you got the beach,
you got the boardwalk, you got the terrace,
you can rest and recoup the strength you lost.
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