Feature > Poetry
David Kirby

David Kirby

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. A Johns Hopkins PhD, he has received many honors for his work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and his work appears regularly in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize volumes. Kirby is the author of numerous books, including The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award in poetry. His Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll was named one of Booklist's Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010, and the Times Literary Supplement called it “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” Kirby's latest poetry collection is Talking About Movies With Jesus.

Slurring And Contradicting

Oh, look, the couple at the next table have had too much
to drink: they started with frozen margaritas and washed
          their burrito supremes down with several pitchers of Dos
     Equis and then finished up with shots of some god-awful
stuff that's not even from Mexico, and now they're slurring
          and, worse, contradicting each other: No, no, no, he says,
     you're wrong about tap water, not to mention vitamin D,
dairy products, fluoride, and she says, Don't you no, no,

     no me; you're wrong about everything. The Middle East?
Wrong. Global warming? Wrong again. Gun control?
          Delusional! The cause of and cure for Alzheimer's, AIDS,
     autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? Wrong, wrong,
wrong, wrong! Or right, but for the wrong reasons. It would
          have been better if he and she had simply enjoyed a plate
     of roasted monkfish with fiddlehead ferns and trout roe
along with a nice Italian Falinghina, say, or a Bandol from

     France. Just one bottle. though, as an excess of alcohol leads
demonstrably to loudness and sarcasm and, from there, to
          other and worse social pathologies, to wit, a kind of speech
     that is so badly mumbled as to be barely comprehensible to
the you who is mumbling it, much less your interlocutors,
          as well as the refutation of every word that emerges
     from your darling's rosebud mouth, a mouth that, a mere forty-five
minutes ago, seemed to utter not only the loftiest romantic

     sentiments but also a number of the wiser philosophical precepts
as well as no small number of trenchant observations on
          current events and, further, a mouth, that you had thoughts
     of pressing your lips to later in the evening, though that
is now no more a likelihood than is the prospect of a speedy cure
          for one or more of the terrible diseases abovementioned
     or lasting peace between the Israelis and their
implacable foes. Listen to them! Why, it is as though they've both just

     read George Eliot's great novel Middlemarch, where it says,
"When the animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine
          that allied species made much private remark on each other
     and were tempted to think that so many forms feeding on
the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous,
          as tending to diminish the rations," that is, that knowledge
     is finite in nature and must be cut into tiny pieces
and hoarded by each of us just as we hive up as many bites of food as we

     can lest someone were to come along and snatch it from
us, make it their own. Once I took another man in my arms;
          I had just stepped into a public restroom when a fellow
     threw his limbs into the air and collapsed in a seizure, so
I lay on him and wrapped my legs around his to keep him
          from hurting himself, which is when a third man walked in
     and looked at us soberly, uncertain whether we
were fighting or cuddling. His knowledge was incomplete, you may say.

     "Get help!" I cried, and he took off like a shot, and even
though two medics rushed in a few minutes later, I'll never
          know if he called them or someone else did, just as I'll
     never know if he ever figured out what the two of us were
doing there on that floor, snorting and kicking. If he didn't,
          even better! He may have found himself at the beginning
     of wisdom, as Melville surely did in this
description that Hawthorne's son Julian left of him: "He seemed

     nervous and every few minutes would rise to open and then to shut
again the window opening on the courtyard. At first he was
          disinclined to talk, bur finally he said several interesting
     things, among which the most remarkable was that he was
convinced Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret,
          which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries
     of his career." Reveal that secret, though, and no
Scarlet Letter, no Blithedale Romance, Marble Faun, House of the

     Seven Gables
—no Hawthorne, in a word. Let us not
seek to be right, then, to know more than others, and, worse,
          to confirm that we know that they know that we know more
     than they do. Let us not browbeat, strong-arm, hector,
and bullyrag others, particularly those whom we adore
          and wish to adore us in return. Let us not drink until
     we are hateful. Let us drink until we are merry,
and then let us put down our cups. Let us drink until we are silent.

Senior Coffee

"Medium coffee," I say, and think, Hold on, I've had too much
already, so I say, "No, make it a small—wait a sec," and the counter
     guy says, "You want a senior coffee?" and I say, "No—uh, yeah!"

     My first senior coffee—senior anything, really.  Only 89 cents!
And not bad, either. Or not great, but as good as the coffee I was
     going to get anyway, and a lot cheaper. At home, I show Barbara

     the little paper cup: "Hey, look, senior coffee." Big mistake:
after that, it's "How about a senior coffee?" and "I'm making
   coffee—you want regular coffee or senior coffee?" And soon

     everything's senior. Do you have your senior cell phone with you?
Bring home a senior newspaper, will you? Those sneakers look
     a little worn; why don't you get some new sneakers—senior

     sneakers. And when I say I'm bored, she says, "Why don't you
write one of those senior poems you're so famous for?"
     All poetry is senior, of course. At a party, a professor in one of

     the "practical" disciplines questions the value of teaching
people to be poets, and I think, The ancients assigned three
     muses to poetry: Calliope to epic poetry, Erato to love poetry,

     and Euterpe to song and elegaic poetry. How many muses
did you say you have in Design Leadership Systems?
     I wonder if there's a guy out there named Señor Poetry.

     He'd be at a table in a plaza somewhere with his wife and daughter,
Señora and Señorita Poetry. He'd be drinking coffee and writing
     poems, and everyone would be looking over his shoulder.

     What is he writing? Wait, wrong question. A better one is how
is he writing, since style is so much more important than
     subject matter. Henry James says a woman living in a quiet

     country village has only to be "a damsel upon whom nothing is lost"
to write about soldiers and garrison life. Truer words, Henry,
     truer words! No one's more senior than Henry James.

     Some onlookers are guessing that Señor Poetry is writing
in the manner of Baroque lyric poet Luis de Góngora, though
     others say no, he can't be. Góngora's contemporaries called

     him "the Spanish Homer" but also the inventor of "Pestilential
Poetry." Not for Góngora the poem in which language works
     in the background while the story gets told.  No, sir, his is

     the language that steps into the footlights and windmills its arms,
which is why his fans and detractors pronounced him the greatest
     of poets as well as a pretentious fool. And maybe Señor Poetry

     is not a poet at all, any more than a man named Señor Smith shoes
horses for a living or one named Señor Miller owns a mill.
     Maybe his wife's the poet. Or his daughter: maybe she's

     Henry James's damsel upon who nothing is lost. They're so
proud of her! I am, too. I love her as much as though she
my daughter, which means I want her to have a life

     like mine, one lived, not for poetry but through poetry.
Everything—a car starting, bird song, the gurgling
     of a coffeepot, the whirr of a fan, the whispers of lovers,

     the silly noises babies make, the wisdom of the books
the mighty dead have written—all of that steps easily into
     poetry and makes itself at home there. Poetry and coffee:

     now there's a combination for you. Though if the poetry's strong
enough, you'll need nothing more than a lifetime in which to
     read and write the stuff, I think, and then I think, Famous? Me?

The Juniper Tree

Bill hands me a book called Dr. Mary's Monkey, and it's not
          very well-written, but how can you resist
     the story of an unsolved murder, a secret laboratory, Lee
Harvey Oswald, the JFK assassination, cancer-causing monkey viruses,
          and the outbreak of global epidemics
     that, if the book is everything it claims to be, are just around

the corner, and as I'm turning the pages and thinking,
          That's not true, and that's probably not true, and that might
     be true but it certainly isn't described very well, I realize
that the Dr. Mary in the book is my Dr. Mary, that is,
          the Dr. Mary Sherman who treated me for polio when
     I was a little boy, scared that I wouldn't be able to run

around outside the way the other boys did, wouldn't be able
          to do sports like other boys and attract girls and eventually
     find my own Dr. Mary, who was, well, "stacked," built like
Jane Russell, say, though older than Jane, yet who shone
          on me with a warmth more incandescent than that
     of ten Jane Russells. And then she died horribly, but I always

thought I'd get Dr. Mary back. As I lay in bed and waited
          for my legs to heal, sometimes at night my father would lie
     down beside me and read from a book of fairy tales,
and the one I always wanted to hear was the story called
          "The Juniper Tree," in which a man and his wife
     want a child desperately, but she dies in childbirth, and his second

wife hates the boy and loves only her own daughter,
          and one day she slams the lid of a chest on him and knocks
     his head off. When my children were tiny, I used to think,
What if something terrible happens to them? And then
          I'd think, What if it doesn't? Usually it doesn't. In fairy
     tales, you're always rescued: you suffer, yeah, but you get

the prince or your children are returned to you or you live
          forever, if that's your idea of a rescue. I was ten when
     I was Dr. Mary's patient, and she was forty, and, if the book
is to be believed, was working in an underground medical
          lab to develop a biological weapon that would be used
     to kill Fidel Castro, where a witness also puts Oswald,

though the witness is Judyth Vary Baker, who would later
          write Me & Lee: How I Came to Know, Love and Lose
     Lee Harvey Oswald
. Who could love Lee Harvey Oswald?
He always looks so sour in his photos. Good shot, though.
          Well, not really—he was a terrible marksman as a Marine,
     leading even smart people to say no, he couldn't have done it,

couldn't have hit a barn wall at ten paces, much less a moving
          US president at 190 feet, must have been a patsy. For who,
     though? CIA, Mafia, Cubans? The problem with the JFK
mystery is that those groups and a dozen others all had their
          guys in Dealey Plaza that day, not to mention most of
     the unaffiliated area nut jobs who just happened to be there

with their rifle, blowgun, crossbow, throwing knife,
          water pistol. After the bad mother in "The Juniper Tree"
     kills the little boy, she thinks, "Maybe I can get out of this"
and puts his head on his neck again and sits him in a chair
          and tricks her daughter, whose name is Marlene, into
     boxing his ears, and when she does and the boy's head

flies off, Marlene screams in terror as the mother tells her
          they can hide the crime by making a stew of his flesh,
     and when the father comes home, he wonders where
his beloved son is, true, but he's also hungry, so he eats
          the stew and even asks for more as Marlene stands
     by "crying and crying, and all her tears fell into the pot, and they

did not need any salt." In the Texas Book Depository, Oswald
          chambers a round in his mail-order rifle and squints
     through the scope. Pow, pow: one shot to the shoulder, another
to the head, and it's Johnny, we hardly knew ye. Less than
          a year later, Dr. Mary is found in her bed, her right arm
     and rib cage completely burned away, though the hair on

her head is untouched; investigators guess she was brought
          back to her apartment after suffering the burns somewhere
     else, such as, you got it, that secret lab where a malfunctioning
particle accelerator used to mutate monkey viruses sends out
          a high-voltage charge that hits Dr. Mary like a bolt
     of lightning. Dr. Mary - so warm, so vital, so encouraging to a sick

little boy, then found mutilated, half her body burned away,
          though her bedclothes were barely singed. Dark-eyed
     and pale, she looked like Snow White grown up. How can
she be dead? Night after night, my father reads me
          the same story, and night after night, Marlene buries
     her brother's bones beneath a juniper tree, and the juniper tree

begins to move, and a mist rises from it, and a fire appears
          in the mist, and a beautiful bird flies out of the fire
     and perches on the roof of the house and sings the most beautiful
song anyone has ever heard, and the father is happy
          again and says, "What a beautiful bird, and the sun
     is shining, and the air smells like cinnamon," and the bird gives

gives him a gold chain, and Marlene comes out, and the bird
          gives her red shoes, and the bad mother comes out,
     and the bird throws a millstone onto her head
and kills her, and smoke and flames pour out of the spot where she lies
          dead, and when they blow away, the little brother
     is standing there, alive as ever. Dr. Mary, I want to kiss your

beautiful face. I wanted to kiss you when I was a little boy,
          but I didn't know what kissing meant: I mean, grandmas,
     yeah, but not that kind. I'd be older than you are now,
so it'd be okay. Dr. Mary, you were my first crush.
          You were a pin-up to me but a saint as well, as beautiful
     as a martyr on an ancient wall. How I wish I could soften

the hearts of the gods and lead you out of the underworld,
          your fever cooled, your skin clear, your tongue ready
     to tell us all you know. Why do we kill one another?
Why do we love one another, and what is love? We say
          "I love you" to other people and they say "I love you, too"
     or "No, you don't"—how's that work? I see you as in

a swirl of smoke: I'm in a church like one in Rome, say,
          before a mosaic of gold and green and blue, and the wind
     is high outside, and the great door behind me blows open,
and when I turn to look at it, it slams shut, and the candles
          go out, or all but a few, and you step down from the wall,
     your eyes bright, your breath warm on my cheek,

and we walk out into the ancient city together,
          and I'm a little boy again, and I look up and say,
     "You saved me," and you say, "No, you saved me,"
and when you say it, suddenly I'm a man, taller than
          you are, and I take your hand in mine, and you say
you saved me, you saved me, all the way down to the river.


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