04-22-2013

Ron Slate

To The One Who Hears Me

In the fifth year of friendship
he asked permission to tell his secret,
suggesting we go to a donut shop nearby.
Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Rikers Island.

Now I have hustled you to this other spot
without even a cup of coffee to offer
nor for that matter to take you
into my confidence.

The great felons exceed the petty thieves
in intuition, the greatness unmeasured
by the size or value of what is removed,
but rather in the shuffle and the shift.

The shock was not in the details,
the carjacking of a famous quarterback's convertible,
"actually his wife's," but my realizing
he recognized the level of my listening.

This intimacy -- all to help him appear to grasp
the vexing source of manic energy
agitating everyone on the job.
In the telling, he in his suit became a white man

selling crack out of a red Saab 
with the top down just three blocks north
of MLK Boulevard. His former roommate, the quarterback,
helped spring him early with a personal appeal.

He was saying: Make use of me,
all my skills are now at your disposal,
trust my boldness, and when you discover the way
into your fortune, take me with you.

We sat in the shadow of our office tower 
and he knew whom he was talking to.
Just as I am speaking to you now,
not exactly waiting for your reply.

 

Cocoanut Grove

My life began with the fire,
glimmering in the birthwaters.
Beyond my bedroom wall 
voices murmured a memory.

My father's mother died 
with her sister in the ladies' room.
He said: If she had escaped to Shawmut Street,
been saved, nothing would be the way it is. 
How is it? drifted over my route to school.

I stared at a wire service photo 
fixed with brutal light, a firehose
snaking through soaked debris,
faces slack with shock, bodies
on the sidewalk covered with sheets.

How compelling for a family 
to have such a story to relate.
Nothing would be the way it is.
To speak of a desirable world, 
the listening boy leaning in.

November in Boston, women 
collapsed waiting for their coats, 
the ceiling's satinette billows
crackled and melted and were drawn
into their throats. A shoe
wedged in the revolving door.

A face pressed against glass.
The fireball: bright orange, 
or bluish with a yellow cast, 
or a blistering white.

The nightclub burned in minutes, 
in 1942, with a sibilant exhalation.
My grandfather, sworn in, testified,
but a single night evades judgment, 
bloated with unassignable blame.

Corrosive worm of remembrance,
allure of the lurid past, 
the nozzle's snout regressing
down the smouldering street.
Adoring the damaged world, 
we abused it, we refused
to let the seawind clear the smoke.

So now it's time to decide how to move
within spaces on the sites of catastrophe, 
how to gaze and regard the atria and the lobbies,
even as the alarms sound, 
evacuations rehearsed, the streets 
filling with imaginary survivors,

just as the boy, surviving boyhood,
said so that's how it is, just before
sleep settled on him like asbestos.

 

Khrushchev's Foot

Looming before us is the pale, tender,
child-like foot of Nikita Khrushchev.
Size 7 or 8, "like a boy's" according
to Sergei, his son, on the lecture circuit.

A shoe meant a lot to a Russian foot,
something you'd tug off a frozen corpse.
A shoe meant a lot to a British head of state,
to tap a shoe on the rostrum in Parliament
expressed the highest degree of obstruction.

So when Khrushchev slammed his shoe on a desk
in the U.N., it meant megatons to us
but just a parliamentary flourish to him,
designed to make P.M. Macmillan, orating
unmemorably, feel at home.

Such a delicate foot, veined and moist --
it makes me want to reveal a secret,
an expendable one, declassified.

One night, when I was seven years old,
my father woke me at three A.M.
to scan the sky for the coming
of the satellite, Khrushchev's star.
There was nothing to impede the view,
not a wisp of cloud. So small and sharp,
bristling with speed, and gone -

it was then I knew I wanted to be
something to admire. Maybe to fear.
Of course, the massing of mistrust
between father and son,
our standoff in the Divided City,
had something to do with it.

Disclosed: the Premier told his aides
to place a shoe under his desk.
A single American penny loafer.
Agrarian reformer on a hot day in May,
he had walked into the General Assembly
wearing socks and sandals.

If a person's nature is harsh
and resolute, may it also keep us
vigilant and entertained.
Years later, the child may explain
exactly what the father meant to say.

BIO: Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.

 

The Incentive of the Maggot, his first book of poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets. The collection won the Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Great Wave, his second book, was published by Houghton in April 2009.

 

Ron manages and publishes the website On the Seawall.

An Interview with Ron Slate by Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Of the three poems, only “To the One Who Hears Me” employs stanzas with the same number of lines.  Four.  Why four lines and why this poem? Why utilize stanzas of an equal number of lines in one poem and not in another? 

Ron Slate: “To the One Who Hears Me” is a ‘lobby’ poem, a doormat. It sort of sets the terms of engagement with the reader.  The “he” in the poem exploits situations.  At the end of the poem, the speaker identifies with him.  It’s a too-careful poem, specifying relationships and their limitations.  All but one stanza has an end-stop, a complete unit of argument.  Lawyerly, neat, no loose ends.  A tight organization prepared for rebuttals, therefore implying the mess it’s trying to negotiate.

SD & AMK: I was taught as an undergrad that stanzas indicate a lyrical movement in a poem whereas a single stanza tens to represent narrative. I’m wondering if you would agree with this statement at all or what you think he might have meant by this. I ask because I’ve never found much evidence that this is the case, but I think this speaks to the larger question of what stanzas do and how we use them…

RS: Stanzas are units of dwell-time.  Spaces between stanzas are blinks.  Japanese scientists recently presented evidence that blinking resets the brain, nano-moments required for refreshing our encounters with what’s happening. Necessary breakage.  I have no idea what your teacher was driving at.

SD & AMK: In the other two, “Khrushchev’s Foot” and “Cocoanut Grove,” the stanzas are of irregular length.  In both you begin with a four-line stanza and then move to five-plus lines.  Were those conscious decisions and what effect or effects are you aiming for?

RS:  Both poems use the stanza as a complete unit of thought or story.  The Great Wave is generally more reflective than my first book, especially in poems like these two.  It’s speechier. This was the impulse at the time.  Yes, consciously paced out. But there are also some things in the book that are more ragged and jagged. 

SD & AMK: In all three poems, a narrator works with someone else’s material to organize a narrative: a friend’s in “To the One Who Hears Me,” a world leader’s is partly related by that leader’s son, Sergei, in “Khrushchev’s Foot,” and his family’s in “Cocoanut Grove.”  The lines “To speak of a desirable world/ the listening boy leaning in,” poignantly placed in “Cocoanut Grove,” seem also to resonate in the other two poems.  To what degree is it our job as writers, as poets, to listen, to lean in, to bring back material we can use to make or explain or “speak of a desirable world”?   

RS: They say memory is eternal, but I think this is said in bad faith.  Everything will be forgotten.  But for the writer, memory is a fountain or an archive of material. Short- or long-term memory – what else do we have?  We make new scenes out of the old ones.  But bringing-back-material in itself isn’t enough if the bringing doesn’t come across as necessary in some way.  I’m usually not satisfied with a poem that simply relies on its occasion, even if it contains an interesting memory or a piece of recalled narrative.

SD & AMK: There’s an unidentified “you” in  “The One Who Hears Me” that’s a little perplexing. Is this the poet speaking to the reader or the speaker speaking to some unnamed character in the poem? Why make this move?

RS: Yes, speaking to the reader, from the beginning, of course.  To the one who hears. There’s no move, just a blunt address at the end. 

SD & AMK: “Cocoanut Grove” is an unusual poem in that it has this central, compelling narrative of the fire that has a great, imagistic potential but focuses, instead, on a more reflective, philosophical approach to its subject matter. Rather than grand images of flame and destruction, we get contemplative moments such as “To speak of the desirable world, /  the listening boy leaning in.” and “My grandfather, sworn in, testified, / but a single night evades judgment, / bloated with assignable blame.” What’s going on here?

RS: After September 11, 2001, The New Yorker published Adam Zagajewski’s splendid poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”  I love the poem, and somehow it triggered an opposing thought, namely that we can lavish so much attention on the damage that we make it a totem for a lifetime.  My poem vacillates in this regard.  It names the hurt and shows the burn. But it insists on a departure.  The latter results in what you call the contemplative. 

SD & AMK: I like how “Khrushchev’s Foot” meditates on an object and explores that object in a poem that’s not really about that object. This is an exercise many creative writing teachers utilize in their classes. Where did this poem come from? How did you get from Khrushchev’s foot to “it was then I knew I wanted to be / something to admire. Maybe to fear.”?

RS: Nikita Khrushchev was the successor to Hitler in my 1950-60’s youth.  I’m from the “duck and cover” generation, hiding under my first-grade desk from his atom bombs.  This poem and “Four Roses” deal with my father and me.  So I just began with a few lines about my dad taking me out to the yard one night to watch Nikita’s Sputnick, the first satellite.  But I don’t indulge the reminiscing impulse too far.  The poem more naturally implied the difficulties between father and son as seen from the speaker’s adulthood.  Khrushchev, once a threat, had become the model of a worthy adversary.  I was seeing a German acupuncturist at the time who told me, in advance of therapy, that he would not work on a male patient who had not forgiven his father for any griefs.  He was serious.  This provided an additional incentive to finish the poem.

 

A Mini-Review of Ron Slate's poems "To the One Who Hears Me" and "Cocoanut Grove" by Contributing Editor Zach Macholz

After the resounding success of his first collection, The Incentive of the Maggot (Mariner Books, 2005)-which included the Bakeless Prize, the Larry Levis Prize, and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets-perhaps few contemporary poets' second books have been as highly anticipated as Slate's second collection of poems, The Great Wave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Our featured poems this week, "To the One Who Hears Me," and "Cocoanut Grove," demonstrate Slate's remarkable talent for blending past with present and telling stories in a way that blurs the line between the interior self and outside world.

The first poem, "To the One Who Hears Me," is the opening poem of the collection. Comprised of eight quatrains, the poem features a speaker who moves between being told a story, reflecting on that story, and commenting on the story in conversation with a second person, likely the reader, as happens in the second stanza:

     Now I have hustled you to this other spot
     without even a cup of coffee to offer
     nor for that matter to take you
     into my confidence.

Though the first stanza teases us with his friend's "secret," which included "Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Rikers Island," that story is not what is remarkable in the poem. While a white man in a suit "selling crack out of a red Saab / with the top down three blocks north / of MLK Boulevard" is certainly an intriguing tale, what's remarkable here is the speaker's ability to listen, truly and deeply, as his friend tells the story, to pick up on the subtext of the conversation: "He was saying: Make use of me, / all my skills are now at your disposal."

This ability to become the intermediary between the poem's subject and its reader is so fluid that the poem demands multiple readings-not because the movement is in any way confusing, but because it can only be properly appreciated after some consideration. The poem's final two lines-"Just as I am speaking to you now, / not exactly waiting for your reply"- are, in combination with the second stanza and penultimate stanza, a thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between the poet-speaker, the story he tells, and the reader.

If the speaker's direct address to the reader is what most intrigues about this poem, it's the poem's syntactical line breaks and subtle use of sound that carry it along. Consider the second stanza above: the consonance of "have hustled" and "cup of coffee" are balanced by the assonance of "other spot," "coffee," and "offer." The poem's pacing is even and deliberate, giving the poem a softness that mimics the intimacy present in the speaker's voice and the speaker's act of listening to his friend.

In "Cocoanut Grove," the poet tells the story of his paternal grandmother's death in the infamous 1942 fire that destroyed the nightclub of the same name and claimed the lives of almost five hundred people. Again, this poem plays with and comments on memory and the telling of stories:

     How compelling for a family
     to have such a story to relate.
     Nothing would be the way it is.
     To speak of a desirable world,
     the listening boy leaning in.

The poem's other stanzas-mostly five lines, but some four or six in length-move between three temporal settings: the speaker's recollection of his childhood conversation with his father; the night of the fire itself, particularly through photographs; and the speaker's present, from which he reflects on the other two. Again, these transitions are made smooth by the largely syntactical line breaks and the neatly compartmentalized stanzas.

While there is, again, subtle sound at work in this poem, "Cocoanut Grove's," real poetic genius lies in the masterful turns of phrase and rich figurative language that is interwoven among the more straightforward narrative details. One such moment opens the poem: "My life began with the fire, / glimmering in the birthwaters' and, later, "The nightclub burned in minutes, / in 1942, with a sibilant exhalation." Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the poem, language wise, is the metaphor of the fire hose:

     Corrosive worm of remembrance,
     allure of the lurid past,
     the nozzle's snout regressing
     down the smoldering street.

Here, as he does throughout the poem and the collection, Slate successfully intermingles past and present in a way that emphasizes how closely they are linked- indeed, how they are at times indecipherable from one another.

Ron Slate's second collection, The Great Wave, offers poems that, like the two featured poems this week, explore and sometimes dull the lines between past and present, that often tell a story within a story or are in some way reflective, and that balance relatively straightforward line breaks and syntactical structures with language rich in metaphor, simile, near-rhyme, and alliteration. It is a compelling and substantive follow-up to one of the most heralded debut collections in recent memory, and leaves us waiting, perhaps somewhat impatiently, for his next book.