Poets of Our Time

And now for another excerpt from my book, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, restored window

St. Clement’s. Beauty under the grime. Muted mosaics flaring in sunlight. Chanting poets.

Rich wanted to ask Allen Ginsberg to read a section of The Odyssey at an anti-nuclear event he was planning for a Sunday at St. Clement’s on August 6th, “Hiroshima day.”

He asked me to go with him to Allen Ginsberg’s reading at a nuclear disarmament rally. He read most probably from “Plutonian Ode.”

Poets we knew and became connected to moved forward, a gentle tide, rocked by the new thing, our ability to create oblivion, and to answer with our voices evoking the voices of consciousness to carol our spirits inside the death-rendering, until there we were, the Poets of Our Time right up in front of the crowd, serious, dolorous, Kerouac cool, smiling antennas up and on the tips of our toes. Ginsberg threw himself into the poetry, sparked our responses: nodding heads, nodding bodies. Handclaps, psalming our way beyond. We were in love.

I was in love. With Allen Ginsberg!

In the excitement Richard and I were swept away. Rich had no chance to ask Ginsberg to read at the St. Clement’s anti-nuclear event. We rode over the East River to a party at Maurice Kenny’s Brooklyn apartment, and after that, unwilling to give up the day, although it was midnight, we walked to the Esplanade to feel and hear the breath-song of New York harbor.

Native American Poets, A Poet’s Journey

At the next Monday night reading, I greeted people and collected donations at the door to the downstairs theater. Afterwards, Richard, and poets Rochelle Ratner, Jim Bertolino, Maurice Kenny, and I went for coffee.

A compact, intense but friendly older man with a short pony tail, Maurice was co-editor with Josh Gosciak of Contact/II, a Bimonthly Poetry Review.

Maurice Kenny

I had noticed that he was selling postcards of Native American poetry and artwork at the reading. Maurice said he was a Mohawk from upstate New York. The postcards were from his Strawberry Press, publishing the work of diverse Native Americans. Among them were Joseph Bruchac, Wendy Rose, and Joy Harjo. (In 2019, Harjo was named the United States Poet Laureate.)

The conversation flowed as lively as a deep woods stream tangling with the strong tides of an urban harbor, a stirring concordance of languages. I had a wonderful time and did not get home ’til 2 a.m.

Maurice Kenny remembered on Dawnland Voices (I recommend his Wild Strawberry poem)

Maurice Kenny about Joy Harjo and Louis Oliver

This is part of the memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark. All rights reserved.

A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen

West 46th Street, New York City

Poetic License

1978

I had my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. And miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.

Stopping at a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light. *

Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered westward to a narrow trail leading past four- and five-story buildings. Snow camel-backed on parked cars. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair,* until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see above me a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass, indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a green patina springing from a luminous, roiling gray sky.

Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white, and blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven. Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway. A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. I looked up and down the street of tenements and brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light.

A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost: Welcome to St. Clement’s.

On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-knocking on heaven’s door.

A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die. *

Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door. “Mary?”

In his early thirties, Richard’s long, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red.

I stepped inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated with red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek.

I was one of only three. We read wine-poetry and drank red wine in chipped cups from St. Clement’s kitchen.

Inspirations: * Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost; “Sonnet 73,” William Shakespeare; “I heard a Fly buzz,” Emily Dickinson.

This is the first part of a memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark. All rights reserved.

Poetry in the Time of COVID-19

Here’s a fine poem about this time.

quarantine TV cuomo

When
by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

Ocean Dreams and Other Poems

My father believed he had never written that one great poem, but I disagreed. His long poem, “Ocean Dreams,” is the fulfillment of that aspiration, and I have published it as a Kindle book for that reason. The “Other Poems” are those I like; some of them I edited, and hope I did them justice. 

Ocean Dreams Cover

Adriatic Poems

Recently I’ve been making videos to go with my father’s writings about his trip to what was then called Yugoslavia in October 1980. This was an interesting time in the history of that area. Tito died in 1980 and the region fell into war. While my father was there, however, all was peaceful. Tourists came to the seaside and many made the boat trip across the sea to Venice, Italy.  This is one of his audiotapes combined with his photos of that trip. My father died in January 2009.

Blue Bowl, by Forrest Clark

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

Vincent Ferrini,cosmic everyman poet

ferrininosmoke

Vincent Ferrini and the poet Charles Olson engaged in a love-hate tango for years. Vincent’s poetry was strong but nuanced, able to evoke both the physical and divine worlds with ease.

In 1981, I met Vincent at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street. With his co-poet for the evening, Ed Kaplan, I waited on the sidewalk. Ed’s hair flared away, singed, crinkled like blown-out electrical wires. A breeze sprang up, blowing from the east off the ocean, as if from the rocky coasts and gray-green waves of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with its salt-strong sea-scent.

The Village Voice notice had read: “Vincent Ferrini, the Gloucester poet who weaves in and out of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, arrives to give his first ever New York City reading. Author of Know Fish and 27 other volumes of poetry, Ferrini writes a strong and direct and lovely line.” 

The Voice said Ed Kaplan’s books, Pancratium and Zero Station, moved in an “Olsonesque verbal labyrinth assessing the nature of existence.”

Ed said, “He’ll be here any minute.”

We stamped our feet on the sidewalk in the still chill (with a note of first warmth) of late March.

Vincent Ferrini came quickly down the street in a walk-sprint like a sprite, full of enthusiasm. I had a vision of a bonfire on the beach, a beacon, a light that gathered people in. I laughed as he spoke: we were word-surfers.

On the flyer, Vincent Ferrini’s words:

do you think this moment
after reading this
you will be the same again

Ed smiled as Vincent gave me a copy of Know FishCornelius Eady and Shelley Messing came from WBAI and taped the reading, but later Cornelius told me the tape did not turn out well. These moments cannot be recreated, maybe they cannot be adequately recorded. 

A short time afterward, I gave Bob Holman of the Poetry Project at St. Marks the copy of Vincent Ferrini’s Know Fish. For several years Vincent and I stayed in touch. About three years later, he wrote to me: “Sleep with one eye open all of 1984.”

Vincent Ferrini on Wikipedia

Vincent Ferrini’s Obituary 2007 (includes critique of his poetry)

This is a link to two letters to me from Vincent Ferrini. 

Creating Community

photo of person holding sparkler

Photo by Malte Lu on Pexels.com

I live in a community where I have not experienced a strong sense of community. Having come here in later life, after living in other states, Southwest Virginia has not been all that welcoming or hospitable to me. I find the Confederate flag at the United States’ Independence Day parade to be a reminder of the worst division this nation has ever known, one that almost killed us off as nation, and not a symbol of any proud heritage, for instance.

In the face of these divisions, my friend Maggie who was born here, although her mother is from New England, and identifies herself with this town, invited people she knew to come hear her read at a local café on the evening of July 4th. I was the only one who showed up. When I arrived, at the open mic night, a band was playing, too loud for me to stay inside the café. Others came in and quickly left as well. The place was almost empty. I though that someone should tell the band to modulate their amplification to fit the space, because they had great energy, but the sound was overwhelming what they were playing. Maggie and I talked outside and I said I would walk up and down the street until she came on. At the same time, on the street, people were gathering for the city’s fireworks. 

About a half hour later, the band of young men, who appeared to be in their twenties, stopped playing. I went back inside, to find I was to be her audience, along with potentially three new customers getting drinks at the bar. Maggie asked the band to stay to listen to her. They went backstage. Now, Maggie is a large, young woman who it turns out has a “schoolteacher’s voice” I didn’t know about. She said she’d wait. One of the band members came back out and she asked if the others were coming. He said no, he didn’t think so. I felt for her at this point, but thought, hey, just go ahead.

As she began to read, the other band members came out and sat at the table right in front of her. They were talking, quietly, among themselves, but as she continued speaking, they began to listen. She read and spoke from memory and improvisation about a locust tree in her backyard that was full of vines, and the vines were killing it. She cut the vines to give it a chance to live. At some point she sensed she heard the tree thank her. She saw the leaves of the vines yellowing, in time. Then she talked about July 4th and freedom, and how we as Americans are free, and when we see someone else in shackles, we have to emancipate them; it’s our civic responsibility to cut their shackles. 

The band members applauded when she was done and one young man came over to her and talked to her a while. A young woman who had been sitting with the band eagerly reached out to her. They spoke as well, and then she and I walked toward the door. I said, “You knocked their socks off.” I was proud of her, and what literature, poetry, and thinking, can do, and most of all, having the freedom – and the courage – to express what you are feeling and thinking.

I drove home as the city’s fireworks lit up the sky. So maybe community is when we have the courage to create it, no matter the odds against us.

Grandma Wing

KatherineMiller_Florida

Grandma lived in Winter Park,
near Lake Osceola and Rollins College.
The house was two stories, and wide
windows looked out on a fountain
in the circle of the road
On the front porch she waited for us,
shoulders bent forward and in,
but willfully resolute, and keen-eyed;
I felt her cool arthritic palm
Once inside sunlight blazed beyond
Venetian blinds, antiques and a lifetime’s finds,
crystal and china shone in measured light,
and overhead fans kept the rooms cool;
matching the tapestry of her garden
She was never bored: I read,
I think and daydream. At my age
these are the things I do best.

I saw the joys and sorrows of a long life
imprinted on her face, in a window’s sunspot
when we settled in for a game
of double solitaire;
but when she asked me to stay with her
a day or two I made excuses:
parents’ disapproval, homework, school
Don’t you want to?
Yes, I nodded. But I already knew
some wished-for things will never be.
Help me in the garden, she said,
rising from her wing chair
A delicate aroma of tropical flowers
washed over me: I want to stay with you,
I thought, of days in this garden
backlit by water-dappled clouds
She showed me how to water roses
and there’s a right way and all other ways
are nonsense. And we are always there
with the blue beyond us, the blue around us,
the blue within us, and the roses

 

Mary Clark