Thank you for your letter.
You might have phoned
but I couldn’t keep
a phone call in my pocket
and take it out to read
now and then.
Remember the Valentine Box –
Ribbons, red foil, paper doilies?
One of the sins committed
By well-intentioned teachers,
Bringing dread each February
To two groups of kids:
Those too poor to buy any cards
And the unpopular ones
Who received no valentines –
Except for the ones sent
By the teacher and by someone
Who bought them for everyone.
This, then, is a valentine
For all who were forgotten,
Now or any other year.
To those for whom the box was empty –
Sorry: I couldn’t afford to mail
A card to everyone.
Once someone wrote to me:
“I am tying up my letters from you
with a ribbon, so my grandchildren
will find them that way.”
This is not an exact quotation,
since I didn’t keep her letter.
MY ONE INCH OF FAME
I ran into Bob, whose name
was now different and who now
was a photographer. He took my photo,
then handed me the camera, changing places:
he assumed my pose at the bus stop
and I, in the gutter as he’d been,
almost got hit by a bus,
but I snapped the picture.
A magazine announced Bob’s
illustrated by two photos:
John Cage, taken by Bob,
and Bob, by John Cage.
I found the exhibition, huge room
after huge room–but all the walls
were hung with contact sheets.
I hunted and found us: Gloria Steinem,
Milton Glaser, etc., and me –
all of us famous people
were one inch high.
We all know what Andy Warhol said
about the 15-minute duration of fame;
for the thousands of us exhibited there,
the dimension was one inch.
KEEPER OF THE FLAME
Beyond the noise and sunlight of 42nd Street
And posters of the violent acts
Now Showing * Kung Fu Killers! * Vampire Hookers! *
Up stairs with grit and urine in the treads,
Across the balcony –
Up a steep steel ladder, through a door
Locked against thieves and lunatics
Is the booth at the theater ceiling –
Like an office, workroom, watchman’s lair,
With toilet, hot plate, incandescent light.
It is hot, the projectionist wears a t-shirt.
Small windows look down the vast darkness
To giants on the screen. The old projector,
Wheezing, sucks the strips of images
Into its throat, past its light,
The flame that hisses between carbon rods.
This is the arc light he tends;
He’s soft from inactivity,
Locked from daylight in this sanctum
As long as crowds come by.
He stacks cans of film, waits for signals
To flick switches or change the reels.
You’ve seen what happens if he dozes
Or turns away too long, reading or eating,
And the sound fails or light dies –
We hoot and stamp and whistle,
Summoning the protector of our visions
Who tends the flame and celluloid,
Guardian of dreams that fly across the dark
On motes of light.
SOUNDS OF WRITING
You once knew writers were at work
By the sound of their typewriters.
Daytime in spring or summer
Whole streets of the West Side
And the Village were filled
With the music of clacking and bells.
Now there is silence – windows closed
For air-conditioning, computers
Too quiet to be heard below.
It may be possible to compose
Poems on computer screens;
Something in me doubts it.
Yet even quills dipped in ink
And scratching across parchment
Were a technological advance
Over chanting in firelight,
But for the same purpose: dispelling
Fear as the shadows grow.
We evolved eating nuts and fruit,
And meat when the hunt went well –
Not an endless glut of rich things
That clog the blood and kill
The ancients knew nothing of deaths
On the other side of the world;
They danced twice a year, sang rarely,
Welcomed the storyteller who found his way
To their hut.
But we hear beautiful music
As we shave, have dramatic experiences
Hour after hour by broadcast or tape.
Like rich food, too much art
May be dangerous to health.
The library was almost a shack –
a two-room white clapboard building
with a little of everything,
an oasis of literacy in the town.
They had a few LPs of classical music
and I always took out the limit
of two at a time.
When I was leaving for college
the librarian had me recommend
new records for purchase; she had
$200 of fine money to spend.
I gave her a list and she followed it
exactly – my taste at the time, my sense
of the beautiful, the worthy, and the outrageous
from Beethoven through Ravel to Stravinsky.
The library is gone, replaced
by a proper brick edifice;
I assume the records have been replaced
by CDs and cassettes.
But that was my first opportunity
for cultural influence, at least
in a two-room clapboard library.