23rd Street. On My 40th Birthday

6:30 a.m. . . . a mug of bitter coffee in a diner named Chelsea Square.
This morning, the middle of winter, is dark as night.
I’m surrounded by fellow survivors, bloodshot-eyed, unshaven,
some at late suppers of corned beef, some with eggs and bacon.
The coffee’s to keep my eyes open when I leave the Chelsea Square,
so far from home I can never travel those 200 miles again.


In the Chelsea Square of my childhood, across its creek from Boston,
the all-night place was the Apollo, shrine to the god who misleads poets into daylight.
My father brought me there on nights so late my eyes were scratchy,
but I was excited with the doughnuts and pie, in the night world of street-corner hoods,
drunken women, a genuine dwarf joking with the low-life . . .
in the bright lights through cigar smoke and dreams explained one last time.


Until I started school I spoke my own language, vowels only.
I wouldn’t form the consonants big people needed to understand.
At the Apollo no one spoke to me. I could listen to conversations
on every side, or I could watch the future world
inside my mind, starring the famous Me . . . acknowledged and coddled,
respected and cared for, controlling my own bright stage.


This morning vigil is my weekly stop before my class, where I’ve tried to teach
how to write clearly, to put s’s and d’s at the end of nouns and verbs,
to express feelings in good, strong words. To verbalize our fears
is to trap them therapeutically, and poems are the finest weaving of nets.
But this is my last Chelsea Square breakfast. Today is the final exam.
I reclaim the weekends for my own interests . . . enough of leading others to the light!


A poet approaching 40, I’ve read, has his visionary experience
if ever he’s to have one. I’ve been trying like mad, looking high and low, early and late.
And I’ve read that those who were deprived, growing up bloated with narcissism,
give up their grandiosity around age 40 and adjust to life with lower expectations.
We live most successfully when our visions correspond to reality, dammit.
Does the beetle, watching the moth at the flame, mock its folly or envy its glory?


With bricks and lanterns, they tried to gentrify Chelsea Square.
The littered crossroads of my childhood is gone . . . the Apollo is gone . . .
the doughnuts and smoke, the dwarf and the dreams are gone. Even the moon is hidden
from our nighttime expeditions in these cities, these restaurants.
But now I’ll tell you our entire secret: that all we look for in our wanderings
is somewhere to recite to someone who will listen all our conscious dreams.


That other Chelsea Square could not contain me . . . dragged to shops
by my mother at noon . . . a silent sidekick at my father’s midnights . . . .
If this new city will not contain me, where then will I go?
Trails of boulders scramble up mountains but I will not live there . . . .
Rows of houses on streets like Dick and Jane’s, but I will not live there.
The Apollo is gone. The gentry wouldn’t worship there.


The past is real enough to tempt me to wrap memories around me
like a quilt, but I will not live there. Where can I stay?
Shall I talk with strangers about their favorite restaurants, the movies they saw,
the state of the economy? Looking out at darkness, we see ourselves.
I live within the visions I discover with open eyes, with those I love
who love me, in my insight or my blindness, ready to move on at daybreak.


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