Poet Of The Week

Arthur Russell

     December 21–27, 2015

Arthur Russell is a 59-year-old man who, as far as his mother is concerned, eats too fast, talks too quietly and is far too sensitive. There was a famous avant garde cello player with the same name of approximately the same age, who lived in the same apartment building as Allen Ginsberg on the Lower East Side, and died of AIDS in and around 1992. This is not that guy, although when that Arthur Russell died, his credit card company placed a lot of calls to this Arthur Russell, dunning him for payment. This Arthur Russell works as a lawyer, but his real skills are fixing toilets and apologizing for things he didn’t do. He is the winner of the inaugural Yawp Poem of the Year award for 2015 for the poem below.

The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter

 
I

I have never wanted anything but to be understood and accepted,
except from my father, from whom I wanted to be appreciated,

but he did not believe in praise. If I got a 96

he thought it was thrifty to ask where the other four points went,
because acknowledging success was prideful.

I was so hungry for his praise I got to know his mind as ancient Greek
     sailors knew
the islands of the Aegean, how their shapes rose on the horizon,
     conjuring their
olive groves and the monsters in their caves.

I searched his inconsistencies for deeper hidden consistencies.
I listened for approval in the caverns of his silence
and read his eyes for signs that weren’t there

from boy to man, and still he was ahead of me, withholding praise
and holding out the possibility of praise, and withholding praise again.

 
II

Then he got sick and very old and spent the last two years
of his life in a bed in a home that smelled like an evacuated bowel

that had been washed with minty disinfectant.
He was embarrassed by immobility and proud in his mind.

He took no visitors, and referred to himself as “The Potato In The Bed,”
and to the anti-depressant pills they gave him as “Nursing Home Not So
     Bad.”

His legs swelled, grew purple, oozed pus, scabbed over.
He spoke as slowly as oak trees.

His fingers were smooth flesh purses of stymied bone.
And yet, when he could no longer reach the control that made his bed
     rise,

he invented a string with a 3/8 inch nut tied to one end and looped over
the bed rail to help him fish it up. Patient as a prisoner planning an
     impossible escape,
he loved his engineering, he loved his invention; he loved his mind.

 
III

His weight dropped. His eyes were failing. Sundays afternoons, that
     autumn,
we were watching the Jets, when he said, “Shake me.” I looked at him
     sideways.

He blinked and smiled winsomely, almost coquettishly, like a high cloud
     on a summer day.
“Like a baby,” he said. “Shake me like a baby.”

I knelt astride him on the bed and threaded my fingers under his
     shoulder blades.
I lifted a little, then let go. “Faster,” he said, like the air
rushing out of a tire when you depress the pin in the valve.

So I went faster, maybe one pulse every two seconds, up an inch and
     down again. Then he
began a moan, but so low I could not hear it, only a vibration in my chest,
and the whales off Manhattan Beach breached and fell back into the
     water.

It was crying, but not the regular kind, because he was talking with
     someone
I had never known. And then he fell asleep. I got off the bed, and sat

in the chair again, and the Jets were losing, and the linoleum was thick
     with wax,
and I imagined the factory in Germany where they make linoleum, big
     steel rollers,

the smell of bitumen, and I dreamed they were slicing the linoleum into
     squares
and putting it into boxes; and then we both woke up, and I went home.

 
IV

The next week, he said, “I asked mother to shake me like a baby. She said
     no. Embarrassed.”
Then I mounted the bed, found his shoulder blades, and did it again,

strange massage for the places that his heart had ceased to serve, and this
     time
he moaned loudly and shivered and dropped into a thick, robust, snoring
     sleep, as if

it was 1943 and all of the other men were off at war, and he and his friend
     Artie
had all of the girls to themselves, and woke up in their cars at dawn,
     disheveled,

dirty, thicklipped, thirsty, sure of themselves and what came next.

When he woke, he asked for water, then we watched the Jets, though he
     could
not see much more than the field of green, and twice asked me the score.

Then, with his voice so low only a motion detector could hear him, he
     asked,
“Why is it no one understands me but you?”

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

The emotional heart of this poem is the question with which it ends: “Why is it no one understands me but you?” In real life, as in the poem, I said nothing when my father posed that question from his deathbed. For him it was a local, quasi-rhetorical question about the shaking, but for me it was an incredible, albeit unintentional bugle call, bringing up the central tension in our relationship. So, although I said nothing to him, the answer that went screaming through my brain was: “Because, you fucking idiot, I’m the only one who has been listening.” This poem is the cleaned up, back-filled version of that moment.

What are you working on right now?

A poem that can make a woman take her clothes off.

What’s a good day for you?

I like when I wake up without prompting at 4:15, get my coffee, write until 5:15, go to the gym at 5:30, come back and have breakfast with my wife at 6:40, then do my ablutions and get to work at 8:30. If I get that much done, I feel like I’m playing with house money the rest of the day.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

In my era, Brooklyn was where you came from, not where you went to. My father went to Erasmus, my mother to Lincoln. They met at Grossinger’s, where he saw her across the pool. She recently told me that he told her that she looked like the radiator cap hood ornament figurine on a Pontiac automobile. He meant it as a compliment. After they were married, she got a nose job.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I used to think that I would write an epic novel about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s as the son of the inventor of the conveyorized car wash in New York, Burt Russell, who opened the Hollywood Car Wash on the corner of Church Avenue and Coney Island Avenue in the winter of 1946. That was the place I spent summers and then whole years being a manager of men, fixing mechanical things, butting heads with my father while I lived in the maternal homeland—Brighton Beach. My grand portrait of South Brooklyn and of Coney Island Avenue as its ethnic spine, with oddballs, castoffs, gadabouts, drunks, cheapskates, lunatics and miscreants who either worked at the car wash or got their cars washed there was to have had the same ironic relationship to the 1976 comic movie farce Car Wash that Don Quixote had to the foolish novels of knight errantry that preceded it. I wanted to call it The Quaint Man of Coney Island Avenue, based, in part, on the fact that “quaint” was an Elizabethan euphemism for “cunt.” The principal reason that the book did not get written was that I am not a hard-working person.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

In my sophomore year at Midwood H.S., which would have been 1971-1972, I acted in class plays, played trumpet in the symphonic band and ingested a lot of the varieties of recreational drugs then available. That spring, my guidance counselor Michael Colavito invited me to attend a summer program called SPARK, for School Prevention of Addiction through Rehabilitation and Knowledge. I did. The program took place at Brooklyn Tech on Fort Greene Place and lasted a few weeks. If I recall, there was a small cash stipend for going, and you got a pass to use the subways for free. There were drug counselors, educational seminars, group therapy sessions and recovering drug addicts giving talks. It was a wonderful, nurturing environment. It challenged you to think about what you were doing. I also really enjoyed the subway rides down to Atlantic Avenue, and walking past the BAM to Fort Greene. I enjoyed the program. It probably reduced my drug usage by 50-75 percent.

What does community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

Don’t even start. Community is everything to a poet. It’s either the poems you read in books or the poets you know in person, and the latter are better because they drink beer. I love Brooklyn Poets. What a great group, and I’ve only been coming since August. Julie, Emily, Ricky, Laura, Tim, Lars, Manca, Rich, Jason, that girl Jillian who wrote the poem about flirting with herself in the mirror. I’m really feeling accepted, and the workshops always work.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I have a hard shell, so it takes a lot of marinade before anything gets inside, and by then, sometimes, it’s hard to tell the source. The earliest authorization to read seriously and write doggedly came from Linda Arkin, who taught me Shakespeare at Midwood. I learned a lot about posture and purpose from Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus, Tom Lux, Jean Valentine, Ray Carver, Toby Wolff and Hayden Carruth, but the best influences in my writing life were Jay Meek, Phil Booth and Jack Gilbert because they had immense humility and the thing I needed the most help with was to stop trying to be clever.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’m reading Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964. Bellow was almost an exact contemporary of my father, and my family’s New World origins are similar to Bellow’s, but when I read this biography, which uses his fiction as an annotated concordance to his life, I am also reading about the political, intellectual and literary underpinnings of the whole 20th century, which I care about a lot, but which have zero, nada, nothing to do with my biological family. The combination of these two strands in one book, which work their way through my life like a helix, is thrilling.

Jay Meek’s poem “Internal Exile” in the collection Headlands is a great one. As much as any poem can, it tries to say who we are and what we owe to one another today. It’s completely modern, aesthetic and moral without being strident. Its imagery is far out and difficult, but not intractable, and it’s beautiful and sad and hopeful.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Well, I dislike Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane pretty intensely, so I think I need to get over that.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

Sometimes I think I just want to finish reading the books that are already in my house, but then new ones come along. I try to “shop” at the library in Nutley on the new book shelf, but then I go and buy the books of the poets I hear at readings. For me, writing is a response to other writers, so reading involves a pencil. Marginal notes are where the conversation begins, and if that doesn’t settle it (“Take it outside!”) then it moves into my notebook, and from there makes its way onto a computer screen.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Emmons Avenue, Flatbush Avenue Extension, the Paerdegat streets, Mill Basin, Dead Horse Bay, Marine Park Salt Marsh, the Bike Path along the Belt Parkway, the whole south-facing margin, where the last glacier stopped to pick its nose before receding, where I saw my first fireworks on Tuesday nights on the boardwalk, or summer days heard the guy in the white pith helmet calling out “Orange Drinks, Get your Ice … Cold … Orange Drinks, he-ah,” where I cut my foot on broken bottle glass and got my first stitches, where the tide going out exposes horseshoe crabs, where you can pretend to look out and see England while you’re really looking South at your continental shoes, or Florida.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Criminals in my family include my father,
his brother, two cousins, and the biggie—
my grandfather, whose deepest love
was talking smack about the things he jacked.

Sitting behind the dugout at a Dodger
game resting his fat hand lightly on his fat stomach, he said, “Do not rob
people, son. You get rich on your wits in Brooklyn.
Be stealthy. Violence is unnecessary, worse: sin.”
I said, “You mind if I write this down, Gramps?” and clicked my pen.

Why Brooklyn?

Di Fara’s Pizza.