November 9, 2012

Carol Lem

“YOU KNOW . . . AND YOU DO IT”
(a Poetry Reading, LACMA 2/17/02)

—to Philip Levine

When he sat down beside me
and shook my hand, he could have been
an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile.
And when he said my name, “Carol,
weren’t we in an anthology together?”
I knew who he was, as poets are
who read the words not written to
each other but to that unseen listener.
“I’m not in L.A. often, only when
my mother was alive . . .” and I recalled
his poem, “Soloing,” “Yes, the only
one about this city.”

At 74, his face was translucent, as though
emitting a pale light from behind
the once rugged lines of a life lived
in homage to the guys doing miserable
night shifts at Cadillac, to brothers, mother,
father, wife, sons, aunts and uncles,
to Cipriano, Mera, Tom Jefferson—
his saints and heroes,
to Tatum and Robinson, the shadow
of Garcia Lorca, the poets of Chile,
the llanto of Barcelona, the countless
names of the lost between Detroit and Fresno,
between somewhere and nowhere,
asking for nothing, for nothing is
all there is, “You know . . . and you do it,”
he says, touching my shoulder.
Yes, I know what work is, the work—
these words that come when
the other work is done in factories, offices,
hospitals, and classrooms.

I knew, back then, that one summer
I wasn’t teaching what work was
when I showed him my work.
In the sitting room at the Aspen Hotel,
he held my manuscript like one
who had spent the morning reading through
my life, his student for a week.
He could have been the uncle I never had
giving advice, “You’re always
in a room looking out, I’d like to see you
get out, the poems are claustrophobic.”
He could see and hear me
at my desk beside the window,
the traffic and people going by below.

Now, the eyes and ears taking in
the poet who was on before him
were as sharp as his wit, often turned
on himself, “here’s an unfinished poem,
maybe I can find someone to finish it,”
he smiles, “it’s about becoming an old geezer.”
Phil kept checking his watch,
for his turn to read was passing.
He sipped bottled water and popped hard
candy into his mouth. Occasionally,
he bent down to look into his plastic bag
like one of his saints and heroes
making sure he had everything there,
everything he could claim as his own.
In truth, everything was there,
for in those books and loose sheets
of unfinished verse a story is going on
at its own sweet will.

And like that one summer eight years ago,
I would hear again as we walked
to the signing table, “It’s work.
You know, you do it.” The way he said you
echoed the hours revising poems
as though he sat beside me as I unveiled
my story, for like his and others’
that share the same blind path with hope
for our words stumbling toward closure,
there is no other way.

from Rattle #22, Winter 2004