“The Jerry Lewis Telethon” by Bruce Cohen

Bruce Cohen


In those existential black & white days
It was indulgent luxury when television
Succumbed to its own insomnia.
My family adopted the Labor Day Telethon,
The day off, children with no bed times
Huddled around the talking box till 3 a.m.
Surrounded by our personal repartee
Of salty snacks. Members of the rat pack
Would radiate on stage, comedians who’d end
Their shtick with a somber note on the kids,
& a few tame rock n’ roll bands.
I must confess we never pledged a red cent
& when solicited my father said he gave
At work. I must confess when the crippled
Kids (it was okay to say that then) paraded
Across stage I made a fat, slow sandwich in
The kitchen so I’d be spared the drooling,
Slurred incoherent speech, their contorted
Bodies supported by utterly exhausted parents,
Their crutches & wheelchairs just out of reach.
Look at us we’re walking. Look at us
We’re talking. We who’ve never walked
Or talked before. I was curious about one
Thing: Jerry never revealed his personal conviction:
Why he volunteered his heart year after year.
People asked him always & he was stoically
Evasive. It was the scoop. It sucked you in.
I loved the 24-hour evolution of his tuxedo.
When the telethon was new & hopeful,
It was neatly pressed, shiny crow-black,
His bow-tie so perfect it must have been tied
By someone else. By the next bleary morning,
His face unshaved, bags swelled under his eyes,
The tie undone, of course, you could smell
His stale Marlborough breath through the TV.
But Jerry could do anything. Just his face
Made us laugh. Astaire-like dancer, uncanny mimic,
A singer, according to my father, better than Frank
or Dean, he’d duet with whoever graced
His couch. Jerry was especially moved by
Unexpected stars & hugged & kissed even men.
I wanted to be Jerry. The wacky voices, the fake
Buck teeth. Unabashed generosity. I must confess
I got chills during the drum roll before the new
Total was announced. I even prayed a little
For the cure though I suspected none of the kids
Were Jewish so I worried my God might
Not be watching the show. But Jerry was
Jewish. So was Sammy Davis. I loved how
We adopted him too, glass eye & all, the way he
Threw in a Yiddish phrase when he spoke
& we all smiled his same crooked smile.
After three hours of sleep I would stumble
Downstairs & flip on the show. None of the big
Names were there at 5 a.m. Only Jerry. Only
Some pudgy Vinnie from Local 526 who pledged
744 bucks that he personally collected from
Customers on his bread route, only a scout master
From troop 13 whose boys collected 121 dollars
From returning Coke bottles at two cents a pop.
The early morning acts were crummy. Jerry needed
Filler. A girl, who would be described in those
Days as negro, was twirling a baton while doing
Cartwheels. Jerry was twirling a baton as well.
He could do anything. During her penultimate
Cartwheel the girl’s top slid down.
She quickly pulled it back up but I saw her breast.
It was brief I admit but I saw it on TV.
I had never seen a breast outside of my family
Before & she ran off the stage in quick humiliation
But Jerry, the gentleman that he was, ignored the indignity,
Applauded & asked for the new total. All my life
I wanted to ask contemporaries if they happened
To be awake at that precise moment, if they had
Seen what I’d seen, if it really happened.
You know the business about the tree falling
& if it makes a sound if no one is around?
Don’t we need a witness to validate our lives?
Each of us is so expert at deceiving ourselves.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


Bruce Cohen: “Mostly I generate poems out of quirky language, often a musically interesting phrase I overhear, so I rarely, initially, have any sense of the subject matter until well into the composition. The first sentence, like a jingle, had been knocking around my head for a while when suddenly it exploded quickly into a poem that virtually wrote itself, based on a memory of a naïve America from my childhood. It is rare that my poems stick to their narrative. I had no idea where the poem was headed and was surprised by the girl at the end who I had not remembered until the moment she appeared on the pages. She became the only person who was not, somehow, a romanticized cartoon. Vulnerable, yet dignified.” (web)

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