My Memoir and Personal Essay class began this week at SFCC. Part of the inspiration for the class is the textbook itself, edited by Lopate. Although some of the reading is dense, I find it rewarding year after year. The other book for class is Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend From Far-Away.” By seeming coincidence, Natalie just forwarded this poem by Lopate to me.
by Phillip Lopate
A friend called up saying he was in a pre-suicidal mood.
I told him to come over.
I’d pay for the taxi.
“Will you go back with me to my apartment if I start to panic?”
I told him I would.
He arrived feeling chipper.
He wanted some wine.
I gave him a little cold sauterne that had been sitting
around in the icebox three weeks.
He said it tasted sour.
He looked at all my photographs.
He said he was feeling better.
We went out to dinner,
But it had to be on Madison Avenue.
For some reason he trusted Madison Avenue whereas Lexington, Third, Second and
York were out to get him.
We sat in the last table far away from any draught.
I had my eyes on the delicatessen floor.
The radio was full of George Wallace being shot.
“Just like Huey Long,” said my friend.
“Nixon did it
Now the gangsters are in the White House!”
I didn’t argue.
My eyes were on my plate, Stuffed Derma and french fries.
Suddenly he asked: “Are you feeling closer to me…?”
Of course I was,
I loved him.
But I used different words so as not to frighten him.
His head vibrated like a top whirling so fast you can’t see it spin.
We paid the check and I told him as we were walking along Fifth Avenue, to catch the
park and its rusty sunset, that I was also going through a bad time.
I had pinned my hopes on a shallow woman.
Though I no longer wanted her I felt curiously enervated.
Why this pain in my abdomen.
“Very simple,” explained my friend.
“You experience an expansion, joy, the energy flows into all parts of the body.
Then a contraction, blocked, everything goes to the stomach.
You’re still in high energy.
But there’s no release.
The result is despair.”
“That’s it exactly!” I said to him.
It was getting darker and the first fat raindrops spattered onto the canopies.
The doormen were slipping inside, I was too excited to care.
“Answer me one more thing: expansion, contraction, physiology, I understand
But what is it that stops us, when we’re so near to joy?”
Only now did I notice my friend had his mad look.
His eyes, always beautiful, slid into passing cars.
He begged me to stop talking but I wouldn’t.
I challenged him to explain the connections.
This nightfall, the orange chocolate smell, the dumpy couple walking by.
“Look at them,” he said. “They’re not going crazy.
Because they’re healthy?
Or because they can’t feel enough, because they don’t know how to feel it.”
Just then I felt it! Right through my body. “I feel it! I know what you mean! I feel it too!” I wanted him to know… “I don’t think I’ll wait for a bus,” he said and jumped into a cab. His face wobbled against the wet glass.
The next day he was still alive. Still alive.
The poem struck both of us as amazing. It is confessional in a away, with a bit of what I think of as NY School of Poetry jazziness but what really gets me is how it moves into a more private emotional place–still talking to the reader. Enjoy!