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The Weathered Poem AND THE WORN CHAIR

Pops.  Look at you there with your long billy goat scruff.  You sit on the worn-shiny chair, fingers interlocked in poised form, shirts untucked.  I tell you next time you shave to get under your chin as well.  “OK, tomorrow morning,” you say.  I give you a doubtful glance.

You spend a lot of time in bed these days and I don’t mean with women.  But when you are in the worn chair, you sing old songs.  Standards like “We’ll Make Honey While The Sun Shines, We’ll Make Love While It Rains” or “I Want A Girl Just Like The One Who Married Dear Old Dad.”  Song, along with the many verses of memorized poetry, that you used to seduce many women.  You give me a knowing look, crystal blue eyes squinted, mouth tight.  Then you quickly stick out your tongue and then smile sheepishly, like an 8 year old.

The TV was on when I came in.  You were watching a Korean language channel.  I ask what you’re thinking about.  “Time, life, fortune…,” you say glumly, “…architectural digest.”  You give a big grin.

We’re near Times Square, near one of those signs emblazoned with a KodakCokeFriendsandCalvin’s, near people making money and filling time with DatalinksT1InterfaceMegabiteDigitalNetworks.  You sit in the threadbare chair.  Fifty years in this apartment living and breathing thousands of books that warm it like a kind of mental furnace, like glowing coals of past thought completely untuned to camera angles, air kisses and I.P.O.’s.  James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney all passed through or stayed a while; many other writers—some favorite ghosts, some indifferent phantoms—have left something in the dust.

You turn the TV off.  After a moment you turn it back on—snow.  You watch it, change the channel to more static.  You look at me, shake your head.  I take the remote, push a couple of obscure buttons to get the cable back.

I ask you what your favorite TV program is.  “I don’t care for any of them,” you say curtly.  You think a moment.  “Captain Stoopnagle and Budd!” I look at you for a moment.  You grin.  “Oh, guess that was radio.  You never heard it…poor boy!” You look at the TV and an ad ends with an Internet address.  You look at me with a cute snarl, “What’s all that stuff at the end.”

“The Internet,” I say.

“What’s that?”

I circumvent the question because it’s not important in this place and I remember that when you once used a computer you didn’t understand that when the text scrolled off the screen, it was not lost forever.

I think of all the songs that must have been sung before TV.  All the poems read.  Once I looked at a leather-bound book of quotations you perused as a teen on Staten Island around the time you worked at a book store before going off to WWII: next to each of the thousands of quotes you put your own little rating system of one to four cherries that were either blank or penciled in.  A key to the ratings were on the inside of the back cover.  You were a tough critic.  There were only a couple with the highest rating.  One was “I respect faith but doubt is what gets you an education.”

I once got you a little bell that you would start hitting when you thought someone was on the phone too long.  “Phones are for making appointments,” was the mantra and you would always tell the story of your old friend who invented the cartoon “Letter Man” that used to be on PBS.  He would talk on the phone for a half an hour and then at the end of the conversation would say, “OK, I’ll see you in ten minutes.” And you want me to explain the Internet to you!

You love poetry and songs and words: these were the teacher and entertainer for the last 80 years, these are what complement, give birth to meaning.  A poem is like a pariah in this super-heated commercialism of the late Twentieth Century—it hides most of the time, sometimes ducking out into the storm and finding a little niche, a little enclave to help us weather a WWWventureCapitalLiquidityMargin onslaught.  What is this technology around us?  You shouldn’t care, Pops, it’s all conduit and hardly any content.  The “Information Age” is not about information, it’s about new ways to carry it.

You sit there in the worn chair, magazines and piles of books at your elbow.  An anti-commercial icon of sorts, though you’d scoff at that.  You turn the TV on with the wrong remote: snow.  You change the channel to more fuzzy images.  You stare at it—maybe it’s the same to you.  You get up to go lie down; it takes effort to get up onto spindly legs.  You start shuffling across the rug.  I watch you.

“It’s almost the year 2000,” I say.  “They’ll be a lot of people outside.  A lot of chaos.  We’re only about six blocks from Times Square.”

You stop and glance towards the window, towards the Midtown hotels across Seventh Avenue, across to the throngs of tourists, across to the tops of Corporate Headquarters, across the girders of new buildings.

You shrug your shoulders.  “I’ll pay no attention.  Maybe read and go to bed.”  You move closer to your bed.  “I won’t even hear the noise.”


William Rossa Cole

WILLIAM ROSSA COLE (1919 - 2000), editor, essayist, and light-verse poet, authored or co-authored over 80 anthologies and children's books, including the classic Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT-NOV 2000

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