Cover image for My twentieth century : poems
My twentieth century : poems
Kirby, David, 1944-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington [D.C.] : Orchises, 1999.
Physical Description:
128 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


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PS3561.I66 M96 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Kirby (Big-Leg Music, LJ 8/95), a prolific writer of literary criticism as well as poetry, writes verse closer to the rhythms of popular culture and avant-garde performance art than the traditional sources of lyric poetry. His discursive, digressive poems, with their long stanzas and loping, talkative lines, are utterly unassuming in their prosiness, with their accounts of summer jobs, secondhand anecdotes, and strange encounters with the near-great, such as the Frenchwoman who claims to have met Henry James. More storyteller than poet in the usual sense, Kirby admits his unlikeness to others: "I don't know that very many other poets/ are writing exactly the way I am right now." Yet his method has a singular kind of candor and appeal: "Because if I write about it,/ and you read what I've written, it happened." A good purchase for collections strong in contemporary poetry. [Kirby is a longtime LJ reviewer.ÄEd.]ÄGraham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Polio       Our mothers were so afraid that they wouldn't even let us take the bus,     because in those days, nobody had the slightest idea how polio was transmitted. I caught it anyway.       Nobody knows how, and it doesn't really matter, although my mother used to grumble about     a neighbor of ours, a doctor with a lot of nutty ideas who had an unfiltered swimming pool in his back yard,       a scummy green pond, really, where we kids used to swim. In the beginning, I fell a lot,     but I was five years old then, and my parents attributed the falls to a child's clumsiness.       Then one day I was going down the steps and my legs gave way and I went off one side     and rolled over in the dirt a couple of times and looked up and saw my mother watching me       with a worried look, and even I, who was only five, thought, This isn't right, and the next thing     I knew, I was sitting in Dr. Van Gelder's office, and the next thing after that, I was being checked into       Baton Rouge General, where I spent the next three and a half months. I turned six in the hospital     and had this crummy birthday party with paper hats and a lot of forced gaiety on the part of the nurses       and none at all on the part of the other kids, with whom I had nothing in common except     a crippling disease and the desire to get the hell out. And then there was Christmas, which was more of the same,       and New Year's Eve, when my father stayed late, right up till they shooed him away, whereupon he kissed me     and said, See you next year! which is a funny joke of the kind fathers are fond of. And I knew       what he meant, too, only I didn't. Did and didn't, did and didn't, until finally I dragged myself     out of bed and over to the window, where I looked down on the parking lot,       which was nearly empty, and saw my father come out of the building and walk through     the yellow pools of light in his long winter coat and his 1950s dad-style felt hat until he reached       our big four-hole Buick, which he got into and drove away, and I thought, Well,     that's the last I'll see of my dad for a year, and I threw my head back and howled like a wolf cub,       and the other little cripples in the polio ward turned uneasily and went right on sleeping     as waves of self-pity built and broke over me and drove me back to my bed, where, at last, I too slept.       Now that was strange: not the failed joke or my going to the window, but the sleep of the others,     because every night we got up after Lights Out and jumped around in our beds and acted silly,       and if some of the kids were already sleeping, the rest would go around in their little hospital gowns     and wake the sleepers, and pretty soon we'd all be flopping around in our beds like catfish.       We'd do flips, knee drops, back layouts, the whole gymnastic repertoire. It wasn't pretty,     and I wonder that it didn't set back our progress and even leave us crippled for life,       since the nurses were always threatening us and saying we'd lie still if we knew     what was good for us, but then I also thought maybe the doctors knew how fidgety kids are       and therefore took our foolishness into account when they designed our whole program,     in which case the nurses were trying to get us to be quiet not because exercise was wrong       but so they wouldn't be bothered, and here I'm thinking of this one nurse in particular     who slapped me once after I threw up in bed and then pressed my call button       as they'd taught us to do if we needed anything, so I pressed it, and the next thing I knew,     pow, right across the chops--not especially humane treatment for a kid, even a well one,       because a kid's stomach holds about as much as, what, a soup bowl, I'd say, and the distance     from its stomach to its mouth is maybe six inches, and that's why kids are always throwing up.       But this was back when any adult had the right to discipline any child, theirs or someone else's,     so how was I to know I was getting a raw deal? I just figured, Oh, well, life in the polio ward.       We did a lot of therapy in that ward: walking between handrails, pulling the levers     of various machines, and stretching, which was the worst, on account of my muscles       being like bunched-up steel coils instead of long, supple ropes. The therapist would have me     sit spread-legged and reach for a nickel she'd placed between my knees, and I'd lean forward       about a sixteenth of an inch and yelp with pain and rest and lean forward a little bit more     until finally I'd either pick up the nickel or complain so much that they had to give it to me,       and on a good day I'd even get a Payday candy bar as an extra reward or extra bribe to be quiet,     the Payday being nougat roiled in salted peanuts and my absolutely favorite bar to this day.       We also did a lot of hydrotherapy, which was less fun than it sounds, because the pool     was big and noisy, and I was little and weak and hadn't learned to swim yet. Hydrotherapy       followed breakfast, a meal I've never skipped, and this one morning I remember having french toast,     which, like all six-year-olds, with or without polio, I drenched in an excess of syrup.       I was already feeling a little rocky when the orderly came for me,     and after fifteen minutes of being parboiled in those roiling waters, I was ready to heave,       which is when the orderly hoisted me out and wrapped me in my terrycloth robe.     Whheeerrrch! Out came the french toast, all over the orderly's shoulders and down his back.       Now this guy had serious muscles; he was one of those characters who looked     as though doctors had surgically implanted golf balls and Irish potatoes under his coppery skin,     and I figured, This could be it, this could be the big one right here,     especially remembering the nurse who had slapped me for throwing up in bed       just a couple of weeks earlier, so I huddled against the guy's monster chest     and shook like the coward I'd every right to be and waited for him to throw me against the wall.       But instead he patted my back and said, There, there, baby, there, there,     until the spasms subsided and I realized he wasn't going to murder me after all.       Then February came, and I was discharged. I had to go to the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans     for semi-annual and then annual checkups, but that wasn't so bad, because afterwards       my parents took me to Commander's Palace for Trout Almandine and Meringue Glacée,     and also because I liked my New Orleans physician, Doctor St. Ives, who had jet-black hair       and glossy red lips and a Jane Russell figure that her lab coat didn't disguise,     which was something I appreciated more and more as I turned ten and eleven and then twelve.       I recovered almost completely and could play any sport I wanted to, which didn't mean     I was any good at it; I played football, for example, but I was only second-string       and I barely lettered my senior year. Yet gradually polio became a dim memory for me,     and I only came to think of it at odd moments, as, for example, after JFK was shot       and there were all those suspicious deaths involving people associated, however obliquely,     with the investigation, including Doctor St. Ives, who was beaten to death with a hammer       by an unknown assailant and who had worked on a cancer project with David Ferry,     thought by many to be the go-between for Oswald and the money men who were backing him.       Or once I was in London to talk with an editor who was my age and whom I had never seen     face to face, and when I walked in, he heaved himself up on his crutches and smiled and said,       Don't mind me, I had polio in the Great Epidemic, and before I could stop myself, I said, Me, too,     and he cocked his head and pinched his brows into an expression that said, Liar.       But otherwise, it was no big deal, and in one sense my polio affected my parents     more than it did me, saddening their marriage so much that it was years before       they could figure out how to be happy together the way they were before I got sick.     In fact, I think a lot of people don't believe me when I say I had polio       because I don't fit their stereotype of someone all twisted up like a pretzel.     If I have to, or if I've had a drink too many, sometimes I lower my trousers and say,       Look, see how my left thigh is a little smaller than my fight?     And they'll say, Oh, yeah, sorry, but I don't do it that often because,       after all, maybe I just have one smaller leg and also maybe they ought to take my word for it     in the first place. And sometimes I'll go over to the university in a pair of shorts,       and some overanxious grad student or one of those guys from the German Department     will get right up in my face and say, Ha! You've got skinny legs! and smile       to show me that we're such great buddies he can insult me, and I just say something like,     Yup, legs like these never go out of style, because why get into it with that kind of person?       Yet I'll say this: I'm all for the monkeys, too, but those animal-rights fanatics ought to be glad     they're healthy enough to walk a picket line; I remember crawling past this row of iron lungs       I'd see lined up in the hospital corridor, the people inside them looking at their lives     through a rear-view mirror because nobody had come up with a vaccine in time for them.       The heroes of the Great Epidemic were Doctors Salk, who developed the injectable vaccine in 1952,     and Sabin, who came up with the oral version seven years later--both a little late for me,       but as I say, I wasn't hit that hard. Besides, my personal hero is the nameless orderly     who calmly went about his duty after I threw up all over him, and sometimes I'm startled to find myself       thinking of his example, both as a guy who did what he was paid to do, no matter how awful,     and also as a human being who saw his chance to be nasty to someone and didn't take it.       He was quite possibly the most fully-evolved person I've ever met, because on the surface most people     are pretty decent, pretty agreeable, and that's the way most of them are most of the time, so no problem.       And then below that surface decency there is a core of savagery running almost all the way to the center--     like, within a nanometer of our best hearts-- and a fraction of the race has got that far,       which is too bad for the rest of us. But after that it's like the Garden of Eden in there--or the Elysian Fields,     maybe, and I don't mean the boulevard in Paris, either, but a holy place, the abode of the blessed. The King Is Dead The woman who hands me my dry cleaning       is red-eyed and red-faced, and I think, Jeez, she's going to hurt herself     if she doesn't stop trying so hard not to cry, so I say, "Hold on, it can't be that bad,"       and she drops my slacks and blazer on the counter and puts her hands     over her face and says, "Oh, boo-hoo! BOO-HOO! The kang is dead, the kang is dead!"       and the woman behind her looks at me and silently mouths the word, "Elvis," and I, God help me, say, "So?" to myself,       or at least I hope it was to myself, because I don't like to hurt people's feelings,     but Elvis had always seemed like the biggest fake in the world to me:       my racist cousins who lived in the sticks would sob their mascara off every time     an Elvis song came on the radio, but I figured, Forget it: the only good music       was not the music Elvis made but the music Elvis listened to and then watered down so that white people could stand to be around it,       and here I'm referring to the kinds of songs being sung at the same time by Rufus Thomas,     Irma Thomas, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Barrett Strong, and Doris Troy. Chuck Berry.       Little Richard. Aretha Franklin. Fontella Bass. Elvis had already lost me in December 1954     with that false start to "Milkcow Blues Boogie" ("Hold it, fellas. That don't move. Let's get       real, real gone"); besides, Georges Braque said that in art there is only one thing that counts, the thing you can't explain,       and there was nothing you couldn't explain about Elvis. Also, anybody who had the Jordanaires     for a back-up group.... Meanwhile, what about Rufus, Irma, Carla and company?       Item: I am sitting in the breakfast room of a hotel in Colmar, in France, having come to see     the Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald, and as I break and butter my roll,       "Good Golly Miss Molly" comes on the radio, and the most staid Germans, the most dour Swedes, the most cynical French smile and wiggle       their shoulders and sort of bop their coffee cups around their saucers as Richard makes them     ting-a-ling-a-ling, good golly! Sure like to ball! Item: in the bootheel of Italy, I am walking out       of the castle of Otranto (yes, there really is one, though Horace Walpole never saw it) and hear     James Brown singing it's a man's world and he's LOST! in the wilderness and he's LOST! in the emptiness,       and I glance sideways to see that, like me, my fellow travelers are LOST! in those big chords, jerking to a halt every time they get LOST!       and then almost crawling through the heat and the sun until the next time their spines stiffen and     they're LOST! in the song and in James Brown's voice, because, yes, rhythm and blues is like Deutschland,       it's über alles, whereas Elvis would be a dim memory to most people were it not for the Weekly World News     and those crappy oldie stations that people listen to so they can find out what they missed       back when they were too busy painting signs for their pro-segregation rallies to listen to the radio. But my personal favorites always were       and always will be the crooners and balladeers, the great soul men in their jewelry and shiny suits:     Mr. Solomon Burke, Mr. Chuck Jackson, Mr. Bobby Bland, Mr. Jerry Butler, Mr. Tyrone Davis (whom I spent       forty dollars to see once, even though he did a ten-minute set and said, "Thank you very much,     you've been wonderful"), and, above these and every other, the real king, the one and only, the late great       Mr. Sam Cooke. These gentlemen were way beyond cool. Also, they had what I wanted. No, not women: audiences. They also had that pomade, that just-pressed       white shirt, those syrupy phrasings, that lush orchestration--those violin     and horn sections--yet these were like the candy shell for something else,       something that had no name, though you'd know it when you tasted it because it would race     through your veins and into your skull like a brush fire, whatever it was, and the flames of Hell       would leap up where your brain used to be, and you'd like it and you'd know what Kant meant when he said that the sublime is better       than the merely beautiful because it hurts. And I am not talking about carnal desire;     I am talking about what cannot be talked about, as, for example, in the dreamboat mise-en-scène       Sam Cooke describes in "We're Having a Party." The cokes are in the icebox, the popcorn's     on the table, the guy and his girl are dancing to the radio--you know it can't last.       There's more to come, though you don't know what it is, just as you can hear more in the slight roughness of Sam Cooke's buttered-popcorn voice       in the January 12, 1963 live session at the Harlem Square Club in North Miami.     Just think, JFK was still alive then and good-looking, too. He was just as handsome       as Sam Cooke. He was just as ingenuous as the rest of us, thinking things would go on     as they always had: touch football in the front yard, a clean little war here and there,       some side action in the old sex department but nothing for anyone to get upset about, and all the while the economy just keeps on       inching forward. And then it's November 22, and the limo swings slowly around the corner,     and, rip, suddenly there's a big seam right down the middle of history:       everybody starts locking their doors at night, trick-or-treaters don't go out     without their parents, and at least one clean little war grows into a dirty big one       and then fragments into a dozen dirty little ones that never seem to end. A year later, Sam Cooke, wearing only a sports coat       and a pair of shoes, is shot to death by the manager of a three-dollar-a-night motel;     more than 200,000 people view his body, and at his funeral Ray Charles sings a song       called "Angels Keep Watching Over Me." Sam Cooke sang like an angel. Sam Cooke makes me think     of Herman Melville. Sometimes when I hear Sam Cooke's voice I feel as though I'm "speeding up,"       as Robert Lowell used to say when he started to go into one of his manic phases, and that's when I feel about soul music what       James Dickey must have felt about poetry when he said it was "just naturally the greatest goddamn thing     that ever was in the whole universe." Sometimes I go out in the morning, and it is raining so hard       that the vines seem ready to reach up out of the earth and pull me down and drown me. And on other days     the sun is out, and I still have the taste of a great cup of coffee in my mouth, and there's already a hint of fall       in the air, and my team won the night before, and Sam Cooke is still dead. The Summer of the Cuban Missile Crisis Dickie asked if we were hungry, and Art and I     said yeah, sure, so he pulled into the Walt Whitman Service Plaza near Camden and there, in front   of the very Howard Johnson's where we planned to eat, was a bus with painted fire blazing down its sides     and above it, in letters two feet high, the words JAMES BROWN AND THE FAMOUS FLAMES, and I thought,     righhht, this is it: I am sixteen years old, I have my first paying job, I'm traveling across country     with two guys who are older and cooler than I am yet who seem to accept me as their equal,     and now I'm going to meet Mr. I Got You, Mr. Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Mr. I Break Out     in a Cold Sweat, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown himself. Dickie was Dickie Biles, and Art was Arthur Kennedy,     and they both went to the LSU Medical School in New Orleans, so it was no problem for them     to swing through Baton Rouge on their way to Massachusetts and give me a ride to the camp     where we'd all been hired to work that summer, even though they were the camp doctors and I was     just a kid and a mere archery/riflery counselor at that. Dickie was not only full of ideas and fun     but was also one of those people who knows someone in every town, so that whenever we got tired     or hungry, we'd pull over, Dickie would get out his address book, and within five minutes we'd be     turning into the driveway of one of his friends, such as a guy in Lynchburg, Virginia named Stump who'd just finished a pizza and a six pack     when Dickie called and who kept staring at Dickie in disbelief and asking me and Art,     "What did you say your name was?" (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 David Kirby. All rights reserved.