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Never Say Never

It’s a simple enough anecdote, barely even that: I was cleaning, I found something, memories and emotions returned. If only it were that simple:

I was cleaning because I needed relief, first from pandemic claustrophobia, and second from the guilt of having moved into this house ten years ago with things that were never properly sorted out from our old house. We did make room for things: we spent the time and money to have shelves built for my books, including a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in my study, just for poetry books. I didn’t have enough to fill it then, so I had a lot of empty shelf space that I could justify as “other storage”: odd paper products, books that didn’t really fit into categories elsewhere in the house, and items that I didn’t know what to do with but would decide later. Or never. Of course, over ten years, those spaces became like Gregor’s room in “The Metamorphosis,” a place for junk I didn’t really want to see or acknowledge. Very cluttered, very dusty, possibly harboring vermin.

Well! Now that I’ve been trapped like Gregor in this house for a year, it seemed high time to purge some things and reclaim those shelves for books that needed the space. Among the old printer cartridges and teacher memorabilia and strange detritus from various research projects, I found a spindle of CDs. “Found” isn’t really the right word: I was well aware of it, had seen it every time I’d added something new to my little charnel house, but couldn’t wrap my head around going through those dozens of discs and deciding which would be saved and which consigned to . . . wherever unwanted CDs go.

Most were labeled, a few not. This morning, I grabbed a couple of the unlabeled ones to check out in the car while I was running errands. A few days ago, I found a nifty mix I’d made, lots of ridiculous stuff from the aughts, most of it best forgotten. Still, it was nice to play it one last time. So, maybe one of these mystery CDs was something like that.

The first one was actually blank. Bummer—no mystery, nothin’. I popped in the second one, and almost as soon as “The Politics of Dancing” started playing, I was laughing. By the time I got to “The Look of Love” and was on the expressway, I was in tears. This was one of several CDs that Reginald Shepherd burned for me, sometime between 2002, when we met, and 2008, when he died. I had once asked him for a perfect mix of 80s pop/dance music. As you’ll see from the track list below, I asked the right guy.

Sometimes I still can’t believe how lucky I was to have been close friends with Reginald for those few years. It’s even harder to believe that the years really were so very few, because it felt like we’d known each other forever. Also, although we were close to the same age, he was a mentor to me at a very important point in my career as a poet. I learned so much from him, a lot that I’m only beginning to fully grasp. But most of all, we were friends, talking on the phone, writing silly and serious emails, excited whenever we had a chance to visit in person. (I was in New Orleans, he was in Pensacola.)

Early on, I realized that Reginald’s knowledge and love of music were formidable, and the range of what he loved was both incredibly broad and pointedly specific. He didn’t just have taste; he could tell you exactly why a certain song or artist deserved admiration, and exactly why others did not. Opinionated? Yep, but when you’re talking to someone who seemed to know Jessye Norman’s entire catalogue and the lyrics to every pop song from the mid-70s to the (then) present, you do not question their opinions. (I’m not exaggerating about the lyrics: if something reminded him of a random pop song, particularly one from the 70s, 80s, or 90s, he might just start reciting every damn word, giggling at the silliest bits.)

No, it would be pointless to question such opinions, so you just revel in them. Listening to this CD today has been a joy. Reginald really knew how to curate a mix: both the selections and the order are impeccable. One thing that strikes me is how many of the singers are really good, or at least very distinctive. I mean, all of these pre-date the Auto-Tune era, but still, there are some really great voices in this mix. I remember visiting Reginald and his partner, Robert Philen, once, and we were talking about the fact that they didn’t always like the same music: Robert loved jazz, Reginald not so much, and they even differed about the classical works they preferred by the same composers. Robert finally observed that Reginald required music that foregrounded the human voice, and speculated that this was strongly connected to his being a lyric poet. Reginald very much agreed.

I want to write more about the many roles music plays in Reginald’s poetry, but right now I just want to acknowledge this wonderful gift that has, as it were, given itself back to me, and for which I am deeply grateful. A last note: one thing Reginald missed a lot in the years I knew him was going out dancing. So if you decide to check out tunes from this list, close your eyes, pretend you’re in a hot club in Chicago circa 1985, and dance.

  1. The Politics of Dancing, Re-Flex.
  2. Just Got Lucky, Jo Boxers
  3. Change, Tears for Fears
  4. The Look of Love, ABC
  5. Never Say Never, Romeo Void
  6. Fascination, The Human League
  7. Our House, Madness
  8. Shy Boy, Bananarama
  9. Save it for Later, The Beat
  10. Too Shy, Kajagoogoo
  11. Let Me Go, Heaven 17
  12. Fascist Groove, Heaven 17
  13. Obsession, Animotion
  14. Sex, Berlin
  15. Send Me an Angel, Real Life
  16. Homosapien, Pete Shelley
  17. Love on Your Side, Thompson Twins
  18. Change Your Mind, Sharpe & Numan
  19. It’s My Life, Talk Talk
  20. Robert DeNiro’s Waiting, Bananarama
  21. Tainted Love, Soft Cell

#ReginaldShepherd

Ah, Sunflower

Oh, I should have written this morning . . .

I gently set the paper bag with the five meals of black beans and rice on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. Ah! I’ve forgotten my hat, so I run back inside. Now I’m ready to go, if a little irritated because I meant to go earlier and now it’s almost sunset and I never found this community fridge the last time I tried to make a delivery there and had to go to the one on Hickory. That time, I didn’t have the correct address, but now I do, so I head up Broad and turn onto Washington. Orange cones block the entire right line, I can barely make out the addresses. And now I’ve passed where it should be.

Awake before Tim, I make the coffee, start the bread dough, decide to wait until he’s up to start the black beans, lie down on the couch with Pierrot, Mon Ami.

Time to trim this pothos before I bring it inside. I snip back most of its vines, toss them behind the holly bush. Once I’ve gotten all the plants inside, I sweep the porch and realize how much nicer the porch looks without so much leafy clutter.

Cousin Lily calls. She wants to know if it’s going to snow here. Nothing but rain there in Charleston. She’s annoyed that she’s been placed in AP Human Geography. She wants to go to Yale. “I guess it will snow there. I hate snow.”

At the first stop sign I come to, the stack of meals topples and the bag rips when I grab it. Why am I doing this?

Greta and Jean stop by for the container of beans I saved for them. They tell me about the apart-hotel where they stayed in D.C., near a psychiatric hospital, how the homeless patients screamed all night in the street.

The fridge on Hickory is well-stocked: bag lunches, yogurts, fruits. Back home, I leave a message in the mutual aid group, because there are always people who are hungry. I’m tired. I think of the volunteer sunflower that came up in the raised bed. I hope it survives the freeze.

A Fallen Cake

It’s late, I’ll probably be too tired to finish this, I should probably be reading, or finishing watching “Demonlover,” or shelving a few more books.

It was the first day of school and I was teaching my new 7th grade class, in a dark, narrow classroom. The children filed in and gathered around a long, narrow table—cue the scrape of chairs on linoleum. They were cute; they seemed smart; most had musical instruments. They started talking as soon as they arrived, before I could ask their names, and pretty soon there were so many I couldn’t have remembered them anyway, and beside they excited, very excited, and laughing, and playing games, and the harder I tried to calm them, in my most measured tones—Sit your ass down!—the crazier they got and the more of them there were, with bigger and bigger instruments, trumpets, a trombone, a double bass . . .

“I dreamed I was teaching 7th graders.”

“Oh, god. Do you want pancakes?”

There was so much to do today! Gather up the electronic recycling items we’ve accumulated for a decade at the house and at Tim’s office, bake a cake for Carolyn, read, write, prepare for the freeze . . .

“This is a doorknob. We don’t take doorknobs.”

“We’re sorry. What about these batteries? This toaster oven? The weed-eater? Not the weed-eater, OK . . .”

I had never used this cake recipe before, and I unwisely decided to start making it before I had lunch.

“God DAMN it, where are the beaters for the hand mixer?!”

“Right here,” said Tim, opening a drawer I’d just looked in and handing them to me.

I was being careful, I was following each step, my mise en place seemed meticulous, but I lost the measuring spoons and, just after the cake went in the oven and I was starting to clean up, I found, behind a mixing bowl, the second egg.

“Happy birthday! I’m afraid the cake fell. But it should taste good.” Carolyn and Jon invited us in. Mamie, their daughter, glanced at the cake and went to her room. Rose Gem, their dog, brought us her toy piglets. On our way out, Carolyn gave us dried fish treats for our cats.

The cats begged for the anchovies on our pizza.

Local Weather

I should be writing about other things. Other people, other places. But here I am.

Tim tells me thunder and lightning woke him at 5 AM. I slept right through it, knocked out by this cold I’ve been nursing all week.

“Sheesh, Mary and Jeremy finished that new sewer line just in time.” I’m wrapped in a blanket on the couch, my hands wrapped around my coffee mug, as I think about the giant trench the workers filled just two days ago. Yesterday morning, before the storms began, I watched from the front porch as Jeremy laid two one-by-sixes across the fresh-packed dirt so his downstairs tenant could reach the apartment door. What if the workers hadn’t finished yet? We got two inches of rain in two hours yesterday afternoon.

Tim leaves for work. I clean up, dress, read The New Yorker, play some Jimmy Giuffre. “The Train and the River” goes well with wet, chilly days. There’s a velvety grayness to it.

On my desk, a neat pile of poems I need to revise. Notebooks I need to go through, looking for tidbits to cull for poems. Books I should shelve. It’s a crowded desk.

I’m not about to go out to the porch in this weather, but I peer through the sweet olives outside the window at Mary and Jeremy’s muddy trench. Beautiful mud, I want to hold a clod of it. These tracts were once owned by a Monsieur Marly, a free man of color who sold them off to developers. Before this was a neighborhood, it was land for small farms; not far from here, there were all the minor industries associated with railroads and barge companies. And before all that: marshland. I learned from an old cookbook that local hunters would bring back fish, game, and fowl from these parts, for their own homes or to sell. I learned from my friend Alaina, a member of the Houma tribe, that for a long time, most of those hunters were Native people.

While thinking about all this, I’ve eaten a bowl of pasta with fresh marinara sauce and mild Italian sausage. Now I’m washing dishes, looking out the kitchen window at the Japanese magnolia, stark against the back fence. Either there are fewer blooms this year or they’re opening more slowly. Tomorrow’s freeze might finish them.

Tomorrow will mark eleven months of the pandemic. Also one year since a friendship I cherished crashed and burned.

Tim calls. “How are you feeling? Should I come home early or keep working?”

“Come home. We can go for a walk.”

Tuned: Selected Poems, Kyla Houbolt

My favorite thing in a poem is surprise. My other favorite thing in a poem is whatever I find when I re-read the poem and it still surprises me. I’ve been reading and re-reading Kyla Houbolt’s Tuned (Sedition Editions/CCCP Chapbooks, 2020) and I am very happily surprised.

Sometimes the surprise is like this:

Mirror

I will continue to clench my jaw

I will continue to see

a horse in all things

I will not be able to ride the horse

it is wild

it knows better

than to take the bit.

Did you expect that horse? Neither did I, but that wild horse is exactly the thing that should appear in this poem and every time it does, I’m going to wonder how it got there and be glad it did.

There are a lot of creatures in these poems: frogs, a goat, hummingbirds, tiny fishes, a duck who is a monster (because “we are all monsters in disguise”), and many owls, including a marvelous owl whose “hollow sound”

opens a hole in the dark air

oh I want to go in there

wrap me in soft feathered howl

while the night wind blows

and gusts and spins its ruin faster—

I really like that owl, but I like even more how the poet embraces that howl-hole in the air, and the ruin therein. It’s a little frightening. She is not frightened. I don’t think she is ever frightened.

From what I’ve been able to learn, Houbolt has been writing for a very long time but has only begun publishing within the last couple of years. She lives in North Carolina and has been hanging poems in trees in a local park. I don’t mention that to say, “Oh, how charming!” I mention that because I love the ethos of it: making the poems public and part of nature. I’m moved and a little humbled by her dedication to that project, and I rather wish I had found some of these poems while walking in my own local park on Christmas day—what a gift that would be!

Houbolt is a poet of moments, those being the moments in which a poem happens. I would love to share each of those moments with you, and I can if you go here. And then please share them with someone else: these marvelous poems fearlessly resist everything that conspires to keep us from yielding to the surprise each moment offers.