by: Alan Feldman
In these poems Alan Feldman uses the subtle music of plainspoken American English to reveal and celebrate the all too often hidden depths of our perception and experience: “…if not the sun, then perhaps a pine bough/ delicately fringed with snow.”
That’s what I tell my doctor I have,
so much less clinical than “depression,”
something rich and flavorful and venerable
like an Old Master still life of a melon.
I mean, I say, that my default thought
first thing, before my eyes open,
is that I’m going to die, sooner now
even than yesterday. My default response
is to focus on the gloom of an event.
A baby is born. I think of the violent storm of parenthood––
one that lasts a lifetime––while the baby
is hardly ever melancholy, but usually
miserable and wailing or laughing
in ecstatic infant triumph.
Even my face seems melancholy.
I almost never see myself laugh in the mirror
and when I do my ferocity bewilders me:
I’m such a violent, gleeful laugher,
so I’m not depressed, clinically,
I explain to my poor doctor
as he goes through his checklist responsibly
as if I were an airplane he has to safely clear for takeoff.
I’ve always been melancholy, I suppose,
though I spare him the history of the cemeteries I visited as a child,
the old people I lived with, only to come home from school
to find another of them gone, and my mother
writing an obituary, and weeping. . . .
No, I’m just melancholy, I explain to the doctor,
one of those old-fashioned diagnoses
like gout, catarrh, or neurasthenia––
something no one can really treat because it’s characterological,
like Hamlet, for example, who had big problems admittedly,
but was also by nature etc. etc.
And that’s why the whole syndrome is untreatable
because couldn’t I just as easily choose to see everything positively?––
still being ambulatory, still quite grateful to see the sun
climb, however briefly, into the winter sky,
or, if not the sun, then perhaps a pine bough
delicately fringed with snow.
Isn’t it a matter of creative accounting?
What’s an asset? What’s a liability?
What’s a melody? What’s a migraine?
Yet how can I not venerate “melancholy”
as sonorous and mellifluous as a lute––
a little in love with the sound of it,
a little ashamed of my sadness.
Mr. Sancho’s Beach
Like any couple
with nothing dangerous
to deal with––
we get into a fight: our ship
has landed on an island
for one day only.
I want to go
(and she doesn’t)
to where others don’t––
the island’s windswept eastern shore
with no beaches, just abrading
Too long, too long,
such a stupid quarrel . . .
So we walk the western shore,
which is pretty ugly
if you want to know, an ugliness,
I find perversely pleasing,
but don’t say anything.
And that’s when a cab driver,
like a deus ex machina,
flips a quick u-turn
then fans out several brochures for us
laminated like menus.
I pick Mr. Sancho’s Beach
for its shameless celebration
of Mexican cliches.
And for the amusement park
of floats brightening up
the turquoise water
with yellow and emerald.
And for the gauntlet of vendors
selling skulls and sombreros.
And for the white umbrellas
shielding the customers
from the relentless sun.
And that’s when I realize
that she has been
right, and I haven’t been
wrong, and the cabdriver,
of course, is right too, because
the sand is smooth underfoot
and when we jump in
the water is crowded
with fish––large silvery flakes,
parting as we stroke
through a current so strong
we can swim in place,
leaderless, yet cooperative,
like the fish.
The colder the wind, the more they seem to perch
in clusters, like a small minion
of hasids, or like Puritans at a burial.
And when they rise in fright,
they head off different ways,
a survival tactic programmed into their genes
from back when they were dinosaurs.
They eat and eat,
without the gaucherie of chewing,
fish as large as they can swallow.
And in China, where they may fish for decades,
wearing a ring constricting their necks,
they are honored in old age with a pension,
living with imprinted loyalty with their human families,
and eating any sized fish they want.
Look at their long necks as they fly:
like living crosses. And notice how,
when they ride amidst the waves,
they dive all the way under, at home
in an element that isn’t theirs.
Watch them dry their wings in the breeze
like laundry––black laundry––
lest, having no oil in their feathers,
they grow logy and drown.
Can you say they are really of the devil?
Part of the bargain we make
to live on this hostile and abundant sea?
When we see them perched
amidst the stench of whatever boat they meet on,
fouling their resting place with vital abandon,
their wings stretched wide in the sun,
we have to remember they are birds,
hoisting the same black flag
of survival that we hoist,
hungry beings that we are.
Alan Feldman has a new book, Immortality, from University of Wisconsin Press (2015), and work forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, upstreet, Poetry East, Hanging Loose, Cordite (Australia) and The Antigonish Review (Canada). Poems from his book were featured on Poetry Daily, Writer’s Almanac, and Best American Poetry (2011), and will be featured as part of Common Threads 2016, a statewide reading program in Massachusetts, where Feldman lives.