Three Poems by David Kirby

David Kirby

David Kirby

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. Kirby is the author of numerous books, including The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award in poetry. His Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll was named one of Booklist's Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010, and the Times Literary Supplement called it "a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense." Kirby's forthcoming poetry collection is The Biscuit Joint, and there's more on his website.

Come to Find Out

                        That’s what my mother and her sisters used to say
            on the porch late at night when they thought I wasn’t
listening: He said he had to travel so much because
                        his job was in sales, but come to find out he had a wife
            and a whole other family in Breaux Bridge or he said
he was a captain and got wounded in the war; come to
                        find out he never rose above private and damn sure
                        never saw active service, excuse the language.
            Come to Find Out meant that something was going
to be revealed and in that way was a cousin to All Is
                        Not As It Seems and One Thing Led to Another,
            which suggests that the second thing reveals or
in some way at least echoes the first. And then there
                        was What Was I Thinking, the answer to which
                        was almost always You Weren’t, though sometimes
            you were: she’s not very bright so I’ll have my way
with her or he’ll stay home and keep house and I’ll pay
                        the bills or who needs health insurance. What’d you
            think, those babies were going to feed
themselves and change their own diapers? Oh, if only
                        life were like the opera, where you can say what
                        you think about somebody while you’re standing
            right next to them, yet they don’t seem to hear you.
Actually, a better verb is “sing”: apparently you can
                        mouth the most wounding insults and get away without
            being slapped or stabbed as long as you dress them
in eighth-note triplets. Art says to us, What do you
                        want to be true, and then it gives us all these choices:
                        you can do whatever you like or, if you prefer,
            nothing at all. No wonder some people hate it,
though I say, Thank you, art! Thank you, opera, plays,
                        movies, things you hang on a wall or put on a pedestal!
            Thank you, poems of every length, from the Inferno
to a haiku, provided the haiku poet puts as much time
                        into his or her poem as Dante put into his! Which seems
                        unlikely, but we’re trying to uphold standards here,
            right, reader? Thank you, symphony orchestras
and flash mobs—what could be better than going to
                        your local Walmart to buy a sack of onions, some puppy
            biscuits, and a carton of smokes only to be surprised
by a guy pulling a sax out of a box and being joined
                        by a woman with a bassoon, three string players,
                        and a twenty-person chorus who launch into “Ode to Joy,”
            an 1785 Friedrich Schiller poem that becomes the final
movement of the Ninth Symphony by celebrated German
                        composer/pianist Ludwig van Beethoven! It’s 1796 now,
            and come to find out Beethoven’s losing his hearing,
possibly from typhus, systemic lupus erythematosus,
                        or even his habit of immersing his head in cold water
                        to stay awake. He stops performing, though he continues
            to compose. He also avoids conversation. Talk is cheap!
He digs in, though, writes the Fifth Symphony that begins
                        with the four most famous notes in musical history, notes
            that, as he himself said, sound like Fate knocking
at the door. Then another symphony and another
                        and another still, till he writes the Ninth, the one whose
                        opening fanfare is said to have put a lump even
            in Hitler’s throat. Come to find out art works the same
way on everybody; you could be a pirate or a headsman
                        or the pope or the owner of a dry cleaning establishment
            and still laugh as Punch and Judy throw pots and pans
at each other, weep when the soprano sings
                        of the lover, the land, the mother she’ll never see again.
                        Everybody’s got a story, and half the time there’s a story
            behind the story, and in half of the cases that are like that,
we’ll never know what it is. But you can go your whole
                        day without hearing any music at all, and then you can
            talk to or buy a carton of tomatoes from or just pass by
somebody who has; one thing leads to another in this
                        world, and the next thing you know, you’re happy.




A Few Old Things

            Rilke said he wanted a room “with a few old things
                        and a window opening onto great trees,” which makes
me think of my favorite rooms and their furnishings,
            an obvious choice being this brightly-lit bedroom,
                        newspapers and coffee cups on the floor, bedclothes
scattered everywhere, perfumed with the smell
                        of sex, maybe, or maybe not. And if not, okay;
            they’ve smelled of sex before and will again.
                        Well, probably. As Fats Waller said, “One never
knows, do one?” Then there’s the kitchen with
            a pizza in a blazing oven, perhaps, or a risotto
                        bubbling while you chop salad and blast Big Jack
Johnson on a pair of tinny speakers. Then it’s off
                        to the dining room and Chopin while you eat
            your jambalaya or cassoulet or whatever it was
                        you cooked, and now the living room, a fire
toppling as you sip eau de vie and toy with a cigar
            and listen to Penderecki’s Symphony no. 3,
                        the one he wrote for the war dead, the words sung
by soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose voice enters
                        the music so gradually that you don’t realize
            someone is singing until she all but cries out in joy
                        or terror, you’re not sure which. Now you’re
in the space between image and idea where Keats
            spent his happiest hours, skating back and forth
                        between some old book in your hand
and your memories of other books, of things you did
            when you were a kid or even last week and things
            other people told you they did, of your mother
                        and father, lovers you might have
treated better and ones who might have been nicer to you,
            friends you broke with even though
                        you can’t remember a single one,
historical figures—silly ones, like Thomas Taylor
            the Platonist, who invented a “perpetual lamp” fueled
            by oil, salt, and phosphorus that exploded during
                        his demonstration of it at the Freemasons’
Tavern in 1785 which, he noted ruefully, raised
            a prejudice against the device “which could never
                        afterwards be removed,” and merry ones, like
Don Juan of Austria who, just before the battle
            of Lepanto, was seized by “a fit of exuberance
            beyond rational thought” and danced a galliard
                        on the gun-platform of the command vessel
to the music of fifes. And all the while you’re thinking
            of tomorrow and of the things you have to do
                        and the ones you want to do, and you wonder
if it’d be better to have a list to make sure you don’t
            forget anything or if it’d be better just to get up
            and start working and in that way do the thing you
                        weren’t expecting to do, the one that doesn’t
appear on any list or even in your mind as you
            were dozing, waking, dozing again, the idea
                        that enters you like a cry in the night—one minute
you’re at a table in a tavern with your friends, it seems,
            and the next, you’re in the street, saying, Now what?




The Great Man Theory

Josephine Yu invites me to dinner, and when I ask her
                        what it is so I can bring the right wine, she thinks for
            a second and says, “A chicken from Eugene,” and when
I say, “Who’s Eugene?” she says, “Eugene’s not a person
                        but the town of Eugene, LA, where they stuff chickens
            with wild rice and cajun seasonings, though actually
it’s a chicken from Maurice,” and when I say, “Who’s
                        Maurice?” Josephine Yu says “Maurice is not a person
            but a town also,” though the business about the wild rice
and cajun seasonings stays the same. Which is fine,
                        though I like to think of the chicken as coming from
            a real man and possibly even a Great Man of the kind
described by the Great Man Theory proposed by
                        nineteenth-century hotshot Thomas Carlyle, who believed
            that history is largely explained through the actions
of great men who exercise their intelligence, charisma, and leadership
                        skills in a way that changes life forever for
            the rest of us who are not so great. Carlyle’s argument
was countered by Herbert Spencer, who said that great
                        men were the product of the societies that produced them
            and that their impact wouldn’t be possible otherwise, which
pretty much means both guys were right, though Carlyle
                        was a little more so, since he also believed that it’d be
            a good idea to study great men and in that way learn how
to be great ourselves. Sure, if that’s your goal. But what
                        is greatness? “The discovery of a new dish confers more
            happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star,”
said French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin a few years
                        earlier, and that’s true as well, if happiness is your goal.
            What is the goal? Let’s say you don’t have one—that’s fine
by me. Here’s what George Eliot said about top Victorian
                        fictional non-goalmaker Dorothea Brooke: “The effect
            of her being on those around her was incalculably
diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent
                        on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you
            and me as they might have been is half owing to the number
who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
                        There’s also a third category of person, and this includes
            those who just like to mess about and find that they’ve
invented stuff they’d never thought about in the first place.
                        Take two people who have changed the world, Sir Tim
            Berners-Lee and Daniel Policarpo. Sir Tim started thinking
about ways to combine hypertext with the internet
                        and ended up inventing the World Wide Web, whereas
            Policarpo dreamed of women with tattoos and Betty Page
haircuts and came up with the roller derby. What have they
                        done since? I have no idea, though I could probably find
            out on Wikipedia. Then again, who cares? Aren’t the web
and the roller derby enough? They’re enough for me. With
                        one you can find out how to remove mildew from a leather
            jacket or the best time to plant a fall garden, and with the other
you can watch women with names like Susan B. Agony
                        and Skank Williams race around in circles and beat the crap
            out of each other. Life, I love you so much. Thanks to you,
I can do something or nothing, and no matter what I do,
                        the results are about the same as long as I do a little more
            something than nothing in, say, any given two-day period.
Today I’m writing, for example, but this afternoon I might
                        get in my car and drive down to Wakulla County to look
            at the wildlife and then treat myself to a big seafood dinner
with “all the fixins’” washed down with several glasses
                        of overpriced craft beer. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be
            too fuzzy-brained to write, but in the afternoon,
I can look at what I’ve written and decide which parts I need
                        to cut and which I need to expand or change the day after.
            By the end of the week, I’ll have a nicely-shaped poem
that’ll sit for a day or two before I give it a haircut and send it
                        off to some lucky editor. So what if my tomb is unvisited?
            I expect to be quite content there—happier, even,
if that’s possible. It might be better on the other side. Who’s to say
                        otherwise? Or it might be the same: the occasional meal
            with our darlings, days of good writing, car trips
when the weather permits, long afternoon naps,
                        rummaging in the fridge for a cold chicken leg when
            we wake, then writing again. How’s that sound,
reader? If you’re a writer as well, I wish the same for you;
                        indeed, I wish the same for all writers. And while
            I’m sure I wish you a long and happy life and one
absolutely brimming with the sort of pleasant activities I’ve already
                        described as well as a number I haven’t
            thought of because they are more suited to your tastes
and experience than to mine, there’s no denying that, the vicissitudes 
                        of existence and our particular genetic makeups
            being what they are, it’s altogether possible that you might
leave this beautiful world before I do, in which case I imagine
                        myself walking by the graveyard
            at night, barely able to see anything, when suddenly there’s
a faint green glow through the iron bars of your mausoleum.
                        You had a good day at your desk;
            you’re a little peckish now, and you’re looking for leftovers.

Click here to read our interview with David Kirby.