Up at dawn for some musical multi-tasking: listening to white-throated sparrows through the open window while playing a Leadbelly cassette and flipping through a sheaf of poems by Jack McManis.
Jack was my mentor in poetry, someone who taught largely through silence – he only ever commented on things he liked. He led writing workshops for 25 years at Penn State, but I never actually took a class from him. Instead, we met regularly in his office to exchange poems, starting with once-a-week visits in 1978 when I was in eighth grade, and continuing (with somewhat declining frequency) until Jack’s death in 1989.
Jack McManis was one of the first generation of post-war college poetry teachers. He placed poems often enough in magazines and anthologies, but – much to the distress of his numerous friends and supportive colleagues – never got around to finishing a book-length collection. This omission stemmed partly from the alcoholism that consumed the first half of his life and partly from the altruistic energy that consumed much of the second half. (I didn’t realize until well after his death just how active he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous, helping set up chapters all over the country.)
Jack grew up in southern California, fought in the Pacific in World War II, and was an excellent tennis player – at one time he was the tenth-ranked amateur player in the country. He helped found the poetry magazine Pivot, which still survives, though he was always content to remain Associate Editor. His former students include Diane Ackerman and the late Agha Shahid Ali.
Even after achieving sobriety and becoming a “born-again Anglican,” Jack was no saint in the conventional sense of the term. He office reeked of the snuff he dipped from a silver box, and he loved to try and get others hooked on the stuff. (I always refused it – I’ve never been big on the idea of nasal ingestion.) Although his satires and parodies grew a little less biting after his recovery, he never stopped writing them. Nor were bawdy subjects off-limits: a poem about his neighbor’s wife’s ass was one of his standards at poetry readings.
Jack’s favorite poet was Hart Crane; other favorites included William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson and Theodore Roethke (who also taught briefly at Penn State). He believed that a poet should be “drenched in words,” as he once wrote me, quoting Hart Crane. He was haunted by Crane’s death – he committed suicide in April 1932 by leaping off a boat in the Caribbean and feeding himself to the sharks. This more than anything seemed to symbolize the end of innocence for Jack, who grew up in the Roaring Twenties. In one satire, he imagined the Statue of Liberty being buried at sea: “slide her down / to the oil shark / republic.” Sharks seemed to possess a kind of limit-value for Jack, as in the following elegy.
by the breakwater after the funeral,
Corona del Mar, California
My father, John, a gentle dusty man,
loved the country earth and what it grows.
He most loved lowly and neglected things
we glance at or gaze past but rarely see:
hawberries, snaky wildgrape, wormed crabapples,
swamp shade pools under willow oaks that home
nightsinging whippoorwills and clacking treetoads.
What reliquary for my father’s love
of earth? Wind-driven leaves and locust shells?
Earth crumbled over him, put out his stars
and hushed the cardinal’s clear water-fife
back in his boyhood Indiana woods
still whistling in the now, now lost to him.
My father’s Baptist testimony praised
all these as God’s. He praised the blind fin.
Love as your father loved, the preacher said.
I hear his hands wash now in slap and seethe
of wave on rock and wonder how to love
all this, my father, you its lover gone:
this sky of tearless blue, it’s dead-man’s-float
of the day moon and that lone firefly ghosting
hope, last night flown where in the too-bright noon?
O these feed the blind fin’s tidal appetite –
the sharkfin there by the quay carving its track
straight out, out into the afterbirth grey-green
Pacific and maybe on to infinity
shredding our mirages, love and time,
that fin’s synoptic arrow tugging sun
– to drown the sun? All worship the blind fin.
Like many of us, Jack hated to let a poem go. There are no definitive versions, just endless rewrites. The above poem seems to have been his last revision, although I admit I did substitute one line from an earlier version that I liked better – I don’t think Jack would have minded. Now, as I continue to leaf through my folders of his poems, I’m finding so much more that I can’t pass up! How about if I just put a few things down, assemble a brief, fairly random collection of McManis fragments, a la the Greek Anthology?
Tin can sacristan,
cling clang buoy!
. . .
I dream and look over
the rail at flaking
as I lose self
in the jewelry
I was born
in a heat wave:
Headfirst I popped out
crying for a drink . . .
And what about sweetsinging Bobby Jones gone paralytic,
Big Bill Tilden humbled in prison and Paavo Nurmi, Finn
ironman, loping off into Arctic twilight, last marathon
against a ghostly polar bear tireless as time?
(“Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”)
So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!
Let Satch blast out for you, Gabe,
that trumpet note
we’re just dying to hear.
(“Conceit for a Cloudy Halloween ’82”)
The Puerto Rican
the pair of clowns
out of that
(“Daily Circus at the Automat / New York City”)
A long time ago
(but not so long)
when we pilgrimaged
down to Avenue C
in the cell-block
Lower East Side
to see Leadbelly,
America’s great folk
poet and musicman
(before the polio
things ate his spine),
in a chair in
his walk-up flat
he told us how when
he heard JS Bach
he couldn’t keep
still, but thumped
with his hands
and his feet and
from time to time
broke out into
“The beat and the
repeat and the
jubilee,” he said,
“shake the lyrics
out of me like
a hound dog
and ground around
in a song mill!”
(“Kin: Remembering Leadbelly,” Prairie Schooner, Summer 1971)
I’ll prop the saint erect again come spring
but now his milky eyes feed on the grosbeaks.
(“Letter to a Friend Before the February Thaw”)
Inside the crinkled ghost-transparent tent
she’s stretched out gaunt, a green sarcophagus
suspended in seawater, head stuck out
of the bedsheet envelope and pillow-propped,
hawk nose thrust up a wedge to split the air,
to reach, to strain up to the source of it –
that dense life juice she mouths and gums and gulps.
Pinched nostrils labor hard ringed faint with blue-
fadeblue of robin eggshells on cement,
the cheeks caved in to make the forehead loom . . .
All birdmouth gaping she sucks air so hard
I listen for the wind-work hiss of lung,
but stillness hangs a curtain round her mouth
that quivers in and out and seems a stranger
to the frozen skull, the sheeted body mound –
the last sign visible of life the twist
of thin lips flexing their beseeching O.
If I woke where she is in a cloud of green,
what thoughts would consciousness, a broken wing,
flap fluttering against the swoongreen cage?
Or if eyes opened, tried to weave a way
through blear, what make of all the blurring ghosts
beyond the cave and gliding by like fish?
These the loved dead that slip my hands in dreams?
Finally, here’s a Jack McManis poem I couldn’t resist including in its entirety.
ART APPRECIATION CLASS
–Sir, some sacrilegious clown
has gone and dotted
that Tintoretto sunset
with tiny fly specks.
–There, there, and there.
–Don’t touch the painting
you fool! Those
aren’t fly specks,
with the Old Master.
on background of pink sky
–Yes, the birds are fun.
–Yes, loads of fun.
–Oh, I see what you mean.
Just a minute, Sir.
Let me write that down.
The birds are fun.
Last fall my friend Jo, who is in the process of moving very gradually to Arizona, prevailed upon me to take what she calls the Jack McManis tree. This is a handsome, four-foot-tall Norfolk pine that used to belong to Jack. It doesn’t travel very well – the slight bruising and bending necessary to transport it home in the car caused extensive needle loss in the upper branches. But with plenty of light and water it’s growing vigorously now, and if anything has become more attractive as a result of this partial damage to its symmetry. Most of my house is too dark for plants; the only place I could put it was right at the opposite end of the table from where I write.
Thus it happens that when I look up from the screen I find myself staring absent-mindedly into the foliage of the Jack McManis tree. And sometimes then I am transported back to Jack’s “bartelby den of an office,” as he once described it, sitting companionably with sheaves of each other’s recent poems in our laps. I hear Old Main tolling the quarter hour. Then the rattle of a page, and an appreciative grunt gives way to a chuckle, the blowing of a nose. “What a great line,” he enthuses, and I crane my neck, staring with pretended comprehension at another pure accident, learning slowly and without realizing it how to value those moments when the words come mostly on their own.