Some poems by

Peter Schjeldahl

from Since 1964

 

The German Poet

I am being visited by a burly, bumptious German poet who has come to New York to see, as he puts it, "the writers of the American poetry that I love." We are in a small loft I am sharing with Arlene. At first amused by the German, I am increasingly put off by his crude manners. It's all I can do to keep him from inviting himself to spend the night with us. However, there is no way to avoid being stuck with caring for his pet, a huge, orange-colored monkey.
          The monkey is friendly and docile, but it shits continually, all over the loft. Arlene and I spend most of the night cleaning up after it.
The next evening we bring the monkey to Rebecca Wright's apartment, where there is to be a reading, and gladly return it to the German. The German makes it clear that I have hurt his feelings, and I immediately feel guilty. Meanwhile, he seems on good terms with the others present, including Allen Ginsberg.
          Of Allen he says to me, in a voice quavering with emotion, "The absence of this man's death is what I always need." Though quirky, this sentiment strikes me as very moving.
          A "beat" poet who looks like the young Jack Kerouac is reciting to the accompaniment of a sitar. His poem concerns his "own poor craziness" and contains these lines about an encounter with a psychiatrist:

          "The doctor says he can fix me up
          By curing me of greed for poesy and the
                               old Joy hungers"

Later I see the German poet again, and he lets me know almost tearfully how disappointed in me he is. "I used to think," he says, "that you like, better than poetry, not-poetry," which I take as a reproach against my general uptightness. Totally abashed, I don't know what to answer.

 

Life Studies

1.

Hours stand around the clock
To be "struck"; yes, our time gets a little shorter
And we have a new bump or contusion
Or "hard knock" or two to show

2.

The cars stop and start up again
They are full of gas and shiny
And terribly expensive Look! in one second
Those two will crash, seriously injuring both drivers

3.

A game of chess is in progress
How precise and powerful the movement of the pieces is!
White is sure to mate in two moves
But no, he has bungled it

4.

Two boys are robbing a young man
One of them holds a knife against his throat
While the other takes his billfold and overcoat and umbrella
Now they hit him in the stomach with the umbrella

5.

We turn the pages of the book of poems
But our pleasure is short-lived: the poems
Are by a terrible poet For this
We have paid two dollars and forty-five cents!

 

Affair

I am dating, and have been for a long time, a beautiful woman. Mostly we take leisurely walks along Madison Avenue, stopping in at ritzy bars and coffee shops for snacks and conversation.
          We like each other very much, but for some reason we have never slept together. Then finally we do, in my apartment, and it's terrific. For hours we make tender, happy, passionate love.
          Afterwards I am oddly depressed. It seems to me that something I don't understand, or don't dare admit, is still seriously missing from our relationship.

 

War

I am in a deep, narrow canyon enclosed by steep cliffs. It is a military installation of some kind, and I am one of many young soldiers assigned to guard it. The canyon is honey-combed with manholes, from each of which pokes a small anti-aircraft gun. There are thousands of guns! Oh boy, I think, just let those bastards try to bomb us.
          I play with one of the guns, following an imaginary plane across the sky. Meanwhile, however, I have worrisome thoughts: What if the enemy fails to attack? What if they don't know we're here? What if there isn't even a war on?
          The Captain appears, a gray-haired man who is in command of the base. I ask him if we can expect a raid. He smiles ironically. He doesn't know what will happen, he says, but we're doomed if a raid occurs. The bombload of just one plane, he says, would be enough to blow us all sky high.
          I think, Shit!

 

The Reading

I am awakened by a knock on the door. It's Tom Disch. He has come, he says, for the reading. I don't understand, but I let him in, crawl back into bed and regard him sleepily as he pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to me.
          The paper is a detailed critique, in five numbered paragraphs, of the dreams I've been writing down lately.
As one who has had some experience of writing imaginative prose, Tom says modestly, he has been pained to see me making some fundamental, avoidable mistakes in my dream works. These mistakes are outlined in his critique.
          I am reading it when there's another knock. Tom answers it, and in come Anne Waldman, John Ashbery and two or three others. I ask what's going on, and Anne says. Didn't you know? The St. Mark's Christmas Reading is to be held at your place this year.
          I look around my 10-by-12-foot apartment. Where are we going to put the audience? I wonder, and somebody says. Don't worry about it, everything will be all right.
          I'm about to get up when I remember that I'm naked. So I pull the covers up around my chin and just wait, totally amazed.
          Everyone else seems to be waiting, too. It's mid-afternoon and beautiful golden sunlight is streaming in the windows. In a friendly voice, John says he hopes I'll be reading some of my new dreams. They probably aren't very good in their present form, he adds, nodding to Tom, but they're quite charming when read aloud.
          I'm a little hurt by this last remark, but I also feel immensely touched and pleased at all the attention. I want to thank everyone personally, but I can't find the words. Everybody is sitting around the sunlit room, relaxed and smiling, waiting for the reading to begin.

 

Biographical note

Peter Schjeldahl was born in 1942 in Fargo, North Dakota, and grew up in Minnesota small towns. He attended Carleton College and the New School. In 1964 he went to Paris for a year. In 1965 he settled in New York. He has published several books of poetry and is an influential art critic and reviewer.

These poems are from Peter Schjeldahl: Since 1964, New & Selected Poems, Sun, New York, 1978. Copyright Peter Schjeldahl 1978.

German translation

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