What captivates me about Bruce Weber’s poems is their zany spontaneous sideways rush that catches me unprepared for the deep feelings hidden right out in the open. Here’s one from his latest book, The Breakup Of My First Marriage. To hear it, imagine Bruce standing before a poetry mike with his Dustin Hoffman-like black hair and his native East Flatbush accent that appears and thickens and rises in pitch and grows a little alarmed as things spin out of control.
williamsburg. william carlos williams burg. o that’s where that baby doctor poet lived? right? williams burgh. o no that’s where edward hopper’s from right? you know the one who painted scenes off the side of the turn of the century peeling away no matter what they do williamsburg bridge. hopper didn’t move to brooklyn. pollock didn’t move to brooklyn. but kline moved to brooklyn, right? where my daddy was from. he’d take me sunday shopping on the raggedy lovely streets of the lower east side then come back up with our car on the brooklyn homeboy side showing me the streets where his sixteen year old brother was murdered. where his father died of cancer at 42, you mean that williamsburg. the tenements now covered by projects side of williamsburg. the boyhood town of the american cubist painter max weber who grew up in a no longer existing by the j-train williamsburg. yo williamsburg. i know you. i can pick you out in a lineup. i can coax you into shaking your booty on the l, g or m line. i can indisputably prove you were that hot tamale on the dance floor that night in williamsburg. the one who went swimming in the alligator laden waters of that bar in williamsburg. the one sniffing up to the dames or gents or whatever in the bar of the charlestown williamsburg or the dead don’t know the waterside sky at sunset on the hottest day of summer kind of williamsburg. o williamsburg artistes. o hasidic riddle of williamsburg. o benny, yeah. o benny. the williamsburg you rock to sleep every night in your arms. yeah. the williamsburg that dinah shore used to sing like a whisper in the ear of her lover. that williams burg. that’s the williamsburg i mean.
Not that Bruce doesn’t sound like this when, say, he takes the mike at the annual Bowery Poetry Club New Year’s Day marathon that he’s spent months organizing by e-mail. A great believer in the community created by poetry readings, Bruce and his wife, Joanne Pagano Weber, an artist, accomplish the herding of cats at this gathering of 150-plus poets that features a parade of funny hats, performers of all shapes and styles, and a red flag that starts waving from the front row ten seconds before the reader’s three minutes are up. (I know. I got waved off the stage. My leisurely country poems didn’t work on the Bowery.)
But I happen to like Bruce’s poems even better on the page. I can’t read one without wanting to read ten more. The first time I picked up The Breakup Of My First Marriage I went through it like a can of Pringles, finishing two thirds when I’d only intended a few. That manic all-over-the-placeness of these poems that you might think exhausting is, in fact, addictive as you turn the pages to see what outlandish brush with the sublime comes next. An imagination this loose and funny is hard to resist.
Off stage Bruce is not the rattle-mouthed hipster of the poems, but the Senior Curator of 19th and early 20 Century Art at the National Academy Museum, a high level job that keeps him both excited and worried. (His major new show, “Will Barnet at 100,” opens on September 16th. Here’s hoping that it’s the triumph it deserves to be.) He’s a social organizer who plans out his weekends in advance and a gracious host at parties that he and Joanne hold at their weekend house near Palenville. In short, he’s an accomplished guy and a devoted husband, not the hyped up monologist of the poems who’s wildly entertaining but whom you suspect of needing a job and a girlfriend. Yet the deep pleasure he finds in writing is that daily hour of freedom from the responsibilities that shape his life. In poems he can do anything. Cry like a baby. Sit in a strip club. Chase Yeats’s ghost around a lake. This wonderful lack of reserve gives these poems great energy. But don’t be fooled by the apparent casualness of these whirlwind tales. Or by the lack of capitalization, the lower cased “i” that implies these poems were typed up between the fifth and sixth beer. Bruce’s pieces may look like anti-poems, but they’re not. They’re products of a patient and methodical writing process that’s designed to catch these fleeting moments of spontaneity that give the work such freshness. And they’re informed by a serious education in poetry as a young man. Among the two most influential books for Bruce in the early 1970s were a compendium of Robert Frost’s writing advice and a facsimile of Ezra Pound’s revisions of “The Wasteland” done for T. S. Elliot. Bruce has never dissed poetry. He’s not someone who rushes up to the mike to read the latest scribblings from his notebook. His poems are the scribblings those last minute improvisers wish they could write.
In high school Bruce revered the greats. William Blake. Dylan Thomas. (He’d later make a pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown of Swansea in South Wales.) He wrote sonnets. He learned meter. He knew of the Beats but little else in contemporary poetry. Then at nineteen he took a workshop with Ron Padgett at the 92nd Street Y. Today, Padgett is an elder statesman of the New York School that arose in the 1950s with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and others who didn’t take poetry oh so seriously as Robert Lowell and other formally trained poets who turned confessional about mental breakdowns and other weighty matters. Inspired by French surrealists, the New York Poets preferred insouciance and wit, playfulness to importance. Today, with John Ashbery reigning supreme, such poetry is common. But at the start of the workshop in 1970 the much younger Padgett made a comment that Bruce would never forget. Padgett said that there was one poet in the group whom he almost didn’t admit because their style was so different from his own. Bruce knew he was the outlier. His devotion to the greats had left him utterly ignorant of what Padgett & Co. were up to. Bruce thought of poetry as a grand pursuit based in history and myth. But here were people writing about incidental personal experiences that years later would be comparable to Seinfeld humor, a far cry, say, from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that wrestled with the 1980s in the way that Robert Lowell wrestled with the 1950s. But the shock was good for Bruce. It brought him out of the tradition into thinking that poetry could be about the here and now. “As a kid, I felt poetry was so so sacred,” he recalls. “It’s not so sacred.” It can be, as in one of his poems, “the adventures of lassie.”
Yet Bruce didn’t find his own style until the mid-1980s. At the time he was a curator at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach and newly divorced. He decided to take writing more seriously and gave himself a true workspace rather than writing in the living room. He met a woman, also a poet, who would become his second wife. Following her example, he began writing for an hour each morning before work, relieving himself of the guilt that he’d felt upon returning home at day’s end tired but still owing the muses. Together they started the Poets of Palm Beach and published poetry newsletters. “All of a sudden something changed,”he says. “My work got much better,” In the 1990s his career brought him back to New York where he’d grown up and earned his PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center. He married for the third time. But he continues to write from seven until eight in the morning, drafting 250 poems in a year that he sets aside like fermenting wine before assembling them a year later to consider afresh and sculpt into poems if he sees some potential. (Ron Padgett’s advice: Write eight poems a day. One might be a keeper.) He treasures his summer time off at their country house for the long quiet hours to work on revisions. Two lessons he’s learned: from Dylan Thomas’s pronouncements, the gist of the poem must be in the first draft; from the poet Susan Mitchell’s workshop, the order of the first draft can nonetheless be drastically rearranged. His finished poems may bear little resemblance to the first drafts. In addition to the freewheeling inventiveness there’s one more quality that I especially admire: the immediacy. Most of my poems have arisen from reflectiveness often tinged with regret. Sometimes I wonder if I finished my active life a decade ago. Now I’m spending my remaining years writing about it. But Bruce’s poems, even the elegies, barrel ahead as if the time is always now. The subway is screeching into the station. You’d better race through the turnstile. Life moves fast. Hop on.
a strong wind
a strong wind is blowing through the town.
pulling laundry off the line. upturning
garbage cans. lifting lawn furniture across
the yard. the wind swirls the leaves off trees.
pushing them around like naughty children.
tears off limbs and rocks the hammock
back and forth like a ghost’s having a
hearty laugh on its account. this wind lifts
the skirts of women walking along the road.
it tempts the habits of the news praying for
the poor at the soup kitchen on main street.
it sizzles through the air like a guided missile
taking off for parts unknown. i wish the
wind would admit its nervous discontent /
struggle with the grip of its problems / and
count to ten without ever blowing its top.
confide its symbolism. the weight of its
meaning on a silver platter. dressed up
with a spring of parsley. tied in red ribbon.
defined. classified. and laboratory tested.
sit down with the wind. dry its head off.
wipe the sweat from its forehead. listen to
the wind. learn from the wind. become the
wind’s deepest ally. the wind’s most intimate
friend. and then the wind will call it a day.
the wind will give up its wars. the wind will
sleep quietly in our arms.