In the 1980s on Washington Street, Hoboken’s main boulevard, the exterminator’s shop had a stained glass portrait of a cockroach hung in the window, a beautiful artwork done in honey browns. That was Hoboken at the time, both gritty and artsy. Fresh from college and the suburbs, where ants were the pests in the kitchen, I got my rude introduction to roaches, an insect that was a personal affront, unlike ants which were annoying but hardly revolting, not like roaches, those little shellacked-back thieves that gave me the creeps. Ants you could understand as part of the bargain between a casually-kept, relaxed suburban home and a happily untamed backyard. They lived in the soil and, through no fault of their own, made orderly forays into the kitchen for crumbs to be carried off with dumb Atlas-like willpower. I won’t say that I felt so idealistically inclined towards all of God’s creatures as to let them have their way, but I never felt hatred as I swept them into a sink with a sponge to wash down the drain or whisked them up with a broom into a dust pan to flush down the toilet. They were charming in their efforts, so meager yet so persistent. Outdoors in their natural habitat I admired their industriousness. They were the maids tidying the world at the minuscule level. But roaches I couldn’t stand. First off, Hoboken had no nature outdoors. These ugly brown beetling scavengers lived entirely off us. And unlike pigeons and rats, which at least kept their distance out on the rooftops and streets, they invaded my most personal spaces, my cereal boxes and my tooth brush. In my apartment, which should have been my refuge, clean, orderly, and under my control, they were an infection of chaos and contempt, infuriating and impossible to stop. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep—for those were my first difficult years after college when I couldn’t find the right job and got terribly blocked in my efforts to begin writing the Great American Novel—I’d flip on the kitchen lights at 3 am to surprise them on the counter. There was a certain bitter satisfaction to be had in pressing their backs like thumbtacks to see what colors gobbed out: grayish, greenish, or clear spit. But for the two or three that I nailed, a dozen more scurried to safety around counter corners or down the gap by the stove. They crawled everywhere I prepared food. At first, I tried sprinkling tiny retaining walls of Borax power on the floor under the counter. In time, I discovered the little black plastic discs made by Combat that proved effective. But I never forgot what I once read in our Hoboken Reporter: cockroaches can survive nuclear war. To this day, the sight of one will touch me with feelings of defeat and despair.
I didn’t learn about Jack Wiler, the Hoboken exterminator who wrote poetry, until years later. By then, I lived on the other side of the planet, or at least in a Catskills log cabin with ants again and sweet little mice with tiny bodies and curious big eyes that hardly seemed related to street rats in the city. And to learn about Jack Wiler I had to travel all the way north to Robert Frost’s former house in Franconia, New Hampshire, a region that posted yellow moose “Caution” signs beside the highways, promising wildlife bigger than any we had in the Catskills. Moose, I knew, preferred much harsher winters. After returning from England with his young family, Robert Frost had lived on this small farmstead within sight of several of the White Mountains, massive, forest-flanked presences that rounded up into bare, broken-rocked summits above tree line. After five years he’d retreated to the warmer climes of southern Vermont. Now the property hosted summer poetry conferences on the lawns and porches, and in the back barn. You could feel the flinty spirit of his poems, the austere beauty of the hard Yankee lives that had been led among these stunning but unforgiving surroundings. If this setting hadn’t seemed so incongruous, I might not have been so surprised and delighted when I learned about a Hoboken exterminator/poet from my manuscript adviser as we sat on the front porch, glancing off at the mountains. It turned out that Jack Wiler had been a regular visitor at these conferences. I took an immediate interest in him, an unexpected ally from my Hoboken past. Robert Frost had moose in the north country. We had roaches in brick tenements. At the time I was beginning to plumb my Hoboken memories for poems. Jack Wiler might be my guide, my Virgil for my return to an Inferno that in hindsight hid unexpected grace amid the grittiness. Poetry conferences flood you with ideas and inspirations. Back home, most fade. But I’ve had Jack Wiler’s book, I Have No Clue, on my shelf ever since then.
Wiler was a beloved figure at Frost Place. In that setting with its reverence for stoic Yankee lyricism, he must have been a relief with his shambling loser’s confessions, his Bukowski-like spills of vulnerability and humor amid the precisely wrought paeans to nature and spirit that everyone else sought to write. My friend George Drew, a Frost Place devotee, wrote a three part elegy that appears in his recent book, The View From Jackass Hill. Here’s part two:
Jive for Jack
Well, old buddy, you’ve done it again,
dealt us what we thought was a sure
winner, only to leave us totally stupefied.
We’re so down even Jersey muck looks up.
Yeah, we know, knowing you as we do,
we should expect nothing but the unexpected,
and by Christ that’s exactly what it was,
your dying like that. How could you?
How con us with such a lousy hand?
Last time we clinked beer bottles and high
fived each other you looked healthier
than you had in years, the designer drugs,
those little holy rollers, having done their job,
your AIDs in check, or so it seemed.
And, man, you were happy—ready to bust
a gut over your new book of poetry,
and the next one you could make out just
off stage, in the wings of your awareness.
And when you read that last summer
at the Frost Place you blew us away,
not even the choice four-letter words
you were so up front with in poem after
poem enough to send us bolting out
of the barn into the New Hampshire dark.
Right in our suburban faces, you insisted,
that’s the only way real poets can go.
And you went, flinging your ferocious love
straight at us, and we absolutely ate it up,
adored you and your throat-cutting metaphors,
your demonic hipster, shaman hootenanny
elocution, your drawn and quartered syntax
that would leave Kerouac broken down
by the side of the road, Ginsberg blitzed.
All that, Jack, and now, nothing, not
the slightest spondee revving us up,
not one bad-jiving unstressed syllable
taking it to America, and like old Gandhi
the Brits, sticking it to us. So again,
we ask you why, but of course we know it
was just like you to take your leave of us
in October, when even grungy blocks
of jittery urban-Jersey jungle are beautiful.
So rest in peace, you foulmouthed beauty,
black-tongued thug of Anglo-Saxon four
letter wizardry; oh you bad boy bard, rest
in whatever holy plot of hipdom’s peace
you are. And if you can’t, we know, if you
in fact were Gandhi, you would do the next
best thing for a Jersey inner-city jive junkie
down on his luck: beat the undead hell out
of halos and wings with your walking stick.
To be honest, I wish I’d heard him read aloud, for his poems read silently on the page seem too offhanded, too willing to include the slack passages of conversational language. Their casualness is their charm, but they don’t leave me with lines I remember. Or, at least, I couldn’t write with such sloppy insouciance. But I probably don’t read his poems quite right, either. They’re monologues, not lyrics. And once I get past my persnicketiness, I find them very endearing.
He died in 2009. In his later years and soon after, CavanKerry Press of New Jersey published two handsome collections of his poems, Fun Being Me and Divina is Divina. But let me offer two poems from his first book, I Have No Clue, published by Long Shot press in Hoboken in 1996. I can’t say that his style has influenced mine, but he captured the spirit of that time and place like no one else.
Looking For God In Downtown Jersey City
The soul tonight is a shopping bag
Floating lightly above a rusted gate.
I found it on my kitchen counter weighted down with
mustard and toilet paper.
I emptied out the garbage and when my back was turned
the soul fled
lifted up on the wind and out over fourth street
through the streets of Jersey City
people look up cross themselves
their eyes bright for an instant
The soul reflecting back pure white.
Dogs and children see it and laugh and for a moment
we are all of us full and clean and
pure in the reflected glory of the plastic soul
we have glimpsed for just a moment.
Then its gone.
A child steps back for a chance at a second look
At something else
white and plastic and high above us
that we can admire as not of our bodies.
* * *
Here’s a poem that I read aloud several times to audiences to set the stage for my own Hoboken poems.
The Hoboken Poem
Hoboken, city of light.
Hoboken, a bump on the river.
Hoboken, four guys on a corner in guinea
tees gold chains and they’re all the mayor’s friend;
hey they work in his office.
Hoboken, elections every day.
Hoboken, opportunity around every corner.
Every corner a danger.
No stop signs.
No sign of anyone stopping.
Every taxi paused at every corner.
Hoboken, one taxi fare
Hoboken, a bus every minute.
Hoboken, a train every ten.
Every building on fire.
Children falling from the windows.
Mothers running into the street.
Hoboken, even the fire houses on fire.
Hoboken, rising and falling
burning and smoldering.
Hoboken, every factory closed.
Every park full.
Every man a king.
Every one works at the Board of Ed.
Hoboken, unlimited overtime.
No end to the money you can make.
Hoboken, home of baseball.
Hoboken, only one baseball field.
Hoboken, the first fly ball over the Elysian Field,
the first smoking fastball,
the first frozen rope drops just beneath the Maxwell’s sign,
the drop of coffee lands on the ball,
the fielder slips, the factory closes, the sign goes dark,
the children run in the street till well past eleven.
the fires are out, the factories are closed,
the sign is dark, the world is quiet,
the sun is setting.
Hoboken, good to the last bitter drop.
Hoboken, city of light:
city of paused taxis,
city of beer and fires and children in the street.
the factories closed, the lights out
pauses mid day.
No election today.
No overtime today.
No games are scheduled.
The children leave the house at nine in the morning dressed
as spooks and demons and march down the street.
Ragamuffins in a ragamuffin town.
A raga then for Hoboken.
A last song for a lost town.
taxis waiting for the children to pass.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.