Michael Perkins and I once spent a day from hell together, an experience I recount in the “Emergency” chapter of Walking Woodstock. For Michael, it truly was hell, for he’d fallen on a small patch of trail ice and dislocated his shoulder within sight of the half-flowing, half-frozen Kaaterskill Falls. For hours, he’d sat in excruciating pain propped against a rock, helpless and in shock, awaiting the rescue squad, which, when it arrived and stretchered him down the trail to the ambulance couldn’t avoid causing more pain with every tilt and jolt. Not until he was put under anesthesia that night in the hospital did he find full relief.
For me, the hell was painless but full of fear and helpless empathy, for I heard his terrible deep moans but could do nothing to stop them. Immediately after the fall, I’d ministered to him as best I could by bracing him against the rock and draping an extra sweater across his shoulders for warmth. I’d charged down to the road to flag down a car to dial 911 on their cell phone. Then I’d marched back up the trail to sit with him for what felt like a small eternity. His biggest desire was to see a doctor appear like a robed saint bearing a two foot tall pain killer needle like a cross. Meanwhile, we talked to distract him from his pain. And we had a conversation unlike any other, not a deathbed conversation, for we knew he’d survive, but one in which the full sweep of life seemed very close, fifty year old memories as fresh as yesterday’s. Life seemed as fragile as this freakish accident yet as tenacious as the will to survive through the pain. I learned things about Michael that I might never have known otherwise. If he had his life to do over, he told me, he’d be a classicist or a forest ranger.
Now, Michael has had many chapters in his life. In the Sixties, for instance, he owned a used bookstore in the East Village. In 1986 he chaired the Woodstock Bicentennial Committee. For years, he’s been at the Woodstock Library, hosting Saturday afternoon Woodstock Forums now in their twenty-fifth year. Through it all, he’s been a writer, but even as a writer he’s been varied: novelist, journalist, book critic, playwright. Since his accident, he’s shifted his focus in the “Walking Woodstock” columns we share in the newspaper from trail adventures to being a flaneur who perambulates about town while reflecting upon forty years of living here. I fancy him as a literary curmudgeon, an old fashioned bookworm who still believes in typewriters, hates cars, and loves a good literary spat. He may be the only book critic around who gave The Unabomber Manifesto a good review.
But in his poetry Michael has been a classicist. By that, I don’t mean a fusty antiquarian who laces his poems with Greek gods and myths, as if to insist that civilization has never been as grand as it was then. To the contrary, his poems are free of pretentious references. In fact, they are free of a lot of what you expect to find in contemporary poetry, such as personal confessions, spiritual searching, airy flights of thought, the general effort to pin down what it’s like to live in the here and now of data overload, political polarization, etc. By classicist, I mean that Michael has sought to impart lasting wisdom through his poems. For instance, here’s a passage from Epictetus’s The Art of Living as rendered by Sharon Lebell.
The Right Use of Books
Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.
This bit of stoic philosophy rings true two thousand years later. Now here’s Michael being a cynic, but no less wiser.
This was me, the voice in the old book said.
Once I was studied, once I was closely read.
And these lines of print, written in a garden
By the September sea, were addressed
To one I thought to immortalize
In my summer vanity. Now I sit
On a dusty shelf, shut and silent,
And God knows she has forgotten me.
Michael grew up in Dayton, Ohio in the Fifties. But his was not the nostalgic TV Fifties of greased hair and bobby socks, the white faced innocence before the advent of rock and roll, race, and the Vietnam War. “When I was fourteen and just beginning to wonder what I might do with the rest of my life, I was handed a death sentence,” he has written. “There were dark circles under my eyes, and my ankles were swollen. I had acute nephritis, which would kill me in a couple of years. The doctor said there was no treatment available, but he suggested hypnosis. So I reported for weekly hypnosis sessions, and began to write. My mother bought me a typewriter, and I pounded out a novel, a one act play, short stories and poems. I wanted to leave some trace behind, some evidence that I’d been here.” Luckily, the death sentence proved premature, but he’s felt compelled to celebrate in words what is, in effect, his second life for more than fifty years.
In 1957 the Dayton Public Library held a poetry contest for high school students in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American poet of some renown who’d once been an elevator operator in Dayton. Several lines of his verse had been carved above the library door.
Because I had loved so deeply,
Because I had loved so long,
God in His great compassion
Gave me the gift of song.
Though he had no previous interest in poetry, Michael, inspired by Dunbar’s work, wrote a poem called “Night” that won, igniting his love for poetry. Early on, he became a fan of Hart Crane, another Ohio native, but for stylistic influences he studied Conrad Aiken, J. V. Cunningham, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan, Weldon Kees, and, later, his now departed friend William Bronk. Though his cast of heroes has largely faded from their earlier renown, Michael’s own poetry remains fresh and timely, perhaps because he avoided fads that have dated. In fact, what impresses me is that Michael has lived through so many poetry movements over the past fifty years without following a single one, especially not the Beats whom he knew in the East Village. In one funny piece of memoir he described meeting the whole crew at a roving party that landed in the Chelsea Hotel where acolytes took turns bringing the telephone on its long cord into the bathroom for some private time with Charles Olson, “the Paul Bunyon of Projective Verse,” at the other end. Michael was underwhelmed by all the posing and self-importance. “The party was a not a celebration as it should have been but a convocation of egos. No levity could lighten it.” And much of contemporary poetry still reads to him like chopped up prose lacking the tautness and music that made poetry so memorable in the past. “Make it new!” commanded Ezra Pound early in the Twentieth Century, which proceeded to give us one artistic revolution after another. No, Michael has replied: “I want to write poetry that could have been written a hundred years ago.” The eternal truths don’t change. His poems are gentle but firm commands in how to live. Not how to find yourself. Not how to succeed. Certainly not how to survive your parents. Simply how to live: Carpe Diem.
I believe in what I wake to,
A mood, the weather, the first word,
Or a kiss.
I believe in brevity
And the daily surprises
Of simple destinations:
The far green countries where
My legs have carried me;
The transgressed borders
Of regions off the map.
I believe in the hunger
Of what occupies me,
The glow of attraction
Helpless as a firefly in the dark.
I believe in the transcendence of trees,
And the metaphysics of fire:
I affirm the stability of bees,
And the persistence of desire.