(Written to honor the wedding of Elizabeth S. Bennett and Benjamin E. Ross on April 3, 2011)
The brass klezmer music bounced off the brick walls of the old brass foundry transformed into a wedding hall as big as a Dutch barn half a block from the Gowanus Canal, an area of low lying factories that has become an artists’ district and a Superfund site. After slipping out for a walk that took me back to gentrifying Hoboken in the 1980s, the time of my own youth and wedding, I returned to find the guests mobbed around an open dance circle in which I could barely see heads bobbing up and down as energetic revelers took turns doing a dance like rapid-fire deep knee bends, celebrating a tradition far from my own as, you might say, an outdoorsy atheist. I’d been married by a judge under a maple tree. But this groom would soon study in Israel to become a rabbi. Most of the men here wore yarmulkes and business suits. I, alone, represented Woodstock in my wild seemingly water-stained orange and blue tie designed by Jerry Garcia. But I was glad to be here. Somebody carried in chairs from the outer tables through the crowd into the inner circle. Within moments, the groom’s father and mother were seated in those chairs, hoisted aloft by the strong arms of young men raising the chair legs like thrones. Though the gray bearded gentleman and his white haired wife beamed with great smiles, they also grabbed at their tippy chairs, as if not so secretly wishing they had seat belts. But this wasn’t a wedding for caution. This was exuberance. The bride, whom I’d known as a serious young woman who’d suffered the terrible losses of both her father and her older sister to sudden deaths, was showing me another side, her undaunted appetite for mad celebration. I couldn’t help but picture her father, my dear friend and poetry mentor, Saul Bennett, up in the chair. He’d been enough of a showman that he’d be riding it like a cowboy—and enough of a charmer that he’d turn it into a funny story afterward.
Some deaths you fear. Some you expect. Some you never see coming. Joan Bennett’s phone call one morning to tell me that Saul had collapsed in their kitchen the previous evening and died before the 911 ambulance arrived still seems unreal five years later. Though nearly seventy, Saul wasn’t old. He had black hair, walked his hilly road for exercise, never complained about aches or pains, and enjoyed the sprightly energy of a man with years ahead of him. Retired after a public relations career on Madison Avenue, he and Joan had sold their family house on Long Island and their weekend place in the Litchfield Hills to consolidate in Woodstock, where Saul idled on poems, Joan browsed the shop windows, and together they watched Turner Classics. They were happily settled. They’d even begun joining group nature walks, no small shift for Saul who spent his imaginative energies writing about Sunnyside Queens in the 1940s, a long lost world of Chinese restaurants serving “subgum” and old hag movie theater “matrons” resembling “Eleanor Roosevelt, or even her mother.” It once occurred to me that, although Saul drove a forest green SUV and needed it for his icy driveway with a steep bend, he never mentioned cars in his poems, which referred instead to trolleys, ferries, and the Flushing El, the transportation of his origins. I’d grown up with On the Road as my romance of America. Not Saul. He’d grown up with Studs Lonigan.
Every few weeks, we wiled away an afternoon together editing each other’s latest poems. The focus he gave to my pieces was almost intimidating, but deeply flattering. He’d read a poem repeatedly to himself, then close his eyes as if he’d learned it well enough to hear it as music. Forty-five minutes would pass over five poems. Only then was he ready to comment. He was the best kind of critic, enthusiastic about my talents, merciless with his pen. He might draw a line between stanzas two thirds of the way down the page: “I think your poem starts here.” Of, if he was magnanimous: “I think you’ve got a two-fer,” meaning that I might find a separate poem in the top stanzas. But he wasn’t bashful with praise. Nothing gave me a thrill of accomplishment quite like hearing him say, after he’d pondered a poem’s final line, “that’s a real kick in the nuts.” Saul believed poetry should pack an emotional punch. No word play or evasiveness for him. Billy Collins’s pleasantness be damned. We were allies in our own school of poetry, digging deep into our lives like memoirists.
His death stunned me out of procrastination into assembling poems for my first book, then my second, both filled with poems he helped me craft. One that I especially remember described my father in the early 1970s as an angry defender of President Nixon. So as a rebellious teen on Halloween, I wore a Nixon mask with a “penis-sloped nose & lumpy ball jowls.” (I wish I could claim originality, but a friend had told me that “the best description” he’d read of Nixon’s face was of “the father’s testicles” in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Later, I saw caricatures painted by Philip Guston, Roth’s pal when the two lived in Woodstock in the early 1970s, of Nixon’s face as genitals. Good ideas have a way of getting around.) To present this poem at the Colony Cafe in Woodstock, I asked for a volunteer to join me on stage, where I’d then ask them to wear the Nixon mask I’d brought for the occasion. They’d be the prop as I read aloud. Who should rush out of his chair? Saul, knowing full well what lay ahead. After his death, a friend said I remembered that moment so fondly because Saul had acted like a father to me, but one willing to play along with my crazy ideas.
Another gift Saul left me that can sometimes be zany was his slot as an occasional guest poetry host on Doug Grunther’s Sunday morning “Woodstock Roundtable” on WDST radio. Not that I’m mediagenic, not by a long shot, but Doug is such an engaging conversationalist that our segments fly by. He has a knack for picking odd details out of poems that lead our guests into sharing surprising anecdotes. (The last time I was on, I learned that Dennis Doherty named his new book, Crush Test, after the words printed on a shipping box left out on his porch. Go figure. But it’s a hell of a book.) Given his background in PR, Saul was a natural for the radio, but when he first approached Doug, as Doug later admitted to me, Doug hesitated, for Saul’s first book was about the death of his oldest daughter at the age of 24 from a brain aneurysm. As Saul often explained, this event “shocked” him into taking up poetry in his late fifties, at first for solace, but soon for publication in New Fields and Other Stones: On a Child’s Death. A worthy subject, Doug thought to himself, but what a downer at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Fortunately, Doug couldn’t bring himself to say no. Saul proved to be such a gracious and uplifting presence that he became a recurring guest, “the Godfather of Hudson Valley poetry,” as Doug anointed him. In his soft sell manner Saul was a terrific promoter for his own books, which grew to include Harpo Marx at Prayer, but also for all of us, whom he invited onto the show as under appreciated poets of the Hudson Valley. I can’t help but think of him each time I wait with two colleagues in the station hallway lined with CD shelves, each of us wide awake with nervous eagerness no matter how early we woke up to be here. Then comes that moment when Doug, grinning and wearing big earphones at his corner microphone, says, “Let’s bring in the poets!” We hustle in to hop up on the high stools to face the howitzer-sized mikes that somehow grow less intimidating as we begin reading our poems into that mysterious but promising ether of radioland. We’re continuing a tradition that Saul created for us.
For my Brooklyn wedding gift, I brought recordings of several of Saul’s appearances preserved on CD by Owen Swenson, the show’s engineer. It was eerie to hear Saul’s voice again after five years of silence, but also a small miracle. He had a marvelously expressive voice that sounded lived in, not the guarded monotone that many of us have, but a wide ranging instrument that sounded engaged and upbeat over an underlying sadness. He was polished, yet kept traces of his native Queens accent. Speaking on the show in December 2000 to promote Harpo Marx at Prayer, he told Doug that he’d grown up in the “small patch” of Sunnyside, “the first stop over the Queensborough Bridge from Manhattan. It’s only about eight blocks long and four blocks wide. But I have written almost 100 poems about Sunnyside and my experiences. I’m trying to do in my own small way what James Joyce did for Dublin and William Faulkner for that patch of Mississippi that was his.” Let me conclude with two of his Sunnyside poems from both the book and the show.
From their back room they sold you
if they knew you
and you called ahead
to this one family Auto Supply
gefilte fish they worked up themselves
in big pots on a stove behind a curtain
for the holidays would go there around
the corner across under the El from Sunnyside Garden
where my father took me to the fights
fifty for the winner a watch for the loser.
Their recipe was so delicious
the mothers said
and pike boulders spiked
with carrot pebbles shuddering
in a pond of pale yellow jelly
they sold on the sly smelling
new rubber and sunny precious
oils enough to grease
every Polo Grounds seat.
When mothers asked for it they winked
but never gave away
To which Doug replied that he didn’t recall gefilte fish in T.S. Elliot or any other poetry he’d read. “Elliot actually had gefilte fish in his poems but it was coded with Latin references,” Saul replied. To introduce his next poem, he said, “What boy does not remember his first suit? It’s a watershed moment for us.”
Admission to the Academy
I was shown into a great room showered
by sunlight so immense
in an upper loft
on lower Fifth Avenue
and stood on a stage or
broad platform before
the father of my apartment house
next door friend Paulie
and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes sized
as my father watched.
So deliberate was Mr. Schnitzer’s
threading about but never poking, or
his tape, even
in the slightest, restraining, but conducting
this maestro of measurements! As I was
fat, the calling out by Mr. Schnitzer
of my numbers to his assistant
embarrassed, but as only
sixteen and with a lifetime to lose
weight, I remained awed,
not discouraged, and just
a week later, materialized
if not by Mr. Schnitzer’s own
fine hand, fashioned to his diligent
if slightly imprecise specifications, the navy
serge suit itched me up to a seat in the rear
of the balcony of the Academy
of Music near Union Square for graduation.
(Saul Bennett, 1936—2006)