What Would Sparrow Say?

During a dinner conversation about the politics of poetry reputations, Barbara Louise Ungar and Stuart Bartow implanted a new fear in me: “What would Sparrow say?” In America: A Prophecy: A Sparrow Reader, their friend, the white-bearded, sometimes barefooted, always bird-named poet, had done such a funny job of skewering New Yorker poems with his translations from their pretentious musings into plain English that they found themselves trimming their own poetic excesses as they wrote with Sparrow in mind as a stern corrective. What John Updike had to say in fourteen lines about death spoiling a lifetime spent perfecting one’s sense of wit, Sparrow said in three:

The problem with dying
is you can’t be funny anymore,
or charming.

With Sparrow eloquence doesn’t get you very far. Having loved Updike’s style in my formative years, I cringed at the thought of what Sparrow would make of my poems. I do love to go on and on.

To be frank, I’ve long been ambivalent about Sparrow. For a time, we both lived in Phoenicia, though we met only in passing. In person, he’s the nicest of conversationalists, someone with such wide and eclectic interests that he’s bound to be engaged by what you say. But he’s also deliberately eccentric with his untamed beard, which he has unabashedly compared to Osama bid Laden’s, and his preference for walking barefoot at poetry readings and parties. He has developed, if not invented, the genre of the one word poem, hybrid words that sound to me like Neanderthal grunts. He doesn’t drive. He has published in print the fact that he’s never made more than $11,806 in a year. (In our society revealing your income seems more self-exposing than revealing your penis size.) And he’s run for President three times, primarily, it seems, to give himself a goofy conversation starter with sidewalk strangers. In short, he’s easy to see as harmless, an East Village bohemian in the 1990s who has brought his intrepid quirkiness upstate, but I remained wary. Not in person but in print, judging by his pieces that I occasionally read here and there, I pegged him as a literary anarchist eager to blow up elegant prose, sophisticated wit, intellectual cogitation—pretty much everything I hold dear in writing. Where I strive for knowingness, he plays stupid. While I throw myself into emotionally difficult material, he cracks jokes. When I get resentful over the amount of work I put into this business, he seems to be a cult figure without trying. I’ll admit it: the guy gets under my skin. He doesn’t even look like a sparrow. More like an owl off the Bowery. And his real name is Michael Gorelick.

Then I actually read America: A Prophecy. What can I say? The damned thing is hilarious, even brilliant, from beginning to end. It was time to eat my jealousy and admit that Sparrow is a visionary, a jolly pirate who does far more to entertain than to harm with his send-ups of poetry, politics, celebrity, and whatever else tickles his fancy. He writes pithy aphorisms: “Anyone can get lost, but staying lost is an art form.” He keeps oddball diaries about cockroaches and doesn’t hesitate to write letters to anyone: “Dear President George W. Bush…” He has cast aside his fears of embarrassment to be naïve in the most fruitful ways. He’s one of those rare individuals who allows himself to notice the strangenesses that we do our best to ignore in our efforts to believe that we live in a sensible world. He’s a relief from our struggles. His zaniness is often closer to the truth than our most well wrought explanations. “Sparrow invented the bumper sticker DON’T BLAME ME—I VOTED FOR BRITNEY SPEARS,” he writes in his author bio. The thing to do is to sit back and enjoy whatever he has to say.

I swallowed my pride and sent him a poem. Here’s my piece, followed by Sparrow’s translation.

Trespassing at the Leap
Platte Clove, Catskills

The sign said, “Strictly Forbidden.”
I stepped over the guardrail and surged with happiness.
I dug my heels down the deer path of slippery duff
and grabbed the green paws of hemlock branches.
At the leap overlooking the gorge and waterfall,
I crawled to the edge and counted seconds,
as my spit dropped into rocks and ferns
of scree below. My groin tingled
with vertigo. After crawling back,
I rubbed off pebbles pressed in my palms.

How often had I seen this chasm painted?
The famous Devil’s Kitchen and Bridal Veil Falls.
Yet as I sat where artists sit,
this scene refused to hold itself still,
not the forest leaves shimmying like sequins,
nor the valley humidity stirring with airborne seeds,
nor the slender waterfall shredding itself
into frothy diamonds. As a poet,
I wanted to join this flow.

I studied the vultures rocking on wings,
trolling the clove, then raised my arms in a V.
Impatient in the breeze, I leaped
and almost snagged my foot on a pitch pine
knotted to the cliff, then nearly shed my face
on a jutting bluestone brow spotted with lichen.
But somehow I soared into thickening air.
Pennies tumbled from my pocket like copper moths;
my falling wallet flapped like a bat.
Steadying my arms, I coasted into a thermal
that carried me high on a warm carousel.
Hunger awakened me to all the odors in the air.
I knew the smell of death I once feared
was what would sustain me now.

Sparrow’s translation:


I like trespassing.
Just today I did it, at Platte Clove.
Then I climbed down the hill,
on a deer path.
I got to the falls, and spit over the cliff.
Then I got the heebie-jeebies.
I am fucking scared of heights!

How many paintings have I seen of Platte Clove?
A lot.
But when you’re right there,
it doesn’t look like a painting.
Everything is moving, slightly.
But I’m a poet, not a painter,
so I don’t mind.

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