Yesterday as I drove home from work I was reminded of a moment some six years ago. It was a weeknight and I was gathered with friends in a room of our church's ministry center (office space near campus) following our small group meeting that evening. At one point conversation turned unexpectedly to reciting poems we could recall from memory. Most of the poetry I and my friends could remember was lighthearted and silly (I, for instance, repeated what I could remember of the Calvin and Hobbes poem A Nauseous Nocturne I once performed in middle school).
But my attention that night was riveted by a particular warm-eyed young man who quietly recited the words of a Robert Lowell poem about conscientious objection.
For months I had been quietly trying to hide my developing crush on the handsome young man who that night recited the lines of Memories of West Street and Lepke. That night, as he carefully recalled these moving words, my admiration for the young man deepened. As the idle chatter of my friends that night died down to listen, all I could hear was him speaking and my heart beating. And, perhaps for the first time since meeting the young man, my heart lept. Butterflies. Heartthrobs.
Two nights ago, my heart throbbed again as I kissed that man goodbye and departed for the workweek. I am far deeper in love with that man now than I was that night six years ago, and the butterflies and heartthrobs keep coming. But I enjoy reminiscing about when the first heartthrobs happened.
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .