“New Words for the Truth of Still Being Alive.” Poetry by Herbert Gold and His Son, Ari ‹ Literary Hub

Literature

Mortality is the imagination’s greatest engine. For my father, who  almost reached a second century on earth, nearing the exit made him a poet.

When Herbert Gold was seventeen, he managed to publish a single poem in a local Cleveland paper. Embarrassed at the results a few weeks later, he abandoned poetry, enlisted in the Army, studied philosophy at Columbia and the Sorbonne, and after publishing  a few well-received novels, followed his buddy Allen Ginsberg to San Francisco. There, he spoke at the trial defending Howl, and discovered that he could play tennis outdoors in January. In San Francisco he witnessed and wrote about a cultural revolution, and was teased by his compatriots for never quite buying into the tuning in, turning on, or dropping out.

Maybe this explained him outliving them all. Herbert remained for 63 years in a rent-controlled apartment, up a steep hill from City Lights Books. The once-bare walls of his bachelor pad became obscured by Haitian paintings, photos of his five children, and thousands of magazines and books—including dozens of his own. The latest was entitled Still Alive: A Temporary Condition, and his condition seemed to last forever, until it didn’t. I’ll be lucky if I have the right chunk of his genes.

One morning a few weeks into a global lockdown, I was watching dragonflies screwing midflight outside my window in Southern California. I realized that up the coast, my dad didn’t have anyone to keep him company. He could no longer see the keys of his typewriter. He could barely hear me on the phone. He was severed from the things that sustained his spirits: the human carnival, and his own creativity.

Meanwhile, I’d begun writing poetry with friends on the internet, since our chosen art forms (independent film, in my case; rock music for most of the others), were on hold. Our little club of artists would go online, come up with a random prompt, write quickly, then read our poems aloud to each other.

Wanting my dad to get in on the action, I sent him a poem via US Mail, printed in 36-point-font. I included a self-addressed stamped envelope, and demanded a poem in return—challenging him, I hoped, to a Troubadour-like competition.

My dad complied with the vigor of a young poet. His poems were faster than mine, shorter than mine, and written with the urgency of someone who has little time to dawdle.

Soon we were making up for human contact by mailing poems back and forth—about love, romance, sex, death, and tomato soup. I wandered through words. He sliced to the essential experience of outliving his friends, his enemies, his wives, his lovers, even one of his five children. I wrote about nature, disaster, and my own dreams; he responded with poems about the love of his life—my mother—who’d left him first in divorce, then later in a helicopter crash. And I tried to forgive my father his imperfections, through poems that promised I would live on. When my father’s correspondence went cold, my twin brother Ethan—one of the musicians in the poetry group—ordered a book of stamps too, and got our dad going again.

Together, the three of us decided that this correspondence might speak to other fathers, sons, daughters, mothers. People who struggle to find words for love, loss, and longing. People who want to stay on the carnival ride until they fall off. We read these poems aloud to each other, at simultaneous public events thousands of miles from one another—and finally face to face. Maybe it will inspire you to lick the back of postage stamps, and write to the living, or even the dead, and find new words for the truth of being still alive.

–Ari Gold

*

Scribble Me a Poem

BY ARI

Scribble me a poem, Dad.
I know your excuses for not writing.
You can’t see the cranes of the typewriter
now gathering dust.
The tomato soup is gone, the prunes hard.
You mixed them for me at breakfast this winter,
in a glass bowl glazed with last week’s soup,
but I drew the line at eating such a delicacy,
microwaved with loving ingenuity
by a child of the first Great Depression.
At this moment you must be practicing
your North Korean marching steps
over the couch piled high with the New York Times.
You face the spire of Grace Cathedral
which thrusts into golden mist,
announcing dawn in San Francisco.
Scribble me a poem, Dad,
but it must be me I’m commanding,
dreaming of the Baltics,
facing a palm tree,
waiting for hummingbirds
to meditate along with me.

*

Diagnosis & Verdict

BY HERB

Even well into my eighties
I thought I was a young man.
I knew I would die someday
But the diagnosis would have to be
He died of the complications of young age.

*

Melissa (1943-1991)

BY HERB

To remember our marriage,
to celebrate our divorce,
she sweetly brought me a spider plant
“Because they never die,” she said.
Tendrils green, hanging like dreadlocks.
Teasing, as she did when she was happy,
angry, or confused,
a little notch at the left corner of her mouth,
she offered a green gift in a brown pot.
It seemed permanent.
And she kissed me.
She died, but the spider plant gives birth to its shoots
for years now, green, nearly forever.
I clip away the crisp brown leaves
and the green feels its chance,
takes it,
forever, it seems, forever.
I snip off the spreading brown
and water the pot, and green is born overnight,
it seems,
as if there really is a forever.
There was a storm.
There was a helicopter.
“She didn’t die,” our sons and daughter say,
“She was killed.”
Her end is not the same.
The end is always the same.
But like the spider plant—

II
She’s only gone when I wake.
When I sleep, she lives in dream,
Stubborn, immune to time, age, and catastrophe,
Denying that all who live must die.
Yesterday lived last night and again,
And then again.
More than enough time and too much,
Until soon enough I will submit—
All who live must die.
Until I submit to the truth dream denies.
Our children also sleep,
And will dream when my dreams stop.
Of her holding the lamb chop by the bone,
Ferocious, teeth bared, delighted,
Attacking the last bloody shred.
Their children will also count
Their losses, which are like mine, like yours.
The blessings we gain
Are always lost but forever present
At night, in dream,
Avid, ferocious, teeth bared.

III
She didn’t run out in full her life
before she died.
I’ve lived three acts
(or four). I’ve tried.
It’s now we live
and then we go.
No night, no day,
no tomorrow.
I thought the time
of love would suffice
for her, for me—
we paid the price.
All our ends
are just the end.
The same for me
and you, my friend.

*

Broken Glass Men

BY ARI

My brother stares at the window with broken glass.
I’m not really into sliding doors, I say
Why not get French doors
that open to the night,
if you’re going to the trouble to fix it?
But my brother likes a quiet room.
Yesterday he made fun of dudes who dangle
their arm out the car window.
But I’m one of those dudes, I told him.
The train in Glendale just blew its horn.
I don’t like to remember it’s only
a commuter train in Glendale.
I don’t like to remember
our dad’s in the hospital,
the unfulfilled promise of adventure with him,
a promise between father and sons
that windows will always be open.
In the Ballona Wetlands Nature Park,
on a sculpture of cement blocks,
I am a kid again, on smooth warm concrete.
A frail woman walks by, hunched,
nature smile on her face,
dog marching ahead.
I hope my Dad has at least one cute nurse.
A shaft of light the width of a house
shoots from the earth to the sky.
Let’s breathe for all of us.
Brother, father, father, sons.
I want to release you of your broken heart.

___________________________________

Excerpted from Father Verses Sons: A Correspondence in Poems by Herbert Gold and Ari Gold with Ethan Gold. © 2024. Available via Rare Bird Lit. 

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