Poems by Judith Ferrara; Lessons from Stanley Kunitz
When I received an invitation to do a reading/book signing in November for the Author Series at the Worcester Jewish Community Center, a challenge presented itself: How would I choose a list of poems that would teach me something about my work? If I always look for a fresh approach and it keeps me interested, that interest might hopefully extend to the audience. This was another opportunity to examine my work, and to seek new patterns or ways to present it (Judy’s Journal, 2013 April).
Last year, I was honored to be the 5th Gregory Stockmal Reader, held at Worcester State University. Since the format included a connection to poet Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), I gave a reading, “Embracing Stanley Kunitz,” that alternated his poems with mine, using common themes of loss, family secrets, parental sacrifice, cruelty, and nature. An idea took hold as I began to plan the Author Series reading, and it relied again on Stanley Kunitz.
The idea centered on the paradox of writing as a solitary activity vs. a writer’s support from mentors or teachers. I attended several of Stanley Kunitz’s readings but had only one instance of actually talking with him, as he signed one of his books. This was hardly enough personal contact to merit calling him a mentor, in the traditional living, breathing sense of the word. However, my decades-long admiration for his work, supplemented by my last six years of research into his early life and poetry, placed him high on my list of “distant teachers.” I reread sections of Vera John-Steiner’s Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking. Her book explores the webs of relationships, near and far, necessary for creative achievements.
The crux of my reading would be to share quotations gleaned from the many essays and interviews of Stanley Kunitz and relate them to several of my poems. I will give you one example.
While famous Worcester-born poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, seemed to be able to forget their roots here, Kunitz said, “I doubt that I ever shall” (Marie Henault, Stanley Kunitz, page 135). For him, memories of Halley’s Comet, Green Street, the public library on Elm Street, the Worcester Art Museum, the woods behind his home on Woodford Street, and the deaths of his father and step-father, all led to a rich and sustaining array of themes that informed his life’s work.
It made me think about Buffalo, New York and realize that Stanley Kunitz and I were in our early twenties when we decided to leave our birthplaces. Buffalo was a place full of pain and joy, a “loaded scene” as my cousin said to me. I needed to move away and give myself a long view and time to appreciate all I had been given as a writer and artist.
The poem I chose to illustrate Kunitz’s idea of memory and place is “The Good Deed” (Gestures of Trees, 2000).
The Good Deed
While the years eat away and leave a waste of memories
of him in my bones, there are times when I need to forage
for something to say when someone asks
What was your father like?
and then, I feel the same sensation I feel
whenever my foot falls asleep
and my job is
to bring it back to life,
that is, if I want to get back to walking again.
He was a carpenter, I say. We didn’t get along too well.
And try leaving it at that. But sometimes,
when the pendulum of conversation returns to me,
I may tell this story about him.
An ice storm gnawed the streets and buildings ragged
while my younger brother and I
worked through to the 9 o’clock closing
at Sattler’s Department Store. When I cashed out last,
he usually waited for me outside
so we could walk to the bus together.
That night, he came to the register and told me:
The ol’ man’s here to drive us home. It’s real bad out.
Fears of the ice storm and a ride home with my father
wobbled against each other in my chest.
When we climbed into the front seat,
I didn’t need to look at him. I gauged
how drunk he was by the smell.
His voice walked through shifting sand:
How’s school? We traded answers for questions and
had a knuckle-cracking talk, the kind just for the sound,
while we slid. Through stop signs. Through red lights.
No one’s coming, see? he’d say to an icy windshield.
He edged the car onto glistering Grider Street,
that collection of two-family homes
hobbling in despair, as mucous ice grew
on the trees, curbs and lampposts.
Watch this! he commanded and pushed the accelerator.
The tires spun. We sped forward. Our house flew closer.
I thought we’d surely pass each other on our way into a tree.
But then, he jammed on the brakes.
To tell it plainly, in one breath,
the car twirled around precisely 180 degrees
and came to rest curbside
at the front door.
Laughter, shock and delight
shook our bones,
as my brother and I pulled ourselves
out of the car
and watched him drive away
coolly, like a gunslinger
blowing smoke off the barrel of his six-shooter.
Years later, I would remember
this act of bravado while driving stone-sober
through an ice storm
swinging out of control
in a square dance gone mad,
while I searched grudgingly
for his caring and skill.