Monday’s Poem: ‘In the Attic,’ by David Wojahn

I unzip the plastic bag & they tremble
The dust motes—three linen sport coats
In the March wind’s updraft. Two beige,

One a comic mustard yellow, the sleeves
Rolled up—pure Miami Vice. He’d put on
Some weight that year & they wouldn’t button.

His living room in Dallas. Try them on, Jack said.
They look good on you, he said.
I carried them with me on a flight

To my parents & even wore one to the consult
With the doctor: should they discharge my father,
Or ratchet up the ECT? Nice linen,

Well-cut. The doctor would respect me.
On the phone Jack laughed at this, a kind
Of snorting Hah! that still said Boston:

Ya’  didn’t wear the yellow one, I hope.
We’d been editing a book, for he loved
Projects, collaboration, eight-ball he’d always

Beat me at, George Dickel neat but sometimes
With ice—two cubes only. On the shag carpet floor,
150 note cards for the book fanning out

In classic Jack—systematic & mysterious
As Kabbalah. His jokes were legion, usually
At his own expense. He wounded easily,

Though about that he’d stay quiet. He saved
My ass on various occasions & his poems
Were pathos, Borscht Belt, Rumi

In an accent of long vowel, dropped r.
People would do well to read them.
& the jackets: I think this is the one

I sported at the consult, saying yes
To the shocks, duly signing forms.
I slide it from the hanger & of course

It doesn’t button. Inside the chest pocket,
A wallet-sized black & white: Jack
Without beard, the second wife who didn’t

Stay long, his son caped in Teenage
Mutant Ninja, the one Jack buried.
The ghost jacket, for an instant,

Brings them both alive. Though to claim that,
Jack would say, is a lie
Even elegy cannot make good.

in memory, Jack Myers

Copyright © by David Wojahn. Printed by permission of the author.

David Wojahn‘s eighth collection of poetry, World Tree, was issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in January. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the creative writing program, and in the MFA in writing program of Vermont College.

Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  In the nearly 30 years since Richard Hugo selected his first book, Icehouse Lights, for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1982, David Wojahn has contributed to American arts and letters a personally and politically intrepid body of ever-evolving poems. He is also a fearless, culturally savvy, and intelligent editor and essayist and an open-minded reviewer of original and substantial insight.

David Wojahn

Wojahn brings to his work in the academy the same discerning conscience, conscientiousness, and consciousness he devotes to his writing, and his reputation as a generous, loyal teacher is legion among colleagues and devoted current and former students, many of whom are now well-known poets in their own right. At a recent conference, I had occasion to speak for various reasons with a great many writers, and at least 10 of them, ranging in age from their early twenties to their sixth decade—poets whose own work represents a wide range of styles and sensibilities—evoked, unbidden, Wojahn’s name, referring either to something he’d once said in class or to a letter he’d written to them in response to a query, or to a life-saving book he’d loaned them or to some prescient bit of his from a poem or book review. In an essay entitled “Ferality and Strange Good Fortune: Notes on Teaching and Writing,” Wojahn has said that “the writing of poetry is not a business, an activity, or a hobby, but a calling; the teaching of the writing of poetry is, similarly, a calling.” That this calling includes desolation, confusion, and grief as well as the exhilaration of creation and communion is part of Wojahn’s practice and his vision.

“In the Attic,” an elegy for Wojahn’s friend and mentor, the late poet Jack Myers, embodies and in some ways accounts for this vision of collaboration, generosity, and legacy.  It is late winter/early spring, time to get out some lighter clothes, time, perhaps to emerge from a period of mourning, and the poem opens with the Zephyrus invocation of a “March wind’s updraft” stirring the dust motes in an attic where the speaker is unzipping a garment bag containing “three linen sport coats / . . . // One a comic mustard yellow, the sleeves / Rolled up—pure Miami Vice,”  all a gift from Jack back when he was still alive and the speaker a much younger man.

. . . . He’d put on
Some weight that year & they wouldn’t button.

His living room in Dallas.  Try them on, Jack said.
They look good on you, he said.
I carried them with me on a flight

To my parents & even wore one to the consult
With the doctor:  should they discharge my father,
Or ratchet up the ECT?  Nice linen,

Well-cut.  The doctor would respect me.
On the phone Jack laughed at this, a kind
Of snorting Hah! That still said Boston:

Ya’ didn’t wear the yellow one, I hope.

In a contrapuntal style I associate with Wojahn, these terraced lines, which juxtapose heavy information (the speaker’s father is in the hospital undergoing electric shock therapy) with seemingly light remarks (“Nice linen, // Well-cut”), convey so much with a light touch. As mnemonic sound bites of scene, dialogue, questions, and interior thoughts exchange their secrets, we appreciate at once the easy intimacy between the older and the younger man.  We see how the latter feels stronger, more capable, wearing his friend’s outgrown suit to the difficult consult about whether or not to discharge his father from hospital or to intensify his electroconvulsive therapy. We, like the speaker, are grateful for Jack’s humor on the telephone in spite of what must been a wise and deeply felt awareness of his friend’s complicated family situation.

The speaker pulls back from his own drama, however, keeping the lens focused on Myers—lover of projects, pool, George Dickel (“neat but sometimes / with ice”)—an easily wounded maker of jokes at his own expense and of poems (part “pathos, Borscht Belt, Rumi // In an accent of long vowel, dropped r. / People would do well to read them”). I’m guessing that the collaborative project the speaker and Myers are undertaking in the poem (“150 note cards for the book fanning out // In classic Jack—systematic & mysterious / As Kabbalah”) is A Profile of 20th-Century American Poetry, a collection of essays introduced and edited by Wojahn and Myers, which appeared in 1991. People would do well to read that, too.

In the longitudinal oneiric house of reverie that Gaston Bachelard describes in The Poetics of Space, the attic occupies a special imaginative place as the repository of memory. If cellars are really “buried walls,” with the dark of earth around them, the attic is an aerie, perched between earth and heaven, sheltering its discarded remnants of lives beneath a “rational” roof. The attic is  liminal, high and piled with the old, the put-away, “keeping watch over the past.” It is into such a space that the speaker’s dead friend is called back, by the change in weather, perhaps, and chiefly by the uncovered jacket, the same coat the speaker once “sported at the consult, saying yes / To the shocks, duly signing forms. / I slide it from the hanger & of course / It doesn’t button.”

Wojahn presses here. What does it mean to have outgrown what our teachers have outgrown? What happens when those who have inspired and sheltered us and “saved / [our asses]” and helped us through life’s “shocks” precede us into the beyond, and it is we who are standing alone, just under the shingles, holding not only the carapace of what was once a vital man, but,  discovered within the chest pocket of that shed garment, a photograph,

. . . A wallet-sized black & white:  Jack
Without beard, the second wife who didn’t

Stay long, his son caped in Teenage
Mutant Ninja, the one Jack buried.
The ghost jacket, for an instant,

Brings them both alive.  Though to claim that,
Jack would say, is a lie
Even elegy cannot make good.

Jack, the poet tells us, would insist that neither poetry nor even love can “make good” the deception, however longed for, that art can return to us, as Dickinson would say, our “sundered things”:  our lost sons, friends, fathers, younger selves. But the reader of Wojahn’s elegy might disagree; for more than a moment, Jack Myers bodies forth from the page, filling the room with a humble and irresistible largesse.  What is offered in the poem is gratitude for an abundant and vital spirit, a generosity Wojahn celebrates here and extends through his own work and teaching. No wonder the jacket won’t button.

(A&A illustration derived from a photo by ellyjonez)
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