I was at my mother’s on Sunday, before Sandy hit New York, helping her clean out her attic because she’s moving to New Jersey and she wants to take with her as little as possible of the stuff that she’s accumulated during the 70-some-odd years of her life. We found things like a picture of her and her date to her senior prom. I asked her who he was, but I’ve forgotten his name. She went with him, she said, because George, the man who would eventually become my stepfather and the father of my sisters, had broken up with her. (Why she married my father first and not George is a whole other story.) We also found decades worth of Heavy Metal magazine that my mother subscribed to and even the velvet drapes she had hanging in her bedroom more than thirty years ago when we lived in Floral Park. For me, though, the most significant thing that we found was the copy of Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer that my mother had bought in 1980 when Sal St. John Buttaci of New Worlds Unlimited accepted two of my poems publication. In my memory, Buttaci and his publishing company had been of a piece with the scam artists–I don’t remember that publisher’s name–that a couple of years later also accepted my poems, asked me to pay a fee so that the poems could be published (which I did; I was very naive about these things back then) and then sent me a copy of a book without my poems in it. My mother, though, reminded me that I was wrong. New Worlds Unlimited was, in fact, a legitimate poetry publisher. Indeed Mr. Buttaci is still active. His blog has not been updated since last year, but he was interviewed on Blog Talk Radio in May of this year, when he also gave a reading at the Princeton Public Library.
I was very happy to be proven wrong, and I was pleasantly surprised, when I looked, to find out that Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer is actually for sale on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble and that there are some libraries around the country that have it on their shelves. More than how excited I was when I got Mr. Buttaci’s acceptance letter in the mail–boy, I wish I still had a copy of that–I remember how validating it was to see my work in print. The poems he accepted are absolutely the work of an eighteen-year-old, but when I read them now, more than thirty years later, I can see in them the seeds of the poet I would become. At the time, in imitation of e. e. cummings, I numbered my poems, instead of giving them titles:
In the Beginning
when God created
If I send you a poem
on butterfly wings,
ensnare it not
in your net of reason,
let it enter the flower of your soul
that you might live,
not merely survive–
If I send you a poem
on wings of song,
please, let it sing.
Poem 39, cutely profound and ironic as it tries to be, reminds me of another poem I wrote in my eighteenth year, but of which I no longer have a copy. In this poem, which was written in rhymed couplets, I imagined a post-nuclear world in which the God of the Torah decides to come to earth to comfort the survivors and to mourn with them everything that has been lost. The survivors, however, turn God away. “You weren’t there when we needed you,” they tell him, “and so we don’t need your sorrow now.”
I was very proud of this poem, both because it showed some mastery of the couplet form and because it said something that I thought was important politically. The possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was not far from anyone’s mind at the time, and I was also struggling with some pretty serious spiritual and philosophical questions like, “How could God have allowed the Shoah to happen?” So I showed the poem to my AP English teacher, Mr. Giglio, along with some of my other work. In fact, I think I gave him my entire notebook of poetry to read. His response was that I ought not to write poetry about religion, that perhaps I ought not to write poetry at all. I’d be better off, he said, sticking to essays and literary criticism. (I didn’t know it at the time, but if the stories I’ve been told are true, Mr. Giglio had tried and failed to enter the priesthood.)
Happily, I was smart enough to recognize that Mr. Giglio was responding to the content of my poem as if it were a claim to a truth about his god, not the poem itself as a vehicle for exploring an emotional and intellectual experience–which is kind of what poem 49 is about, though I would never have been able to say it this way at the time. So, ignoring his advice, I kept writing; and I think my work has followed the trajectory set for it in the poem he rejected, and in these two poems that Sal St. John Buttaci published, engaging with large social, cultural and political issues, while at the same time insisting that poetry is art, not propaganda. In any event, I am happy to have Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer in my possession once again.