Live, Throwing Copper (1994)
That one time no one showed up for a poetry reading
I hosted, that one event replays over again up here in Albany,
where no one shows up to any poetry readings anyway
and where the only station my AM radio gets
loud and clear is “Catholic words of peace and glory.”
I camp out at the second-string coffee place with high windows
like the Brooklyn bookstore where no one showed up
to the poetry reading. The poets came, sure. They always do.
But no one else did. The poets blamed it on Charles Bernstein’s wife,
who had an art opening. Which would’ve made sense,
but it was in another borough and on another day.
The poets were Canadian, and complained about their
small travel grants. I bought them drinks. Today,
in the second-string coffee place filled with high windows,
undergrads talk about god and test scores, and I spot
a grad student I know, his face in Williams’ prose.
He’s wrestled with him for years now, says it’s like living
inside a molasses jar. We talk about the baseball
poem, how the crowd moved uniformly, how it reminds me
of the proofreader who flagged phantom pronouns
in my manuscript, the one I’d sweated over for years.
The Williams poem hinges on what “it” refers to—
Is “it” the crowd at the ball game eating hot dogs?
Or is “it” America, the failed experiment?
In this second-string coffee place, undergrads blast rap-metal
and they think it will force me out of my primo booth spot—
Fuck that noise. I got a table, a power outlet, and headphones
to blast Can then Gong then Can then Gong then Can then Gong.
On my screen, phantom pronouns pop in and out. I play
the Throwing Copper album, where the guy from Talking Heads
lets slip a second of silence in the middle of Live’s best song.
A big mastering fuck-up? Did Greg Calbi not show up that day?
Did he record it in Cannon Falls, Minnesota or who the fuck
knows where? I bet the drummer in Can knows. What could I say
to my shrink today that could clear my head any better?
What problems could I replay to her instead of the one
unifying problem, which is that I hate myself, that I can’t say out loud
that I am mediocre, that I can’t say I have wasted too many afternoons
like this in search of a poem. Today, instead, I mull over the two-way tie
for the worst lines of poetry I’ve ever heard aloud.
Number 1: “That was the winter I wouldn’t wear wool.”
Number 2: “Humberto is delivering breakfast sandwiches.”
One’s by a former teacher of mine.
The other is by someone from Philadelphia.
Who was the drummer for Can, anyway?
Didn’t he just die? Did he practice his breathing?
Alone with my headphones and coffee straws,
passwords written in chalk on bricks gather light from a window,
and I remember the day in the hospital just down the street
from here in Albany, in the second-string coffee shop
with high windows, when my daughter’s legs turned blue
last summer, and I couldn’t drive straight or walk straight,
and I ran into the room where she was in bed and she was
OK but scared to have her face with tubes in it. My chest
froze there in the hallway, and I touched her small ears
and sang her name a little bit—it was all I could do to stand there,
to appear fatherly, to breathe in and out, helpless and still.
Daniel Nester is the author most recently of Harsh Realm: My 1990s, a collection of poetry and prose poems from Indolent Books. His work has appeared in New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Bennington Review, The Hopkins Review, Word For/Word, Court Green, Love’s Executive Order, and other places. He is the editor of Pine Hills Review.