The Lesson Of My Life
For poetry makes nothing happen.
W. H. Auden
Coming up from lunch I pushed my way
Through crowds of students dawdling in the stairwell,
Just in time to see my boss -- but much
Worse his, the big boss -- entering my room.
That glimpse and I began to boil. To think:
He'd really chosen to proceed, had judged
My technical infraction weighed more
In the larger scheme than the strengths my work displayed --
So he would go against me by the book
For to him the letter always had to rule.
A few short months before,
Done formally observing me at work,
He'd marched up to my desk and asked to see
The finished plans the rules required I write
For every class I taught.
Was he as shocked I could not spread a sheet
Of scribbled paper on his palm as I
At a man who'd seen and heard what he had, yet
Had been moved to make that legalistic request?
Had he missed the logic of the lesson? -- felt
The steps I'd led the students through had been
A random walk? Or really did believe
That only paper definitively proved
I was no shirker but someone well prepared?
Would he have signed me off
If I had plunged a skewer through my skull
And kept on pushing down the throbbing grey
Till it touched the spot where the bloody lesson lay?
Let no one be misled -- the right to ask
Was his, and by the letter yes, I was
Remiss... but just as openly declare
I flat-out would not for the sake of his --
Or any mortal's sense of proper form --
Squander the least bit of my dwindling time,
To pen a script for which I had no use,
Who through the years had taught these matters, theme
And variation, fifty -- a hundred times.
So of course we'd traded words, to me just so
Much back-gas but to him, that he'd returned
So soon, a kidney stone he could not pass.
Before he headed toward the door declared
I'd been professionally unprepared and then:
"You've been here long enough to know you get
One warning. This is it."
Was why, right in the middle of the madness,
As my next foot touched the floor,
I scrapped the lesson I'd announced I'd teach
And plucked another from my secret cache.
If I was sunk before the starting bell,
Be sure I never would allow a lesson
Routinely scheduled be the vehicle
By which I'd go, for only one contained
Sufficient heft to bring me to a depth
That fit my own sense of my worth would do.
From a closet at the rear I quickly sent
A set of dusty books around the room,
Then as the late-bell clanged,
The bedlam in the hallway slowly faded,
And blessed silence ever so slightly sweetened
The puddle of angry acid had been my lunch,
I called the page -- and my five-times weekly group
Of teens, unbalanced by this one-time pair
Of pedagogic peers
Turned their attention to the poem and read.
Should I thank the muse for all
She gave me, second hand through Amy Lowell --
Or curse the years, since I must earn to eat,
I still must put the service promised her
Aside, and do my primal service here,
So be forced to keep her waiting in the wings
Where the third-string fiddlers seldom get to play,
For though the food she famously bestows
Is free, and ample in its portions, her bread
Is wheatless, lacks the smallest speck of germ
Or oil, and so devoid of calories
It cannot add a gram of meat will stick
To a body's ribs, and yet is so enriched
It can sustain our insubstantial parts?
Began then the familiar pattern, how
My work-day light between the bells was spent,
Exemplified by "Patterns," the poem I chose
To challenge the youngsters, entertain the guests,
And as Samson, with his hands upon the columns,
Work that poem to control my doom.
We came aground, as I'd learned we would, on the bar
Of words -- the reason, as they read, I'd chalked
A short list on the board. But now I faced
The extra peril of a two-front war
I felt my body surge with twice the charge,
Perhaps inspired by the Muse and Mars,
To change my proven pattern of attack.
Shamelessly I played a double game:
Assumed the role of fool -- at first -- to try
Disarming the parties to this stupid feud.
Pretending to forget the list of words
Was waiting, announced that I would read the poem.
I raised the book, breathed extra deep and loud,
Pausing till every eye dipped to the page,
Then slapped my brow -- but sharp enough to make
The shallow sleepers stir. When I had their eyes
I mouthed, "God, how could I forget," as I turned
And pointed to the column then dealt with one
Word only, the very last.
Of course were sure they knew it -- "stayed" -- and called
The meaning out, though some seemed miffed I'd list
A word that kindergarten kids would know.
With the meanings they supplied exhausted, I wrote
The actual line out -- "boned and stayed," -- to show
"Remained" could not be what the poet meant.
Then staring squarely in the eye of both
My auditors, I took complete advantage
The poem offered -- whose context made it kosher
Openly to talk about the style
Of ladies' undies of a by-gone age,
That my students, blooming now when clothing styles
Dictated the more the body showed the better,
So were cut to show each bump, fold, crease and tuck,
A style seemed so unspeakably strange to them
That in seconds, just as I'd expected, between
The giggling and the buzzing,
I had the very deepest sleepers awake
Then only judged them ready to receive.
I read, declaimed, I chanted -- spoke the words
That told the Lady's plaint but worked my pitch
And sense of pacing -- slowed -- or paused -- or raced
So all would hear, at the very least would feel,
The muse's means the poet had deployed
Intensified the power her tale conveyed.
But more: for all the talk of breaking free
Of the formal hells that held her in they'd know --
Nowhere but the place her lover was
Would the last lint of her stiff brocade be cut,
The final whale-bone girdle stay be snapped.
And on the last repeat of "patterns", pronounced
With extra force, so the stillness at the end
Hung twice as loud, which I held for three full beats,
And only then did I launch my leading question:
What the title meant and why the poet kept
Repeating it as often as she could.
Their answer, as they taught me to expect,
But I declined to learn, was total silence.
On purpose then I countered theirs with mine,
To discommode them, rub
Their learning nerve-ends raw, in their bodies prove,
Though grossly underfed, as their pleasure points,
They too would feed. Soon heads began to turn,
To see if any knew, as I, a-tempo,
Prodded, asking: "Patterns, patterns, who
Can tell me patterns?" my auction patter meant
To draw an opening word.
But as the whole
Turned on this single point, and none would try,
Un-Socratically, to get, I gave.
I spoke of models, molds, explained repeats.
I turned them toward the wall, through which the light
Arrived. I challenged them to train their gaze --
Not the near or far side of the wood and glass
Divided here, there, in, out, us from them,
But on the line itself,
So we could trace the simple mix of forms
Though right before their eyes, most barely noticed,
Although they set a rhythm in the room
Affected everyone who entered here.
Began with facts they all could see and the part,
Though hid from them, that counting always played.
I demonstrated pattern in the windows:
How they numbered three; how each was double sashed;
So came to six, hence two time three; and were --
Not simply glazed but sharply subdivided
Into smaller lights, three up and down, the same
Across, thus three times three; how each was trimmed
With molding, a strip up either side, the third
Engaged their opposing miters across the top.
But for all they newly saw,
To show how something waited -- begged -- to be found,
Even when the plane of study, as here,
Effectively was flat, from small to large,
As my finger traced gradations in the size
Of the familial forms, and spoke what all could see:
The ordered, even pleasing way the parts
Had been arranged, and set within its space
Rigid as the bricks and mortar wall
That held it in on every side -- and yet,
When the eye would zoom in on the smallest form,
Though unchanged is size or placement, now visually centered
In an instant seemed to grow enlarged, and stood
Forth, free of the field, from satellite become
A sun, sufficient, completely self-contained,
Then moved, or with the tiniest flick the lens
went wide, then as swiftly shrank,
became again a minor in the massing
Firmament of forms,
On every side supported, yet in its turn
Supporting each adjacent form, though small --
And locked -- a crucial piece of the repeat --
So every time the body moved, or the head
Assumed a changed position on the line,
When the whole relational arrangement would shift,
Be reconfigured, even seem reversed,
Except one wearied of the endless play,
Or would control so sought to freeze the flux,
The more that one invested time in looking,
In seeking finer ways
To calibrate, so better plumb the line,
The clearer it became as one was in,
And not an overseeing eye, some god
Beyond the pattern, the illusion was
There'd ever be a best or final way
To read or wrest a meaning from the swirl
For here, though optically a mere illusion,
In a very real way even lifeless bits
Of wood and glass would never cease to move.
Then deepened what I taught, suggesting how --
For all the old designer built on a base
Of three, he might have meant us to behold
A larger unity he had in mind,
For he ran a more imposing -- one might say
A master-molding across the very top
And down the outer edges, in that frame see
The inner ambiguities resolved.
Still veiling my design,
On purpose rushed through these details, so I knew
They reeled, then made a sudden shift and threw
The burden back where it belonged. I asked
What difference they might feel if the old-style grid
Were gone, so the six existing sashes held
Six plain and undivided panes of glass;
Or the opening in the wall had a different shape:
The top was arced, or its face was slightly bowed,
Or -- as the openings set within the walls
Surrounded certain gardens on the far side
Of the world -- was round and made thus to remind
Those entering and departing of the moon --
In the shape it had when they beheld it free
Of earth's beclouding shadow, without division,
As in itself it always was, betokening
Wholeness, thus a most auspicious shape.
So if I assigned they study a line like this --
In any of its countless kinds: a door --
A bridge -- a seen or unseen point of transfer --
Social or familial, formal laws
Or clannish customs, perhaps an institution
Such as each one here was part of -- but in their lives
Have come up hard -- or even crashed against,
Then set them this exacting task: in word
Or image, in ways they knew or could invent,
Remake it so each deep or surface flaw
They fought or fled, derided or ignored
Would be removed. Or if they felt no part
Was worth preserving tear it down to nothing
And boldly start anew.
Whose goal would be to fashion a replacement
Worked so benignly that even as it served
Its purpose would alienate no one for it was open,
Neutral, built upon a free-form plan,
Was transparent through and through, that even children,
Coming on it for the first time knew
The ground on which they stood, so passed with ease,
A structure was exactly what it seemed;
Where one would never feel that dead agendas,
Or occult ideas surviving from a time
Long gone were secretly at work to snare
Or entangle them today; in short -- to form
A better kind of order, so the present's easy,
The future's clear and fairer for them all.
It was then, in the momentary lull,
My impromptu questions forced me to allow,
As they mulled my challenge, or worked their own ideas,
Something in the room,
My mock theatrics; or the off-beat way
I worked my theme; it may be how my voice
Had livened Amy's lines; or by my choice
To air this musty genre, a dormant spirit,
Long locked in under pressure between the cloth
And cardboard covers of this dusty volume,
The genius of the book,
Or the smaller genie of the single poem --
Had swiftly spread its aura through the room;
Or none I named but something caused a head
To turn aside and seem completely lost
In thought upon the line.
Amazed and -- yes -- bewildered
That someone so positioned could -- of nothing --
Some verses few perused --
A talk of form I'd pitched at high-school sophomores --
Allow himself to be seduced and half-
Play hookey while on the job.
To probe the side
The Man seemed unaware had been exposed,
It may be even underneath his skivvies,
I must, with a simple mind-move,
Even as I worked to advance the lesson,
Snip our institutional relation,
That the chaser be the chased. I had to make
Him swivel here, there, even as he sat.
Without a warning charged through their silent thoughts.
First choosing forms I tactfully had kept
Back in reserve, were also keyed to three,
I waved where the words still waited, at the board:
Three sheets of slate fixed firmly on the wall;
Then up my hand went, to the triple bank
Of fixtures stiffly hanging above their heads;
Then the chairs, in half-a-dozen rows, as I watched
His eyes go side to side, confirming the count.
To get him back to the world outside this room,
I drew his gaze down where the floor tiles, front
And rear, extending underneath the doors,
Broke past the cubic self-containment here
And linked us to the halls, the rooms beyond,
And by extension far as the mind could go.
As fast as I pointed to an item his head,
With all the others, except my boss's, turned.
As much as theirs I watched his jaw go slack.
Could it be, accomplished as it seemed this man
Must be, of the bureaucratic battles he'd fought
And won, this was the first time he'd been led --
Or forced -- to open to a fluid range
Of man-made order was everywhere he turned
But he had never seen, now must admit
That eyes unlike his own routinely saw?
Or was astonished, perhaps bewildered to find:
Despite the lofty station he'd achieved
It was an underling, who held on here,
Not by a thread but by less than a shredding speck
Of lint, if he lacked a legitimating script --
Yet made him strongly feel that he was back
Where he belonged: in school.
Or forcefully had caught what he needed light
Straight from the sun to see:
The shadow of the grid outside him, strips
Of neutral wood arrayed against the light,
So fell across his body that he saw himself
The hemmed-in tenant of a cage whose iron rules
His office helped to author and he enforced.
On a too-quick trip back, meant
To trap me, this professional observer,
It would seem awash with apperceptive flaws,
In the raw beneath his drawers had been observed.
Seeing this, throughout my body knew
What the muse -- in a flash -- and only once -- bestowed
On her English darling, John Keats’ passive fancy,
When she allowed him to behold the look
Of wild surmise upon Cortez's face
As he stepped upon that peak in Darien and saw
The vast and totally unimagined arc
Of ocean -- wave on wave extending west
Without the hint of a line would tell him: 'Here
The East you seek begins.' a fluid space
So vast he knew he'd need another pair
Of eyes to fathom, a second life to cross.
From things we'd seen, had led us on to things
We learned to look for, then to find, I eased
Us on -- or back -- to things had long conferred
An outward order in the Lady's world:
The daffodils and lilacs, the jewelled fan
And powdered hair, her richly figured dress
That trailed its train upon the patterned walks
Where she sauntered up and down, and to and fro,
In the disintegrating garden of her life --
The multitudinous overlay of things
To the Nth degree now knew were totally
Incapable of sustaining her within,
As the boned and elastically begirdling garment
So straightly laced contained the outer Lady,
But whose passion even now -- though much too late --
Waged futile war against, because of a battle
I pointedly reminded them they'd learned
Of, in a war the world had taught itself
To call, mistakenly as later proved,
"The war to end all wars."
And always when we reached a word from the list
I urged they glean its meaning from the line,
Or failing that they wrote what I supplied.
We spoke what pleased in pattern,
In order, rhythm, balance and, when it showed,
In beauty, but that, as here, must end.
When pattern would repel: if formed by fiat,
Then mechanically applied; had rhyme but lacked
A reason, or its live connect to something high
Was cut, then would seem deader than a mummy,
Drier than its dust.
We spoke the pattern she did not name but knew
She'd live: her lover killed but always right
Before her face, in the pain imagining scenes
That might have been, a pattern of life-in-death.
Mindful of the clapper, poised to strike,
I gathered up to touch where all this aimed:
To open their thoughts to final things so I spoke
The inescapability of pattern
And a paradox sits squarely at its heart:
Though we feel the Lady's pain as verbal kin
To ours; as she we, too, would slip -- or smash --
The real or shadowy bars of custom, habit,
Old pedagogies and, of course, the law,
On another plane of our complexity,
Where our arts reprise the passion of our lives,
Instinctively we feel compounding pleasure
The more their form seems seamlessly achieved.
Suggesting that the Lady -- or was it Amy? --
Even as she labored serving the Muse --
To say it plainly -- erred to see a link
Between the world of pattern
And the losing war we wage to free ourselves.
For it's plain to end our bondage can't entail
Expunging pattern from our lives -- for who'd
Without the metronomic squeeze/release
Of a working heart; the rhythmic give and take
Of gas exchanged between the lungs and leaves;
The steady surge of waves our brains discharge,
Defines the sentience in the least of us.
And even dead become unformed in the long
Familiar stages starting in decay
But hardly ending in re-integration.
So far more clearly than any could have grasped
When I first had urged they train their gaze on the line
They now might credit the claim that the most
Important of all the patterns to keep suspended
In the forefront of the mind is not one found
Among the myriad exist wherever we look,
Nor with those we know or never will find yet won't
Escape within, but the one that can't be seen
But comes alive of the interplay between.
"Just as no one here would claim that this,"
I said, as I faced the open page to the group,
"The pattern of words and lines impressed on the page
Is what is most important in this poem,"
Then snapped the volume shut, so no one missed
The cloud of dust went flying about my face,
As I swiftly slipped the book behind my back,
"Nor what of the poem you still can feel within
For, slow or swiftly, that will surely fade,
But what is born in the live encounter between.
So may it be, by virtue of this poem,
Or the reading or study of any, or many others,
Whatever fate awaits us,
We never have to find we've come to the pass
The Lady's reached when, at the end, in utter
Anguish cries, ‘Christ, what are patterns for?’
She questions the very ground
Without which nothing ever made can stand."
With that I reached, I thought, to closure when a voice
I'd never heard before -- because its owner,
From the first bell of the year refused to ask
Or answer questions, or ever express a thought,
But suddenly called out, strongly moved to speak.
She questioned how I'd read the final line
As the Lady sounding absolute despair,
When she so clearly heard a prayer to Jesus,
Asking Him to help her understand
How His Father made the world.
Her reading stunned me. Hung on a single word,
In her world weightier than all the others,
Yet here, and of her, I judged it more than fair.
But to be so oddly challenged, found I groped
In vain for a fit response. Then judged it meet
To stand mute, seemingly without an answer,
Than give my most considered reply -- might seem
To some, an irrelevant evasion, to others
An irreverent answer patterned as a question
Begging hers: 'Is God part of the pattern,
Or beyond? And if beyond where is the bridge
Between -- by which an answer might arrive?'
So when time, with the gong, gave out, and the collective sigh
In classrooms everywhere means 'Saved by the bell'
Went up, to which in silence I added a part,
The signal bedlam would start, when the teen-age body
Surged at both the doors, without a thought
Abandoned the books wherever they lay, were pushed
Or dropped, and left for me to gather and slip
Back on those shelves, whose dust this hour disturbed,
I was left as Samson knowing his time had come.
The superintendent stood. He looked about
But never let his eyes come close to mine.
I waited, for the next move had to come
From the Man. Then without the slightest hint he played
The wild-card in the deck he held and broke
The expected pattern. Glancing at my boss,
He turned his back and headed toward the same
Door brought him to this ground -- where five-times daily
Civil war between the bells was fought.
He crossed the portal, swiftly as he'd come,
Then blending in the bedlam, vanished from sight.
By his speed I knew he'd never have the need,
Or nerve, to put me to the test again.
Stood strangely unelated, without the means
To learn what played upon -- or plagued -- the man
That he'd slipped the scene; nor whom to credit, the Muse
Or Mars, or their shotgun wedding I'd perforce performed;
As always eaten by the slower acting hemlock
Of a teacher's professional fate:
Beyond what tests might tell, never to know
How much of all that I'd projected pierced
The line and took; or which, of the two today,
The active or the passively involved
Was the more attentive pupil; and of the lessons
Neither knew they taught so well, would prove
The deeper, biting still
When the other's teeth had worn down to the gum
And musing so I suddenly recalled
An overseer of a different city's schools,
A man for decades famously produced
A world-class verbal music to the Muse
From his concert-master's seat, in a schoolroom once,
While nodding his approval at all he saw,
Inwardly grew no less wild than I,
Meditating a theme close kin to mine:
Though he knew the fullness of the moon in mind,
True height and depth of the rooted Navel Tree; --
Though he knew the Presences in their marble or bronze
Repose…had even glimpsed their brightening glance; --
As he was tightly meshed on the rag and bone
Side of the pattern, in the mire of human veins,
He knew he'd never find a way to tell
the dancer from the dance.
The Lesson of My Life was first published in two parts in Iambs and Trochees, vol. II, issues 1 and 2. Leonard Borenstein has also had poems, essays, and book reviews printed in Pivot, The Neovictorian/Cochlea, and Bellowing Ark. His wood carvings have been shown in New York and in San Francisco.