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.

                                                             We spoke

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.