Recent Work By Quincy Lehr

A sunny girl from Northern climes,
hair and skin both honey-bright
with wide blue eyes, and in the gray
of an early spring, exuding light,

she reeks of health. Her diary
is crammed with fitness, every date
a rushed itinerary, full
of things to keep her in that state—

aerobics and organic fruit
—rip the flesh and suck the pips!—
bike to work from a D4 home…
until one day, her bright gaze slips

and falls on him, Italianate—
subtle, with a hint of threat,
bling on his finger. And his voice
cloys with a charm that makes her wet.

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

—Genesis 3:22-23

I

Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.

I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.

Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell
? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.

Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.

II

Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed

mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.

III

Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.

Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,

suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?

Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,

a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.

IV

And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
1968.
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore

there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.

V

Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.

The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.

But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties

or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—

this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.

So, the controversial Quincy R. Lehr.

You think so?


You criticize a certain strain of formal poetry as “Joanie Loves Chachi” in a review; you refer to a “jerk-off in a business suit” in a clear allusion to a prominent poet in your poem “Thud!”; you wrote a piece for The Raintown Review last summer called “The New Formalism: A Postmortem.” Need I go on?

That shouldn’t be necessary. I’m glad I’m “controversial,” though.


Why? Aren’t you afraid of limiting your audience?

Not especially. It has always bugged me when poets cite “the poetry” as some abstracted entity that doesn’t just transcend politics, time and space more generally, etc., but rather exists in some crystalline sphere rotating in Classical fucking harmony around the earth, with Beatrice and Jesus and Eurydice and Bob Marley and whoever playing harps. Poetry, on the contrary, is made up of the stuff of our lives, even as it frequently varies significantly from our particular autobiographies. The notion that ideas are somehow unimportant to poetry, that it’s all “craft” or some horseshit like that is frankly appalling.


Okay, but that’s not quite what I was driving at…

[interrupting] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t attack other poets. Be modest and deferential. Thank you, sir, may I have another. Look, man, I’m on pretty good terms with most of the poets I know, but there are a lot of fellow practitioners of the craft whom I… despise. I find their verse insipid. I hate their values. I hate their subject matter. I hate the towns where they live. I hate their stupid clothes.

After perusing the Facebook photo albums of hundreds of poet “friends” (some of whom even are really friends of mine), going to conferences, going to bars, and the like, I am convinced that one of the major problems with the poetry scene in the U.S. is that there are too many preps. Yes, you heard that right. Preps. In a discussion of putative grown-ups. Sure, there are too many trend-chasing fashionista hipster types, too, but they’ve gotten sufficient chastisement over the decades. The knit-sweater, Brooks Brothers fatherfucker lot have gotten too much of a free pass, so I’m putting them on notice. You preps had better call up Chip and Sheppy and Biff Buffington III, because there’s going to be a throw-down. I’ll introduce you Cole Haan-wearing scumbags to my friend Pain, and you and Pain will stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes during a marathon session of marginally platonic spooning.

Seriously, us boho artistic types didn’t try out for the football team and cheerleading squad back in the day. We kept off your turf. Kindly keep off ours.


What do you bring to contemporary poetry that’s different?

I write often long, often allusive poems about the world as I see it. If that means the poems get gloomy, so be it. If that means they get political or what have you, so be it. My debut collection, Across the Grid of Streets, is a full-lengther with seventeen poems in it, after all, anchored by three particularly long ones—“The Joke,” “Continental Drift,” and “Time Zones.” It doesn’t look like a typical first collection, and it doesn’t feel like one.


Your poems make frequent references to cigarettes and alcohol. Do these or other substances play a significant role in your creative process?

Do you ever feel that those who say they don’t need drugs to be creative kind of do? I don’t say this to endorse illegal activity, exactly, but more to lament the chirpy cluelessness and delusional faux-quirky schoolmarmishness of such remarks. Drugs of any kind—and the legal ones are drugs, too—don’t make a person creative, but a creative person will naturally be curious about them in the same way that one might be curious about Siberia or Bulgaria or Edmond, Oklahoma. They’re places to go.

That said, I quit smoking just over a year ago, and I’ve never been a good writer under the influence of alcohol. The actual writing is done sober, always.


Are the long poems written spontaneously, or do you plan them out?

Both. I tend to come up with ideas for longer pieces, carry them around in my head, sometimes for years, and they accrete details and images and nuances. When they’re ready to be written, I tend to work very quickly. The five hundred-line cantos in “Time Zones,” for instance, were written in one or two spurts each.


How does writing a longer poem differ from a shorter poem?

The scale of a long poem means that one must move beyond the one central trope that so often defines the short lyric and think more in terms of leitmotifs and contrapuntal elements, operating generally at a far greater level of complexity that I find particularly rewarding. It isn’t so much a matter of disdaining the short poem or even the short lyric—there is a place, and a prominent one, for that creature—as the belief that poetry can, and should, go further and deeper as well. In my own practice and my reading tastes, it’s a both/and situation.


You’re wearing Chelsea boots, drainpipe trousers, a studded belt, and a paisley shirt. What’s up with that?

Poets are artists, supposedly. We should look like artists rather than minor academic fucking administrators. And a note to male poets of a certain age—not only does that beard make you look a trench coat away from being a flasher, it’s not even remotely covering up your double chin. Have you considered a veil?

Really, it’s embarrassing. Gatherings of poets too often look like some family reunion barbecue in Clear Lake, Iowa or some such nonsense. And look, I’m from suburban Middle America myself. However, I got out as soon as I could, because Jesus Christ, the artistic life is not meant to be spent standing in some backyard with a Heineken in hand and Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac on the stereo.


When is the next book coming out?

Obscure Classics of English Progressive Rock should be out quite soon—I don’t have a precise date yet. If you read and like Across the Grid of Streets—and you should do both—you’ll love Obscure Classics. It builds on the first book, being in many ways a natural development from it, with less anger, perhaps, and a bit more wistfulness. I’m self-evidently biased where the book’s concerned, but I think I’m right.


Any final thoughts?

In no particular order….

I really don’t like people when they’re in love.

Yeah, yeah, nature’s pretty. Poetry’s pretty. What I think about receiving a crap-ton of poems on said subjects in the Raintown slush is considerably less pretty.

“Dear Editor: Please consider these five sonnets, because it’s the only form I ever use, and if you reject them, you’re clearly a free-verse-loving heathen, and….” Fuck off.

And speaking of which, the next time I read an announcement for a “new sonnet anthology,” it may well spark a tri-state killing spree.

Oh, and the word “mentor” increasingly makes me want to rip off the heads of small animals and drink blood from the stumps. Oh, it’s not a problem of influence, which is inevitable, more the obsequious name-dropping and stunted intellectual and artistic growth that the term too often implies, when the matter of interest is rather the individual’s idiosyncratic attempts to grapple with the language and its traditions and to make something from that.

And what’s with the “two-poem warning” at readings? It is almost as if one is admitting, “I know I’ve bored you assless for the past twenty minutes, but the nightmare will soon be over.” It’s symptomatic of so much.

And the idle chit-chat between poems at readings? Just do the thing and keep the intermedial stuff to a minimum, or at least make it more interesting than explaining what the poem turns out to be self-evidently about—only far more succinctly. I mean, for Christ’s sake, do Keith Richards and Mick Jagger stand stock-still behind podiums while Mick says, “Many, many years ago, when we were living in cold-water flats in London, Keith remarked to me that he and Brian Jones felt a certain level of dissatisfaction about the direction of their lives at the time. I concurred, naturally….” No. They just play the fucking song.

Do you feel better now? Has this been cathartic for you? Whatever. It has for me.