A Heaven of Poets: Edward Hirsch, Sharon Olds, and Patrick Phillips at the Bryant Park Word For Word Poetry Reading Series

by Philip F. Clark

As a native New Yorker and daily commuter on the No. 1 line every day, I had noticed a beautiful small poem called “Heaven” posted as part of the Poetry In Motion series. It is a disarmingly simple, yet mesmerizing work by the poet Patrick Phillips. In full, it reads:

It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.

It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.
And it will last forever.

I had never met Patrick Phillips before, but had heard his name mentioned enthusiastically in more than a few conversations with poet friends. When I was asked by Paul Romero to blog for The Bryant Park Reading Room’s “Word By Word” poetry reading series on last month, I was thrilled to finally be able to hear and meet Patrick and two other acclaimed poets whose works I have read and loved for a long time: Sharon Olds, and Edward Hirsch — a veritable heaven of poets. And as it turned out heaven was a perfect idea and symbol for the evening’s extraordinary readings by all three: the works read that evening, though often about loss and absence – a father, a son, a mother; a husband, and poet colleagues recently lost – the readings were proof that the elemental inspiration for poets is life and living it to the full in the face of loss. Which is what poetry provides us: that bridge on which to cross adversity and meaninglessness over to a sure ground of hope and renewal. All three poets led us once again over that bridge with their words.

There is nothing that compares to the camaraderie of poets when they gather – or the poetry lovers and readers who gather with them. A particular good humor, avuncular and generous, seems to pervade poetry gatherings everywhere – large or small – and on this evening it was palpable. Held at the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which co-partnered the event with Knopf Books (which publishes all three), a crowd had gathered enthusiastically to hear them. All three of the poets happily greeted each other, jocular and warm. One couldn’t help but be glad to be next to their vibrations. For me, having these three poets in the room together was especially exciting, as I’d been reading their work in the past week and was still filled with so much of their voices.

Paul Romero welcomed the audience to the evening. As the director of the Word for Word Poetry events at the Bryant Park Poetry Reading Series, Paul has garnered a faithful and large following. In the spring and summer, there is nothing more wonderful than sitting under those tall billowing trees in Bryant Park and listening to poets read with each other to us. It is one of the truly magnetic ways to spend a couple of hours after work, and if you haven’t participated, check out the link below for more information on the program.

Edward Hirsch, the first reader of the evening, is one of our great poetic voices. Generous in encouragement to poets and students, and welcoming to friends and colleagues, he is an example of the poet as mentor and teacher. His awards are many, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Prix de Rome, among many others. I came to his work through his book, Special Orders, in which the poem “Branch Library” so appealed to me as a librarian at the time of my finding it. The poem seemed so open and vibrant with memory and life – two subjects that Hirsch is extraordinary. But I was that boy – I felt that someone knew me, in that poem:

I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library //

I’d give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusty blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

Thanking his colleagues and welcoming them and the audience to the evening, Hirsh read a series of poems from The Living Fire: New and Selected Works, as well as some new pieces, and from Gabriel, his newest work which is an elegy poem for his son, whose death at a young age indelibly led Hirsch to examine his grief, and in the end, to celebrate and actualize his son’s life. And he does so, in that book, with such intimacy and candor, that one indeed is led to think of the line from Donne, “Death be not proud.” Many of Hirsch’s poems confront faith and disbelief, and the evening’s reading included poems in which these things are explored inimitably. But Hirsch is the poet of the observed life – as the best poets are – and his ability to reconcile the difference between what we desire and what we have. In “Self-Portrait, he brings himself up against the dualities of a life’s choices, and the vagaries of marriage and divorce:

I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can’t get along.

I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.

I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system.

In “A Partial History of My Stupidity”, he confronts the way we live in a world in seeming comfort, while somewhere else in the world, horrors abound. How does one connect the daily falsehood of safety to the daily reality of war:

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world

thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen. / /

Forgive me faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

I had recently read the article “Finding The Words,” a review and essay on Gabriel, in the New Yorker, and having re-read sections of Gabriel before the evening, I was still unprepared for the visceral hit in the gut that this poem gives me. It is at once something so transparent and yet completely filled with stark and clear vision. As Hirsch read it, I again understood why this poet has held us in thrall in so many ways, but particularly with this human and loving lament:

The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up

I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel

It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated

And in a call to life through grief, the poem continues:

Poor Sisyphus grief
I am not ready for your heaviness
Cemented to my body

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders

That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day

Sharon Olds, the second reader, was first brought to my attention in what still remains a seminal work of hers as I tried to find a way to poetry: The Dead and the Living is a book that encounters every aspect of family, love, heartbreak, and mortality. Its compact yet dense poems tackle its subjects with unswerving attention and absolute acceptance. Olds is also one of the poets who has made a commitment to writing poems about the politics of war and race and the aftermaths of those subjects. She has never shied away from the difficult idea, or the most desperate sadness. Her poem “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” still raises the hair on my neck with its clinical yet blatantly beautiful depiction of the iconic star’s mortuary ceremony and the men who were changed by it forever. Her volume, Stag’s Leap, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. It is a raw and ironic look at the dissolution of a marriage, and yet always as the mark of her work, there is the urge to go on from the past to grow, towards life.

Also welcoming with a vivacity her colleague poets, Olds set a palpable joy starting to clock in the room. The evening found her in no less than what I find to be her usual state: warmth and embrace. She has a wonderful sense of the serendipitous and the evening’s first moment of wit and humor was due to her stopping mid-speech at one point as she looked and noticed a man going slowly up the escalator to the second floor in the bookstore, “Oh, look, yes, there he goes, up to Heaven,” to the smiles and laughter of all of us as we turned to look and see him ascending.

Among her readings was one of my favorite of her poems, “Wonder As Wander”, in her mother is remembered. It has always had the quality of a psalm to me, with its touches of faith and the unseen as a woman wanders the rooms of her heart and mind; it begins:

As dusk, on those evenings she does not go out,
my mother potters around her house.
Her daily helpers are gone, there is no one
there, no one to tell what to do,
she wanders, sometimes talks to herself,
fondly scolding, sometimes she suddenly
throws out her arms and screams—high notes
like bodies touched by a downward wire,
she journeys, she quests, she marco-polos through
the gilded gleamy loot-rooms, who is she.

That poem alone I could take with me to the ubiquitous desert island if asked to pare my life down to one. Bringing us back to grimmer realities, her reading of “What Are Stress Marks and How Are They Used”, put a face on young black lives lost to violence—a most recent violence that we in the room knew too well.  And perhaps with a nod to another idea of heaven and its camaraderies, Olds paid tribute to two great poets who had recently left us: Galway Kinnell, and Philip Levine. For Galway, who she remembered so wonderfully in her telling, she read “An Allergy – An Ode for Galway”, in which the strength of a great friendship was evident. Reading from Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” she again riveted the room: It’s powerful ending:

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

Tribute to brother poets indeed, and poetry’s great line of continuity.

And as the evening welcomed the last reader, Patrick Phillips, I and I think all of us in the room were struck by his ebullience and his lanky, handsome good nature. The youngest of the poets, and one who has written two acclaimed previous collections, Phillips is the voice that continues so much of what Hirsch and Olds present in the best of their work: an eye for the human and fragile, and the ability to verbalize and transfigure acts of our simple endeavors, our grief, our loves; the particular way we have of coming to these things as a reconnaissance of sorts, to be examined, reflected upon and paid forward. His newest collection, Elegy For A Broken Machine, is a stunning work that centers on his father’s illness and death. The opposite but compliment to Hirsch’s Gabriel, its poems fittingly brought full circle the phrase, “The son is father to the man.” These poems articulate the corporal body as well as the corporeal soul:

“Elegy Outside the ICU”:

They came into
the cold white room
and shaved his chest

then made a little
purple line of dashes
down his sternum,

which the surgeon,
when she came in,
cut along, as students

took turns cranking
a tiny metal jig
that splits the ribs / /. . .

so that by almost every definition,
my father died
there on the table

and came back in the body
of his father,
or his mother at the end, / /. . .

With an acumen for hope, Phillips’ poems in this volume allow ghosts to sit at the table and in the bedroom with the present. And it is the machine, which we all are, that he celebrates; if broken, it is never absent of love. To listen to this man recite was to have heard all three voices in concert—and that was a thrilling and wonderful component of the readings: the connection that poets share, and the fact that each feed one another through a long line. For me indeed, a heaven of poets. If you do not know the Bryant Park Poetry Word For Word Reading Series, do look at their schedule for upcoming events, at the link below.

My sincere thanks to Paul Romero, and each of the poets, and Knopf publishers for an extraordinary evening of readings.

For further information:

Bryant Park Poetry Word For Word Reading Series:

“Finding The Words”, Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel reviewed in The New Yorker: