Once Home, We Raised a Toast to Him and Drank

by HRM on September 1, 2013

Poem read aloud by Gerald Fleming

Metro sign by Pank Seelen

I first met Gerald Fleming at a reading in Paris and was struck by his poems immediately. Sometimes I find it hard to describe what I like about poetry because, with the poetry I like best, it just works. It makes me feel like I’m more connected to the world, like I see things clearly. When I went to the Giacometti retrospective at the Pompidou a few years ago, the friend I went with said, afterwards, “I’m seeing everyone as a Giacometti!” and I think the same is true for good poets. You start to see people, and the world, as they write them. Gerald’s poems are intimate, sometimes conversational but always elevated, bevelled with beauty, and seem to vibrate with feeling (every feeling!) while also managing to be hilarious. He had the whole crowd laughing when he read “The Choreographer,” but by the end of the poem, I, for one, had tears in my eyes.

His most recent books are The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press), Night of Pure Breathing, prose poems (Hanging Loose Press), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore, poetry (Sixteen Rivers Press). He also taught in San Francisco’s public schools for thirty-seven years and seems to have the infinite compassion and genuine interest that I associate with the best teachers I’ve had. Perhaps the best poets I’ve ever met have these qualities, too.

The poem we published in HRM 13 is one of his new ones. Gerald challenged himself to create a series of poems with one major, Oulipian constraint: to use only single-syllable words. “Once Home, We Raised a Toast to Him & Drank” sounds just amazing when read out loud, and Gerald has graciously agreed to record himself reading it, just for us.

Once Home, We Raised a Toast to Him & Drank
by Gerald Fleming

There we were, the smash of us in wait for a train in those tubes-through-the-earth the French dug so long in the past, and at the edge of the quai they’d put in new glass doors to keep us safe in our wait to go home, but when the train came we saw that it, too, was jammed—fish in a can—& you could just smell the hot breath & stale clothes, all of us mushed there— Half of these folks sure to get off, but none did, & there was a surge, & that stuff scares me, so I stepped to the side & the guy at my left tried to get on, but the horn-to-warn blared & the train door closed & the keep-us-safe shield snapped shut & there he was, caught half–way, the train soon to take off & those of us at the glass yanked back the doors, snatched him free.

Breaths let out, the man nods, says thanks, but this was not his day. Next train comes, more packed—no one gets off, crush of crowd, the guy braves it, steps in but not quite all the way, train doors slams & he’s in but somehow his coat’s caught & we on the quai see more, more of that coat pulled out by the doors as they shut tight—but can’t see him, who must be pegged there at the doorjamb, scarecrowed—can’t move his arms, the look on his face a madman’s look, the fear.

Now the train pulls out & inch by inch we see the coat drawn in—much talk in that train for sure as those at his sides tug at the coat, but on the quai we hear none of it, just wheels on rails, and we laugh, a crowd-laugh, a fine thing to hear, just as those in the car must have laughed, too, when it was done, when all of him was in, red-faced, but in.

The rest of us still there, keen to head home, tell what we saw that day. But not once would that tale—though it might have held the words poor fool— not once mock him, for we know we are he, & it was just dumb luck that kept us that day from caught then caught twice in the vise of what keeps us safe.

We are good. I’ve come this far, war to more war, but claim it still: we are good. No one in that tin can of a train car knew that man, yet inch by inch they drew him in, freed his arms & no doubt slapped him on the back one-two-three to say You’re O.K., the wheels the gears the pressed jets of air will come for you, pin you, try to suck you through, but we’re here; we’re here for you.

Image credit: Metro sign by Pank Seelen at Flickr

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