“Making a Difference” on a Day Made for Fools

Thanks to Rich, a student in my Public Literacy class, for sharing this 2013 Harvard graduation speech by Jon Murad, a police officer. “Making a Difference” has, for me, become a cliché, filled with increasingly impossible-to-meet expectations. I’ve come to cringe whenever I hear it. Having said that, I like what  Murad so eloquently points out: everyone makes a difference, not just a special few.

During the last few weeks I have not been spending much time on poetry. My manuscript received its latest rejection yesterday, leaving me more and more determined to publish it myself if there are no incoming offers within a month or so.  I “aspire” to have it in tangible form on June 6, the day of my recital, for giving away.  As Cynthia Ozick, in a recent NYT column called “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat,” indicates, “Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds.”  Crowds? Maybe not, but I still believe that there needs to be an audience, of sorts, to receive one’s creative endeavors, in order to complete the process.

One recent poem, based on an encounter I had in January (see January 5 entry) with a homeless woman, was also recently rejected. Nevertheless, as usual, since then I have been revising it and will publish the current version of it here, perhaps appropriately, on April Fools’ Day:

 

Sheherazade on the Streets

 

…expect truth only from [she] whose belly is full.

                                                Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World

–After five years my eldest sister returned to me in beggar’s gear with her clothes in rags and tatters and a dirty old mantilla; and truly she was in the foulest and sorriest plight. At first sight I did not know my own sister; but presently I recognised her and said “What state is this?”

                         “The Eldest Lady’s Tale”—The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night                                                    (tr.Richard Francis Burton)

 

Listen: stories can save your life.

 

She began with what she could tell

from my face and dress and hurry

I most wanted to hear:

Lady, I ain’t askin’ for nuthin.’

 

Neither old nor young, fat nor thin,

black nor white, she perched on

the edge of a stone planter by the Walgreens’

snow-banked lot.  Five pm,

and tears were streaming down her cheeks.

 

I ain’t askin’ for nuthin’,

she went on, but I just

can’t take the cold no more.

Cops can’t do nuthin’ for me

‘cause I am sober. Gave me

a breathylizer.

If I was drunk they would have took me in

out of the cold. I be lookin’

to trade the rest of my food stamps for

27 dollars to buy a bed

for the week, someone told me ‘bout.

I call the shelters on my Obama phone

every night but I’m 26th

on the list. They turnin’ away

every single woman in this cold.

 

She rocked back and forth, not looking

me in the eye. It was ten

degrees of meanness  out there with

a killing wind. I didn’t need food

stamps, but intrigued, I scurried back

to the Walgreens’ ATM,

which quickly spit out 40 bucks.

 

Where is this place? I asked.

I’ll show you, she said,

jumping right into my car.

 

My mother and me, we used to live in

my grandfather’s house. He was a preacher

and ‘cause of that his property tax was put

on hold. But when he died they finally come due

but my mother, she couldn’t pay.

After she died I was tossed out on the streets.

A neighbor took me in for awhile to mind

her kids but when her man came home from jail

he took one look and kicked me right out.

I been sleeping in doorways ever since:

one thousand and one hard nights.

 

This here the ghetto, she gestured like a guide

as we neared the old house with a sagging porch

she readily pointed out.  I stopped. We hugged.

 

I asked her name and she told me. I told her mine.

I watched her dart up the stairs, then drove away.

 

After just one night of listening

to the wicked portents of the wind,

I threw back my warm covers,

drove again to the ATM,

punched out five more twenty

dollar bills, and easily wound my way

back into the ghetto, this time

crossing a no-longer perceptible line.

 

She was huddled on a broken-down

dirty couch in that cold house 

watching a blaring TV. Wrapped up

in all her raggedy clothes, she said

my room’s upstairs, but

I’m worried‘bout what I’ll do

when this week is up.

 

Happily, I presented her with

the twenties and my cell phone number.

She smiled. We hugged again.

 

Back home, my people shook their heads and

told me I’d been scammed;

a reporter  I called said this woman

was well-known for her stories.

Change your phone number, she advised.

Give her no more money.

 

And so I did, and

I did not. But I’ll tell you

this:

 

Like all great storytellers  

who subsist on that bare

thread between harsh truth and

the sweet recompense of fiction,

she charmed me, made me

believe every single word, and changed me

in the telling. I still worry

about her these cold nights,

am anxious about what might happen next.

 

Wherever Sheherazade continues to spin

her tales, I hope her listeners will hoard

every nugget of their gullibility,

let their hurry, for a moment, fall

away, wrap themselves snugly  in what

she’s woven from whole cloth, perhaps

even pay a little something toward

the royalties that are, no doubt, her due.

 

Sheherazade costume in ballet by Daighilev

One thought on ““Making a Difference” on a Day Made for Fools

  1. Hi! Bill and I loved the poem in its re-vision He saw a connection between Her story and the poem's rejection. Made me think of the royalties homeless poems deserve. Think I may have to write a poem for rejected poems. I am glad we will get the gift of your petty book at your piano concert on June 6. Thank you for the on-going inspiration and revelation of your blog. Love Louisa and Bill

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s