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
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
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.