David LehmanUSAWriting2006
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On a winter day, the summer to come seems like a season for big projects. Write a short book on popular lyrics; learn Italian; read The Inferno in the original. In June, as my stay at Civitella approached, I made a more modest goal for myself. Write a long poem in twelve-parts blending the elements of espionage fiction, memory and historical anecdote, and abstract discussion centering on issues of political philosophy. I did complete the poem at Civitella, though I’ve not yet settled on a title. I also set out to create forty-five mixed-media collages on postcard-sized 140 lb. watercolor paper. I so much enjoyed making these that I made an additional ten in different sizes. Among the poems I wrote were three or four deliberate mistranslations of the twentieth-century Italian poets Gianni D’Elia and Amelia Rosselli. (To undertake the translation of a poem without knowing the language, taking such liberties as substituting homophones for synonyms, can be a fruitful method of composition.) On July 4th, to celebrate America’s Independence Day, I read selections from the newly published Oxford Book of American Poetry. I also read Last Class a poem reflecting on the lives of poets.

Thunder in Umbria

How odd. Blue skies, white clouds, hardly any gray,
the sun a flaming disc, and warm,
and yet big drops of rain are coming down.
cooling my head for the sun to dry it out,
and now two hours have gone by, it’s still sunny
and yet there’s thunder in bursts and rumbles
as evening’s breeze blows the clothes
I hung out to dry on the line: burgundy t-shirt,
navy t-shirt, boxer shorts, khaki trousers, socks.
Real things. Well, more or less. There it is again,
that ominous rumble like the sound
of the elevated train in your bedroom if you lived
on 125th Street and Broadway, where I am not.
I am in a hammock in Umbria, and I’ve decided
that every day I spend some time in the hammock
is a victory for the human race. Behind my clothes
there are grasses, green and yellow, fields
of wheat and corn, a diagonal line of cypresses
climbing the hill. It is, for the first and last time,
six thirty on the twenty-sixth of July, 2006.
I wonder whether it will rain.

Last Class

Thus what we've learned is that
our greatest poets were death-obsessed loners
who seldom enjoyed the pleasures of lovers
despite living in a constant state


of sexual excitation. They started as revolutionaries
and atheists, or they went to Harvard
and voted Republican and mowed the yard.
The night sky was starry and told them stories.


Many didn't drive. They walked to work,
writing poems in their heads, or stayed
in their rooms, stayed out of trouble, prayed
to a god no longer believed in. They felt like jerks


in company, not knowing how to behave.
They masturbated a lot, grew expert
in solitude, pain, the power of a primal hurt
and a witty epitaph on a well-kept grave.