Sunday, September 16, 2012

Poems from Wild Once and Captured

It's pretty obvious that aging work-averse me didn't follow up quite as intended. I have not yet posted a revised version of any of the poems that are in my book, Wild Once, and Captured, that have appeared on this blog. Nor have I made audio recordings. Not doing so to this point hasn't been one of my wiser moves, but here's the longish introduction and the first three poems--short ones--as they appear in the book:

If I am a poet…

it is due, in large part and in equal measure, to the intersection of my life as a high school kid with three people, Mr. Rast, Geoffrey Chaucer and Jill Littlewood. The three are almost iconic to me, though I could very easily be misremembering them and the classes in which they each played a role.

Mr. Rast taught 11th (or 12th) grade English at Hyde Park High School. Tall, thin, dour, like Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, Rast was often far too low-key to capture my attention.

We read Great Expectations in his class. He tried hard to get us to like the book. Alas, we were none of us Pip, or refused to identify, and the experience put me (and, maybe, everyone else) off Dickens pretty much forever.

Other equally deadly encounters with Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter come to mind. I can’t say for sure whether they were also readings assigned by Mr. Rast, rather than some other entirely forgotten teacher, but the point is that my memories of Rast suffer more than a little from being part of a Great Expectations-Way of All Flesh-Scarlet Letter scrum.

He also had us read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Arguably Chaucer is no more or less deadly than Hawthorne or Dickens, but, in the course of guiding us through the poem, Mr. Rast came stunningly alive himself.

Our principle task, I think, was the requirement that we memorize the Prologue to the Tales. Doing so, Rast told us, would help us relieve future tediums, like those nights when we were on guard duty (a likelihood that seemed remote to begin with and grew more so the deeper the country plunged into the Vietnam era).

In any case, the assignment was universally despised. But, relentless as always, Rast made earnest effort to inspire us. And when he recited line after line from the Prologue— long and loopy Middle English vowels, guttural consonants spilling from his lips—I was stunned.

Adults, in my experience, were devoid of obvious enthusiasms and added little of value to the lives of children, no matter their age. Yet, here was Rast, come alive before me. I was charmed and, in an obscure and mysterious way, wished to be like him (only not as old).

The experience did not make me a better student. Nothing could have done that. But I learned about 20 lines of the prologue and know some combination of them still.

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…”

When I recite the lines, I strive to mimic the sounds Rast gave to the words, but somehow the cadence of my own voice and idiosyncratic pronunciations makes the verse feel like my own. And as the sounds of the lines drift away, I wonder that one of Chaucer’s great achievements was to so inspire Mr. Rast. And one of Rast’s great achievements lies in how he first captured me, and, in my later years, worked a continuing and seductive magic on me.

It is only a small leap in memory from Rast and Chaucer to Jill Littlewood. Blond and appealing, Littlewood was in most of my classes through four years of high school. We didn’t date. I thought Jill was into smart, mature (at least physically) black guys. I on the other hand, was a disinterested student and a skinny, barely adolescent, white guy. What I learned from her affected me because it was unique, not because we were involved or because I pined for her in full sophomoric blush.

Rast also had us write poetry of our own, and collected a poem from each of us to assemble into a class anthology. [1] My inspired contribution to the class project was a lament about the Chicago White Sox and their seemingly perennial also-ran status.

Some of the poems in the collection were accompanied by illustrations produced by the poets. My poem ran with my drawing of stick figure ballplayers strategically positioned around a ball diamond, each of whom had one big baseball-gloved hand and an exploding head.

The poem, “The White Sox go poof,” was unfortunately less memorable than the artwork.

Jill’s poem, on the other hand, included a line, a phrase, really, that has long since solidified in my memory. The poem, perhaps illustrated, I cannot say, described a vision of Jill’s Hyde Park neighborhood after a rain shower. Five of her words:

“mud luscious and puddle wonderful”

echo and splash in eternal recall. These words have lots of u’s and l’s and require an active tongue and are shiny wet and sexy. To my sixteen or seventeenish self they hinted at experiences, at words as vehicles to ride, at things to see with innocent eyes, at delights laid or laying before us.

Years later, I have my own versions of Jill’s words (and other intentions, perhaps) but there are places full of

…mudbath magic and
where the sun strikes home
the smell of eternity.”

For stimulating my first creative interests beyond the childhood games I would still play if I could, I thank Littlewood, Rast and Chaucer. They have been small, glowing suns. By their light, I have seen a few things.


Now, in my 65th year, being a poet has become a rock for me, a core piece of how I think about myself. To celebrate the fits and starts and passions of that life, I present this book of poems and an essay, or two. And this Introduction, with which I intend only to clarify a few points.

Two poems, specifically Elijah Hanavi and Jezebel, are intended to be understood together. The first is about a stiff-necked theist and his denunciation of the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the gentile wife of Ahab, king of Israel.

The second, a longer look at Elijah and Jezebel, includes a relationship between them as young adults. That encounter is not described or suggested anywhere in the bible. It is, instead, the story according to Jeff. But the bible is the collective effort of dozens, if not hundreds of anonymous storytellers, polemicists, ideologues and redactors—those last, the leaders in the long effort at selecting, editing and sequencing the stories that would become the Bible. Of course, I am making stuff up here, but I am certainly not the first guilty party to do so.

The Judean author(s) of Kings told the story of Jezebel, Elijah and Ahab about 200 years after the alleged events would have occurred in the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel, the terminally unfortunate victim of invasion, subjugation and exile by Assyrian conquerors. The story portrays the northern kingdom under Ahab as an offender against Jewish belief. For those offenses Israel earned the wrath of the one god, who stood aside and left the country to its fate at the hands of Assyria. It is a story told by the victors, or, in this case, a story told by the scribes of Judea, survivors of the catastrophe that primarily fell on the less orthodox Jews and Judaism of the cosmopolitan state of Israel.

The evolution of the stories that would later be compiled in the bible, and the choices of which stories to include and which ones to exclude, served the interests of the compilers and their patrons. Repetition, institutionalization and the exegesis of religious leaders over time make those stories history, however far they might have wandered from the facts.

My version of events, recounted at some length in Jezebel, tells the story of a zealous prophet forecasting the political defeat and death of a woman with whom he once had a very different relationship. There are no widely acknowledged archaeological or historical facts that support the biblical version, or many of the other events detailed in the Torah. Most of the available evidence suggests that Jews, themselves, and the distinctly Jewish kingdom of Judah appeared on the scene during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, too late to support the veracity of biblical narratives that includes an account of the exodus from Egypt, forty years of desert wandering, or the arrival at and conquest of a promised land.

My biblical story imagines a prior relationship between the young Elijah and the young Jezebel; a relationship of sufficient intensity to account for an unhinged prophet calling down the lord’s vengeance on his ex-lover (whom he may not even remember). I do not claim that my version is more factual than any other . Its chief merit lies in its challenge to the authenticity of bible stories and the political, cultural and social uses to which they are routinely put.

Of course, I want the two poems to be judged on their merit as poems, but I also hope that they will raise questions in the minds of a few readers and cause them to reevaluate where justice might lie in the conflict between Zionism, the ideology of the world’s last colonialist expansion, and the nationalism of the Palestinians who were there in Haifa and Jaffa and Jerusalem first or, at any rate, for a very, very longtime. In my version of this conflict, the Palestinians are the Indians of the New World, the Jewish settlers are the Puritans, longing for New Jerusalem.

My Jezebel is clear when she asks the absent Eli,

“Will the story of Jezebel and Ahab be told
according to Elijah?

And what will be the fruit that grows
from such stories?”


This book is my message to whoever will listen, especially to my children.

I want them to know how much I love them and what I have been thinking about them and thinking about other things. I want to say hold fast to some portion of your dreams, adjust and maneuver however you must, and construct something that marks your place in time. I want them and others to take the message of Occupy to heart; it is what comes next for all of us that matters most. We will be dust soon enough, but before that happens we are part of an endlessly long and unbroken chain of human struggle. That, of course, accounts for why there is so much sadness in each life, but it also is why we look at each other sometimes and exult in our terrible beauty.

There is also, my dad, Bernie Epton, who stands very near to the heart of this publishing thing. I learned to be both ambitious and delusional from Dad, who seemed to me a towering figure throughout his life. He wanted to make a grand contribution to the world and to be recognized for it. That he did not quite pull that off is a story I would like to write another time.

Most of my poems, I suppose, have some biographical element, sometimes in very small doses. A few lines from The Unfolding are most certainly about Dad and I:

“As from a mountaintop,
he looked upon me,
called me to account,
but I stepped beyond the shouting
with a fresh scheme for thieving
and a dream of myself retrieving
the fantastic honors we imagined for ourselves.”

Thanks, Dad, for the delusions.


Knowing and loving Marrianne McMullen, Brendan’s mom and the person (and editor) to whom I am married, has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I work a little harder around her, and a little bit better, as well. Our conversations about her work and mine help both of us to sharper focus. There is also the healing laughter and the tender moment. And, finally, there is Infatuation, a state we still visit from time to time.

There are plenty of others to thank, long-time friends and ex-friends, a slew of folks with whom I used to work and struggle, and all the people who walk their dogs on the streets of Washington, D.C. and elsewhere; a fraternity to which Jetta and I are happy to belong. Dog walking is an occasion for gregarious, mammalian interaction. It is also an opportunity for rest, for rhythm and for reflection. I always have pencils and paper in my pocket when Jetta and I leave the house.

My siblings deserve separate thanks, also. Sister Dale understands my poetry, I think, and is a big fan, regardless. Sister Teri is a tougher audience, but she tries because she loves me, and for that I am grateful.

Brother Mark, who sometimes pretends not to understand anything I’ve written, is the kind of guy who frequently comes late to the fight, but who also and always shows up. Most of the last minute corrections to this manuscript came because Mark chimed in at that moment. His suggestions made me think hard, especially that I might want to harm him. But most of the changes that he inspired went in and made the manuscript better. Of course, because his input came so late in the game, he probably ought to share some of the blame for any errors that were introduced at the last.

Elissa Miller, who has been my good friend since 1970, and Andrea Vincent and Leigh Dingerson made crucial contributions to this book. They read most of the poems in manuscript and made suggestions. They challenged me about the meanings of words and poems, and helped me to see ideas and themes that I had somehow missed. Their productive responses helped me move unfinished poems along and make this book happen. They bear no responsibility for its flaws, which, of course, are all mine.

Ella Epton, my sister-in-law, is a talented designer and artist. Without her, there would be no book. Stacee Kalmanovsky, my niece, sat through two or three recitations of some of the poems before she produced the art that soars and splashes across these pages. Thanks to Ella and Stacee for making this a family affair and a shared accomplishment.

Finally, all poets, good or bad, stand on the shoulders of other (and better) poets. It seems foolhardy to try and name all the ones who have made a difference to me, but I’ve gone on a fool’s errand before. Thanks, then, to the poets whose poetry has helped to push and tumble me through life.

There is W.S. Merwin, who has explored the inside of pencils, there is Mary Oliver and Mary Karr, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich and June Jordan, Gregory Corso, Rita Dove, Sherman Alexie, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, Marge Piercy, Edward Robinson, Paul Dunbar, Patti Smith, Derrick Brown, William Thigpen, Espada, Neruda, and the galaxies around.

Jeff Epton
Washington, DC
March 2012

PS. Everybody should try this self-publishing thing. It beats waiting on the world to notice you.

[1] Perhaps one day I’ll speak to Jill or someone else who was in those classes and they will remember a different teacher and other assignments. If so, I can only repeat that my indifference to high school and its various features ran deep.

Laying Fallow

words one does
not write are plowed back
into the brain in restrained hope that
there may be a more bountiful harvest next time


We are,
each of us,
reimagining our own story.

This is how
we pull ourselves forward
into whatever is coming next.

I Am Your Journeyman

I am no poet of the
   interior voyage.
But I am a journeyman,
   giving good effort
for wages or food.

I know the paths
    through caves and forests.
I know the edible fruit
    along the way.
I’ll show you the shallow fords
   across the river of tears.

Follow me
    picking the way through the woods
on black days. Heed this moonlight
    exalting the heart even through
this night of fear.

Caution now,
    there may be need for stealth.
Keep pace.
Keep close.
Keep faith.
Savor this good bread,
    considering without regret
the choices you have made.

We’ll arrive safely soon enough,
    resting on Thursday,
moving on, refreshed, on Friday.
    Along the way,
we’ll learn more trust,
   celebrating dews and frosts and thunder.

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