As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page features poems previously published in The Sun.
When I worked as a manuscript reader for The Sun, I didn’t always agree with founder and editor Sy Safransky about poetry. During editorial meetings in Sy’s cozy, sunlit office, our debates often had to do with poems.
“It’s heartbreakingly beautiful!” I’d argue, making prayer hands for emphasis.
“It’s just not speaking to me,” Sy would reply, breaking my heart a little.
But there were two poets whose work always appealed to both of us: the Bay Area poet and essayist Alison Luterman and New York City’s kindest oddball, Sparrow.
When I first applied for a job at The Sun in 1994, Sy gave me three copies of the magazine to digest and respond to. The first piece that hit me was Alison’s piercing “The Night Crawlers” [July 1993], a love song to the dug-up worms who serve as bait in our childhood fishing jaunts, and who will ultimately consume us. These lowly creatures who “must be pulled like a long / tube of snotty life” are cast in a heroic light that asks us to recognize our own vulnerable, snotty place on the karmic wheel.
With the incisive observations in both her poems and her essays, she’s been not just a writer whose work I enjoy but also a teacher to me: in the way she shows awareness of her responsibility, as a white woman in this culture, to use her privilege wisely; in the way she combines beauty and truth in small details; in the way she refuses to let her poems be merely beautiful, managing to find the “danger and sweetness inside everything.”
The animating force behind Alison’s work is expressed in the line that begins one of her best poems, “Because Even the Word Obstacle Is an Obstacle” [January 2010]: “Try to love everything that gets in your way.”
Many readers have wondered over the years whether Sparrow is an alter ego Sy invented, but we couldn’t have come up with him if we’d tried. The wonder of his poetic voice depends upon the collision of the metaphysical and the absurd.
Born in New York City as Michael Gorelick, Sparrow changed his name in 1975 after realizing that the “bad poetry of ‘Michael Gorelick’ prevents its bearer from writing good poems.” (His new name was given to him by his friend Jennifer the Princess of Love, who he says looked like “a Tarot card come to life.”) As Sparrow, he throws light into corners we didn’t even know were in shadow and gives us hope when we least expect it.
Starting in the early 1990s, Sparrow made a habit of running for president. In his May 1997 Sun essay “Why Didn’t You Vote for Me?” he recites a poem-as-campaign-speech to an audience at the New York City nightclub CBGB, challenging Republican candidate Bob Dole’s promise to make this country great again: “This country / has tried being great, and it / has failed. I want to make this country small, / embarrassed, slightly befuddled.”
Sparrow’s enduring political passion is one reason I love him, but there’s also the way he combines the transcendent and the ridiculous in lines like “I refuse to spend Kennedy half dollars — not because I respect him but because I respect the way I once respected him.” The paradox of Sparrow is how, amid the offbeat humor, he occasionally drops observations of great sobriety and import, such as this one from “Small Protest” [April 2019]: “Angels do their work silently; devils make headlines.”
It’s my honor to introduce both poets, whose rewarding, divergent work has been crucial in shaping the voice and image of The Sun for decades.
Love is the first word we don’t say to everyone.
This poem replaces all my previous poems.
On The F Train
Rising out of Brooklyn the Statue of Liberty, raising her hand like she has the right answer.
Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry In Solitary Confinement
Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry In Solitary Confinement
— newspaper headline
1. I laughed when I told my friend: Saddam is writing poems! No matter how down and out you are, there’s always poetry! I snorted. When the last rotten plank in the basement of your mind has fallen through, pray that a thin lifeline of words may sustain you. I feel ashamed now, thinking about it, and fascinated. Is Saddam writing in rhyme or blank verse? Does he prefer narrative epics? And is he any good? 2. I heard the mass graves, when dug up, were overrun with relatives, searching among ten-year-old decayed corpses for an arm, a leg, a thumb — something that had once been wife or brother or son. I hear there are not enough guards to keep the families out, the battalions of grief with their numberless riders. 3. Maybe Saddam really loves poetry. Hitler loved music. Nero probably loved something as well — elephants, or dancing girls, or boys. 4. He lived in a cave for months. That gives a man time to get to know some ghosts. Death must have smelled familiar to him; he must have recognized and then ignored its stench on his hair, his clothes. 5. Large-scale killing numbs the mind. Everything’s a question of scale. For instance, I’ve heard that great blue whales can weigh two hundred tons. Two hundred tons! Hardly imaginable. Our brains aren’t built to think on that scale, any more than one gnat in a cloud of gnats buzzing around a redwood can comprehend the full dimensions of the giant tree. 6. Forget Saddam. Imagine for one moment all the work-roughened hands that have picked your food and sewn your clothes and kept you alive since day one. When we die, will there be a reckoning of what and whom we’ve used to pay for our lives, and how, and will lack of imagination be allowed as an excuse? 7. On the one hand, poetry is entirely useless when weighed against the fact of dying oceans, or hungry children. On the other hand, who actually travels to the bottom of the ocean with a scale to weigh the great blue whale if not some fool of a poet? 8. I know, I know, it’s all extrapolated from a jawbone. And so are all the great stories, all the best poems. 9. Most poetry is bullshit, of course. But if a slender line of truth could reach to the bottom of the ocean, and snag a great blue whale in its delicate noose, and haul her up so we could feel, just for a second, her smooth enormity — could we understand it then? And would it change us?
The baby my wife had yesterday, Sylvia Mae, is suckling at her breast, as it rains, on a Friday. Sylvia is already work — she must pee on all of our feather pillows and challenge us to remember, if we ever knew, how to clean a feather pillow. And she shits deep-black shits she has saved since the Persian Gulf War, inside Violet’s womb. Oh, Sylvia, I am still running for president, don’t fear; I will fashion a world for you where dogs wander humorously into rooms, and are invited into every conversation, where the opera is finally conducted honestly — no diva upstages another — and newspapers have short stories, as they did in 1961, stories which help one understand the life of Palestinians and the beauty of Islam. Sylvia, together we will make a world where silence is loved, where doormen need not cringe, where something greater than a rainbow comes, something so large it will not fit into all our mouths at once.
All the poems reprinted here first appeared in The Sun. Titles in brackets indicate the poem was part of a longer work.
“Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry in Solitary Confinement,” by Alison Luterman, December 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Alison Luterman. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Love” [“Eight Love Poems”], June 2007. “Poem” [“All My Previous Poems”], November 2000. “On the F Train,” February 1994. “Poem” [“My Campaign Diary”], September 1992. All poems by Sparrow. Copyright © 2007, 2000, 1994, and 1992 respectively by Sparrow. All reprinted by permission of the author.