Saturday, August 28, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 7 (James Weldon Johnson)


Complete Poems
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnson, James Weldon
Complete Poems


Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store. One of the things I miss about that place, as I have said before, is the breadth of their Penguin Classics section, which was organized by spine color and took up a whole aisle in the store. Everything was so cheap you could buy books just because at some point you might have made a mental note to yourself to read something, as I had with the poems of James Weldon Johnson. And then there they were, four dollars, all mine.

1995: At the end of 1994 all the volunteers moved from the apartment (actually, there were two -- one a floor below the other, but the one I lived in contained the shared space of the eating and living areas), into a newly built volunteer center, which fronted the campus of CMT #2, the newer of the two centers. A beauty salon that employed graduates of the center's beauty school and a furniture store that sold wood furniture built by craftsmen also trained by the center occupied the ground floor of this large modern looking building.

You entered the volunteer center on the side of the building that faced away from the street. The front door opened into a large, white foyer with 20 foot white walls and a white tiled floor. To the left, as I recall, was a grand staircase that led upstairs to, I think, some of the bedrooms -- my memory is a little vague on the layout. I mostly remember the staircase, which was made of wood. There were probably twenty bedrooms, each equipped with a small desk, a twin bed and full bath. We had much more privacy in the new residence, but were also more easily able to isolate ourselves, as I often did.

The main floor contained the kitchen, pantry, dining area, living room, library, TV room and several volunteer bedrooms down a long corridor that ran off the dining area. All the walls were bright white, all the floors covered in the same white tile as the foyer. The library, a round room open on one side, was the most memorable space in the building. It had built-in bookcases filled with books left behind by former volunteers. I remember there were lots of romance novels and old travel guides.

A typical night involved getting home from work around 8:00, then sitting down for a communal buffet dinner. I was still a pretty picky eater and I mostly just ate rice and beans, as the meat was often overcooked. After dinner, my friend J. and I often listened to music and washed dishes together. We followed this with cigarettes, beer (him, not me) and a game of chess. Then we'd off to our rooms to get ready for another twelve-hour day of teaching.

I stayed in Ecuador until July 18, 1995 -- I remember the date because my friend L, an Ecuadorian who had been adopted by the center when her mother died and her father ran away, turned eighteen that day. She decided on the spot to leave home and get a job with a friend. She came to the airport to say goodbye when I left. She ended up moving to the states and marrying one of my fellow volunteers. We are still friends today.

I flew home to Washington and lived with my parents in the basement of their newly purchased townhouse in Vienna until August, when my father gave me enough money to return to my apartment in NYC, which I'd been subletting to two friends who were both on their way to graduate school.

1995: I moved back to my old apartment on the sixth floor, rooming this time with one of my college friends who'd also been in Ecuador. The next two years were probably the worst two years of my life. I soon began a brief, intense and nearly fatal relationship with the woman I mentioned the other day. I guess my moving to Ecuador had finally impressed her enough to give me a shot. That lasted all of three months before it ended and I sank into a depression that would last in some form or other for the next five years.

It literally took me a year to start feeling I could leave the house, taste my food, enjoy the company of my friends, etc. Then, just as I felt I was starting to come back to life, my father suddenly died. I managed to keep busy and to keep the worst effects of the depression at bay. I began taking poetry workshops at the New School, one with Elaine Equi, the other with Eileen Myles. I started volunteering at the Segue Foundation, where I met lots of other young poets, many of whom are still friends. I went to lots of readings. All of this seemed to give me a sense of purpose, which culminated in my decision to go to graduate school.

I remember being really torn about leaving for Buffalo in August 1997. On the one hand, I felt I was just starting to get a sense of the poetry scene in NYC; on the other, I had an opportunity to go study with Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley and Susan Howe. I really couldn't pass that up.

I sublet the apartment and off I went -- I planned to spend a year in Buffalo and return to NYC the following summer. That was thirteen years ago.

from Complete Poems

We To America

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

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