Bob Hass and Jim (Royal Dick) Rathmann

These two people have nothing in common, one a famous poet and teacher the other a renowned race car driver, except that I was reading first the obituary of Jim Rathmann in the NY Times this morning, and then Bob’s poem “Shame: an Aria.”

Larry was reading to me Jim Rathmann’s obituary over breakfast (vegetable hash–yummy–let me know if you want the recipe). He started racing before he was legally eligible, so used his brother James’ ID.  Hence his career as Jim Rathmann, record breaking race car driver, whose given name was “Royal” but whose family name was Dick. It must have been confusing, as his older brother was a decent racer, too. The part Larry read was: “He earned renown in Southern California drag-racing circles, receiving 48 traffic tickets before he was 18 — four during one lunch break.” But my favorite part was the last paragraph of the article.  He became friends with the astronauts, and one taught him to fly:

Gordon Cooper, one of the original members of NASA’s Mercury program, told him never to fly under a seagull lest the bird excrete on the plane. Rathmann made the mistake of laughing.

Colonel Cooper proceeded to prove his point, flying so low under a flock of gulls that a terrified Rathmann could hear the propellers cutting marsh grass. On landing, Cooper jumped from the plane and pointed to the spattered roof.

“I told you,” he said.

Perhaps it was the image of the spattered roof that made me think of Bob’s poem, which includes the phrase “despised disjecta.” Certainly sea gull shit fits that category. It’s a wonderful romp of a poem, funny, starting from a comic incident, flowing out into thoughts about shame and love and self, and ending with the deadly serious meditation on shame, vulnerability, and love.  Hope you like it!  If so, you can hear him read some of this and other poems. Luckily for all of us, Bob is very much alive!

Shame: An Aria

You think you’ve grown up in various ways
and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside
reaming out your nose ­ something about the dry air
in the mountains ­ and find yourself facing two spruce elderly couples
dressed like improbable wildflowers in their primary color
definitely on vacation sports outfits, a wormy curl of one of the body’s
shameful and congealed lubricants gleaming on your fingertip
under the fluorescent lights, and there really isn’t too much to say
as you descend the remaining two flights with them in silence,
all five of you staring straight ahead in this commodious
aluminum group coffin toward the ground floor. You are,
of course, trying to think of something witty to say. Your hand
is, of course, in your pocket discreetly transferring the offending article
into its accumulation of lint. One man clears his throat
and you admit to yourself that there are kinds of people ­ if not
people in particular‹you hate, that these are they,
and that your mind is nevertheless, is nevertheless working
like a demented cicada drying its wings after rain to find some way
to save yourself in your craven, small child’s large ego’s idea
of their eyes. You even crank it up a notch, getting more high-minded
and lugubrious in the seconds it takes for the almost silent
gears and oiled hydraulic or pneumatic plungers and cables
of the machine to set you down. “Nosepicking,” you imagine explaining
to the upturned, reverential faces, “is in a way the ground floor
of being. The body’s fluids and solids, its various despised disjecta,
toenail parings left absently on the bedside table that your lover
the next night notices there, shit streaks in underwear or little, faint
odorous pee-blossoms of the palest polleny color, the stiffened
small droplets in the sheets of the body’s shuddering late-night loneliness
and self-love, russets of menstrual blood, toejam, earwax,
phlegm, the little dead militias of white corpuscles
we call pus, what are they after all but the twins of the juices
of mortal glory: sap, wine, breast milk, sperm, and blood. The most intimate hygienes,
those deepest tribal rules that teach a child
trying to struggle up out of the fear of loss of love
from anger, hatred, fear, they get taught to us, don’t they,
as boundaries, terrible thresholds, what can be said (or thought, or done)
inside the house but not out, what can be said (or thought, or done)
only by oneself, which must therefore best not be done at all,
so that the core of the self, we learn early, is where shame lives
and where we also learn doubleness, and a certain practical cunning,
and what a theater is, and the ability to lie.”
the elevator has opened and closed, the silver-haired columbines
of the mountain are murmuring over breakfast menus in a room full of bright plastics
somewhere, and you, grown up in various ways, are at the typewriter,
thinking of all the slimes and jellies of decay, thinking
that the zombie passages, ghoul corridors, radiant death’s-head
entries to that realm of terror claim us in the sick, middle-of-the-night
sessions of self-hatred and remorse, in the day’s most hidden,
watchful self, the man not farting in the line at the bank,
no trace of discomfort on his mild, neighbor-loving face, the woman
calculating he distance to the next person she can borrow a tampon from
while she smiles attentively into this new man’s explanation
of his theory about deforestation, claims us also, by seepage, in our lies,
small malices, razor knicks on the skin of others of our meannesses,
deprivations, rage, and what to do but face that way
and praise the kingdom of the dead, praise the power which we have all kinds
of phrases to elide, that none of us can worm our way out of,
which all must kneel to in the end, that no man can evade,

praise it by calling it time, say it is master of the seasons,
mistress of the moment of the hunting hawk’s sudden sheen of grape-brown
gleaming in the morning sun, the characteristic slow gesture,
two fingers across the cheekbone deliberately, of the lover dreamily
oiling her skin, in this moment, no other, before she turns to you
the face she wants you to see and the rest
that she hopes, when she can’t keep it hidden, you can somehow love
and which, if you could love yourself, you would.

Robert Hass



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