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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing February 2023
Ghazal of Teaching, poems by John Philip Drury.
Ghazal of Teaching
Walking to class, I feel like a vicar without a god,
moved to minister but inclined to doubt a god.
Once, religion persuaded this lazy boy to study,
finding the Word in confirmation classes about a god.
Breakfast club in a church’s basement made me born again,
so I outlined Colossians, eager to tout a god.
But the fog burned off. On the first day of basic training,
I put NO RELIGION on my dog tags, ready to flout a god.
I enlisted to avoid being drafted during wartime, to learn how
to become a poet. The word was the way, with or without a god.
I’ve followed two great-grandfathers, William and Augustus,
into a sort of ministry, where I need not believe in—lazy lout!—a god.
Learning How to Refer to My Daughter
They work in virtual reality,
programming in an Oculus Rift headset,
using binary every day, typing
on their laptop, developing simulations.
Neither zero nor one themselves, they resemble
Walt Whitman, containing multitudes of gender
and non-gender, answering to a nickname, Becky,
which my bisexual mother found harsh, unfeminine.
They claimed they were suicidal in their dorm room
and tried to hang themselves in a stairwell (I rolled
my eyes) but conceded “I’m just no good at knots”
(I laughed like one of Jane Austen’s gentlemen).
They didn’t know I was trying to discourage
their impulse by ridicule, because my grandfather
poisoned himself, because the chandelier
crashing in Crimes of the Heart turns melodrama
into slapstick, so everyone can bear
what’s buried in the mind and in the ribcage—
a black hole that is lonely, cramped, and sexless,
the real reality of inner space.
Walking the dog, I pass a stucco house
next to a sprawling tree whose fall leaves dazzle—
red and shiny as slices of currant preserves.
From the sidewalk, under the yellow leafage
of a tulip poplar, I can’t identify
the tree that huddles against the gray-walled house,
but one day I walk my dog down the driveway
and pluck a red leaf from a low-hanging branch.
The stems are alternate, not parallel,
leaves oval, not lobed, their thickness like vellum,
glossy on top and downy underneath.
Dogwood? No, it’s too big for the tree
Jesus was nailed to, as the legend goes.
Black locust? No, there aren’t any hanging seed-pods.
Shingle oak? Maybe, but where are the acorns?
We walk back home, under a canopy
of linden, sweet gum, ash, catalpa, beech.
I put the leaf on a pile of folders on the dining-room table I use
as a desk, meaning to pull down a field guide from the highest
book shelf, but I’m distracted. When I return, a fragment of leaf
and stem remains, and I remember our Siamese cats sitting erect
like vases on the table. We can’t arrange cut flowers because they
bite off blossoms, decapitating day lilies, and scatter them on the
floor. I’m sure they’ve mutilated the leaf. I could get another, of
course, but it’s drizzling outside, the dog wants to stay curled up
on the couch, and most of the deep red leaves have already
descended into a bed of ivy around the trunk. Does the name
matter? Damn cats. Yes, it does, for names are how we savor and
ingest the ephemeral sweetmeats on the laden table of the world.
Not knowing just leaves me hungry.
© John Philip Drury
John Philip Drury is the author of four full-length poetry collections: The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers (both from Miami University Press), The Refugee Camp (Turning Point Books), and most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press). He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary, both from Writer’s Digest Books. His awards include an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council grants, and the Bernard F. Conners Prize from The Paris Review. He was born in Cambridge, Maryland, and grew up in Bethesda, raised by his mother and a former opera singer she called her cousin but secretly considered her wife.
After dropping out of college and losing his draft deferment during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army to learn German and served undercover in the West German Refugee Camp near Nuremberg. He used benefits from the GI Bill to earn degrees from Stony Brook University, the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After teaching at the University of Cincinnati for 37 years, he is now an emeritus professor and lives with his wife, fellow poet LaWanda Walters, in a hundred-year-old house on the edge of a wooded ravine.