Poetry Dispatch No. 263 | December 31, 2008
Christmas to New Year (2009)
“Memoir” Dispatches, #7
Editor’s Note: I’ve been sending this poem to friends on New Year’s Eve for more than ten years. The same poem. It’s become my ‘Auld Lang Syne”, my “White Christmas”, my “As Time Goes By”, my… Good words have staying power. Admittedly every year I look for something different, something new, something, perhaps, even better. But I’ve never found it and honestly don’t believe a better poem exists for this moment. At least for me, how I see myself and others in time, present history, emotional ups and downs, all those everyday feelings of “in-spite-of-everything-it’s-okay” one wishes to pass on to friends. There’s also something about the poem at this historical point in our country’s time that is almost prophetic. Poems as commonly original as this possess that quality too: they always speak to the here and now.
I once ‘knew’ the poet, David Clewell, in a correspondent sort-of-way, a friend of other writer-friends (Dave Etter in particular), maybe thirty years ago, when Clewell was already on his way of becoming somebody in poetry, and I was still struggling as a ‘former Chicago writer’ with a meager reputation, howling in the rural, exiled on a peninsula in Door County, Wisconsin. (His book, from which this poem is taken, went on to win the National Poetry Series selection in 1989.)
Clewell used to haunt used bookstores—and occasionally send me some rare find, which he sensed was meant for me. And he was always right. Just the book I needed to read at that time. But life has a way of clouding over things, disappearing things before your very eyes—friends as well. Which is some of what this New Year’s Eve poem is about. Not forgetting friends who keep us alive. Passing on this generosity of spirit.
I hope through the mystery of cyber space this note somehow finds its way to Dave, wherever he is these days. But then, he surely lives forever in this poem. And the bowl and spoon continues to be passed on, received, with immense gratitude. —Norbert Blei
P.S. Dear reader, please open the link to “wisdombook” after the poem.
New Year’s Eve Letter to Friends
by David Clewell
Every year the odds are stacked against it
turning out the way you’d like:
a year of smooth, a year of easy smile,
a year like a lake you could float on,
looking up at a blue year of soothing sky.
Mostly the letters you’re expecting never come.
Lovers walk out and keep on going
and in no time they’re no friend of yours.
Mostly, the sheer weight of days
gone awfully wrong: a tire blown out,
someone’s heart caving in,
the hole worn finally through the roof.
Sometimes it’s only a few tenacious cells
digging in against complete dissolve.
The smallest strand of DNA, stretched thin
over thousands of years, goes taut
and finally holds.
I’ve watched men at the Mission staring out
into the middle distance,
putting up with the latest version of salvation,
all the time wondering just
how long until the bowl and spoon.
They’ve been around long enough to know
the good part’s always saved for last and
there’s no promise they won’t make to get there.
Each year cuts our life down to size,
to something we can almost use. So we find it
somewhere in our hearts: another ring shows up
when we lay open the cross-section.
One more hard line in the hand
spreading slowly out of its clench.
It used to be the world was so small
You could walk out to the end of it
and back in a single day. Now it seems
to take all year to make it mostly back.
And so this is for my friends all over:
a new year. Year the longshot comes home.
The year letters pour in, full of the good word
that never got as far as you before.
The year lovers come to know a good thing
When they find it in the press of familiar flesh.
Walk out onto the planet tonight. Even the moon
is giving back your share of borrowed light
and you take it back, in the name of everything
you can’t take back in your life.
Imagine yourself filling with it,
letting yourself go and floating
through the skeleton trees to your place
at the top of the sky.
And here’s the best part, coming last,
just after all your practiced shows of faith.
Even now, while you’re still salvaging
what passes for resolve.
Remember this, no matter what else happens:
this year you’ll never go without.
It’s no small thing you’ve been in line for,
this bowl and spoon passed finally to you.
from BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE, Viking, 1991
David Clewell has published seven collections of poems–most recently, The Low End of Higher Things — and two booklength poems (The Conspiracy Quartet and Jack Ruby’s America). His work has appeared regularly in a wide variety of magazines, including Harper’s, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, Ontario Review, New Letters, and Yankee. His poetry is represented in five-dozen anthologies. He’s been the recipient of the Pollak Poetry Prize (for Now We’re Getting Somewhere) and the Lavan Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His Blessings in Disguise was a winner in the National Poetry Series.
Clewell teaches poetry workshops (introductory and advanced), 19th & 20th C. literature, and topics-in-poetry seminars. He directs the Creative Writing program and coordinates the attendant Visiting Writer Series, which he started in 1986.