I started writing poetry when I was five, about a year after I started to read. How I learned to read remains a mystery. I only remember that one evening, sick, in bed with a fever, I took the book from my father, and told him I’d read it myself. It was Frank Buck’s “Jungle Book.” I remember feeling that it sounded much better in my head than out-loud, and that I couldn’t wait for the read aloud words to go by, so I could turn the page and learn what was coming next.
A few weeks later, in the trash we collected weekly from the seven other apartments in our doll-house-like apartment building, I found a treasure: a small black moleskin Memo Book. A few pages had some incidental writing in a bold blue hand, and I surgically removed them with a slightly rusty razor blade from my father’s Gillette shaving apparatus (which was soon to torment my own features with daily blood-letting). I began to write poetry. I would use scrap school-paper with bold lines and three donut-like holes, and then meticulously copy the final version into the moleskin. Years later, almost a decade later, I found the black memo book among a dusty stack of my father’s books, wedged between Anatole France’s “Revolt of the Angels” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” It was smaller than I’d remembered. Here is a sample of a poem I wrote on my 7th birthday:
I am seven years old today, hooray!
There was cake, and a present – a new ‘cello! – today.
I kissed the piano, and then my Mom,
And told them both I to be happy and calm
That I’d never ever leave them for even a day
Even after they dropped an atomic bomb.
At the risk of annotating the juvenile wanderings of a precocious poet/musician, I did go on to become perhaps the best young ‘cellist in New York during the early sixties, and we also lived in almost daily fear of atomic war….hiding under our desks when the teacher shouted, at irrational moments, “Take Cover!” Books and pencils and fat rubber erasers flying, we faced the wardrobe, backside to the 10-foot-high wooden windows, and covered our heads with our nail-bitten hands. Absurd, but absurdly terrifying. I’d seen the pictures of Hiroshima, and knew that A-bombs melted your flesh like brie in the broiler.
I think I kissed the piano because while I really didn’t want to stop playing it (and never really did), we couldn’t afford two music lessons for one child, and Victor (my 2 ½-year older brother) was focused on the piano. I’d never felt any competition with him…I adored him, and admired his James Dean good-looks and finger-flying talent on the pied piano keys of our “M” Steinway. I learned decades later that he’d always felt heel-nipped by me, but also, as we were truly best friends, loved me deeply and truly. My precociousness had caused him much competitive anxiety, and he somehow couldn’t reconcile his leading me in grades (his were always higher, both at Stuyvesant and in Harvard), in musical accomplishments, as president of the school’s Arista, and his single year ahead of me at college (he was class of ’67, and I of ’68).
In the self-same moleskin Memo Book I wrote a new ending to one of the stories in “The Martian Chronicles” of Ray Bradbury, because I was disappointed at the hero’s death. I wanted things to be…kinder. Then, when Tuffy, our much-beloved dog of our much-beloved aunt Gizella was hit and killed by a car on Alderton Street in Forest Hills – he had grown up in the fields of southern Jersey, and didn’t have any fear of cars whatsoever – I wept and wept and stamped my foot at its unfairness, and his sweet wagging blond-haired life; and wrote this poem, in the last page of the moleskin (I was 12 by then, I think).
I never had a better friend,
I never loved a better guy
Than Tuffy the dog, our loving boy
Who met today an awful end.
Somewhere high above the clouds,
A place there is where dogs live on
And meet their friends when they are gone
And wag their tails, and smile aloud.
I really want to see that place,
To throw a ball, and run and fetch
With Tuffy, and with arms outstretched
Roll and hug him face-to-face.
I love my dog, I love him true
And where he is he loves me too.
We buried him in the backyard, although I never understood why we couldn’t bury him at St.John’s Cemetery, along with my grandmother and grandfather. “He was never baptised,” said my aunt, but the number of times we dunked in the Ringoes NJ pond must’ve counted for something, despite the absence of a priest. Lord knows the water was blessed, and blessed us.
When I went to college – a year after Victor, off to Cambridge and Harvard (although I’d never expected to go anywhere else, for some reason, and the music department wanted me around for my ‘cello playing and chamber music expertise) – I continued to write and read voraciously. I supposed I didn’t mention that all through elementary school and junior high school I tootled over to the local library, and stayed every day until closing, either taking books off the shelf to browse pictures, titles, Tables of Contents, indices, glossaries and an occasional meaty paragraph, devouring 50 books or more in an afternoon’s hunting or sitting until the evening sky, darkening the tall northern gothic-arched glass-and-wood-frame windows that illumined the reading room with its quiet smell of dusty tomes and fustian reference books too large to handle readily said “closing time” and they nicely asked me to go home, little boy.