Thumbing through another of the several Garrison Keillor anthologies of poems on Thursday, nothing much held my attention until I turned the page to discover a poem by New Yorker, Eleanor Lerman. In only a few lines the reader is smack up against moral dilemma, natural disaster, the collapse of cities and finally to that emotion which murmurs closest to the heart, the mystery of love.
Eleanor Lerman is a poet, novelist and short story writer who has always lived in New York. Her first book of poetry, Armed Love (1973), was published when she was twenty-one and nominated for a National Book Award. The New York Times called it X-rated with an implication that young women were not supposed to write books about sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. She tried again two years later with a collection more muted and melancholy titled, Come the Sweet By and By. Once again the experience was less than satisfying and it was twenty-five years before she wrote another book of poems. In 2001 she published The Mystery of Meteors, following that in 2005 with Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, which won for Lerman the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She was granted a 2007 Poetry Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2011 received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She published her first novel, Janet Planet last September.
The poem below is from the 2001 collection, The Mystery of Meteors.
WHAT THE DARK-EYED ANGEL KNOWS
A man is begging on his knees in the subway. Six-thirty
in the morning and already we are being presented with
moral choices as we rocket along the old rails, through the
old tunnels between Queens and Manhattan. Soon angels
will come crashing through the ceiling, wailing in the voices
of the castrati: Won't you give this pauper bread or money?
And a monster hurricane is coming: we all heard about it
on the radio at dawn. By nightfall, drowned hogs will be
floating like poisoned soap bubbles on the tributaries
of every Southern river. Children will be orphaned and
the infrastructure of whole cities will be overturned. No one
on the East Coast will be able to make a phone call and we
will be boiling our water for days. And of course there are
the serial killers. And the Crips and the Bloods. And the
arguments about bilingual education. And the fact that all
the clothing made by slave labor overseas is not only the
product of an evil system but maybe worse, never even fits
so why is it that all I can think of (and will think of through
the torrential rains to come and the howling night) is
you, sighing so deeply in the darkness, you and the smell
of you and the windswept curve of your cheek? If this
train ever stops, I will ask that dark-eyed angel, the one
who hasn't spoken yet. He looks like he might know