Boy with Red Hair: David Lehman’s New and Selected Poems

Cover art for Lehman's New and Selected Poems

Cover art for Lehman’s New and Selected Poems

David Lehman wears hats. Several. Metaphorically and literally. I’ve already mentioned David Lehman’s Last Avant-Garde (his book about the New York School poets) a few times in my posts on Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara and Schuyler, and you may have come across his name in connection with the Best American Poetry series, which he edits, but he’s also a poet, so let’s spend some time on his poetry.

Poet & editor David Lehman

david lehman

His New and Selected is organized in reverse chronological order, with the new poems first, followed by selections of his more recent poems, followed by selected older poems. The book spans several decades: it goes back all the way to the 60s.

There is a lot of diversity in the poems, but as with any good collection, there are also patterns. Recurrent themes (in order of appearance or recognition during my reading experience) are Ithaca, Judaism, Freud, WW2, philosophy, adultery, and the trope of spies or agents. In true New York School tradition, Lehman includes some lists, names of personal acquaintances as well as stars and starlets of pop-culture, literature, and other high-culture.

The celebration of the every-day, as in daily routine and common language, is also present. Compared to Koch, O’Hara and Schuyler, Lehman — especially in his newer poems — is more pensive, more abstract, but then again, he is writing in a different age and at a different age.

As far as personal preference is concerned, I found that I enjoyed the older poems the most, but that could just be because reading-wise I’ve been “living in the 60s” since the beginning of the semester. 🙂 That said, there are gems throughout the collection. “On the Beautiful and Sublime” made me want to write a poem in imitation, a poem of statements and parallels. I’ve not yet done it, but it’s on my list. Even just the opening lines are great: “Radio is a hot medium; / Television, a cool one.” This is followed by a set of statements equating objects to poetry or prose, or declaring them beautiful or sublime, respectively. Example: “Panties (white, silk, high-rise) are beautiful. / Jockstraps are sublime” and “The Song of Songs is beautiful, / Genesis and Job are sublime.” A very unlikely pair of images in the same poem, but he pulls it off.

Marc Chagall's "Song of Songs IV"

Marc Chagall’s “Song of Songs IV”

Overall, throughout the collection it is clear that faith, tradition, and scripture are as much a part of every-day life for Lehman as a can of Coke, and can be talked about in the same language. In a few poems, he redirects our attention to language and the mechanics of it, as he does in “Reality Check,” where we are asked: “does anyone still use that phrase?” Playing with phrases and expressions that have developed a life of their own is something we’ve already seen in other New York School work, and I think it’s still an interesting subject for poems. Language constantly changes in meaning and usage. In a way we are speaking in code, and often we forget that we are doing it.

I was particularly interested in “Mother Died Today” — and, later, found that it ties in with “First Lines” from “Valentine Place” (which was actually written earlier). Where the former states that “Mother died today,” and that line gets repeated with and without slight variation, the latter states “Mother was born today,” leaving us with the same temporal disorientation and the same sense of unreality that so often accompanies major life events. “Mother Died Today” circles back to the same statement again and again, tangling itself up in the warp and woof of time: “Mother died today. She laughed and said you sure know how to cheer me up. The telegram came. It said, Mother dead Stop Funeral tomorrow Stop. Mother read it in the hospital and laughed at her college boy son. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t remember” (10).

The specific, the personal, becomes the universal when the “telegram came from the asylum, the home, the hospital, the ‘assisted living’ facility, the hospice, the clinic. Your mother passed away. Heartfelt condolences. The price of rice is going up, and what does it matter? I’ll tell you what I told the nurse and anyone that asks. Mother died today.” What does it matter? The meaning of death, the loss of a family member — a parent, especially — is so far out of the scope in which we usually make meaning and perceive meaning that it is hard to answer the question “What does it matter?” What can be said, however, is that the same experience happens to countless people every day, everywhere. Disorientation — temporal, causal, or otherwise — is a recurring theme that’s also found in “Lost Weekend.”

Some poems threw me a curveball. Take “1977” for example. Starts out as a poem about an American’s experience traveling to Paris, but then in stanza 7, in wanders “the dictator,” to be followed by a “porn classic with Nazis / and blonde blue-eyed prostitutes.” Toward the end, there is a lovely description of lemonade that really stood out to me — “And nothing tasted better / on such a day than a citron presse, / the perfect still life (lemon, knife, / flask of water, sugar, glass, spoon) / / you could drink” (40-1). The poem concludes that “The past was a succession of non sequiturs / in a deaf man’s ear before history resumed / were the Europeans dreamed of going: / Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.” I guess history would pause and then pick back up in these places for people who emigrated to escape persecution around WW2. I guess it’s a way to look at it. But surely there is / was / has been history in Europe since? (Think, for example, of the bloodless revolution, when the Berlin Wall fell, for example. That’s certainly history.)

Then there are fun poems like “Money,” which states outright that “Money is tits, / You either have them or you don’t.” At the same time, “money’s the color of my true love’s hair, / Money’s the smell of her in the dark, […] Money’s the flashlight that leads to her lair.” The two parts of “Anna K.” are perfect abcdarians, meaning each word starts with the next letter of the alphabet. Clearly, Lehman was having fun with form here. “One Size Fits All: A Critical Essay” plays with phrases and expressions commonly found in academic / literary criticism papers, basically creating a blueprint, an academic mad-libs (210).

The poem “The Magician” is similarly playful. The magician described here has perfected the disappearing act, if you will, because he keeps transitioning, subtly, into new identities “with wigs and false noses” and “wanted to be known by no one but the dog walking beside him into the woods, / where a No Swimming sign means you can be pretty sure / people are swimming.” He succeeds in the ultimate disappearance: “The past was a hotel. The room was empty. The door / was open. He stepped in the door. There was no door” (93).

an ant-Vietnam War button

an anti-Vietnam War button

Like a Party” (104) takes a critical look at war and the myths of war. The first line draws you right in: “You throw a war and hope people will come.” This, of course, refers to the anti-Vietnam War slogan and Monkees’ line “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Two myths of war are scrutinized: “One myth of war is that it takes / A lot of careful planning. Bunk. All you need is a cake / With a roll of film inside, or a briefcase full of germs.” The second one is one used by war apologists: “The bully broke my nose and what was I / To do, cry in the corner and ask him why / He didn’t like me, or punch him back harder than he / Hit me?” The conclusion our speaker comes to, here, is that war is “Not a work of art; and if a game of chess, blind chess.”

In a number of poems, Lehman talks about the writing process and his own aesthetics. In “January 1” from The Daily Mirror, for example, he thinks aloud about inspiration: “Some people confuse inspiration with lightning / not me I know it comes from the lungs and air / you breathe it in you breathe it out it circulates / […] but it’s also something that comes / at my command like a turkey club sandwich / with a cup of split pea soup” (143). In “November 14” from The Evening Sun, he decides that in order to write better poetry he needs to “eliminate all ideas from my poems / which shall consist of cats, rice, rain / baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants / redbrick houses where I shall give up booze / and organized religion […] I shall concentrate on the five senses and what they half perceive and half / create, the green street signs with white letters on them the body next to mine” (138).

Brand names like Coca Cola show up, of course, and I don’t think I’ll look at a package of Tylenol quite the same way again now that he’s pointed out that “it spells ‘lonely’ backwards with / only the initial T added, signifiying / taxes no doubt” (“April 15,” 152).


Finally, let me comment on “Boy with red Hair” (171). It’s a complex and beautiful poem. I love how red hair and freckles come to stand for “old-timey” and evoke a sort of nostalgia: “He was old-fashioned, with freckles and red hair.” Also, this description: “The boy and his grandfather had several things in common. / Both were soft-spoken, sincere hypochondriacs. / Their favorite fruits were strawberries in summer / and pears in fall.” The specificity of how the favorite fruits change depending on the season is lovely.

The poem speaks of a deliberate boyhood, of a child’s response to powerlessness (“The boy put on his yellow-and-brown-checked pajama bottoms / around his head and became Invulnerable Man”) as well as being a prisoner of war, another experience of complete helplessness. “In prison there was time to waste, wondering why he was there, / making appeals, pleading for a hearing, / when he should have been playing on the porch” — in a way, the boy never grows up. In the same way, the boy is a prisoner from the very beginning, and yet, as we learn at the beginning, “the cage’s door was wide open the whole time.” For the parrot, the house is no prison, but he is no parrot.

Macaw Parrot

Macaw Parrot

If you’d like to read a few poems by David Lehman, a good number are available online: “The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke,” and over 30 more.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


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