David Kirby

You Must Change Your Life

      When I check into my hotel in New Delhi, the manager
looks at the form and says I see you are a doctor, sir,
          and I say But not a doctor of medicine and he says

      You are a doctor of this and that, then, and I have to agree,
for what is the poet other than he or she who collects all
          sorts of shiny fragments of one kind or another and fiddles

      with them endlessly until they become seemly, also seamless?
“Inadequate to convey distinct impression,” writes Edgar
          Allan Poe at the top of a story draft, then “analyze it—

      instance it—quiz it,” and that’s what we poets do with our poems.
Gandhi: “The mere title of a doctor is no criterion;
          a real doctor is he who is a servant.” I like that “he who is,”

      don’t you? I mean, the easy thing would be simply
to say, “A real doctor is a servant.” No easy way
          for Gandhi, though! Here are two more statements

      by Gandhi: “It is difficult but not impossible to conduct
strictly honest business” and “My ideal is equal
          distribution, but so far as I can see, it is not to be realized.”

      See what I mean? Gandhi is not only idealistic
and smart but practical as well. “The world is full
          of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses

      to grow sharper,” said someone, though this time
it is not Gandhi who is speaking but W. B. Yeats.
          India is full of poets and poems, like Ganesh,

      the elephant-headed god who has only one tusk
because, it is said, he fell and broke the tusk,
          and when the moon laughed at him, he threw

      the broken part of the tusk at the moon, which is why
it is pockmarked, though I was also told that
          when Ganesh was writing the Mahābhārata, his pen

      broke, so he snapped off his left tusk so he could
finish his book, which is the account I prefer, since
          I am a writer myself, though either version is acceptable

      because that means we have two ways of looking at
the god and not just one. The next morning I get on
          the hotel elevator, and who should I see but the manager

      again, and we nod and smile at each other, and then
I see the sign that says TEN PERSONS MAX
          and point to it and say Look, sir, and he says That means

      ten Chinese persons
and I say Chinese? and he says
But only seven Indians. And five Americans! though
          when I clear my throat and turn sideways to look at

      myself in the elevator mirror, he says Oh, not you, sir!
Certainly not you!
and then brightens and says Well, then,
          and how many poets would you say, sir? Very many,

      I should think,
and I say Well, poets are not exactly made
out of magic and sugar cubes
and he laughs as though
          that’s a really good one, and then he says When you meditate

      and you become happy, sir, do you stop?
and I say Of course
and he says You should not stop. When you are happy,
          you have merely reached the silver level, and beyond

      are gold, platinum, and so on.
Did Gandhi meditate?
Answer: No, because he didn’t have to. Gandhi
          didn’t have to write poetry, either, but the rest of us do.

Feels So Good

I tell my brother that our parents always seemed
        sad, and he says they were happy until I came
along. I’m not buying it. Studies show that
        the memory is fallible. Also, if our little house
and the ten acres of woods on which it sat was not

a paradise, who says it had to be? Reader, do you spend
        every moment of your waking day lying on a couch
while liveried servants spoon banana pudding
        into your mouth and hidden musicians play Mozart
and Debussy? Besides, does not that which presents

itself as trial, pain, woe, or burden often recast itself,
        as time and circumstance change, into a joy, delight,
pleasure, triumph? “More than five decades of hands
        grated by cracks,” writes mountaineer Jeff Lowe
in his memoir. “Whole body aching from long days

of big-wall hauling. Frozen fingers and toes.
        Migraines and altitude malaise. Not knowing what’s
to come. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.”
        No, I don’t think our folks were as sad as my brother
remembers. Or wait, I know. Think about classical

music for a minute. How do we know when a symphony
        is well played? We know because people clap when
it’s over. We also know you’re not supposed to clap
        between the work’s four movements, though people do.
Usually they don’t clap after the second movement,

partly because they’ve been hissed for clapping after
        the first movement and also because second movements
are typically downbeat and doleful, that is, sad,
        and who wants to cheer sadness? So let’s look at it
this way: my parents had my brother, then me.

I was their symphony’s second movement, different
        in tone from the first, but that doesn’t make me
a bad person, nor does it mean my parents were sad.
        I’ll tell you what’s sad. What’s sad is to know
that someone you thought loved you thinks you are

ridiculous, which was Wallace Stevens’ fate:
      “Wally and his little poems,” said Mrs. Stevens,
not even troubling to couch her contempt
        in a complete sentence. “To live is to suffer,”
said Nietzsche, “and to survive is to find meaning

in the suffering.” Maybe I gave my parents a growth
        opportunity. And if they found meaning, then they
were happy, right? Their joy just had a sad face.
        As for myself, I’m always grinning away at one thing
or another, so maybe that means I’m deeply miserable,

though if I am, I don’t know it. I’m going to take
        my bow now. Look, my mom and dad are front row center,
clapping their heads off! The whole room is shaking
        with happiness. Don’t cry, everyone, it’s just music.
Beautiful, though, isn’t it? Really beautiful.

David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. He is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His latest poetry collection is Get Up, Please.  

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