Today’s poem starts with an epigraph – a haiku by the poet Li Bo. This poem is about loss, in the sense that sometimes memory doesn’t make us feel more connected, but less so. When we remember that one person who we loved so very deeply, who might not have loved us as much, or we simply couldn’t find a way to stay with, we are reminded of the wonderful things that are no longer with us, and everything feels too dull, too ordinary, not quite as good any more – as if a beautiful bird of paradise flew into our lives ever so briefly, and then flew out. After that the greys feel more grey and even colors feel more dull.
Bo’s two lines are reflected in Williams’s two pieces of poem, the first part her presence, the second her absence.
Here the poet remembers the transient things that gave him a moment of pure pleasure, pure fulfillment: cold summer lager, hot pastrami at Katz’s on Houston Street and her presence was like these things. These are things particular to him and his location. We might also join him in enjoying a quadraphonic by Mahler if we happen to be Mahler fans. But since Li Bo is a Chinese poet writing about a zen moment, his experience is unique to him – that’s zen, that unique moment that is unique to you and always temporary.
Do we all like summer lager? Do we all enjoy it cold? Not everybody. But for the poet it’s perfection. He writes about how dull, and awful life is afterwards, after she leaves, perhaps even sub par. Melted Velveeta on white. Velveeta is not a good cheese, I find it completely disgusting. It’s certainly not as good as cheese that hasn’t had its cheesiness processed out of it. But there might be people for whom Velveeta is a little taste of paradise. (Though I shudder at the thought.) But there again, it’s subjective. The poet and I share a dislike for Velveeta, so I get how comparing a day without his lover to Velveeta on white is the worst day ever. (Perhaps we could apply adjectives like fake, unoriginal, plain, boring, grotesque, disgusting, pathetic – words that Velveeta brings up in my mind.)
Perhaps the poet doesn’t have as an intense hatred of the cheese I do, but compare that to something handmade with love, something that was crafted and given the best ingredients – something that didn’t come out of a factory, mass produced and made plain so as to appeal to as many as possible. A hand crafted thing like the hot pastrami at Katz’s on Houston Street is special. The one is made special, the other is not. She was special, unique, not just an ordinary girl, not for him.
When She Was Here, Li Bo, She Was Like Cold Summer Lager
by Peter Williams
Her presence was a roomful of flowers,
Her absence is an empty bed.
– Li Bo (701 -762)
When she was here, Li Bo, she was like cold summer lager,
Like hot pastrami at Katz’s on Houston Street,
Like a bright nickname on my downtown express,
Like every custardy honey from the old art books:
She was quadraphonic Mahler
And the perfect little gymnast.
Now she’s gone, it’s like flat Coke on Sunday morning,
Like a melted Velveeta on white, eaten
Listening to Bobby Vinton –
Like the Philadelphia Eagles.