When Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013, I, like a lot of people, went online and read tributes and watched YouTube videos and read Facebook posts as they scrolled past. But before I did that, I revisited Carol Moldaw’s poem Lou Reed in Istanbul, which I’d loved since I first discovered it in her book The Lightning Field. In its closing lines, the poem lets us glimpse the spirit of Lou Reed’s music at work in the world:
Outside the high windows of what was once
our kitchen—before that, a weaver’s room—now a study—
the breeze-bent lilacs continue to wave and sway;
the weeping willow grazes buffalo grass;
the copper roses blaze and extinguish,
blaze and extinguish and blaze . . .
but the peacock that appeared one afternoon
strutting up and down the back garden’s brick path
hasn’t been seen again, and was not—
unlike the five tawny owlets
perched for weeks on a beam of the kitchen portale—
digitally photographed, turned into a screen saver.
Almost everything’s been put on automatic pay
but on some cloudless nights
I find my doormat’s openwork rubber
enstarred with a cellophane sheen—
the moon’s monthly bill,
still in your name.
… listening to his
under a domed moon
just up the Bosphorus
from Topkapi's seraglio,
watching some starlings
swoop toward the stage
to flit in the lights,
I remember how it felt
the blood rush—swoop,
swoop, oh baby, rock,
rock—of being set loose.
Moldaw’s use of the very American deadpan for Lou Reed’s voice and then both connecting and contrasting that voice with the formal domes of the moon and of Topkapi’s palaces and the seraglio where the women of the harem lived, then adding those wild, wayward, night-flying starlings—probably awakened by the lights and music into a swooping that mirrors Lou Reed’s lyric the way the domed moon mirrors the domed palace—create a complex image that concludes in “the blood rush,” the physical awakening that Lou Reed’s Transformers signified for a lot of people. I was happy to hear Moldaw read the poem this past Saturday night in Taos and hear her stage-whisper the song lyric, which both voiced the page’s italics and evoked the magic of that moment in Istanbul, when the poem’s speaker was walking, for a while, on Lou Reed’s “wild side.”
But time passes, and Moldaw’s new work tracks the changes—through marriage, motherhood, home, the death of her father and the ordinary changes wrought and re-wrought by time. It’s almost possible to hear the title of the poem we’re looking at this month, Since Then, as a response to Lou Reed in Istanbul. The poem tracks routine and surprise and how we respond to each—but that’s just the subject. What I admire about Moldaw’s work are the complexities of syntax, the felicitous phrases and careful word choices. The doubled dash in line two, for example, and the beautiful “breeze-bent,” a coinage that we can use; the glorious wait for the first verb until the end of line three; and how we travel through four stanzas on the wings of a single complex sentence, ending with the owlets being turned into a “screen saver,” which seems both inevitable and a little troubling. Some poets find conventional syntax limiting, but Moldaw uses it here as a tool of discovery: A whole world is hiding in the poet’s placement of that phrase “screen saver.”
Rhymes and near rhymes are the bright threads that stitch the poem together: Waves/ sways/ grazes, breeze/ grazes/ blazes—the sounds chime off one another in multiple directions. Things change, those rhymes say, but change is routine. And the speaker finds beauty in both the routine of “blazing and extinguishing” and the surprise: the strutting peacock glimpsed and gone, and those owlets, never seen again, but captured in the screen saver. The screen saver leads to the routine of “automatic pay” that ultimately leads to the “moon’s bill.” The moon’s surprising visit at poem’s end, marked by the lovely coinage “enstarred,” which is immediately tempered by the artificial “cellophane sheen,” suggests what about time and routine, surprise and mystery?
Jon Davis is poet laureate for the city of Santa Fe and a teacher at the Institute for American Indian Arts. 'Since Then' originally appeared in Field.