Taking advantage of a diving scholarship, which paid my tuition, I enrolled at Boston University in 1982. I was in a hurry to leave Texas. Ever since I’d worked on Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign in southwest Houston, which was a bitter loss to Jimmy Carter, I was restless with Texas and the conservative direction the state was taking. I felt a fast-fading interest in Judaism too and the Jewish neighborhood I’d grown up in. Most of my friends were headed to the University of Texas where they would pledge one of the Jewish fraternities or sororities. Going to school in Boston was part of my new romance with liberalism even if my first night there I found myself—dressed in cowboy boots and a Stetson—standing in a humid autumn dusk in front of T’s Pub at Comm Ave. and Babcock Street when a cabbie cruised past, rolled down the window, and shouted, Fuck you, home boy.
Boston became the wreck I wanted to dive into. It became—
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
I didn’t know those lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem then, but I knew that Boston was as good as it was going to get for me. It was a map out of the damage of my self-awareness and into some new evidence of beauty. Boston was my future and Adrienne Rich’s new myths were waiting even for someone like me, a home boy from Harris County.
Like the city itself, the university was not at its best when I arrived in 1982. People went to BU to party. The people in the student union were dressed for keggers. They expected a party every night. I recognized the Jewish kids instantly, and there were a lot of them. The boys were nattier cousins of the preps I’d grown up with at the synagogue. The girls were going in for the Cyndi Lauper look. We all struck poses, but there wasn’t a lot of self-examination to go with it. It was like I’d left home 3,000 miles and arrived in my Hebrew school cafeteria. The bohemians were somewhere, but I hadn’t found them yet.
Feeling alien within the familiar became one of the first stances I undertook when I began to write poems. Boston taught me that. Like Charles Simic in “Fork,” I arrived in Boston open to reimagining my most common realities:
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand
As you stab with it into a piece of meat
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
I hadn’t left Texas entirely, I soon discovered. BU’s president, John Silber, was a Kantian from San Antonio. Silber was the kind of man who couldn’t bring himself to flatter even the shyest freshman. By the time I arrived on campus, President Silber was at war with the faculty over unionization and the campus’ South African divestment movement. Silber’s public enemy number one at BU was historian Howard Zinn. I was but a lowly foot soldier in the undergraduate army of Howard Zinn’s political causes, but I believed fully in his general notion that there is no higher form of patriotism than dissent. A lot of days we’d be demonstrating in Marsh Plaza, and no matter the cause, whether it was against the Pentagon or apartheid or the BU cops, against the Reagan administration, the Silber administration, or against obedience generally—“historically, the most terrible things (war, genocide, and slavery) have occurred not from disobedience, but from obedience,” Zinn shouted into a bullhorn during one lunchtime demonstration—we were rallying in order to tell a new story about ourselves, how we valued ourselves, and our futures. I wasn’t writing poems yet, but that ideal spurred my interest in the possibility of poetry when I first started to write a few years later.
All the courses I took then were about how small actions for good, if accomplished by millions and millions of people and performed one person and one action at a time, amounted to the most transformative change the world could ever know. The change could affect government, families, love, work. Our democracy—and this we believed almost blindly—was imperiled. Our loves, our work, our perceptions of time and history, our aesthetics—all of it was wrong. Change had to come. The country could corporatize and militarize the liberal arts but individual learning must remain radical because the individual must resist power and be invested in the future.
The professors, even in the English department, were like revolutionaries who extolled protest generally as the pinnacle of human dignity. In a dozen accents, they taught us that literature was the art that shows us that human beings should live in defiance of power, and that to live fully and gloriously in a succession of present moments would be to triumph over injustice. A lot students barely understood what was being said to them.
I took a course in education, given by Henry Giroux. Tuesday and Thursday mornings he paced at the bottom of the sloping auditorium in the School of Education. With long black hair he reminded me of the pop star Rick Springfield who made it big with “Jessie’s Girl” the year before. I was spellbound by his lectures. I remember the morning he told us life was a war zone and that government, in the form of public schools, were predators against the citizenry, against the poor and minorities and immigrants, and especially against defenseless children. Giroux told us we needed to combine all critical theory with social action. He seemed to despise us, that’s for sure, and made it clear he thought most public school teachers were hostile to individual freedom and social reconstruction. Many students were vocally opposed to his ideology. But I accepted everything he said. I took Giroux’s side in the classroom debates as naturally as I took to breathing.
He didn’t know it then, none of us did, but Giroux was about to be denied tenure by President Silber even though he’d received a unanimous vote at all levels of his academic review and was one of only three cases up for tenure that year that were unanimous. Giroux’s dean declared that he would resign if Giroux didn’t get tenure, but Silber denied it—not before first offering Giroux a second chance if he agreed not to publish anything for two years and to study logic and science personally with Silber.
I learned about Paulo Freire from Giroux and dog-eared the hell out of Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When Freire—who taught language to non-native speakers by Scotch-taping onto every object in their home the word in the new language that corresponds with that object so that you could learn a new language from your lived experience and not through a textbook—wrote that it is “not the helpless, subject to terror, who initiate terror, but the violent who with their power create the concrete situation which begets the ‘rejects of life…,’ not the tyrannized, who initiate despotism, but the tyrants…not those whose humanity is denied them, who negate humankind, thus negating their own as well, but those who denied that humanity …[and that] Force is used not by those who have become weak under the preponderance of the strong, but by the strong who have emasculated them,” I fully understood that language can never be neutral.
One morning after Giroux’s class, while sitting on a bench in the lobby of the School of Education, a tall student with a mop of brown hair and a dark mustache was walking directly toward me with a page-boy blonde at his side. He asked if we could talk. Sure, I said. In class that morning I’d been vocal about the notion that all education comes about through the process of living, so I wondered whether the two of them were from the education-just-to-secure-a-job side of the debate. What’s up, I asked. He was enormously tall, 6’10”, I thought, 6’11” maybe, maybe 7 feet tall. At my diminished height, I figured it would be more strategic if I remained seated. I ceremoniously crossed my legs. I want to be your friend, the guy said, declaring, I’m Giff, then introducing me to the girl. Relieved, I said hello, and we talked some of our affection for Giroux. Then the three of us wandered out to the Charles River to kill time. Sitting down on the cool October grass, Giff pulled out a joint and lit it. With that, we blow off the rest of the day. The girl by then had left for work, and the orange and gold leaves were blowing back toward Comm Ave.
From its source just north of Echo Lake in Hopkinton, Mass., the Charles passed through two dozen towns until it reached us at its mouth along the campus of BU to form the border between Boston and Cambridge. In that moment as we sat in the grass near the campus and later walked along the brown river in the day’s fine blue light all things were merging together. The city was cut by the river and was running alongside us as if from the beginning of creation. Under the Charles River was a haunting I struggled to hear. I wanted the knowledge to flow from me like the river flowed. And I wanted time to flow, too. I could feel how even from its far-off source all the way to the Atlantic, the river was in all places at once. We watched the river glow and quicken. We talked about how the river could wash away all love and all pain and go on existing without any obligation. We didn’t know it then but we were on our way to becoming life-long friends. We did know that the river was opening up to us like a book to be read. The swift current was at first baffling but then we understood its anguish for freedom.
I had been attending Robert Levine’s modern poetry class where we had read Walt Whitman in the slender blue Norton Anthology, and while walking back to Giff’s apartment in Allston later that afternoon I read a favorite passage from the opening of “Song of Myself” about a blade of grass:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
We had stopped at the curve where Comm Ave. split off from Brighton Ave. Let me read something, Giff said, taking the book in his hands as we were turning toward Brighton Ave. Read these lines, I said, number eleven. He affected a theatrical intonation:
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended trembling from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them
They do not know who puffs and declines with the pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
The high point of Levine’s class was his discussion of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I read it to Giff as we came out of Brookline Liquors with a six-pack of beer and some wine from the 2 for $5 bin:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
A lot of the students had read the poem as a rejection of acquired knowledge in favor of direct experience. But I saw it, even then, as the combination of acquired knowledge and direct experience that is topped off by honest and imaginative interpretation. One leads you to the other. Study leads to experience, and experience leads to study. Imagination leads to forms, and forms leads to knowledge of the past. Speaking leads to listening which leads to silence and a fresh entrance into a new understanding of existence. And then the poem that follows revivifies the experience and offers a journey into a fresh insight.
The first poetry reading I went to was at Blacksmith House in Cambridge. The poet was William Matthews. I don’t remember much of the reading. Matthews was funny, I remember, especially his badinage, and everyone there seemed to know him personally except me. I do remember what happened afterwards. It was April 14, 1986, and the United States was bombing Libya. I’d stopped in a loud bar in Cambridge on the way back to Allston and could see General Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney defending the American air strikes as a response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin. The second poetry reading I went to was at MIT. I had gone to meet a girl I knew from Pat Craddock’s literary studies seminar. She was an editor of Ex Libris, BU’s student literary journal. She had dark hair and a crooked smile and straight hair that was wonderfully askew in the mornings when we woke up together. She was like a river herself those mornings, leisurely rolling over and mild, listening (I believed) to my heart rushing with blood. The poet that night at MIT was Robert Creeley, but I didn’t know his poems then. The girl showed up on the arm of another boy, as well. Later I learned he was a new boyfriend, or an old boyfriend, it’s hard to remember. Neither of us were expecting drama. The amphitheater was enormously crowded, and we tried not to look at each other. Creeley kept interrupting his reading with nostalgic stories from his youth in the 1940s like the night he went skinny dipping in the Charles River while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Then he’d read another one of his miniatures, something like “A Night Sky”—
All the grass
in front of us.
such a large
depth, I see
a flat —
a plain as if the
were showing smaller
Later on, on that day I met Giff, back at his apartment on Royce Road, a woman dressed in a sleeveless anarkali suit was high, and she was dancing to the new Dylan album, Infidels. Giff was dancing alongside her. She seemed to be blissfully vacating her body as if tomorrow was never going to arrive. But then she turned on Giff—who now seemed to me more like 6’6″ and not 7 feet after all, dressed in torn jeans, a Grateful Dead t-shirt, and barefoot, and all the while holding a spent roach between his thumb and forefinger—and she says, I wish I had a cock like you guys.
You can have mine, Giff said in return and took one of her hands. The music kept playing. The song was “Sweetheart Like You”:
You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a whole man, not just a half
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?
She seemed not to have heard him because her face betrayed nothing back. Then, she raised her arms toward the ceiling as if she wanted to take flight, but instead collapsed onto the floor and began to wail like a cat along to the music. She howled, give me my own cock, give me mine.
I was sitting in an armchair in the corner of the living room watching them dance. I thought about who this girl might have been and where she came from and how had they met and what might have been going on inside her head. Giff had turned his attention to the next song, the sarcastic anthem “Neighborhood Bully,” and motioned me to listen. Listening was something I was trying hard to get better at. I wanted to hear the ways language could touch itself and be a small act of kindness or a clarity for living and still also not be intended as prayer. I wanted to hear how that sort of power could turn a life around. I was trying to listen to the high and low notes of people’s voices and the messages that those tones conveyed. Like Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” I wanted to accrue what I heard deep into my body:
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
Giff was standing at the window now after putting the needle back at the beginning of “Neighborhood Bully.” He was mouthing the words in my direction so I could see him singing—
Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully
Listen! He was calling to me, and then pointing to the turntable, calling to the girl, listen to this cock!—
The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully
The two of them were dancing again. I was rolling another joint poorly with the shake tapering out of the ends. I had never felt farther away from Texas at that moment nor more at home. Giff was looking right at me at that moment so I could hear what he was about to say. He was shouting, Dylan’s back! All of it—the dancing, the new friendship, the music, Walt Whitman, the Charles River—was becoming in my light hallucination a casual orchestra with an untold number of instruments and repertoire. The streetlights were on now and seemed to gaze into the window of the apartment like the eyes of God that wanted all of us in there to undress. I could hear my imagination and the ragged metaphors swimming in the mud in my head.
“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is the second in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my early education as a poet.