By YVONNE FRENCH
Four poets read at the Library in November: a carpenter, a second-generation Lithuanian, a young, married professor and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The carpenter, in a historical reminiscence, talked of post-World War II housing-boom builders who used "wood so green it sprouted roots."
The second-generation Lithuanian, whose grandmother came to the United States when she was 15, spoke of traveling back to her native country and seeing the massacre pits where Jews were buried.
The young, married professor recalled college days.
The Pulitzer Prize winner, a peripatetic and humorous man, spoke in a quintessentially American tone of dry, dusty cities bathed in watercolor light. And he cracked a lot of spontaneous jokes.
Philip Levine won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1994 for The Simple Truth (Knopf), which he described as "a sad little book." From it, he read "The Poem of Chalk," about a man from Senegal who "had the bearing/of a king of lower Broadway ... someone for whom loss/has sweetened into charity." He holds a piece of chalk aloft in his left hand. "He knew/the whole history of chalk, not only/of this particular piece, but also/the chalk with which I wrote/my name the day they welcomed/me back to school after the death/of my father."
"What Phil has done is write poems about work and working-class life," said Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in introducing him. "They are poems of memory, not of nostalgia, but of historical memory."
Mr. Levine said he was walking uptown from his home on Manhattan's Bleecker Street in 1993 when he saw the man. "If you walk the streets of New York with eyes open, you'd see him because he'd always be there in one guise or another." Mr. Levine, who is teaching in Houston, said, "I think it was designed by a moron with a terrible headache. Just keep building until you get to Arizona and then it will be reborn and we'll call it Phoenix."
The carpenter, Mark Turpin, read with Mr. Levine Nov. 20 in the Mumford Room to about 100 people. He also spoke of chalk: "a chalk line snapped on the cement." He notices the minutiae of artistic tools, of the pencil lead being "plowed" particulate onto the wall of a portable toilet, and, in a poem about the birth of his son, "The eyebrows: two watercolor lines,/ brush dipped only in water."
Mr. Turpin is the cowboy poet of carpenters. From a poem in progress, he read "A building rises as a performance of repetitive effort. A chalk line snapped on the cement [over] ... thin soil hiding buried antique bottles." He spoke of "lumber chosen, dragged, slid, raised, marked" and "the continual accretion of debris swept, stepped on, kicked out of thoroughfares." He described the "hammer as wounder and lover of the nail" and the carpenter, "his heart's pain snapping it flat, snapping it flat."
Mr. Pinsky described Mr. Turpin as poet who uses "wacky" regionalisms and old-fashioned words and who is "not a novelty" because he is a carpenter but "a studious poet."
Mr. Turpin is a master carpenter and crew foreman for a small Berkeley, Calif., construction firm and is the author of Nailer, published this year by Graywolf Press in Take Three: 2, Agni New Poets Series.
The second-generation Lithuanian immigrant, Myra Sklarew, read "Ode to the Czar's Assassin" about Czar Alexander II's killer, who indirectly caused her grandmother to emigrate. "I sing to the Czar's assassin /for reminding her//to be afraid ... I sing to the useless / items she dragged from the old world//to the new, to the embroidered bedsheets/hairpins, to the delicate cups//and saucers that would break/along the way ... /I praise the Czar's assassin/who kept me from being bones//in the graveyard, blood earth/in the massacre pit//provender for the sacred oaks./I would have been birch//or flax, rye seed in their bread, spore/in their mushroom, wild//strawberry."
Ms. Sklarew is the author of eight collections of poetry and a work of short fiction. From the Backyard of the Diaspora (1976, 1981) received the Jewish Book Council Award in Poetry and the Di Castagnola Award; the title poem of her most recent collection of poetry, Lithuania: New & Selected Poems, received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award from the Judah Magnes Museum.
Mr. Pinsky praised Ms. Sklarew's poetry for its physicality. "It has the ability to change direction very quickly."
Introducing the young, married professor -- David Gewanter, who also read Nov. 13 in the Montpelier room -- Mr. Pinsky said, "Poetry is like ice skating: you can turn quickly. Prose is like wading. It also has a lot of good. You can see your toes, for example."
Mr. Pinsky praised his former student's "metaphysical wit" and described his imagination as "dashing from thing to thing," adding, "He teaches at Georgetown University, comes from Michigan, studied at Berkeley and taught at Harvard."
Mr. Gewanter read poems from his first collection of poetry, In the Belly, published this year by the University of Chicago Press. He offered this from a reflection of college life, "Letter in My Desk:" "This 'campus' is a psychiatric institution. ... They give me/psychotropic drugs/to block 'attacks,' then others to block/ the side effects. ... Some people here, /they just lift them up and down with drugs,/like puppets. ... /Well, reading a lot/in college sometimes, a phrase or sign/gave other meanings, coded messages to me. ... Learning a career was just learning to adjust/a machine that's//grinding us up. ... All these years I've been banging/on a door -- //but I'm the door."
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.