016.1: Alexander Long:: Still Life with Issa at the Gates & Still Life with Lenny Bruce in Jail & Prayer #34 016

Looking at the body of his work, and these three poems in particular, the subject matter of Alexander Long's poems sometimes tends towards icons and individuals who carry a particular mystique about them—persons who raise contempt and pity in us at once, who have often self-destructed too early or in horrible fashion, and who have made their impressions felt on us immediately and heavily. In "Still Life with Lenny Bruce in Jail" he goes after the adored and scandalous Lenny Bruce a comedian who was publicly revered by the late greats, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

Having a limited knowledge of Bruce, he strikes me as an American incarnate of Oscar Wilde—terrifically inspiring and a true artist to his core yet very, very attached to the causes of his own untimely undoing. Furthermore, poets and comedians, if we really think about it, have an uncanny mutuality. For starters, we are very concerned with the world around us, and our art depends on that awareness; comedy like poetry is a public act by nature, and there are many comedians who have lived in the scandal, self-destruction, and abhorrence akin to a Wilde or a Plath. In his Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens calls it "The pressures of reality," and I doubt there are few persons who feel more crushed and more affected by these pressures than the poet and the comedian. It is in these three poems that I would like to attribute this to Alexander's aesthetic: he is not only aware of the pressures of reality about himself and in his time, but he is immensely concerned with how figures such as Bruce, Larry Levis, William Matthews and the subject of his "Prayer #34" have achieved a kind of grace while either defying or succumbing to the pressures of reality. How he does this has the resemblance of Whitman's expanse, meaning that there is something to Long—he is as gracious a recipient of artistic meaning as any artist could hope for. And while all poets may or may not struggle with the anxiety of influence, it is understandable to be reluctant to write that poem to honor someone whose art has touched us deeply and personally for fear that it pales in comparison. Nevertheless, I think it suffices to say that Long's poems are fine tributes to his chosen subject matter.

Lastly, I close this intro with the encouragement that you check out Long's essay/project on Larry Levis from Issue 002 of our archives. Cody Todd

Still Life with Issa at the Gates

How about

We go
To a place

Where no one waits

Call it Heaven, but
No smoke, bird song,

Paper falling
Ash-like, heavy

With rain, names,
Hands, sun, eyes

As strong as smoke
And bird song,

Lemon rind and holocaust.

No no no.


Nothing tragic, mysterious,

No sand nor snow nor seems.

Just is, and is
Was once, I’ve heard,

Just enough. Christ,
Story has it,

Died, once, too,
And prayed enough

Ahead of time.

Not like that.

Like Issa:

And yet…
                                                                     And yet…

Still Life with Lenny Bruce in Jail

All laughter is involuntary.
                                 —L. B.

How rich you are, man.

It’s what you want,
                                    what you can’t stop


Up in Spanish Harlem there’s a rose
That’s so sweet
                         it grows
                                      up through the concrete.

I see roots as thin as veins,
                                               rosey veins
Blood brown reaching toward a Venus

That very well, in the palm of your hand,
                                                                        might be there.

And you don’t care,
                                    so I won’t too,

As the cop down the hall watches
                                                             me watch
You shoot up.

Jesus and Moses,
                           anything you wanna bring
I’ll bring
               a lawyer…I don’t know
                                                     what I did…
I must’ve been bad…they throw words at you…

Now dig what I added to the thing….

If I could reach you
                                  from my cell, I’d roll
                                                                      up your sleeve

And wrap the rubber band

I’d slide the needle toward the slowest of motions—

Habit and prayer.

Do it.

This whole generation’s strung out.

We can’t do it
                           all on our own.

My period’s a semi-colon now,
                                                  the days get longer and longer.


You’re elliptical, safe, clear.

You should see
                            what your smile looks like
                                                                        from here.

Prayer #34

We may say he or she
Took his or her

Life, and we will
Have to live with that.

But where? Where
Do we think

They’ve taken it?
May it never occur

To us to take it
Anywhere else

Than toward
This fleeting here and now

Where what we share and have
Reaches like sunlight,

Like a patient hand.
It may someday

Occur to us
To reach back

Toward our suicides
Half-smiling, half-asleep,

So we can bring
Them back.

We may regret it, finally,
But I’m telling you: reach,

Then place your lives
On their heads,

Like ashes or sunlight,
Like little hands.

Our suicides
Will answer this prayer

Only after you swear
You’ve seen them.

You will.
Why else reach toward them?

You will. You will
Miss them entirely,

You’ll look like
You’re waving,

And you will be

As if your best friend
Has ignored you.

You’ll stand there
On the platform,

As the trains go
Their separate ways.

You’ll busy yourself,
Pretending to fix

Your scarf
And gloves. It’ll be

Cold, and the sky
A golden room.

I’ll see you.
I’ve been there.

You’ll fix your hair
And search for a smoke

And wait for the next train
You’ve willingly missed

Because you knew—
You did—it was him,

Her. Right there.
You swore it.

You were wrong,
Or you weren’t.

So, wait.
You have to

Get home.
No choice.

The prayer?
May you never

Have to bother
With any of this.