Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Failure" by Philip Schultz

I just finished reading Failure by Philip Schultz. I found it in the clearance bin at Borders for a buck. I have to say I was surprised to find it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 (along with Time and Materials by Robert Hass). Most of the poems felt overly simplistic and sometimes were simply not very interesting (see "What I Don't Like," for example. It begins, "I like to say hello and goodbye. / I like to hug but not shake hands." It goes on to list more rather inane likes and dislikes and ends, "I could continue with more examples / but I'd rather give too few / than too many. The thought of no one listening anymore-- / I like that least of all." Well no shit. You're a poet. It's a universal sentiment, sure, but not a terribly insightful one or even a unique way of putting it. Schultz even writes a lot about dogs and I'm a dog lover and a sucker for dog poems, but his dog poems didn't hold me. The only poem that did anything for me was the title poem, "Failure," which is really quite good.

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read a stock eulogy
about a man who didn't belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son
and wife of the dead man
being shamed by each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy.
An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand. Indeed,
my father was comical.
His watches pinched, he tripped
on his pant cuffs and snored
loudly in movies, where
his weariness overcame him
finally. He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.

(Philip Schultz, from Failure, 2007 Harcourt).

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