On a recent trip to New York City a made an obligatory stop at The Strand bookstore, quite possible the world’s best. Their poetry section is so rich with options that it is almost impossible not to make an interesting discovery.
Among the discoveries I made is Taylor Mali’s book “What Learning Leaves.” I picked it because the cover looks like a classic composition book, the type that are sold in drugstores all over the country, which I happen to love.
I also chose it because Mali is a four-time National Poetry Slam Champion, an original member of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and a teacher. Good thing I did because his work is fun, casual and intimate.
Here is one of my favorite poems from the collection, photographed to the right in, what else, a New York City yellow cab. The formatting is original:
WHAT MY FATHER TOLD ME ABOUT SEX, OR THE BIRDS, THE BEES, AND THE GRAVESTONES CEMENTED INTO OUR CHIMNEYDad, this one’s for you. Because everything you told me about sex turned out to be true.Because you could speak of sex and the penisas if they both went to Yale,were, in fact classmates of yours —the vagina, a dear old childhood friendfrom Holy Cross who used to comevisit on weekends religiously —because you could do this, it was youwho sat me one day on the hearthand gave me my Ive League sex education.On the hearth beneath the chimney,fashioned out of local rockexcept for the gravestones that you foundabandoned in the back field in ’66and brought to the mason, who crossed himselfand asked forgiveness before he sat them in stone:of the stones themselves,from Moses Grant, beloved husband and father,and from the white stone with no name,only the willow tree in bas relief,pressing itself out.Sex and death, linked in my mind from the get go.And like we were jumping into the fireto teach ourselves to swim,you gave me the facts of lifeas later you would give me the car keys,teaching me how to drivewhen all I knew about the family carwas how to turn her on,what to press to make her go faster.You called orgasm the ‘sneezy feeling’and to this day I sneeze when I get turned on.Is it you I have to thank for that?And is it your face I think I seebeyond the darkness of my headlights?Or is ti the gravestones in the chimneythat have cemented grief into every actof intimacy so that it’s barely noticeable,like a willow tree in bas relief,pressing itself out of white stone?