I left a few poems in shitholes. Real, actual shitholes.
by Nathan Leonard
On a piece of toilet paper
Afloat in the unflushed piss,
The fully printed lips of a woman.
Nathan, cheer up! The sewer
Sends you a big red kiss.
Ah, nothing’s wasted, if it’s human.
And in a Starbuck’s bathroom—
by Molly Peacock
The smoky smell of menses—Ma always
left the bathroom door open—smote the hall
the way the elephant-house smell dazed
the crowd in the vestibule at the zoo, all
holding their noses yet pushing toward it.
The warm smell of kept blood and the tinny
smell of fresh blood would make any child quit
playing and wander in toward the skinny
feet, bulldog calves, and doe moose flanks planted
on either side of the porcelain bowl
below the blurry mons. The oxblood napkin landed
in the wastecan. The wise eyes of elephants roll
above their flanks, bellies and rag-tear ears
in a permeable enormity of smell’s
majesty and pungency; and benignity. Years
of months roll away what each month tells:
God, what animals we are, huge of haunch
bloody and wise in the stench of bosk.
I’ve always appreciated bathroom humor and bathroom stories. Yes, it’s juvenile, but maybe there’s more to it. Maybe what’s at the bottom of my fascination is this, from the penultimate line of Molly Peacock’s “Smell”—
God, what animals we are
I could go on, I could discuss how shitting is a unifying act, how everyone throughout human history from the beginning of time to now, from the powerful to the lowly, regardless of class, race, religion, sexual orientation, and occupation has to shit on a regular basis, has to see it and smell it and understand that it came from inside the body, how it belongs to each of us.
But I’ll end there. Enjoy the poems.
Nathan Leonard (1924-2007) was born in California, served in the army and went to UC Berkley on the GI Bill. He earned a PhD in 1961 and taught rhetoric until he retired in his 70’s.
I had never heard of Leonard, but he seems to have been a big deal in the literary world. He won many awards including the Guggenheim and was widely published in magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers and The Atlantic. I was interested to learn that he collaborated with Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz and that he translated Polish poets Anna Swir and Aleksander Wat—“Bladder Song” has an Eastern European sensibility to my mind, that touch of dark humor and that effect of speaking from the heart without being maudlin.
Relevant to the poem I’ve posted, Poetry Foundation quotes Leonard as follows:
“Every poet has one or two compulsive themes. One of mine is how to make things fit together that don’t but should; the other is getting down far enough below a surface to see if something is still worth praising. Over the years and without self-consciously trying, I have moved closer and closer to the human voice in my verse. But I have also tried to keep a quality in it—for lack of a better word I call it eloquence—that makes it more than conversation. My hope is to be clear, true, and good listening.”
Leonard and his wife Carol had three children. He died of complications of Alzheimer’s.
Poet, biographer, essayist, fiction writer, memoirist, and performer, Molly Peacock is one of those artists whose creativity can’t be contained in any one pursuit.
She was born in Buffalo, New York in 1947 to a working class family. Her father was an alcoholic and her home life was turbulent. Early influences include her mother, an avid reader; her grandmother, a farmer, who sent her poems in the mail cut out from the newspaper; and an encouraging seventh grade teacher. The first in her family to go to college, Peacock graduated from SUNY at Binghamton and earned her Masters degree at Johns Hopkins. She taught for eleven years in a Quaker middle school before becoming a full-time poet.
She has served as poet-in-residence at many universities, published eight books of poetry, won numerous awards, wrote and performed a one-woman off-Broadway show, and was president of the Poetry Society of America. Her longtime interest in making poetry accessible to a wider audience led her to start the Best Canadian Poetry series, write a book on how to read poetry and start a poetry circle (that’s actually the title of the book), and co-create the Poetry in Motion project, which places poems in subways and buses.
Peacock lives in Toronto with her husband, a James Joyce scholar and her one-time high school boyfriend. She returns to New York to teach a seminar at the 92nd Y. She also works with aspiring poets and memoirist apprentice-style, one-on-one, and is known as a generous teacher.