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Hearing the phrase “Kung Flu” used to describe COVID-19 reminded me to reread a poem, “Constance Bennett,” by Robert Hershon, which was included in his chapbook Freeze Frame (Pressed Wafer, 2015).
Constance Bennett That’s the bitch who hit Richard Barthelmess in the face with a whip my father always said when he saw her face on the screen He never forgave or forgot or entertained reality even when it was her obituary flashing briefly across the news
The scene Hershon’s father cannot forgive is from the pre-code film Son of the Gods (1930), starring Bennett and Barthelmess, and directed by Frank Lloyd, who is best known for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable.
In the film, Sam Lee (played by Barthelmess) is Chinese, but can pass for white. He hides the fact that he is “a dirty yellow Chinaman” when he meets Allana Wagner (played by Bennett). When Wagner discovers Lee is Chinese (which Barthelmess isn’t, by the way, but I won’t say more on that here) she begins beating Lee across the face with her riding crop.
Watching that scene of vicious humiliation, I realized that I was watching America’s collective hatred of the Chinese rolled into an entertaining scene, embodied by Bennett, who later co-starred with Cary Grant in Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1939), and I did not hold her responsible.
Rereading the poem made me go back to other books by Hershon that I had on my shelf and wonder why he is not better known. For one thing, he seems to have seen every film ever made, but, more importantly, he remembers all the scenes. What other poet could have written a poem titled “Myrna Loy in Real Life” that opens with these lines:
Myrna Loy was never lewd with Harold Lloyd She never lay with Turhan Bey and never lied To Alan Ladd. She was locked in the can with Richard Loo, true, and once allowed Edmond Lowe — but look […]
As casual and offhand as this poem first seems, it is clear that Hershon is especially attentive to sound (lewd/Lloyd, lay/Bey, lied/Ladd) and wordplay (can/Loo). There is nothing casual about his work.
Hershon was born in Brooklyn in 1936. He was one of the founders of Hanging Loose Press in 1966, which started out as a magazine (and is still going strong) and later began publishing books. According to its website, the press has published more than 220 books, including first books by these authors: Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, D. Nurkse, Jack Agüeros, Cathy Park Hong, Eula Biss, Joanna Fuhrman, Hayan Charara, Maggie Nelson, Indran Amirthanayagam, R. Zamora Linmark, and Beth Bosworth. Is there another poet in America who has championed such a racially diverse group of poets, who has, as they say, put their money where their mouth is?
Hershon writes a plain-speaking poetry that originated with William Carlos Williams. His subject is his daily life. In his most recent book, End of the Business Day (Hanging Loose, 2019), he deals with getting old, as well as with memories that arise, often without warning, with age, as in the book’s first work. In “My Blood,” the poet is waiting to have his blood drawn, which we learn only after reading this passage:
My father, who was afraid of my mother’s craziness, of her screaming and paranoia, told my sister and me that we had to deal with her, that she was our responsibility because we were blood relations and he wasn’t. He had merely been married to her for fifty-five years, just passing through. But he was my blood relative and I carry the inheritance in a dented bucket.
For all its transparency and narrative drive, this is not confessional poetry. It is too nuanced for that, too alert to shifts in tone, to what is being heard in memory, to who is speaking, and to the turn from sentence to sentence, culminating unexpectedly in “dented bucket.”
The next block of prose begins: “As the technician prepared to take blood from my arm — four tubes this time — […].” Where Hershon goes from there is both surprising and riveting.
If you see enough movies — and I am sure Hershon has seen zillions — you often know how they are going to end after about 15 minutes, by which time you have been introduced to all the major characters. The challenge is to keep the viewer watching or, in the case of poetry, to keep the reader reading after the first few lines. Hershon might write about banal everyday incidents, but he never becomes predictable or, worse, boring.
He does not follow all the well-known narrative conventions; he does not end with revelations. There is a humor running through, a sense of the absurdity of life, and of being a poet writing about getting old, which does not make you special or grant you wisdom. “Headwear” begins:
After 35 years of sleeping naked I am wearing Uncle Fred pajamas I never used to get this cold What’s next? […]
After reading this poem, I checked Google and learned that there is a blog called Pajama Guy, but I am not sure where Uncle Fred fits in.
Despite the anxiety and memories and inescapable awareness of an aging body, Hershon is never a victim in his poetry, nor does he ever presume to be superior to the reader.
The poems don’t look the same on the page. He can be experimental without calling attention to it. While reading the newspaper, he writes “The Week in Review,” which begins:
Older than me Older than me Younger than me Older Met her once Older than me Suicides Don’t count Older than me […]
I cannot think of another contemporary poet who is willing to expose his vulnerability, worry, and pettiness through the lens of humor.
Hershon published his first book, Swans Loving Bears Burning the Melting Deer, in 1967 (New Books). In 1979, shortly after I moved to New York, Louisiana State University Press published The Public Hug: New and Selected Poems, which a mutual friend, Larry Zirlin, told me to read. In 1994, Hershon published Into a Punchline: Poems 1984-1994. Since then, with the exception of the chapbook from Pressed Wafer, he has published all his books through his own press, Hanging Loose.
Is this why Hershon isn’t better known? He self-publishes his own work. Does this mean he cannot apply for prizes or get recognized by the Poetry Society of America? Hershon was working as a news reporter in San Francisco when he began writing poetry in 1961 at the age of 25. He seems not to have ever been associated with any group — not the School of Quietude, the New York School, Neo-Surrealists, Flarf, or the Confessionalists. At some point, he moved back to New York from San Francisco and has lived here as long as I can remember. He has never sought out the marvelous because he knows he will experience it every day of his life. He never becomes sentimental about it either.
This is a poem he wrote on Bob Kaufman (1925 – 1986), whose Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Light, 2019) was recently published:
BOB KAUFMAN I never called the police when I heard Bob Kaufman getting beaten up in the alley behind the house in North Beach since it was always the police who were beating him. They loved the way he bit and kicked and scratched and never gave up. We were neighbors in 1959 — until I came home one night and saw his place had no door anymore. The cops had paid a call. The floor was an inch thick with trash and needles, and taped to the wall was a delivery bag that said: For All Your Drug Needs, See Your Neighborhood Pharmacist This was the Kaufman who circulated a petition to get Henry Wallace’s name on the ballot in West Virginia in 1948 and was arrested for jay- walking or some such by a friendly deputy who, as he threw him into the drunk tank, said Hey boys— I got a New York commie nigger kike for you. Now the city of San Francisco has named a street for him — an alley, indeed! — O this shameless old whore of a city! On the day after he died I read a NY audience an old poem of mine in which he appeared standing on a curb, afraid to step off. A man came up to me afterward to bemoan Bob’s untimely death. Untimely? It’s the bloody miracle of the century that Bob Kaufman lived till sixty. So many people seemed to be against the idea. (The German Lunatic, Hanging Loose Press, 2007, reprinted with permission)