Monday, April 05, 2010

The Night I Almost Died

Ten years ago I was living in this cute third floor attic apartment in New Haven.

(Sunny Norton Street)

A decade ago, on April 5th, 2000, I was heading to bed late that night after staying up late going through photos and letters I was sending to Ireland. My family and I were about a month home from my cousin James’ wedding in Newcastle and I was sending off copies of photos I took to the sundry relatives.  Around midnight I realized I had to be up early the next morning and hurried off to bed.  My cat, Pye, was in heat so rather than have her mewling all night, I put her in her cat-tote and went to bed.

About an hour later, I was awoken by noises that sounded like wood being picked apart.  My first thought was of the hippies on the floor below me, who were partying early that night, and that maybe some drunk was trying to get into my apartment by breaking the door.  I put my glasses and slippers on and reached for the lamp by the bed.  When it didn’t turn on and neither did the room light, I grabbed a flashlight I had by the bed and headed to the large closet next to my bedroom that served as a utility closet and storage space and housed the breakers and the hot water heater. I opened the door and BLOOOOM! A cloud of smoke and flame shot out at me - the wall and roof of the closet were wreathed with Fire.

I stood there, dumbfounded for about ten seconds while the concept that my home was on Fire slid into my brain and then a half second of wondering if the water spray nozzle from the sink could have reached here, when the realization that the Fire was in the same room as the gas heater slapped me awake. I ran for the door, grabbing the cat-tote and the cell phone, madly dialing 911.


“My house is on Fire!!!!”

911 told me the fire department was on the way and to get everyone out of the house.  I knew that the Fire probably cut the power so I started banging on the first floor door and then running back up to the second floor and pounded as loud as I could on their door.  Smoke was now descending from my third floor door to the landing on the second.  It could have only been about 60 seconds from my discovery to that moment, but already the smoke was making it difficult to see so when the smoke pushed me back, I headed to the porch.  The girls on the first floor cracked their door open giving me a wary eye until I yelled that the place was on Fire!  (I remember being frantic - they later told me I was very calm).  One of the girls said the hippies on the second floor had gone out earlier so they probably where not home.

We stood across the street.  In the 5 minutes it took the fire department to arrive, thick smoke was now billowing out of my closed windows and climbing skyward.  I saw light on the roof, the roof above my bed, that was the Fire breaking through to the outside.  Suddenly the cold freezing April morning hit me and I wished I took a coat or my keys or a blanket or even my wallet and I stood there shivering in my T-shirt and pajamas.

We watched the firemen pour into the house.  At one point I turned to someone and said “the roof - the roof is on fire!” and laughed at my unintentional reference. A ladder truck dropped men onto the roof where they started attacking the roof with axes.  Inside, they started breaking all the windows.  The shattering of glass with fire axes sounds just like it does in movies. 

One of the hippies’ girlfriend suddenly appeared next to us.  She had been asleep on the second floor and woke up to an apartment full of smoke and firemen.  Everyone in our normally quiet neighborhood was now up.  The old drunk who in the house next to us muttered “ain’t it awful when bad t’ings happen to good people?” before tottering back to his place, next to our still burning house. 

I started to shiver hard now, my teeth chattering, from the cold and from nerves.  A few of the firemen slipped on the front stoop when water from their hoses leaked and froze. A neighbor, who I never met, gave us sweaters and in all that craziness I don’t know if I ever thanked her for that spot of kindness.  And there were a few times I stood there, ready to retch and release that knot in my stomach that kept rising, especially when I saw through my skylight how the fire was all over the ceiling and walls in my apartment.

20 minutes in, the commissary truck arrived giving out water and lemonade to the exhausted firemen.  I overheard one of them talk about how hot and intense the Fire was.  Some of the firemen apologized for not saving things like the large collection of comics I had.  They were all very gracious. They told me they tried to save all the photo albums and pictures I had and took stuff off the wall and put tarps over them to protect them.

An hour later it was over.  They told us that the inspector would be there soon to check out the place and would allow us to go in an get a few things.  I made a call to my parents that started out “Dad? It’s me.  Listen.  I’m all right but my house was on Fire and the cat and I will need to come up in a little while.  No you don’t have to come down.”

About 3 am they let the first floor in.  Then the second.  Then me.

It was a holocaust.  Worse than I thought.  What the Fire didn’t burn nor the smoke did not scorch and stain, the water drowned and axes broke.  I walked around carefully in a daze, stepping through my soggy wet house wondering what to take.  My journals.  My photo albums. My clothes.  Keys.  Wallet.  Coat.  Check book.  Camera.  Glasses. A certain 20 books out of 1200.  I now know the answer to the question of what I would take from a burning building.

When left the house, my parents were standing there waiting for me, having driven down from Bethany to get me.   I lost it then.  Packed my cat and what I had and they took me home.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

April Is National Poetry Month

The Poem as a verbal illuminated manuscript.

I met Amy Clampitt at an underattended reading in college.  She was small and slight, but had such a robust way with words that made her seem bigger.  Years pass, but I can still recall this small woman reciting this poem and letting each image unfold before us, word by word.

The Kingfisher

In a year the nightingales were said to be so loud

they drowned out slumber, and peafowl strolled screaming

beside the ruined nunnery, through the long evening

of a dazzled pub crawl, the halcyon color, portholed

by those eye-spots’ stunning tapestry, unsettled

the pastoral nightfall with amazements opening.

Months later, intermission in a pub on Fifty-fifth Street

found one of them still breathless, the other quizzical,

acting the philistine, puncturing Stravinsky—“Tell

me, what was that racket in the orchestra about?”—

hauling down the Firebird, harum-scarum, like a kite,

a burnished, breathing wreck that didn’t hurt at all.

Among the Bronx Zoo’s exiled jungle fowl, they heard

through the headphones of a separating panic, the bellbird

reiterate its single chong, a scream nobody answered.

When he mourned, “The poetry is gone,” she quailed,

seeing how his hands shook, sobered into feeling old. 

By midnight, yet another fifth would have been killed.

A Sunday morning, the November of their cataclysm

(Dylan Thomas brought in in extremis to St. Vincent’s, 

that same week, a symptomatic datum) found them

wandering a downtown churchyard. Among its headstones,

while from unruined choirs the noise of Christendom

poured over Wall Street, a benison in vestments,

a late thrush paused, in transit from some grizzled

spruce bog to the humid equatorial fireside: berry-

eyed, bark-brown above, with dark hints of trauma

in the stigmata of its underparts—or so, too bruised

just then to have invented anything so fancy,

later, re-embroidering a retrospect, she had supposed.

In gray England, years of muted recrimination (then

dead silence) later, she could not have said how many

spoiled takeoffs, how many entanglements gone sodden,

how many gaudy evenings made frantic by just one

insomniac nightingale, how many liaisons gone down
creaming in a stroll beside the ruined nunnery;

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color

of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow

through landscapes of untended memory: ardor

illuminating with its terrifying currency

now no mere glimpse, no porthole vista

but, down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow.

- Amy Clampitt

Friday, April 02, 2010

April is National Poetry Month

I like this poem because it typifies Neruda's incredible imagination and how poetry can come from the most mundane things.   Just look around you and see "the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower..."

Ode to the Table

I worked out my odes
on a four-legged table,
laying before me bread and wine
and roast meet
(that block boat
of our dreams).
Sometimes I set out scissors cups and nails,
hammer and carnations.
Tables are trustworthy:
titanic quadrupeds,
they sustain
our hopes and our daily like.
The rich man's table,
scrolled and shining,
a fabulous ship
bearing bunches of fruit
Gluttony's table in a wonder,
piled high with Gothic lobsters,
and there is also a lonesome
table in our aunt's dining room,
is summer. They've closed
the curtains,
and a single ray of summer light
strikes like a sword
upon this table sitting in the dark
and greets the plum's transparent peace.
And there is a faraway table, a humble table,
where they're weaving
a wreath
for a dead miner.
That table gives off the chilling odor
of a man's wasted pain.
There's a table
in a shadowy room nearby
that love sets ablaze with its flames.
A woman's glove was left behind there,
trembling like a husk of fire.
The world
is a table
engulfed in honey and smoke,
smothered by apples and blood.
The table is already set,
and we know the truth
as soon as we are called:
whether we're called to war or to dinner
we will have to choose sides,
have to know
how we'll dress
to sit
at the long table,
whether we'll wear the pants of hate
or the shirt of love, freshly laundered.
It's time to decide,
they're calling:
boys and girls,
let's eat!

-Pablo Neruda

Thursday, April 01, 2010

April is National Poetry Month

And in celebration, I'm posting some of my favorite poems or just ones that have a personal meaning.

The picture left contains a view of most of my poetry books.  Not sure if you can see everything, but there's a little forest of note paper sprouting up from the top edges of the books to mark a particularly favorite poem.  Sometimes I'll go a wandering through my library and rediscover an old poem which, like a song or a smell or taste, can transport me back in a memory to a specific time and place.

The e.e.cummings poem I'm sharing is one of my favorites and particularly appropriate on a gloriously beautiful April day like today.  And after The Fire, it was a reminder just how beautiful the world can be.

i thank you God for most this amazing 
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened) 
-e. e. cummings

I recommend you all go out and try to memorize at least one poem.