Arnie Reisman Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate
Clara Bow Died for Our Sins
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 27, 2015
Clara Bow Died for Our Sins: Selected Poems and Photographs
By Arnie Reisman
Foreword by Nancy Slonim Aronie
Summerset Press, 2015
Oak Bluffs, Mass. 02557
84 Pages, illustrated
Recently Arnie Reisman, the Poet Laureate of Martha’s Vinyard, and I exchanged our first books of verse.
For Arnie I inscribed “For my first and best editor.” He wrote “This is what happens when you retire. Enjoy!”
Who knew it would come down to this.
Don’t great poets die young?
Or quit and become gun runners in Africa like Rimbaud?
Isn’t poetry about youthful exuberance from sanguine rockets bursting and expiring before the drudgery of living long enough to write novels and plays.
In our dotage aren’t we supposed to do other things? Like sit on the porch with tea and biscuits. Drool in our porridge and stuff like that.
Since receiving the book “Clara Bow Died for Our Sins: Selected Poems and Photographs” I have been reading them in chunks with coffee and bits of breakfast.
It reminded me of a blind Viking friend, Moondog, who I hung out with in his fleabag, roach infested, room near Times Square. He composed poems that he handed to those who filled his beggar’s bowl. He talked with me about Canons and Coffee. It was a morning ritual before getting into Viking drag to hit the pavement singing for his supper.
But Arnie informs us of a life with his wife the TV journalist, Paula Lyons. There is a poem to her but equal time for the golden lab Floyd.
In 2011 they left careers in journalism and as he puts it were “Washashores” on that bucolic island off the coast of Cape Cod. They have become year-rounders. You have to take the ferry, not cheap, to get off island and back to the hustle and bustle of a world, as he reminds us in some of the poems, going to hell in a handbasket.
It must have been exhilarating to leave it all behind and find this refuge as we await the inevitable. Mortality is a major theme in his poems. There is a lot of speculation on God and the friggin universe.
To quote from “Stand Up Tragedy” he writes “Last Month at the Cape Cod Club at the Ishtar Hotel/ God came out, did twenty minutes and killed/ slayed, laid them in the aisles/ last week he came back and died, dropped dead…His timing was off/ some said it was the wrong crowd…”
The Creator as a standup comic!
That’s so Arnie in a suite of poems that swing like a pendulum through topics great and small with wit, irony, plus all the right herbs and spices.
Yesterday I was about to leave the house. On my way to a meeting of loft owners where I was running for the board. I showered and threw on a t-shirt. Something old and grubby that read Vincent across my chest.
Astrid wanted me to change into something brighter and more vote inducing.
Being stubborn I didn’t and won a seat anyway.
But seizing the opportunity I asked her to sit a minute while I read to her Arnie’s poem “A State of the Union.” It covered precisely the issue at hand; the topic of wives wanting their spouses to look more presentable.
He wrote “ ‘You’re not going out wearing that are you?’ / A question that has no proper answer/ Say yes, and you’re defiant bordering on belligerent/ Say no, and you’re weak, bordering on defeated.”
We had a good laugh about that. Like Arnie clothes keep me warn in winter and cool in summer. They cover my no longer agile body. Although I try to look decent when we go to theatre. I even bought some new pants that fit me. Astrid, of course, as ladies tend to, always looks ravishing. They care in a way that, guys, or at least guys who are really guys, don’t.
It is comforting to me, reading his poems, that he has the same concerns. The other night in a restaurant with friends I so enjoyed hearing our friends reveal that they also argue. That’s such a comfort to me that other guys are at least as bad as I am. Although In 20 years of being together I would like to think there has been some progress.
Through this verse I feel so akin to Arnie. We are the same age and share a liberal Jewish education. After college our paths converged then diverged. Now, late in life, old farts, we are crisscrossing yet again. Sharing what Somerset Maugham called The Summing Up.
There is such compelling commonality.
For my next book I have been researching Irish ancestors for the project Nugents of Rockport. That has entailed scanning and Photoshopping numerous faded images from decaying albums.
That process of unearthing and identifying ancestors jumped out at me in his poem “Keepsake.” It is about a vintage family portrait of a bride and nine bridesmaids. There is also the boy, Arnie, who was the ring bearer. The poem is about attempts through relatives to identify the bridal group. The frustration and dead ends of that process resonated with my own research.
On the one hand why should we care about someone else’s family? But I have identified a very American obsession for knowing who we are and where we came from. I have had e mails from cousins who tell me that they have never seen images of their grandparents. My research goes back two further generations. Then there are relatives who don’t bother to respond.
Arnie was the first editor who thought my stuff was worth publishing. Thinking back on my articles for the Brandeis Justice it was the embryo of gonzo journalism. I wrote about Inuit sculptures and an abstracted, coded account of my first LSD trip. It is amazing that he went along with this.
He was the kind of editor who encouraged you and shared a sense of humor about it.
After a summer in the Underground Press for Avatar that fall he hired me as the design director for Boston After Dark which later merged and morphed into the Boston Phoenix. I was a total bust in that gig but stayed on writing Art Bag a collection of art reviews for fifty bucks a week. With a friend, Jim Silin, who allowed me to live rent free, and a lot of brown rice, it proved to be a living wage.
I went on to a full time gig at the daily Herald Traveler and Arnie progressed to documentary film. Hollywood on Trial earned an Oscar nomination. He did projects for PBS. With Paula they have been regulars on the NPR comedy show Says You! since its debut in 1996.
His dark comedy Not Constantinople premiered at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in June, 2015.
Settling in on the island entailed daily walks on the beach with Floyd. There are photos of the dog in the book. In reality it is really dogs that take their masters for walks. These lasted well into the cusp of bitter winter when the beach is cold and ominous. While Floyd plunged into the ocean, as Labs will do, he photographed the gnarly bottoms of overturned boats on the beach.
I was shocked and saddened to learn that their walks ended when Floyd died in 2013.
Which is why I can’t have pets anymore. Their death is too shattering. After a couple of months of dating, Astrid talked me into burying my parakeet Dizzy Gillespie stiff on the bottom of its cage. With proper ceremony we put it to rest in the garden.
Mostly Arnie is a very funny guy. He is always quick to laugh and get others to join him. There is much of that in this nicely designed and well illustrated book.
Then there are thunderbolts that stopped me in my tracks. Consider The Man in the Moon is Upside Down in Argentina. It is about the disappeared and we wonder where that came from. There is the curious title piece Clara Bow Died for Our Sins. During the era of silent film she was the It Girl. He explores Itness with many variations.
We are very similar and yet so different. While I am total gonzo he is not. Arnie is more like a deconstructed Borscht Belt standup comic. For whom mortality is a grim joke. To me it is all theatre of the absurd with mankind wandering in the wasteland waiting for Godot.
There is a shared search for meaning. We are writing these late books of poetry with hope of legacy and finding inspiration in the past. For Arnie inspiration comes through history, film, comedy and theatre while for me it's Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Kerouac, Miles and bop. Who knew Camus.
Like Arnie I mourn the loss of Floyd in all of us. Perhaps heaven, at least on earth, is walking a dog on a beach. When that ends all that’s left is writing poetry, Which, come to think of it, is like a walk by the sea.