Failure: Poems

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-04-06
  • Publisher: Lightning Source Inc

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This superb Pulitzer Prize-winning collection gives voice to failure with a wry, deft touch from one of this country's most engaging and uncompromising poets. In "Failure", Philip Schultz evokes the pleasures of family, marriage, beaches, and dogs; New York City in the 1970s; revolutions both interior and exterior; and the terrors of 9/11 with a compassion that demonstrates he is a master of the bittersweet and fierce, the wondrous and direct, and the brilliantly provocative. Filled with poems of "heart-breaking tenderness that [go] beyond mere pity" (Gerald Stern), "Failure" is a collection to savor from this major American poet.

Author Biography

PHILIP SCHULTZ is the author of five collections of poetry, including the National Book Award nominee Like Wings. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he is also the founder of the Writers Studio in New York.


It’s Sunday Morning in Early November
and there are a lot of leaves already.
I could rake and get a head start.
The boys’ summer toys need to be put
in the basement. I could clean it out
or fix the broken storm window.
When Eli gets home from Sunday school,
I could take him fishing. I don’t fish
but I could learn to. I could show him
how much fun it is. We don’t do as much
as we used to do. And my wife, there’s
so much I haven’t told her lately,
about how quickly my soul is aging,
how it feels like a basement I keep filling
with everything I’m tired of surviving.
I could take a walk with my wife and try
to explain the ghosts I can’t stop speaking to.
Or I could read all those books piling up
about the beginning of the end of understanding . . .
Meanwhile, it’s such a beautiful morning,
the changing colors, the hypnotic light.
I could sit by the window watching the leaves,
which seem to know exactly how to fall
from one moment to the next. Or I could lose
everything and have to begin over again.

Talking to Ourselves

 A woman in my doctor’s office last week
couldn’t stop talking about Niagara Falls,
the difference between dog and deer ticks,
how her oldest boy, killed in Iraq, would lie
with her at night in the summer grass, singing
Puccini. Her eyes looked at me but saw only
the saffron swirls of the quivering heavens.
Yesterday, Mr. Miller, our tidy neighbor,
stopped under our lopsided maple to explain
how his wife of sixty years died last month
of Alzheimer’s. I stood there, listening to
his longing reach across the darkness with
each bruised breath of his eloquent singing.
This morning my five-year-old asked himself
why he’d come into the kitchen. I understood
he was thinking out loud, personifying himself,
but the intimacy of his small voice was surprising.
When my father’s vending business was failing,
he’d talk to himself while driving, his lips
silently moving, his black eyes deliquescent.
He didn’t care that I was there, listening,
what he was saying was too important.
“Too important,” I hear myself saying
in the kitchen, putting the dishes away,
and my wife looks up from her reading
and asks, “What’s that you said?”

I turned sixty in Paris last year.
We stayed at the Lutetia,
where the Gestapo headquartered
during the war, my wife, two boys, and me,
and several old Vietnamese ladies
carrying poodles with diamond collars.
Once my father caught a man
stealing cigarettes out of one
of his vending machines.
He didn’t stop choking him
until the pool hall stunk of excrement
and the body dropped to the floor
like a judgment.
When I was last in Paris
I was dirt poor, hiding
from the Vietnam War.
One night, in an old church,
I considered taking my life.
I didn’t know how to be so young
and not belong anywhere, stuck
among so many perplexing melodies.
I loved the low white buildings,
the ingratiating colors, the ancient light.
We couldn’t afford such luxury.
It was a matter of pride.
My father died bankrupt one week
before his sixtieth birthday.
I didn’t expect to have a family;
I didn’t expect happiness.
At the Lutetia everyone
dressed themselves like specimens
they’d loved all their lives.
Everyone floated down
red velvet hallways
like scintillating music
you hear only once or twice.
Driving home, my father said,
“Let anyone steal from you
and you’re not fit to live.”
I sat there, sliced by traffic lights,
not belonging to what he said.
I belonged to a scintillating
and perplexing music
I didn’t expect to hear.

The Summer People
Santos, a strong, friendly man,
who built my wife’s sculpture studio,
fixed everything I couldn’t,
looked angry in town last week.
Then he stopped coming. We wondered
if we paid him enough, if he envied us.
Once he came over late to help me catch a bat
with a newspaper and trash basket.
He liked that I laughed at how scared I got.

We’re “year rounds,” what the locals call
summer people who live here full time.
Always in a hurry, the summer people honk a lot,
own bigger cars and houses. Once I beat a guy
in a pickup to a parking space, our summer sport.
“Lousy New Yorker!” he cried.
Every day now men from Guatemala, Ecuador,
and Mexico line up at the railroad station.
They know that they’re despised,
that no one likes having to share their rewards,
or being made to feel spiteful.
When my uncle Joe showed me the shotgun
he kept near the cash register
to scare the black migrants
who bought his overpriced beer and cold cuts
in his grocery outside of Rochester, N.Y.,
his eyes blazed like emerald suns.
It’s impossible to forget his eyes.
At parties the summer people
who moved here after 9/11
talk about all the things they had to give up.
It’s beautiful here, they say, but everything
is tentative and strange,
as if the beauty isn’t theirs to enjoy.
When I’m tired, my father’s accent
scrapes my tongue like a scythe.
He never cut our grass or knew
what grade I was in. He worked days,
nights, and weekends, but failed anyway.
Late at night, when he was too tired to sleep,
he’d stare out the window so powerfully
the world inside and outside
our house would disappear.   
In Guatemala, after working all day,
Santos studied to be an architect.
He suffered big dreams, his wife said.
My wife’s studio is magnificent.
We’d hear him up there in the dark,
hammering and singing, as if
he were the happiest man alive.

Copyright © 2007 by Philip Schultz
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