Changing the Record: A Poetry Collaboration in the ’70s and ’80s

By Ron Horning and David Lehman

Featured Image: “Four Crowned Cockatoos” by Samuel Jessurun de Masquita

We met late in 1972, when we lived two blocks from each other on Riverside Drive. Though Ron’s room in his apartment was easily quieter than David’s room in “The Barracks,” thus named because of the decibel levels achieved by the inhabitants (David’s roommates were a jazz disc jockey and poet, a veteran of the Marine Corps just back from Vietnam, and a TV-watching, football-twirling specialist in East Asian studies) and their many guests, Ron’s room was also less private, more subject to interruption, and did not have its own bathroom. The first poem we wrote together was written at the Barracks, and so were most of the others in 1973 and 1974. From almost the beginning, the idea was to write a book of poems, but the book never really gelled, either because there were too many other things to think about or because we didn’t know what, if anything, the poems and lines we were typing and writing added up to. We had a working title, or at least we toyed with some candidates. (A Phone of One’s Own captured David’s fancy for a time.) Many poems we started were left unfinished, and even the attempt to write poetry together stopped abruptly in 1975, when we both married for the first time, David in January, Ron in July.

Although each of us continued to write—everything from poems to advertising copy to reviews of just about anything reviewable—we did not write a poem together again for more than ten years, when Ron came crashing out of another marriage and found himself living in a shabby studio apartment further south in Brooklyn but still near the East River. He hadn’t been so happy in years, and David may have sensed this, because he suggested collaborating again and, when Ron said yes, David mailed him the beginning of a poem, for which Ron wrote some lines and then sent the poem back. David finished it, Ron added a few words, we both liked the poem, and that was that until Ron sent David the beginning of a second poem from Miami, where he was visiting his brother. We were off, and this time we were lucky. For no apparent reason (had he been reading that hilarious Timaeus again?), David had introduced Socrates into the first poem, and it did not take us long to realize that the relationship of Socrates and Plato, not as teacher and pupil or wise man and scribe but as two men on the street, any street, but especially the ones we knew or would like to know, was an apparently inexhaustible source of the kind of poems we could write together, true to life one line and off the wall the next, without in any way undermining the sincerity or authenticity of either extreme and the much more interesting world between. So it seemed, anyway, and what mattered most was that the poems not only kept coming but also suggested their own future and their own order.

The first set was named after a long-ago one-shot magazine, called Just Before Sailing, in which we had both participated; the second set, “The Vocalist,” was named in honor of the singers we both loved, never mind that they weren’t always the same ones; and we already knew that the manuscript’s overall title was The Unexamined Life. (This wasn’t the only time that Aristotle managed to register his disapproval of what we were doing, though he didn’t often quote Plato quoting Socrates to do so, but it was impossible to not like him or not listen to what he had to say. Socrates and Plato without Aristotle? That was unthinkable, and on Metropolitan Avenue, in Greenpoint, you could drink coffee or eat a hamburger at the Aristotle diner, as if to prove it.) Many of the poems in “The Vocalist” were written in August 1987, in Ithaca, New York, shortly after David moved into a house on Valentine Place. David has vivid memories of unpacking books and shelving them, reciting lines lifted at random while Ron recorded them in exact or altered form. We couldn’t always tell which was which. Listening to Billie Holiday’s cover of “I Can’t Get Started,” David heard “You’re so supreme. The lyrics come right off your scream,” when the song’s words actually read “You’re so supreme, / Lyrics I write of you, / Scheme, / Just for a sight of you, / Dream, / Both day and night of you; / And what good does it do?”

The third and last section had to be different from the first two, we felt, and so we decided, if that’s the right word, which it isn’t, to write three longish poems, one each and then the last one together. We finished our individual poems after Ron moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1987. Not all of the poems we wrote together in 1986 and ’87 were for The Unexamined Life. A poem called “Sports Illustrated,” for instance, replaces Socrates with Frank O’Hara and Plato with Ted Berrigan, and its Irish jazz Catholicism could be seen as a development of the intertwined Jewish and classical Greek preoccupations of the poems in the longer work if it did not in fact announce them. David came out to California several times to give poetry readings, and we wrote a few short poems on one of these visits, in a motel room on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from Aimee Semple McPherson’s golden girl, but not until Ron came back to the East Coast to visit friends, in the summer of 1989, and spent a week with David and his family in Ithaca, did we have a real opportunity to draft “Plato’s Retreat,” the last poem in The Unexamined Life and the poem from which the third section takes its name.

David had wanted to use this title for something almost since we met —since, possibly, he heard about the room in which Bette Midler sang at the Continental Baths. That August was beautifully hot, day and night, and we wrote in the living room, between swims in the morning at Potter’s Falls, afternoon work upstairs and down interrupted by bookshelf surfing, and wine before dinner. We worked on “Plato’s Retreat” every afternoon for a week, beginning each day where we had left off the day before. As usual, each of us wrote for as long as he felt, handing the legal pad to the other when finished, or when pausing to read aloud something remembered or just discovered, or when changing the record or going upstairs for more cigarettes, and it was clear to both of us when the poem and the book were finished. Or so we thought. We thought it was a day like any other, too.

Plato’s Retreat

                     Socrates yesterday, Plato today: the same man
                     A couple of years later, a couple of years younger.
                     No one could say when the change took place,
                     No one was there to videotape the moment
                     When he ran out of things not to say. According to Russell,
                     All of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato;
                     According to Plato, you wouldn’t want to lose your shadow,
                     Presuming that you could, and you can’t until the day you die.
                     So it might have been Socrates, or it might have been
                     His twin brother, who kissed the waitress’s Ferrari-red lips
                     And said, “I’m sorry.” And waited for the laconic reply.
                     There are summer days when you take a look around
                     And realize that it is life itself that is happening,
                     Not somebody’s description of it. The sky is overcast,
                     But things couldn’t be better. There is usually another
                     Person present when this feeling overpowers you
                     And she is usually of the opposite sex. But then,
                     So are you. It may be an open field after dark
                     Where you are, and the stars float past like fireflies.
                     This could have been reality, or it could have been Socrates’ mind.
                     It could have been Plato’s imagination, years after
                     Or months before the evening when the figure in the distance
                     Stood under the sky, without interference, and directly absorbed
                     A lesson that couldn’t be put into words while he was alive.
                     Or was it the beginning of an existence he wouldn’t have believed
                     Possible if it hadn’t been his own? How far he had traveled
                     In so short a time. At least that’s what it felt like:
                     As if the landscapes and the people in them were going by
                     At a clip of ninety miles an hour, give or take five minutes.
                     You’ve finally arrived, only now you’re going by
                     At ninety miles an hour, in somebody else’s car,
                     And the scenery is stockstill. You turn from the window
                     And start when you see that no one is behind the wheel.
                     If the body is the trapdoor of the soul, it’s easy to fall
                     A long way down. No need to say anything until you hit bottom.
                     Everyone else has gone home, if they were ever there in the first place.
                     You try to remember who some of these characters are,
                     And what they look like, and what they did
                     And to whom. Photographs don’t help, and even names
                     Are beside the point often enough to make you think
                     That it doesn’t make any difference whether you remember them
                     Or not. The point is the flicker of a cigarette lighter across the river
                     Seen by chance over the rim of a last cup of coffee.
                     It’s like trying to live without nervousness: when you succeed
                     You’re not really sure it was worth the effort.
                     Can you change your mind? According to Socrates,
                     Nervousness is an inspiration, but Plato had never understood
                     What that meant, since for him everything Socrates said
                     Was equally inspiring—a mirror of sorts, with brilliant depths
                     Into which he had looked so long that he had stopped seeing
                     His own face. What Socrates called inspiration was a euphemism
                     For falling in love with someone else’s wife. He knew
                     All women were married, or had been. The purpose of the exercise
                     Was the fall, not the crash landing, cushioned though the jolt
                     Might be. And the fall was a euphemism, too. Peering into the glass,
                     Plato saw the room gradually fill up with people he recognized.
                     They had drinks in their hands and clothes on their bodies,
                     And they all looked back at him as though they belonged there.
                     Which is what happens when you introduce the element
                     Of time into an equation and multiply it by the speed
                     Of light, slowed down only by knowing that no experience
                     Can be duplicated anyway, except in a paranoid fantasy
                     Of beauty in the eye of the beholder, whether malignant
                     Or benign, like the portrait of a tumor
                     Destined to go undetected in the artist’s studio,
                     Where the gray strip of a painting in progress
                     Clashes with the color of the sky, still black and white,
                     And you don’t have to look out the window to tell.
                     The sky repeats itself all day long. And the man
                     Suffering from vertigo falls in love with the same woman
                     Twice, only the second time she’s not the same,
                     There’s something slightly different about her eyes
                     Or her mouth, and it’s this difference that enchanted the painter,
                     Or so he told himself. He was too old to forget easily
                     That he had changed his mind before, about everything.
                     Change was what he wanted, the change of the seasons accelerated
                     By the racing blood of a man whose heart beat twice as fast
                     As anyone else’s. The painter’s twin brother, meanwhile,
                     Remained in the open field with the fireflies and the planets,
                     Whichever came first, and surrounded by swallows.
                     Trees are still green after dark. Now they look taller.
                     In unseen houses beyond the oaks, lights went on.
                     Families lived there, procreating, playing with toys,
                     Opening their mouths at intervals and then shutting them,
                     Waiting for the sound of rain which always precedes
                     The fall of rain, and silver threads of lightning. He took the woman
                     By the hand and ran with her across the field, to the highway
                     Where she said she had parked. He knew very little
                     About her, but he wanted to get away, as far away
                     As he could, and then go farther, and her appearance
                     At just that moment went to his head like a third martini.
                     He trusted her implicitly. Soon they were driving
                     Along the Champs Elysées in a convertible. It was 1940.
                     She had the rare ability to transport anyone to the year of her choice.
                     Why me, he wondered. Why had she chosen him, why 1940,
                     And why Paris? Didn’t she know about the upcoming invasion?
                     “You see,” she said, “we’ve met once before but you don’t
                     Remember. You’ll never see me the same way twice,
                     Wearing the same silky dress, the same hell-black hair.
                     I wanted you to have Paris with me so you’d know
                     What you were missing when you came back here,
                     Thinking it was for the first time, in 1968.”
                     “But why me,” he asked, after they checked into the hotel,
                     And the bellboy bowed, and closed the door to their suite.
                     One question at a time: he’d find out about
                     The year and the city later. She kissed his eyelids
                     For an answer. “Don’t you know who I am,”
                     She said, in a low voice but as if from far away.
                     He was reasonably sure that she too was somebody else’s wife,
                     But life wasn’t a reasonable affair, and for a split second
                     He was afraid that if he opened his eyes again,
                     She would be gone. Life was a darkened living room
                     And she stood in front of the oval mirror, brushing out
                     Her hair with long even sweeps, one after the other,
                     Waves breaking on a beach in Brazil. He wasn’t about to question
                     His good fortune, though he couldn’t explain it. What had he done
                     To deserve the blind sequence of days that led them both
                     From their separate worlds to the lengthening shadows
                     Of the bottle of wine airing on the table behind them,
                     The two long-stemmed glasses, the forget-me-nots trembling
                     In the porcelain vase? Watching her dress ripple, he thought
                     He recognized her, but then he realized she was more
                     Than one person, many of whom he had never seen before.
                     “It’s strange,” he said, “to be in a city where you don’t know
                     A single soul.” “Oh, I have lots of friends here,”
                     She answered, “and you’ll probably meet most of them
                     Tonight. But isn’t being alone enough, at least for now?”
                     As his fingers closed around the barrel of the bottle,
                     He realized that it could be dusk and dawn at the same time:
                     The twelve hours between didn’t exist, so strong was her perfume.
                     He memorized the fragrance without trying. He had
                     Fallen in love with her before, and he would keep falling.
                     It was better that way, and usually impossible. Only here
                     Could it happen, and with someone of the opposite sex.
                     The afternoon slept between them. They were too tired
                     To sleep themselves, and too happy to admit it. Besides,
                     Neither of them was used to sleeping in the other’s presence
                     And each was content to postpone the pleasure and thereby
                     Prolong it. At this rate, certainly, it would never be over.
                     “Do you think we should get up,” he asked again, later,
                     And by the time he came back from the bathroom, she was dressed
                     And gone. He heard the wire cage closing when he stepped
                     Into the corridor, and reached the elevator shaft in time to see
                     The arrow swing from two to one and to hear the door pushed open
                     On the ground floor. In New York or Athens he would have tried
                     To follow her, by car or on foot, in a taxi, down subway steps,
                     Through museums and ruins, but never having been in Paris before,
                     And lacking an identity card, he judged it wiser to wait.
                     The phone stopped ringing. It was then he figured out
                     How space could turn into time, and vice versa, interchangeably.
                     The knowledge left him feeling curiously indifferent, as though
                     The mood of the information it contained were simultaneously
                     Subjunctive and declarative. Odd it was to be a citizen
                     Of two different years at once, one in the past, one in the future,
                     But there was no stopping her from leaving, now or ever,
                     No way to seize the globe without arresting its motion,
                     No way to catch the butterfly without bruising its wings,
                     No way to enlarge the moment without bursting its contours.
                     First the scent that she had left behind would evaporate,
                     Then the imprint of her naked body on the tossing sheets,
                     And finally her memory, or his memory of her. This had happened
                     Before, but with whom? Did it really matter? And even if it did,
                     There was no reason to argue with happiness, however brief,
                     However unlikely. Everywhere you went you saw poverty and disease,
                     Heard rumors of revolution, and sensed the general unease.
                     Sometimes you felt like joining in, but you didn’t know how.
                     Was this a curse in disguise, or was it just the way things were
                     In the living room? The real problem lay elsewhere,
                     Back on the meadow, in the rain, a couple of years later.
                     Socrates now, Plato tonight: both crying because the day
                     Had ended, and both of them were you, and would always
                     Be you, perplexed and angry at having been left behind.

David Lehman’s books include One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir (Cornell University Press, 2019) and Playlist: A Poem (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He has written nonfiction books about the New York School of poets, classic American popular songs, Frank Sinatra, and mystery novels, among other subjects.

Originally appeared in NOR 11.

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