July 2022

Summer Reading

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


    No beach reads here, though I do make a few recommendations. The long days, slow evenings, vacations, student free time combine to make summer an exceptionally good time to read.

Henrietta, Texas, Summer of 1964. I'm ten years old, between fourth and fifth grade, and in possession of my own library card. Henrietta is a town of around 5200 people, but it's the county seat so it has a small library, and one can walk anywhere. I need to read five books over the summer to acquire the coveted bookworm award, a pin in the shape of a cartoonish worm. I accomplish this feat the first week, and all the rest of that long season, I make the trek to the library between trips to the town swimming pool, small explorations, and, mostly, sitting on the front porch reading while my baby brother, who has just learned to pull himself up off the floor, leans on the screen door inside and watches. A particular favorite is a  series of kids' biographies of historical figures that come in matching orange covers. All summer my fingertips are stained orange.


"A ten-year-old boy stands

on the side of the street

and looks down to the edge

of town and beyond. Utterly clear

bright blue sky, just one

thin line at the western edge,

thunderstorms coming,

maybe a tornado, but for now

the air is still, dry and hot.

He turns and goes back to the porch

where he left his book."

(Excerpt from my poem, "Henrietta, TX, Summer 1964," originally published in Local News: Poetry About Small Towns.)


Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems is a perfect summer poetic companion. It fits into your pocket and contains mostly short poems written during his lunch breaks from his day job at the Museum of Modern Art. "Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations….while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal." (Jacket blurb of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition.) One of my favorite O'Hara poems—indeed favorite poems—takes place in the summer of 1959.


"It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

and I don't know the people who will feed me//

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   

casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton

of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing" (The Day Lady Died"; full poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42657/the-day-lady-died)


William Matthews captures a grittier side of summer in the city in "Morningside Heights, July."

"Haze. Three student violists boarding

a bus. A clatter of jackhammers.

Granular light. A film of sweat for primer

and the heat for a coat of paint.//

I never meant, she says.

But I thought, he replies. Two cabs almost

collide; someone yells fuck in Farsi.

I'm sorry, she says. The comforts

of loneliness fall in like a bad platoon.

The sky blurs—there's a storm coming

up or down. A lank cat slinks liquidly

around a corner. How familiar

it feels to feel strange, hollower

than a bassoon. A rill of chill air

in the leaves. A car alarm. Hail."

(Full poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42929/morningside-heights-july


The poetry of Walt Whitman encompasses just about everything in the American experience of his time—and much that is timeless. My very favorite Whitman poem is "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," which describes a late summer night on the Long Island shore during which the fledgling boy poet begins to find his voice and confronts for the first time the great questions that all poets face, Love, Sex, and Death.


"Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot….

A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,

Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,

I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,

Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,

A reminiscence sing."

The boy has discovered a pair of Mockingbirds, migrants from the South in that time, nesting near the beach. He imagines the male singing

"Shine! shine! shine!

Pour down your warmth, great sun!

While we bask, we two together."

Then, sadly, the female bird disappears, leaving the male to search and mourn. His song changes:

"Blow! blow! blow!

Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok's shore;

I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.

Yes, when the stars glisten'd,

All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,

Down almost amid the slapping waves,

Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call'd on his mate,

He pour'd forth the meanings which I of all men know."

After listening in rapture to the Mockingbird's song as it slowly dwindles from hope to grief, "the boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,

The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,

The aria's meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,

The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,

The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,

The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,

To the boy's soul's questions sullenly timing, some drown'd secret hissing,

To the outsetting bard." The young Walt is slowly discovering his vocation as poet.


I wish I could simply reprint the entire poem here instead of this inadequate summary, but it is available to the reader here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48858/out-of-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking


I said at the beginning that I was suggesting no beach reads herein, but it occurs to me that one could do worse that carry or pack a copy of Song of Myself on a summer vacation.

Happy Summer all!


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Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of four books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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