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Spinach Days and Other Poems

by Robert Phillips

These poems are published with permission of the author. Previously published in various journals, they are also part of his book Spinach Days.

I Remember, I Remember(Poem beginning with two lines by Yehuda Amichai)

The earth drinks people and their loves

like wine, in order to forget.

But I drink wine to remember.

I remember the day at school I thought

I had appendicitis. My father came,

supported me on both sides to the car,

into the doctor's. For that, when Gabriel

blows his horn, may Father be supported

on both sides to Heaven.

I remember the sensation of first love,

like falling down a mine shaft.

but shafts are dark, and all around

me was light, light, light. Her hair

light, and when we locked together

we were a dynamo generating light.

I remember not knowing what I wanted to do

in life. My ambitions scattered like newspapers

on lawns of people out of town.

until I had the right professor for

the right course. Suddenly I was on course

for what I'd do until the day I die.

I remember the day we were wed. In early

morning I walked down Marshall Street,

wanted to proclaim to everyone I met,

"I'm marrying a woman who makes me laugh,

a beautiful woman good as fresh-baked bread,

pure as a beach where no one walks."

I remember the day our son was born,

the longest day and night and day

of my life--imagine how long for her!

When the nurse brought our son to the window,

I was Robinson Crusoe discovering Friday's

footprint: stranger, companion, friend.

I remember, sometimes more than I care to,

the friend I let down unintentionally,

the brothers I hurt through simple silence,

the mother I didn't call often enough when

she was bedridden, weak as water. I even

remember a dog who wanted to play. I didn't.

I remember the day it was confirmed

one of my friends had been telling

lies about me for years - -

They cost me friends, a coveted job.

May his tongue be ripped out

and flung to the crows.

I collect memories the way some collect coins.

The memories fade like constellations at dawn.

Until my next glass of wine.

Spinach Days

The odor of cooking spinach

brings them back: summer

evenings, the world's richest

city, Manhatten before my senior year,

when Cadillacs grew tailfins,

Buddy Holly and The Crickets alarmed

parents, Eisenhower full of wind,

Mamie tippling at The Gettysburg Farm.

A blue-chip ad agency awarded

me an "internship." I was recruited

for a world I could not afford.

In my one wash-and-wear suit,

by day I worked in a skyscraper,

aluminum waterfall a lobby construct,

rooftop restaurant for highsteppers.

I wrote clever copy: HOOVER SUCKS

for a vacuum cleaner client,


to druggists for an astringent.

My boss rebuffed my greatest pitch,


though called it a good attempt.

By night I sweated in my room at the "Y,"

non-air-conditioned, ten dollars' weekly rent.

The one window overlooked an airshaft,

but not a whisper of air shafted there.

I hung a repro of a Picasso lithograph

to make the cell less austere.

Rickety desk pushed tight against the bed,

but not so tight as my budget—

fifty-two dollars a week divided

between rent, food, books, cigarettes—

not necessarily in that order.

Even then books took precedent:

A secondhand Sorrows of Young Werther

at The Strand meant total absence

of lunch. Dinners I was resigned

to the Horn & Hardart Automat.

Cheap entrees revolved behind

glass doors, or the vegetable platter—

any three off the steam table

for a total of forty-five cents.

I thought spinach would enable

me with Popeye's omnipotence.

It was mushy, foul, overcooked,

the water dark as octopus ink.

For the rest, mashed potatoes, crook-

neck squashed, or corn. I was delinquent

in The Great Food Chain, but content.

Near pay day, no money even for spinach,

I let myself into my aunt's apartment

when she was away, quickly dispatched

whatever was in the Frigidaire,

hoping she wouldn't miss it, or

forgive. Dates were free: Washington Square,

The Cloisters, Natural History dinosaurs,

Lewisohn Stadium concerts where some wag

strung banners, EXIT IN CASE OF BRAHMS.

Summer nights strollers could zigzag

through Central Park without qualm,

or so I thought, amble through Harlem

back to the East Side, my date

swinging her handbag like a pendulum,

past laughing Negroes who'd gravitate

to front stoops. (Not for decades will

we say Blacks, then Afro-Americans,

finally African Americans. Nothing's still,

how many changes in a short life span?).

Spinach brings it back: long showers

at the "Y," simply nothing else to do,

Dark Victory billed with Now, Voyager

at The Thalia, monkeys at the Bronx Zoo,

browsing that smorgasbord for bibliophiles,

The Gotham, hoping to catch a rising star.

Never did, only fading James T. Farrell

imbibing at the The Biltmore Men's Bar.

(The Biltmore Mens Bar! Even the name

is impossible today. But that was then.

All males, all crème de la crème,

leaned on the mahogany bar like deizens.)

I elevated atop The Empire State,

saw nothing but fog on foggy mist,

like the White on White immaculate

canvas at MoMa, post-Impressionist;

hung outside gated Patchen Place

waiting for Cummings to cross cobbles,

or Djuna Barnes. Neither showed face.

The White Horse, where Delmore hobnobbed,

I shared a pitcher of martinis (a pitcher!)

with two older, hard-drinking pals

who were paying. I paid—a spectacular

hangover for days left me horizontal.

By August the city was a cement inferno.

My boss promised to get me away

to his family's Nantucket bungalow.

He never asked, not even by Labor Day.

One young man invited me to The Pines,

a place I'd never heard of or been.

Co-workers advised I should decline.

Instead I swam alone at the "Y," chlorine

stinging my eyes. (Stripling-shaped,

one-hundred-fifty pounds dripping wet,

the fat man inside me hadn't yet escaped.

Decades later he scored his upset.)

Hive-like corridors buzzed with queens

(no one knew the word Gays) cruising

in BVDs, one café au lait called Josephine

because of his effeminate languishing.

Locked in my oppressive room I wrote

parents dutifully, on sticky sheets

slept intermittently, dreaming anecdotes

of fame. I filled notebooks with meters,

not ads. Lines spilled like cataracts.

On occasion I wonder if I were mislead.

But most days I think I would go back.

Spinach. Loneliness. The future ahead.

Letter to My Mother

You helped me pack for that milestone

event, first time away from home alone.

It didn't matter the summer camp was poor--

long on Jesus, short on funds--bordering

a tea-colored lake. No matter we could afford

only two weeks. To help get there I hoarded

months of allowances. I was ten, felt grown,

I finally was going somewhere on my own.

You folded the ironed tee-shirts and skivvies--

you even ironed and creased my dungarees.

In Southern drawl: "And of course you'll dress

for dinner!" you said, packing with the rest

my one blazer, dress shirts, and rep tie.

I didn't protest, I was an innocent stander-by.

(The suitcase was a new brown Samsonite.

Even empty that thing never was light.)

First exhilarating day--after softball, archery,

diving instruction (which I took to swimmingly)--

came rest hour. While others took a shower

or wrote postcards home, I dressed for dinner:

The white shirt, the pre-tied striped tie,

the navy jacket. In process I received a wry

glance from my counselor. The dinner bell tolled,

I felt every bit the gentlemen as I strolled

toward the rustic dining room. I entered,

the room exploded with boyish hoots and laughter,

pointing at me, the funniest thing they'd seen.

They still had on their shorts or jeans.

The rest of the two weeks were impossible.

Not chosen for any teams, called a fool,

Mother, I was miserable through and through.

But when I came home I never told you.

ThingsFor Diane Wakoski

No ideas but in things,

said Doc Williams.

Christ! I must have

an awful lot of ideas.

God knows I have

an awful lot of things.

I never have enjoyed

the luxury of living

with nothing, even


I never learned

the lesson of seeing

"isolate in the beauty

of separateness"

each thing by itself.

Unto itself, itself.

Jay Gatsby, opening the bureau

to display all his shirts…

I was planted in a crib

of things-- ducks, dolls,

rattlers of the non-poisonous

variety. Growing up I collected:

movie star photos, baseball cards,

matchbox cars. Live things, too:

My gerbils begat unto the umpteenth

generation. College years, things

worsened. I hated library books,

still do. Worth reading,

worth owning, my motto. Bookshelves

groaned. Paper napkins? Loathe them.

Linen closets groaned. Thoreau

would groan had he seen the van

big as the Mayflower (and so named)

lumbering toward Westchester

with all my unworldly possessions.

One-hundred-ninety cartons

of books alone. No, not alone,


The Collier Brothers, leaving

a houseful of newspapers…

At night I prowl the rooms

of my house, glass in hand,

to survey my things. "I'll weed

the library," I say. "Throw away

two hundred record albums"?

low-fidelity sound.

And just yesterday

they were the very thing.

Christ! I need things to keep

all my things in. And this year,

things got worse. I inherited

(of all things) Great Aunt Eva's

amber collection. Every surface

gleams--glass amber grapes,

amber apples, amber ashtrays

shaped like gentleman's top hats.

I've had to hire a housekeeper

just to dust the damned things.

McCullers said, "First learn

to love a tree, a rock, a cloud…"

I do, I do. I love shoe

trees, rock records, Rolls-Royce

Silver Clouds. Lord, help me

abandon these screens I stand

behind. Help me come to believe,

No things but in ideas.


One evening we toasted with whiskey sours

below Grand Central, in the Oyster Bar.

We sat at the rail, felt the world was ours.

We ordered some of every kind there are—

the Chincoteague, Box, Cotuit, Wellfleet…

You called their looks slimy, just like catarrh.

I quoted the poet, sounding effete:

"Oh, it was a brave man who first ate one!"

Feeling brave, we proceeded to eat.

We compared sizes, colors, con-

sistencies, all the nuances lovers

can extract from moments of pure fun.

Some we squirted with lime, some we covered

with horseradish or Tabasco. A few,

too salty, we sentenced to be smothered

in chilled cocktail sauce. With great ado

that night I showed you—the novice—the way

to act Mrs. Waters. You took my cue,

raised an oyster high overhead, in play

opened your mouth wide as the gates of hell

and sucked all the mollusk's juices away.

Darling, you learned that lesson much too well.

You took my copious feast, dumped the shell.

Never Date Yourself(-Remark by Rob House)

Why not? It increases your chances for a date

on Saturday nights. I'd called every unfortunate

in town, been shot down. So finally I telephoned

myself on my own phone mail, left a high-toned

message: I'd be picking myself up at eight-fifteen.

Took a long shower, struggled into Calvin Klein jeans.

Next Ralph Lauren sport coat, Gucci loafers, no sox.

Reeking of Chanel for Men, I felt quite cocksure.

I dropped the Corvette top, drove us to Cinema II.

Ironically, a double-feature, both Gerard Depardieu.

Bought us a popcorn dripping with extra butter,

we dived in with both hands, busy as a knitter.

In the dark my left hand held my right,

one thigh touched the other, just slightly.

Between features I had to go to the john.

In the aisle I glanced back, me seated alone.

After the show, paused for a smoke in the lot.

Myself lit my cigarette. It was almost erotic.

Then a fern bar filled with Yuppie scum.

We drank double Dewars, Tweedledee, Tweedledum,

resisted urges to pilot us to the dance

floor. Others doubtless would look askance.

Back home I slowly undressed, just one kiss

on the mouth in the bedroom mirror, dismissed

making love to myself in the looking-glass.

(I'm no that kind of guy—I've got more class,

it was only our first date, there's time.)

Next day I leave myself a message: "I'm

glad we went out. I had a ball.

In this Postmodern Age, everyone dates it all."