Wedding Toast for Joe Weil
by Leslie Heywood
from Issue 42
The first time I hear the name Joe Weil is in Maria Gillan’s poetry workshop in the fall of 2002, where every Saturday morning as we sit around the seminar table, twenty souls rubbing our eyes, our coffee mugs gripped in our hands, she reads some poems to wake us up, get us started thinking and feeling poetry, hearing its music in our heads. I sit looking down at the table, nodding, the words washing over me, a few that catch. Most of the poems are moving in the usual sorts of ways: an interesting image here, a musical phrasing there, an ending that causes an intake of breath. A few minor swells, a few sighs. But then, like the boom of thunder on a late spring night, Maria starts reading words that make my head snap up: “In my odyssey of dead end jobs,/cursed by whatever gods/ do not console,/I end up/at a place that makes/ fake Christmas trees:/ thousands!/some pink, some blue,/ one that revolves ever so slowly/to the strains of Silent Night.” Gods? Dead-end jobs? Pink Christmas trees spinning to Silent Night? WHAT is this?
What it is, of course, is Joe Weil, his poem called “Painting the Christmas Trees.” “Sometimes, out of sheer despair,” Maria continues reading, “I rev up its rpms/ and send it spinning/ wildly through space--/Dorothy Hammill/disguised as a Balsam fir.” Maria completely has my attention now. My breath has sped up to match the words: “I run a machine/that spits paint/onto wire boughs,/each length of bough a different shade--/color coded-- so that America will know/which end fits where.”
Until I hear “Dorothy Hamill disguised as a balsam fir,” poetry has come to interest me less and less. With its clever word plays or predictable emotions, it has become words from which, it seems, the pulse has been cut. What used to seem like life—an explanation, a moment, some precious music rising from the daily noise--has become an indistinguishable part of that noise, and I have started to fall asleep, get sick, a spiritual sickness, a spiritual sleep. But now Maria is reading Joe’s words, and I start to wake up: “This is spray paint of which I speak--/no ventilation, no safety masks,/ lots of poor folk speaking various broken tongues, /a guy from Poland with a ruptured disk/ lifting fifty pound boxes of/ defective parts,/A Haitian/so damaged by police `interrogation’/ he flinches when you/raise your arm too suddenly near,
and all of us hating the job,
knowing it's meaningless,
yet singing, cursing, telling jokes,
unentitled to anything but joy,
the lurid, unreasonable joy
that sometimes overwhelms you even in a hole like this.”
“It's a joy,” Maria keeps reading “rulers mistake for proof of `The Human Spirit.’/I tell you it is Kali,/ the great destroyer,/ her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.” My eyes become riveted on Joe’s book in Maria’s hand, a handmade, stapled-together sheaf of papers with a crude drawing colored in with magic marker on the cover. By this time I am nodding in time with the words: “It is Rachel the inconsolable weeping for her children./It goes both over and under/`The Human spirit.’/It is my father/crying in his sleep”—and here goosebumps start—“because he works/twelve hour shifts/ six days a week/ and can't make rent.”
I look around the table, and we are all sitting there stock-straight, like twenty blue herons frozen in the moment just before diving in to get the fish, bills tilted to the side so as to better catch the sound, Joe’s words:
“It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
sans green card.
It is a nation that has
not knowing how many lost
to the greater good of retail. It is Marta the packer
rubbing her crippled hands with
Lourdes water and hot chilies.
It is bad pay and worse diet and
the minds of our children
turned on the wheel of sorrow--
no language to leech it from the blood,
no words to draw it out--
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
and who can stop it, who
unless grief grows a hand
and writes the poem?
Of course grief had grown a hand and written the poem, and it was Joe’s. This was poetry like I had never heard, that I’d always been looking for, poetry that gives us glimpses from the reality of our daily lives mixed with the equal reality of our endless longings. Little did I know that day how closely I would get to know the man who had written these lines himself, or how closely his own life would resemble this crazy mix of the highest highs with the lowest lows.
It’s Spring 2006 when I first really get to know Joe, driving to the Hampton Inn with my codeine cough syrup and three slender travel cylinders of Jameson to help calm him. He has an interview in our department for a full-time job the next day, and I’ve never seen anyone so nervous, his hands flying as he speaks, his body somehow managing to fidget even when he stands still. But the next day in the department conference room, there seems to be nothing but his voice, and as he gives his job talk, even the most bored Professors sit up to listen, and Joe’s voice, marred by a violent cough, winds out magic words that hold them in place even as the bridge in his mouth begins to slip and he finishes the talk that will land him the job, teeth sliding, ranging from Heidegger to King Lear to baseball in a single breath.
When Joe first moved to Binghamton, the aunt he was closest to was dying, the sudden uprooting to New York State from a lifetime lived in the same area of New Jersey was terrifying to him, he was driving a rental car he’d forget to return, and he was nursing the the ribs broken from the violence of his latest bout of bronchitis. Some days, we’d have to remind him to tie his shoes, and the department secretary learned to keep the spare key to his office on her desk since Joe would be sure to forget his own keys and need to be let in. But when I took him to some of my favorite places, like the Vestal Park with the stream and miles of woods trails, he’d wax ecstatic over the way the water carried light over the bluestone, or be shocked into silent reverence by the sight of a Great Blue Heron flying overhead to its nest. Almost every night, he’d be over for dinner and we’d watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, until the night he sat down at our piano and the infectiousness of his music made my whole family want to play music or sing, so much so that our nights became practice for the crazy band we made. Joe literally brought music into our lives. But his own life was music of a more variable kind, and there was more than one morning when his voice on the phone made me fear for his calm, for his sanity, for his life, or all three.
But that, as they say, was before Emily.
It’s spring 2010. My scholar friend from New Orleans comes to give an Evolutionary Studies talk, and I have to assemble the dinner group at Kampai, the Japanese steakhouse, in her honor. As always, Joe is one of the faithful group that comes. Among the others is a woman I haven’t met before with curly hair and the clunky, wooden-soled platform shoes I love. As I’m talking to everyone around the table that night, I can’t help but notice that Joe is talking a lot to this woman of the wooden-soled shoes, and she to him, as if the rest of the group wasn’t really present. Her name was Emily, and I make a note to myself to ask Joe about her later. But I forget, and when Joe mentions he kind of sort of has a new girlfriend, I roll my eyes and tell him not to tell me about it—I’m not ready for another disaster yet. So he doesn’t. But a couple of months later, when he mentions it again, I ask who, and he says “Emily Vogel.” “Emily Vogel!,” I say. “The one with the shoes? Why didn’t you tell me? This one just might be okay!”
So, two years later, in the spring of 2012, I am standing here reading you this. I have known Joe Weil for ten years, and he’s never been calmer. He might still read disaster in the shape of falling leaves, or an extra-heavy rain, but this happens less and less. When our band practices, it’s easier for him to sit still at the piano, to not jump up and have to smoke, or pace, easier for him to be more of the gorgeous notes he plays. He is becoming more of the underlying music that is what his spirit truly is, and I know it is Emily who has accomplished this. I think Joe feels safe, at least safer than he has, and I believe she has given him something we all desperately need: some hope for the future, a real conviction, a belief in something that will stay. I know how deeply important this has been for Joe, and that it represents, in some of the most fundamental ways, a whole new chance for a stable life. And now that they are expecting their first child in December, something for which Joe has almost never dared to hope, that something that will stay will be embodied in the flesh of the child who shares their genes and brings something of each of them into the coming generations. So what we are marking, and witnessing, and celebrating today represents a new chance for both Joe and Emily to take hold, and help each other to more fully become the art that lies inside them both, the beauty that’s become such a whisper in this world of people twittering the contents of their lunch, lost jobs and boarded up windows, the radio shock jock schlock of hatred and rage. What I have witnessed is the way they have helped each other stand, and the way, in each of them, beauty truly begins to have a place. So let us raise a glass to whatever beauty we can make in our own lives, the way the two of them have done. Here’s to Emily, to Joe, to the poetry of daily life, and all the meaning we can manage to make of it.
Leslie Heywood is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University. She is the author of Pretty Good for a Girl (Free Press/ Simon & Schuster), The Proving Grounds (Red Hen Press), Natural Selection (Louisiana Literature Press), and the forthcoming Lost Arts.