In high school I wrote poetry. That’s because I knew nothing about how hard it is to write a good poem. The Dunning-Kruger Effect was alive and well in me (and may still be).
In college I learned how much skill poetry demanded and switched to prose, but continued to express myself poetically on occasion. My last attempt came just after college, when I moved to California. The move was gradual; I spent almost a month visiting a friend in Los Angeles — Culver City, actually — then traveled around the state for a few weeks, then went back to my mom’s house to gather my few belongings before settling in the Bay Area for good. The poem comes from the Culver City days. It’s dreck, so much so that I’ve lightly revised it to save myself greater embarrassment. But it does succeed in one regard: conveying a difficult truth.
Watched a guy get beat up tonight
on Keystone & Palms Boulevard
He was wearing a suit and tie
coming out of 7–11
When three guys younger than him
especially one fat guy
With a big face
Cornered and pursued him down darkened Palms.
“He just wants to ask you a question, man,”
One of the others said, he was shorter and Asian
The third was taller and also overweight
But I didn’t see him well.
I retreated to the corner of Overland.
A block away now, the big one still pursued the guy
in suit and tie
I knew it was going to happen I guess you smell the
blood in the air
The three of them were on him and swinging
He went down by a car they kicked him
I stood dumbly on the corner I couldn’t fight
I have a knife I thought for a second then
Searched my pocket for a dime to call 911
I didn’t feel one and there was no dial tone on the phone
I was afraid they’d come after me or
The little kids watching and glorying in it
Would tell them I went to the phone booth
They’d ask who I’d called and kill me.
I stood there debating what to do
Others were watching as if a shooting star
Was slowly crossing the sky
I ran down darkened Overland
Hoping they wouldn’t pop from a screeching
Car and beat on me the same way.
And this was supposed to be a nice night
Out stretching my hamstrings
And dreaming about her and the aliens coming.
And now as I reach in my pocket
and pull out the change
I see that I had a dime after all.
In the second book of the Analects, Confucius says “To see what is right and not do it is cowardice.” Those words were fresh in my mind when I witnessed the mugging, and for a long time afterward I joked, only half facetiously, that the name Goldblatt means “yellow streak” in English.
I’m more forgiving of myself now. I was no ninja; I wasn’t going to save the victim from three assailants. And cell phones hadn’t yet been invented, so I couldn’t recede into the shadows and contact the police surreptitiously.
Still, that last poem forced me to acknowledge what a coward I was, a failing I had avoided confronting before. So from that vantage, anyway, my brief career as a poet ended on an up note.