When I first met Bob Hershon in the late 1980s, he was around the age I am now. He had published a few of my poems for the high school section of Hanging Loose Magazine, but something had gone wrong, and the second page of one poem ended up as the second page of another. I talked to him on the phone and he swore (and I believe him) that such an error pretty much never happened at Hanging Loose; the last time it had happened was almost two decades earlier, when they had misprinted a poem by Bob’s then-future wife, Donna Brook. After that printing mishap, Donna and Bob talked on the phone and became friends, and the next thing you know she’d moved from Detroit to Brooklyn. The rest was history: the great love story of Robert Hershon and Donna Brook, which filled both of their lives and their many poetry books. I felt oddly honored to have my poems misprinted in Hanging Loose.
Hanging Loose republished my two misprinted poems, and I kept in touch with Bob, sending poems for the magazine even after I was too old for the high school section, during what I called my “Western Exile” when I was living in Austin and Seattle. When I would return to NYC to visit, Bob would take me out to lunch at the old location of Shopsin’s (where Bob’s poem was on the menu) or the Middle Eastern restaurant on Varick, which is now long gone. Wherever we went, everyone knew Bob and was happy to see him. When I moved back to New York, I would spend hours in Bob and Donna’s Boerum Hill living room listening as they competed to see who could make the wittiest quip or tell the funniest story.
I loved their cozy living room full of paintings by people they knew, incredible ceramic figurines by Bob’s daughter Lizzie, six crystals that once belonged to the Scottish poet Helen Adam (I know the exact number because it’s mentioned in one of Bob’s poems), and, of course, stacks and stacks and stacks of submissions to read. That brownstone represented a Brooklyn that used to exist and still kind of lingers at the edges. Bob bought the house in the 1970s for forty thousand dollars, and everyone thought he was crazy for wanting to live on such a crime-ridden block. It’s the same street described in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. (Lethem and Bob’s son Jed were friends growing up.) Bob seemed to know everyone on the block. People were always stopping by to borrow things or say hi, like in a sitcom version of New York. Thinking about it, I am reminded of one of Bob’s best-known poems.
The Driver Said
it used to be
this ain’t no
if ya butcher
comes to ya funeral
Despite what the driver in the poem says, Bob’s experience of his block—and the world—was like a small town where everyone knew each other. Wherever he was, Bob was often at the center, telling tales while everyone gathered around and laughed at his jokes. There was something neighborhoody both about Bob’s Brooklyn, as well as about his place in the poetry world. For Bob, the poetry world was never a business—there was never any po-biz. Rather, it was a neighborhood, albeit one that included people all across the country.
Even if you had never met Bob but had only read his books, you might feel like you knew him personally. His poems are full of people who mattered to him: Donna, Lizzie, Russell, Jed, Dick, Mark, Ron, Sherman, and Ping. Whether Bob is poking fun at the pathos of getting old or the absurdity of trying to get around on the subway, his poems always buzz with his wry humor. A lot of my favorite poems of Bob’s are the ones that satirize the poetry world. He loved to read his poem about literary Q&As at his readings. (He wrote two of them, “A Primer for Tonight’s Audience” and “The Answers to the Questions,” both of which are hysterical.) In the poems, the speakers give humorous answers to questions about life as a poet.
Question: Why does the audience sit as far from the reader as possible?
Answer: The front seats are painted with a substance that seals the anus forever. The poet spits. People in the last three rows are eligible for chocolate cookies and/or oral sex during intermission.
Whenever my students talk about “hidden meanings,” I am reminded of Bob’s answer to the question, “Where do you put the hidden meaning?”: “I usually write that first, then cover it up / with mud and leaves so that it’s totally / obscured, then forget where I put it.” In another poem, “Après AWP,” Bob satirizes low-residency MFA programs. The speaker tells the future students that “You will write your villanelles / and flash fictions and mail them / to a post office box in Wyoming / where they will be eaten by police dogs.”
In Bob’s most recent book, End of the Business Day, he writes about getting older in a way that, as Anselm Berrigan writes in his blurb, is “totally disarming…because Americans seem so afraid of age & its accumulation of odd detail & language as a general rule.” In many of his poems, Bob would take an everyday occurrence and exaggerate it in an absurd way, but what’s interesting is the gravitas this technique gains when the shadow of illness and death lurks within the absurd humor. In the first poem in the collection, he writes about the process of getting blood transfusions in the hospital and imagines the blood escaping the tubes and flooding down the hospital corridors. The poem ends, “Hollowed and neatly folded, I floated back into the island of hospital corners, waiting for someone else’s blood to replenish me.” The image, in its dreamlike way, perfectly captures the feeling of living in a body that one can no longer control.
In the years before Bob died, he was usually worried about Donna’s health. When I talked to him on the phone while he was in the hospital, it was clear that he thought more about her health than his own. The depth of his love is beautifully expressed in the poem “Donna Sleeping.” In it, he describes his wife sleeping soundly despite the rumbling trucks, dogs, and other neighborhood ruckus. The poem ends:
I’ve spent thousands of nights
and mornings and noons
watching Donna sleeping
and I have requisitioned a
few thousand more.
I know that, at 84, Bob had a nice, long life, but I still wish he had gotten his request.