Poetry in Motion: The Day Phil Parma Died


I sometimes picture the peak of Northeast winters, from the season’s first snowfall until about late February, as a hearth beside which friends and family inevitably nest.  You’d think you’d see less of these people in cruel weather, but I find it to be the opposite: we come together to huddle for warmth and get a bit fatter in dark and stormy conditions. Unlike me, the season’s cold rain caused Flaubert’s heart to “crumble into ruins”. But Flaubert seems to have essentially been a dog who lived for his walks, and when they were denied or spoiled, virtually anything seemed capable of breaking his spirit.

I often mark the Super Bowl – now typically played the first Sunday in February – as the beginning of the end for winter, the point at which the earth starts thawing.  There seems to have been something around the time of Flaubert and Baudelaire – he who blamed winter for “ennui, sour fruit of incurious gloom” – that put warm weather in vogue.  Probably the break from pneumonia, and opportunities for outdoor intercourse.  But a writer like Nabokov – always enamored with life’s weirder, unexpected pleasures – shows us beauty in the frozen gunk throughout his spooky story “The Vane Sisters“:

“Through peacocked lashes I saw the dazzling diamond reflection of the low sun on the round back of a parked automobile. To all kinds of things a vivid pictorial sense had been restored by the sponge of the thaw. Water in overlapping festoons flowed down one sloping street and turned gracefully into another. With ever so slight a note of meretricious appeal, narrow passages between buildings revealed treasures of brick and purple. I remarked for the first time the humble fluting – last echoes of grooves on the shafts of columns – ornamenting a garbage can, and I also saw the rippling upon its lid – circles diverging from a fantastically ancient center. Erect, dark-headed shapes of dead snow (left by the blades of a bulldozer last Friday) were lined up like rudimentary penguins along the curbs, above the brilliant vibration of live gutters. 

I walked up, and I walked down, and I walked straight into a delicately dying sky, and finally the sequence of observed and observant things brought me, at my usual eating time, to a street so distant from my usual eating place that I decided to try a restaurant which stood on the fringe of the town. Night had fallen without sound or ceremony when I came out again.”

Overlapping festoons!  Meretricious appeal!  Humble fluting!  In Nabokov’s world, a garbage can bears ornaments, and gutters vibrate.  Even death is delicate in this gentle, optimistic place.

Just twenty miles from MetLife Stadium, I watched last night’s one-sided Super Bowl at a full home in Prospect Heights, where three pizzas served as merely the first course of many.  This was a good winter’s hearth: kind folks, just the right mix of new faces and old, and beer flowing like wine.  I was particularly amused to find myself in a hearth of folks who don’t particularly care about football.

“Fumble?  What’s a fumble?”
“When they drop the ball.”
“Fumble should mean something better than that.”
“A fumble should be the name for when the two men you’re dating meet.”

The Super Bowl and Oscar night are the two days a year when owning a TV makes sense.  And like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, I found myself reliving the same touchdowns over and over.  The Seahawks are the blowout team of now: dominant and deservedly proud of it.  The room grew eager to watch Beyonce’s phenomenal halftime show from last year’s telecast.

While not-so-discreetly trying to scoop chili from a large pot onto tortilla chips – without touching the rest of the chili with my bare hands – I thought about Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He’d been on my mind all night, and mercifully I was occupied enough that afternoon to not hear news of his death until late in the day, and to stay far away from the inevitable, overbearing eulogies on Twitter and Facebook.  I had in fact spent the afternoon trying to track down a copy of Death of a Salesman for my dad, who’s reading it a class he’s auditing back in Boston.  Hoffman’s last role on Broadway was that of Willy Loman.  His obit on CNN carried a very haunting explanation of what this great man had been up to of late.  It was one of those statements of reportage that revealed too much, just by delivering the facts, like something out of Chekhov:

After he returned from rehab, Hoffman rented the apartment where his body was found Sunday, two neighbors said. The rest of his family lived elsewhere in the neighborhood.”

My stomach turned at the thought of one’s family being out there, elsewhere in the neighborhoodElsewhere is what broke me.  For some perfectly good and well-intentioned people, the hearth dims and the light goes out.  And for this, I can place no blame.

At the end of the game, just before the Lombardi trophy was handed off to Pete Carroll, FOX’s camera cut to a literal seahawk perched on a handler’s glove.  The bird looked freaked.  Somewhere, an unused literal bronco likely stood at attention in the entrance tunnel.  Although really, that horse is probably relieved to have not had to deal with all the hassle.

Soon winter will fade, and with it my huddled friends around the hearth.  I hope to keep them close, but like that damned seahawk and errant groundhog shadow, I must accept when they vamoose and fly away, to their summer vacations and honeymoons.  The guacamole is hardening into a shell.

In yesterday’s odd tropics, spring felt inevitable.  But then a funny thing happened.  I awoke and was out the door before dawn this morning.  Walking in purple light, still thinking about Hoffman, and the funny way his eyes glinted when one of his characters would get wistful and dreamy.  “We’ve been frantically trying to reach you, Dude.”

It wasn’t until I kicked open the front door that I first noticed the snow on car windows. Either the groundhog or Seahawk had served as harbinger: six weeks more of winter. The flurries, thick and wet as those in Charles Kane’s snow globe, now blitzed the streets. I wanted to relish it all, and thank both creatures for keeping the hearth aglow.  I stuck out my tongue and caught a flake or two.  It tasted like the distant tears of the Manning brothers, and the exhaust of a jet airliner high-tailing it fast out of town.

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