Lynne Thompson, LA Poet Laureate, Features Henry Morro’s Poem, “Any Job,” on her LA Public Library Podcast. The poem was first published in Interlitq’s Californian Poets, Part 3
Title — Any Job
Date — January 17, 2022
Description — Poems on Air, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Lynne Thompson reads Henry Morro’s poem Any Job, published in the online journal Interlitq.
Hello! My name is Lynne Thompson, Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles and I’m so happy to welcome listeners to this installment of Poems on Air, a podcast supported by the Los Angeles Public Library. Every week, I’ll present the work of poets I admire, poets who you should know, and poets who have made a substantial and inimitable contribution to the art and craft of poetry.
Last week, the selected poem appeared in the online journal Interlitq; this week’s contribution to Poems on Air also comes from that same journal in the poem of Henry Morro. A native of Costa Rica, Morro arrived in Los Angeles with his family in 1972. He’s taught in public schools and in prisons and has edited literary anthologies and journals. His work was included in Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond (1995) and his most recent collection, The Zoot Suit Files: New and Selected Poems was published in 2020.
Today’s poem is “Any Job” by Henry Morro.
The men straggle into the cold warehouse
draped in tattered shirts, torn sweaters,
army jackets, their hats crowned
with logos—NY Yankees, UCLA,
Puerto Rico. Sometimes when they speak
I see gaping holes in their mouths
form the missing teeth.
Sometimes they arrive
in twos and threes—wandering
from warehouse to warehouse like a lost tribe.
Sometimes a son will lead his father
and speak for him, the father standing back,
his eyes open, the son boasting to me,
he can drive anything—give him a shot.
When they fill out the applications
they scribble the reason
for leaving each job:
temp work only
company moved away
Sometimes one of them is bold
enough to write fired.
Another one wrote,
fired for fighting,
and for another job he wrote,
fired for drinking with the boss.
Under “Special Skills” they scrawl:
I glance out the window
at the downtown skyline.
I know that when I pull down
the Help Wanted sign, still they will keep
shuffling into the warehouses,
hunched in the cold,
gaping holes in their mouths.
About Henry Morro
Henry J. Morro was born in Costa Rica and at the age of two his family moved to San Francisco. He lived there until he was sixteen, when his family reversed the American Dream and moved back to Nicaragua. After the great earthquake in 1972, his family moved to Los Angeles. He graduated from California State University, Los Angles, and began writing poetry. He has taught poetry in public schools and prisons. He has also edited literary journals and anthologies. In addition to his poetry appearing in the West Coast and national publications, in 1994 New Alliance Records released Somoza’s Teeth, a CD recording of his poetry. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two daughters. His new and selected, The Zoot Suit Files, was recently published and is available through Amazon and at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts center.
The Queen’s Lender by Jean Findlay
Historical fiction set in the time of James VI and I
Reviewed by David Garyan
Jean Findlay’s The Queen’s Lender is a novel set in history, but fortunately for the lover of fiction, the book doesn’t read like a historical text. In fact, events unfold themselves in the most effortless way—as if the reader is witnessing a play instead of reading silent words. Findlay’s characters are serious, like King James; extravagant, like Queen Anne; loyal and generous, like the protagonist George Heriot; cunning and calculating, like Lady Marjorie; and quite often also funny, like The Fool. In other words, these characters are the real deal, and Lady Marjorie seems so authentic that readers will be surprised to find out she’s, in fact, Findlay’s invention, but only in the sense that it’s more probable for individuals with Marjorie’s temperament to have existed at court, rather than not; in this way, she is real, meaning the novel reads like good fiction should—it’s measured yet assertive, intellectually stimulating yet entertaining, and best of all funny without being grotesquely comical.
From the very beginning, readers find themselves engrossed in the world of George Heriot: He’s Queen Anna’s favorite jewel maker, and in time becomes not only her confidante, but also the royal family’s money lender—hence the title of the book. Although readers will benefit from acquainting themselves beforehand with Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the novel can certainly be read without a minor historical background. Through her use of plot, dialogue, setting, and description, Findlay is able to situate the reader—and this very comfortably—right into the main action.
The most wonderful thing about this book is that readers may not have intended to think historically, but they will invariably make discoveries, simply through the pleasure of reading the book alone. At the same time, those already quite familiar with the history of James VI of Scotland and I of England, will see things in a new light, precisely because of Findlay’s good sense to tell this story from the perspective of George Heriot—an asymmetrical but aesthetically appealing choice; and so, the best praise one can bestow on Findlay’s novel is that it’s like discovering the story of Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel, in the sense that while figures like James, Anna, Shakespeare, and Ben Johnson might already be very familiar to most, their story, like Beowulf’s, is rarely, if at all, told from a perspective other than their own. By using George Heriot as the eyes and ears of the court, Findlay uses her skills as a novelist to offer precisely this “new” perspective on a set of “familiar” historical events. In other words, what John Gardner did for Beowulf, Findlay has done for one of the most fascinating historical periods of the UK.
The novel begins so in Edinburgh, 1593: “A pregnant woman is a fragile being, and George has two on his hands. His wife who keeps reminding him she is his queen and his Queen who is in fact his queen.” From this sentence alone, readers can already get a small glimpse of Findlay’s witty, yet straightforward prose style. As the plot progresses, we find ourselves in a domain of shifting alliances, the birth and death of children, along with elation and grief; in this respect it’s also important to mention that while Findlay is leading us through a world inhabited mostly by the aristocracy and gentry, the jubilations and troubles we encounter in this milieu very much resemble our own. The concern, for instance, many of us have faced—to remain safely at home or leave our places of comfort in search of greater opportunity—isn’t an existential burden restricted to the realm of the upper-class. It’s a question many of us will face at some point in our own lives. George Heriot now has to decide whether he will follow his king to London, and thereby become the official jeweler of the court, or remain in Edinburgh, the city he loves and cherishes.
As we read on, a world much like our own reveals itself, full of divisions, rivalries, loyalty, and betrayal. In empires divided by religious affiliation, what will King James do? He can give in to the charms of his Bohemian ambassador and support a Protestant faction in a land ruled by the Hapsburgs, who are, in fact, supported by Spain—not only a Catholic country but also an ally to James. He can also remain loyal to Spain, but with this loyalty he will lose the support of not only the admired Bohemian ambassador, but also the entire Protest faction in that land, which he represents. While many of us will never have to undertake decisions that could influence the fate of entire nations, the existential burden of having to make difficult choices, where competing interests make it impossible not to offend those loyal to us, is something utterly and totally a part of our lives.
Findlay, as a historically aware novelist, has managed to capture the essence of a fascinating moment in time, but she has also done more than that: She has taken this history and presented it in such a way that the people within it could be individuals of our own time—characters we’ve met ourselves. Take, for example, Lady Marjorie’s son. He’s an aristocrat, but one whose supposedly excellent breeding won’t allow for the politeness to take “no” for an answer. He attempts to sell George Heriot a horse the way a used car dealer won’t stop haggling a “customer” who has accidentally wandered onto the lot. Though Heriot says he does not want “nor need a horse,” the good aristocrat won’t quit until he receives a little compensation for the animal which that good jeweler once hired from the nobleman’s father. While we, ourselves, may not have been sold horses, and surely not that way, readers will nevertheless recognize the very same traits which cause our own contemporaries to sell us something with the same haughtiness—most likely a different, more efficient mode of transportation, such as the aforementioned car.
And then there are characters like Lord Lennox and Lord Douglas—trendsetters, but not their own; they follow the trends of the most important people. When the former hears about “the buttons recently designed for the King’s jacket,” he naturally “wants some for himself,” naturally to wear them “only the day after the King wears them in public,” out of courtesy, of course; the latter meanwhile, also “wants buttons like the King’s,” but this time the trend has changed, and it has become “amethyst and gold.” Heriot, of course, like a good businessman, charges everyone upfront, except the royal family. It’s, hence, the seemingly “minor” situations in the novel which show us a world much like our own—a world full of greed, conformism, nepotism, but also of joy, family, and loyalty.
Findlay’s attention to detail is what really allows the story to come alive within the grand scheme of the history she situates her work in. Everything in this novel, as the late Harold Pinter used to say about good drama, has been “cut to the bone.” There’s no superfluous description or tedious dialogue that would make the reader stop and ask: Why? What purpose does this serve in helping me understand the larger aspects of the work? Her previous experience of working in theater is most likely what allowed Findlay to approach her fiction audience with a theater mentality. Just like one cannot expect someone to endure a tedious performance lasting one or two hours, it’s even more unreasonable to expect such patience when the effort is more solitary and lasts some days. Suffice it to say, with this novel Findlay has certainly earned the reader’s days.
About Jean Findlay
Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the Independent, Time Out and the Guardian. In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.
Sketches of Susan
When I first saw Susan Sontag in the flesh, in the 1970s, she was lounging against a window with her long legs crossed and resting casually on the windowsill. She was wearing her classic black turtleneck and jeans, and of course her thick black hair with the famous white raccoon streak. I felt intimidated. I was afraid to approach because I knew she had recently survived a bout with breast cancer, and I was concerned, possibly, about how to approach her without coming off as frivolous. Not only was she very serious in general, but she was battling with a serious disease, after all. I have always smiled a lot–unlike your usual stone-faced academic or writer whose demeanor is meant to signify gravity. Such apparent levity (or levinity) has often been misread in sober circles. But, finally, I went over to her when she was standing near the table covered with a splendid spread of bagels, lox, cheeses and salads.
This was a brunch party in Fiction editor Mark Mirsky’s East Village pad where he and his Norwegian artist wife Inger were then celebrating their engagement. It was one of those walk-up apartments, at least three steep flights, where the bathtub was in the kitchen. The mood was festive and most of us were sipping champagne. I introduced myself, postponing my desire to prepare a bagel with lox, cream cheese and flourishes. She seemed to know who I was or at least that I had translated Manuel Puig, because the first thing she said to me was a question: “Is Puig queer?”
She was not one for polite chitchat but this abrupt probe caught me off-guard. I think I only managed to reply blandly “of course” with my usual non-referential friendly smile, trying to show I was unflappable, but she had the air of expecting a more elaborate comeback from a supposedly clever translator of edgy avant-garde writers. Her question stopped me in my tracks because I wanted but didn’t dare to follow her question with several of my own.
The first would have been, well, after all, wasn’t she “queer”?
And then, how could she possibly not know that he was homosexual?
And why did she use, instead of gay, the term “queer” which at that time was still pejorative?
Or, and this made the most sense, but again I wouldn’t ask: was she inquiring, in code, if I were queer? Or maybe, also in code, was she trying to find out if I had slept with Manuel Puig? If this was her way of making me ‘fess up, I didn’t take the bait.
Starting in the 1980s the term “queer” became a radical category, signifying not only an esthetic but a broader range of human sexuality and a mainstay of cultural politics, but at the time I met Susan, queer still fell upon the ear as an insult, though more polite than “fag.” I would like to think, now, that I had witnessed first-hand the trendsetter Susan Sontag in action, re-inventing “queer” as cool, defiantly positive, radical, outside of facile definitions of sexual orientation and social identity—and the world would soon follow her lead.
In December 2004, the cancer Susan had been heroically battling for decades, finally, sadly, won the war, and she died having just turned 71. Almost three years later, in 2007, her life’s work was ungenerously disparaged in a feature article published in the New York Review of Books, the same journal she had been featured in for decades. I didn’t doubt that the male author of the piece, a former friend of mine, was acting out, envious of her position as a “celebrity literary critic.” It was important, I felt, for the reader to share my inside knowledge about him, and so I wrote (and published in the NYRB “Letters” section) an irate repartee to vindicate her. I took him to task because his goal evidently was to belittle a remarkable woman, and because I, like other women in the arts and in academe, was hyper-sensitive regarding attacks with such a patriarchal tone.
Of course, Susan had imperfections, including her lack of sense of humor, especially as a novelist and filmmaker, and she seemed even naïve at times in her unchecked enthusiasm for artists and causes. Still, there was no doubt that her boundless energy to engage every corner of culture was admirable: she was gutsy, brilliant, ethical and often hit the bullseye regarding her views on esthetics. She was a woman who defied the oppression of women by not making feminism her agenda. Or, simply, Susan didn’t want her writing to be pigeon-holed by her gender. Women should be able to write about anything and in any form they saw fit.
After that East Village brunch I think, because I left New York in the 1980s, I didn’t have any further encounters with Susan again until 1991, after she had written to me a letter about how much she liked my book on translation, The Subversive Scribe, which she described as “A continually lively and very generous book, full of lore and such a vivid and just account of how complex a process good writing is.” This time, in Santa Barbara, we spent an evening together. I was already out west, teaching here at UCSB. It was April 18th, I know this from my journal, where I wrote “A magical evening.” At that moment her arrival in Santa Barbara was a life saver sent from New York, a spirit picker-upper (which often was not the case with her) as I felt profoundly isolated, surrounded by a foreign state of mind called California.
She had come to the university invited by the Humanities Center, to give a talk on one of her (and my) favorite writers, the Brazilian Machado de Assis. As she cost big bucks, the host was a bit peeved, not because it wasn’t an interesting presentation of, arguably, the most important Latin American novelist of the 19th century, but because it had just been published in The New Yorker. It was unseemly, at least those days, to give an invited lecture that was already published material. After her talk, I offered to take her out to dinner and for a tour of lovely Santa Barbara. The professors who were her hosts seemed relieved (and somewhat intimidated), so I assumed that I was doing them a favor.
Back then and even now, I enjoy Santa Barbara best when showing the place to visitors. As we were driving around town a bit before landing at a restaurant, she remarked on a detail that I had barely noticed—as a newcomer to “lotus land” (which the filmmaker Greg Nava called Santa Barbara)—and had passed over as insignificant. The detail was the ornamental style of the street signs, and she asked if the street names were written with Chinese handwriting, meaning that they had been made by Chinese laborers who had been hired on the cheap to lay down the railroad tracks in California back in the 19th or early 20th century. I thought this rather interesting but didn’t know the answer. When I did get to ask a Santa Barbara connoisseur if this were true, I was told that Susan’s conjecture was whimsical. Apparently my first impression of the curlicue lettering–that it was simply a Santa Barbara touch—was closer to the truth, but I liked Susan’s theory, all the same.
At dinner that night I spoke to her about wanting to do “real” as opposed to academic writing, as I had begun to attempt with The Subversive Scribe. “You must write. Shoot for the stars,” she said. Without transition she added: “You look great. You must be doing something right.” She told me of her affairs, we shared stories of “our Cuban lovers” as her first longtime woman lover had been Irene Maria Fornés, the playwright whom I had once met when attending a play by her—at that experimental theater way west on 42nd Street—with the Cuban artist and architect Lydia Rubio, my first girlfriend, and my dearest friend.
At one point, Susan mentioned Joseph Brodsky as a significant passion in her life, almost as a trophy affair, and she exclaimed how lucky I had been to have been so close to Manuel Puig. “Write about your affairs with them,” she said. “Men are awful, they’re cold,” she said emphatically, “but women are devastating.” At the time of her visit, Annie Liebowitz was her new partner, and she remarked with certain emphasis, “When it’s over with your first lover, the second affair is sad, because you didn’t have it when you needed it, so the second time is always too late.” What she said, toward the end of our evening touched me the most: she wrote essays, she said, when she was afraid to fail with her writing.
In the Fall of 2003 when I was on sabbatical in New York, and, because of a tempting job offer, almost decided to move back there, I remember lunch at her preferred Japanese place, downstairs from the St. Marks’ bookstore. She of course was eating some live sea urchin still throbbing on the plate, and I had ordered my usual cucumber roll, miso soup and a seaweed salad. She promptly remarked, “you’re not having sushi?” as if to interrogate: “Are you a philistine?” to which I felt obliged to reply that I wasn’t a big fan of raw fish, but what was worse was the shame I felt for being a wimp. I tried to squirm out of the impasse by mentioning the advice of a doctor, my brother-in-law, who never ate raw fish because of the bacteria and mercury. Susan poo-pooed this caution.
Nonetheless I guess it was hard to say no if Susan invited me to hang out, like the time she asked me to join her at BAM: who could decline such an invitation? And so, I picked her up at her Chelsea penthouse, we went down to Chinatown (I am sure she ordered something too spicy for me) for dinner, and then we traveled to Brooklyn, to my relief, in a taxi. This lavish gesture delighted me, especially as I had been dreading the tedious subway ride. As a native New Yorker, I had been riding subways since age five, so they were no novelty to me. The subway ride was the main reason though not the only reason I never went out to Brooklyn. I also had the foolish prejudice that only Manhattan was the real New York.
To me, the dreary German, Russian or maybe Serbian opus magnus, whose title I don’t remember, was hard (aside from the seat) to sit through, but, as to be expected, Susan was intensely focused on the play from beginning to end. I tried to hide my disappointment (so uncouth after all) knowing that she was enthralled and, besides, she knew all about the creator of the work and was friends with one of the actors. Friends in the audience approached her during the intermission to talk all about it or simply to greet her; what a relief that they gathered around her. On that occasion as on others, I felt caught in deep waters.
Perhaps my favorite moment with her was when she insisted upon introducing me, as I was staying in the West Village, to her affable hairdresser Rick who had worked in the world of high fashion, and so we met at his retro comfy salon “Sip and Snip” on Waverly near 10th. We sat in those swivel chairs facing the mirror like two women friends sharing a chummy moment, chatting about this and that, sipping tea with Rick as he snipped, darkened and washed Susan’s graying hair. I liked that Susan didn’t mind being seen in disarray as it were, with wet hair and covered by an unattractive smock; I liked that we were sharing a casual moment.
For the next few years, after Susan was gone, I would go to Rick’s to have my hair done every time I was in New York. As he skillfully worked his magic, Rick enjoyed remembering her clever remarks or the stories she’d tell him.
The most strongly felt advice from her to me were her parting words (on the corner of 7th Avenue and 11th after that first visit to Rick’s) as we hugged good-bye, “Come back to New York, Jill, don’t stay in California. Let the city roll over you.” And I watched her, the quintessential woman warrior a little worse for wear, head west on 11th Street to her next appointment, before the light turned green and I crossed the avenue.
About Suzanne Jill Levine
Writer, scholar, poet, editor, and translator of Latin American literature since 1970, Suzanne Jill Levine has published over 40 volumes of creative translations of the most significant writers in the Spanish language including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Silvina Ocampo and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Her critical works include The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf Press), Manuel Puig & the Spiderwoman: His Life and Fictions (FSG) and her five-volume edition of the poetry and essays of J.L.Borges (Penguin Classics). The New York Times recently cited Mario Vargas Llosa’s review of her literary biography of Puig in “The 25 Best Reviews in 125 Years.” She is currently writing “a translator’s memoir.”
Elena Poniatowska, Miguel de Cervantes Prize Winner
Grand Figure of Mexican Literature
Vice President of Interlitq