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PN Review 275
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This poem is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Eleven Poems Steve Malmude
Selected and introduced by Miles Champion

The poems that follow, together with the pamphlet Lifeguard, recently published by London small press Distance No Object, constitute Steve Malmude’s first publications in the United Kingdom. A second-generation poet of the New York School, Malmude’s name is too often left off that list, perhaps because his work is so differently distinct, or perhaps because he was too busy – or too literarily elsewhere – to join, or to be invited to join, the club. He has always made his poems slowly and carefully, rearranging and reworking his stanzas – usually quatrains – in a process he has likened to that of a teenager, comb in hand, endlessly experimenting with their hair in front of a mirror. His oeuvre is modest, but of the highest quality, and unlike anything else in American letters.

Stephen David Malmude was born in New York City on 4 January 1940, to parents of Ukrainian Jewish and German Lutheran extraction. His father, Simon Malmude (an Americanisation of Malamud, the Hebrew word for teacher), previously an actor in the Yiddish theatre on Second Avenue and the host of a radio programme in which he analysed people’s handwriting, devoted the bulk of his life to a failed attempt to pass himself off as an advertising executive, on the back of an entirely fictitious CV. With no money coming in, Malmude’s mother, Alice Probst, was forced to provide for the family, working as a nurse and, after receiving her doctorate from New York University, as a teacher. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1946 – urban planner Robert Moses was razing their neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan – and Malmude attended Brooklyn Tech, where he became enthusiastic about Shakespeare and poetry. Bohemia was a known quantity: Malmude’s uncle, Joachim Probst, was a painter (primarily of religious themes) who frequented the same Greenwich Village bars as the Abstract Expressionists, and whose non-objective works – black ink washes on a white ground – had a decisive (if unacknowledged) influence on his close friend Franz Kline. When Malmude declared his intention to be a poet, his father, perhaps a little richly, recommended a backup plan, but, after a semester of studying engineering at Queens College, Malmude switched to English and classics, and fell in love with poetry. He was on the swimming and water polo teams, obtained his lifeguard certification and ran waterfront camps during the summers.

After graduating, Malmude joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and worked as a carpenter in residential construction in the Bronx. He settled into a routine of working for six months of the year and spending the other six writing poetry and living the life that was to be had so cheaply on the Lower East Side. The earliest poem presented here, ‘Danang’, dates from this period. It is an astonishing poem by any measure, and quite staggering as an early effort by a young poet. Intended from the outset as an anti-war poem, it was initially conceived as an exchange of letters between a soldier in Vietnam and his girlfriend back home. Feeling that the poem was becoming unwieldy and unworkable, Malmude pulled out the parts he liked best and arranged them as a monologue. The poem’s corkscrew form and light-footedly dense sound patterning owe much to Malmude’s failed attempts to translate the poetry of François Villon such that its rhymes were upheld. He was reading Chaucer at the time, and aware that the rhymes and rhyme schemes he found so compelling were significantly easier to achieve in Middle English and French. Aside from a few college friends who had also moved to the Lower East Side, he was writing in isolation; he read Poetry magazine and the academic poets of the day, and admired Jules Laforgue, Robert Lowell’s Imitations and the Pound of Personae (but not the Cantos). Testing his crampons on Black Mountain, he responded to Robert Creeley’s dry New England brevity but found Charles Olson’s conception of the poet’s role off-putting.

Feeling that publication in the New Yorker would validate him as a poet – would allow him to call himself a poet – Malmude devoted considerable time and energy to having one of his first poems, ‘The Goat Man’, published there. Correspondence with the New Yorker’s poetry editor, Howard Moss, led to several in-person meetings, but ‘The Goat Man’ was ultimately dropped (Moss: ‘It’s just notNew Yorker poem.’). Malmude’s partner at the time suggested he might fare better at the nascent Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a few blocks away. He attended one of the Monday night open readings hosted by Jim Carroll and read ‘Danang’ and ‘The Goat Man’, along with other exceptional poems. Carroll introduced him to Larry Fagin, whose storied Adventures in Poetry imprint issued Malmude’s first book, Catting, in 1972. He became a regular at the Project, preferring to sit alone at readings but becoming friendly with Jim Brodey, Michael Brownstein and Lewis Warsh, among others, and, later, Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby.

While looking for a union job in 1968, Malmude walked past a Jewish community centre under construction, the 14th Street Y, with an indoor pool. He decided to leave carpentry and work as a lifeguard, soon becoming the director of the aquatics programme at the Y, a job he held for ten years. His poem ‘To Portland’ dates from this time, and is a highly charged, almost hallucinatory catalogue of things seen, primarily while travelling back and forth between house and hospital during the birth of his first daughter, Anna: ‘the gas / station settling on a lily... spider / webs across the menses of the mice... A squirt of pigeon stool / like the backbone of a herring... My / semen falling down in water / like a clown in pain.’

Accustomed to writing his poems longhand in a ruled notebook, Malmude learned to type after being given a typewriter by a Hungarian employer who dictated letters he wanted sent to the German government (he was seeking reparations, his family having been killed, and he enslaved, by the Nazis). His poems increasingly took the form of short-lined, blocky quatrains separated from each other by double line breaks, a form he adopted to make his poems visually recognisable, and because he liked the quatrains (and non-linearity) of classical Chinese poetry (indeed, he increasingly viewed his own quatrains as combination logogram-pictographs). Rhyme remained an essential ingredient: as much of it as possible, as concentratedly as possible. The four-quatrain poem is Malmude’s version of a sonnet, and he regards another favourite poem length, the two-page poem comprising fourteen quatrains, as a variant sonnet form. Both poem lengths offer convenience: they are compositional matrices into which a great variety of subject matter can be instilled (or, one might say, collaged).

He began to write down anything he heard, read or thought that could be accommodated in a quatrain. These stanzas – which number in the thousands – are contained in two overflowing binders that he regards as his palette, and are arranged by ascending number of characters (letters and spaces). One of Malmude’s early compositional methods was to arrange his quatrains in ascending character count, such that the resulting poem, after a wispy start, ends up decidedly buff from the workout. ‘Paragon’, the first poem made in this way (around 1975), begins:
You stay
black against night
and white
against day

behind drapes
four hours
on all fours
down fire escapes

...


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