A few times this summer I drove past the building, in the Jersey City Heights, where Jack and Johanna were living when he died. By habit I’d glance up at the back porch of their second floor apartment. The porch proper was a small area—four people felt crowded in the space—but, at the edge of it, a rickety ladder led down to a garage roof, which was large enough to hold a canopy, a table, chairs for more than a dozen guests, and an aisle wide enough for performances by Johanna’s friends.
Jack and Johanna loved summer, loved having summer parties, parties with loud music and lots of alcohol, parties that began in the late afternoon and ended around dawn of the next day. When I glanced up, I saw Jack happily cooking bratwursts and hamburgers on his grill or refilling his fancy wine glass with the chilled, cheap vinho verde that we both liked to drink in the heat. I saw Johanna spending hours to prepare an authentic arroz con pollo or urging me to smear mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese, instead of butter, on the corn on the cob. And I saw Jack and me sitting side by side, trying to hear each other’s words, as dusk fell. One night, out of the blue, he expressed concern about not having written a poem in a few weeks then, right on the tail of his concern, came a dismissive wave of his cigar-holding hand and the statement, “But I never write in the summer.” Why? Because he was too busy enjoying, too busy “paying attention” to each and every minute of his favorite season. But you only have to read “Love Poem at the Beginning of Summer” or “Hoboken in June” or “The Love Poem Johanna Asks For” to know that in the summer when Jack wasn’t physically writing, he really was writing. In fact, he is, in some inexplicable and wonderful way, the most “still alive” in his summer poems and thus, when I read them, he comes back from the dead and, if only for a minute or two, we’re back on the porch, the stars are out, and he hands his red sweater to me because there’s a chill in the air.
Here’s my favorite “summer” poem by Jack, from his posthumous collection, Divina is Divina:
The Love Poem Johanna Asks For
She asks for a love poem.
She says it has to be done in a week.
I say, sure.
I say, I can do it easy.
Then I go to sleep and dream.
I dream all the things that people dream and then
I get up and work and work and people intrude.
I work and I come home and I eat and my love poem
fades and fades.
She is here every day.
Large and happy some days.
Small and scared on others.
The music loud, the beer cold, friends all around,
but really it’s only she and I here.
She and I and the dogs we picked.
They run through the house like my love.
On the porch are our flowers.
It’s fall now so some of them are collapsing from
a rich summer of sun.
Like sometimes Johanna and I collapse after a day at the beach.
Tired and drunk.
Happy and laughing.
Ribs on the grill, friends all around arguing over this and that.
But always on the porch all I can see is Johanna.
She fills my house.
She makes our house.
She strolls through the rooms trailing smoke and joy.
She screams bloody murder at the dogs.
She lolls at her leisure and calls me at work to say,
All around me people are yelling and angry.
Trucks are stuck in traffic and
my coffee gets cold but I can see her on the porch
with the dogs jumping like maniacs
happy like me to come home to her.
This is our house.
The house we made.
A house we prayed for and received.
We have a porch and flowers and an office
and a bedroom and a living room and a kitchen.
Johanna works hard doing what she doesn’t want to do.
I work hard doing what I have to do.
But all the time I see her on the porch,
twirling around in the sun.
Laughing and laughing.
Spinning joy out of nothing.
She asks for a love poem.
She gave me lots of rules.
She says I should talk about how we live a life most people don’t.
She says I should talk about how she feels.
Because all I can see is her on the porch,
dancing with our dogs,
smoke billowing around her,
flowers blazing in the beautiful sun.
Sometimes you get exactly what you want.