A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work has lately appeared in several anthologies: Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, Pages Penned in Pandemic, The Impossible Beast: Queer Erotic Poems, The View From Olympia, Queers Who Don’t Quit, What We Talk About It When We Talk About It, Headcase, Lovejets, and What Remains. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha
Allen v. Woody
I wrote this poem 35 years ago* when I, like most New Yorkers and cinephiles, loved Woody Allen. I mean loved! I had been so steeped in his stand-up comedy that audiences at my poetry readings compared my delivery to Woody’s. And his every film was for me a reason to wait on a long line to a Manhattan theater—much like Alvy Singer with Annie Hall.
But I haven’t watched one of his movies since reading Dylan Farrow’s 2014 “Open Letter” in the Times. And now the HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow had me going back to these lines I wrote.
I thought to revise them; I thought to “erasure” them. But then I thought to leave them. Time and knowledge have by themselves rewritten the essay without changing one word—except for the title. The essay had been called “Woody Allen: Alive and Well.”
When does wise turn sad? When romantic
When nourishing fire’s ash drop with a vengeance?
When love shed like?
When the old dog too stiff to greet you at the door
even if she hears you enter?
Is it cued by the short days? No wonder
Ibsen frowned on the other hand.
Will work suffice?
How much happier really
I trailed Woody Allen up Madison Avenue once.
Block after block, I slowed to his footsteps. He
talked with a woman oh
twice his height. Not Keaton,
nor Mia of course. They parted the waves.
In the wake, I watched millions
tilt their eyes and try to watch
where they went.
Not one broke stride;
we yielded Woody his vector. But at the plane
all turned for the denouement
with their heads upon their shoulders
and quickly back to each other to ask,
rhetorically, “Do you know who that was?”
or to say who that was.
Others looked back.
This city was Woody’s.
I watched Woody and the woman
turn a block onto Fifth and into an apartment house.
It has taken me years to intrude with this, but
makes me want to write
lived with reverence.
*Originally published in the now-defunct journal Slow Dancer 18 (1987).