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Flying Backwards
1931–20—: a Life in Verse
by Herbert Knapp
Since I am not a politician, a movie star, a TV celebrity, a criminal, or a victim, Flying Backwards (1931–20—: A Life in Verse) contains no lurid revelations. Nor is it a narrative that zips people and events up together. It’s more like a series of buttons that hold together a story that is unstated but understood. The “buttons” range from wisecracks about my kindergarten teachers to my versions of those “spots of time” by which, according to Wordsworth, “our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired." — Herbert Knapp

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1931–20—: a Life in Verse

by Herbert Knapp

Even when I told myself my life was just one damn thing after another, I somehow knew there was a story to it. I just didn’t know where to find it. I wrote this memoir hoping to do so.

But why should you read it? That, I cannot say. But I know why I read memoirs. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more interested in truth than art. I know, of course, that memoirs aren’t entirely true. We dramatize our memories. Or we simply don’t remember what happened accurately. Nevertheless, the fact that the author of a memoir claims it’s true gives his work a different “feel.” I read it a different way from the way I read fiction. And, yes, I also read memoirs because I’m curious about other people’s lives.

This memoir is different from most in that it’s written in conversational verse. I did not do this because I think of myself as “a poet,” nor because I think my life is poetic. I did it because it would have been harder for me to write it in prose. Prose tempts me to digress. Writing in conversational verse forced me to focus.
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Although it is unusual to see
seagulls flying backwards, it is not
one of those things that only poets see.

Flying hard, the best that they could do
against that wind was not go anywhere.
Soon they were slipping backwards, yard by yard.

Then when the storm arrived, they were swept aside,
went careening high and wide through the turbulent sky,
riding the wind, while I, completely soaked,

went home, put on dry clothes, sat down and wrote,
pressing my ballpoint hard: “To Do Today . . .
but I couldn’t go on; I was swept away

into the past where all I’d missed at the time
flickered and flared like rhyme. I wrote all night,
but not what I sat down to write.
It can be felt but not by hands.
And though it has an outside and within,
it has no weight or skin.
I’ve seen it, but it’s never seen.
And never will its presence be announced
by bells or blinking lights on a machine.
It tells the truth; it lies; it prophesies
but doesn’t make a sound.
Forever lost, it can be found
in flavors, textures, scents, and melodies,
in empty rooms, in photographs, in stones.
It isn’t air, but it is everywhere,
which is to say it isn’t anywhere.
It’s changing constantly but can’t be changed,
is part of me but is apart from me.
It haunts me, so it’s like a ghost,
but it is also like a place I go
like a ghost, invisibly, to visit.
So much for what it’s like and isn’t.
What is it?

Answer: The past.
We spend our days as a tale that is told. . . . So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
—Psalm 90
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5617 Park, Kansas City, Missouri. I was born here, on the table in our breakfast nook.
As soon as I could talk, my mother said
I must remember my address. I do.
It’s Fifty-Six-Seventeen Park.
She said my number was important, too.
It’s “H” then “I” (for Highland) followed by
Two, Three, Six, Eight.
The reason was so I could tell,
if I was ever lost, where I was from.
A stranger then would take my hand
and lead me home.

Okay, I’m telling you!
Just kidding. It’s a joke. Relax.
I don’t know anyone at that address.
And if you tried that number on the phone,
there’s no way you’d get through.
All of the technology has changed.
So have the rules.
The first thing children learn today
is never talk to strangers.
We all agree, they’re safer being lost.
When my kindergarten teacher, Gladys Mince,
bent down to speak to me, she made me wince.
Gigantic earrings framed her weathered face.
I daydreamed that detectives would arrest her.
To my surprise, she left at mid-semester.
But then, alas, Miss Lemon took her place.
MANHATTAN, 1990–20—
History may be formed from monuments and records; but lives may only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing less every day and in a short time is gone forever.
—Samuel Johnson, “Lives of the Poets.”
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West End Avenue, New York City.
For years we put our wedding silver,
china, and crystal on display
only when we entertained,
but now we use them every day.

We wash and dry them, then reset the table.
in order to enjoy the way
the light will accent them
at different times of day.

It doesn’t matter if we break a few.
Our children like to think they’re starting new.
They order out or barbecue. Besides,
our patterns—all of them—are discontinued.
Do girls still register their patterns?
Or has that custom gone the way
of the stick shift, and “Some Enchanted Evening”?

A clerk told Mary that a butter knife
would suit her better as a wife
than a slim, slick, silver letter opener.

The subtext, plainly understood,
was she was not the kind of girl who would
be receiving letters on a tray.

And I suspect that her advisor
might still feel that she was right,
since these days hardly anyone can write—

at least not well enough for thoughts to spill
down their arm as naturally
as water zig-zags down a hill.

We tap our messages today.
They cover our computer screens the way
hoppers used to cover Western Kansas,

eating up time, and getting in our hair,
clogging up our minds,
and causing us to swear.
The only communications
that still arrive in envelopes are bills,
advertisements, and solicitations.

Nothing beautiful or clever,
nothing that’s worth saving,
maybe to be read

by others after we are dead.
Mary opens all of them with her

slim, slick, silver letter opener—
keeping the faith:
“Cursive forever!”
I turn the page but fall asleep
and into another story long ago
where once again I’m playing hide and seek.
The It is moving further from the tree,
and I am just about
to run in, tag up, and to shout:
“In Free!”

Eleven stories down below
an ambulance goes by with whoops and wails.

Then silence once again prevails,
but I am all awake again.
I shut my book. There is no game to win
and all the others have already been
called in.