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Elegy for Jake

ISSUE:  Summer 1983
Taking off the old paint
layer by layer. . .
“Let Zip-Strip do the work.”

It is also necessary to scrape.
No one driving by the house
on a quiet Saturday
would know that in the cellar,
machine guns, bangalore torpedoes
and eighty-eight millimeter shells
were going off.

        Or that the shadows
of women were complaining,
“You don’t care for anyone but yourself.”

Stamping out with a suitcase in one hand,
the reading lamp in the other . . .

Fumes. Open a window
and prop it, the cord being gone,
with Great Love Stones, edited by Jake Harmon.

Big Jake, who would be called on to speak
at every important publishers’ gathering,
whose sayings were always being quoted
in the Saturday Review and the Times . . .

Stabbed in the back by his partner.
There was blood on a green, felt-covered table.
He lingered a few years, dying slowly,
going from place to place.
At the end of a long corridor
the room in which he sat was piled with books.
A window looked across the air shaft
to a ledge where pigeons built their nests.
Here the traffic was hushed,
so that you heard the rou and rou
of the pigeons. They fluttered,
ruffled, and pecked.

The shadows of their wings
flashed across a sunlit wall.

He had been put in charge of a “cultural series”—
books with a limited audience
but “viable cultural interest.”

Why weep for Jake?
Those who live by expense accounts
perish by them. On Madison Avenue
I see in people’s faces
marks of some internal bleeding,
fear of slipping, losing one’s job.
With one boy at Yale, the other at Deerfield. . . .

But before this comes to pass
it is summer. Leafy boughs
of oak and elm are rustling.
Jake is in jeans, with the overnight guest
helping build a split-rail fence.
Jake always makes his weekend guests
help with the chores. It gives them a taste
of living in the country.

He is at the moment of his greatest happiness.
He has just been named Editor of the Year.

Later, on the patio, over frankfurters
and beer—lemonade for the children—
he is talking about Flaubert
to Dick Weinstein, who listens deferentially.
Jake is the intellectual, Dick
the partner who manages finances
at Hyperion Books. Jake and Dick
and their wives are a foursome
going to restaurants and shows together,
and the wives always on the telephone.

Flaubert, Jake is saying,
was a sadist. Keeping his boots on
while making love to a woman!
He will never forgive him for this.
Besides, Flaubert had no imagination—
you can see it in Sentimental Education.

He praises his most recent discovery.
A friend of Adlai Stevenson
has written a novel . . .
“the best thing of its kind
since War and Peace. I mean it sincerely.”

And he did. That was the secret
of Jake’s success. His sincerity.

So one day he went into the board room.
Weinstein and the other two partners
were there. And copies of Jake’s books—
all the books he’d contracted to publish—
were piled on the table.

Dick said, turning to his secretary,
“you can start.” And she began reading
sales figures.

Do you recall King Richard the Third
where he keeps the council waiting,
and Hastings is getting nervous
and talks compulsively of Richard,
what a good friend he has been,
and how you can always tell Richard’s feelings
by what you see in his face. . . .

And the other men seated at the table
start drawing away from Hastings,
until they’re all at the far end
and he’s sitting alone?

So Jake sat, while the figures
went rolling off like doom.
Finally it was finished. “Jake,”
Dick Weinstein said, “you’re out.”

As I said, he lingered for some years.
The last time I saw him, on Martha’s Vineyeard,
he had grown a beard . . .
I suppose, to go with the cultural series.

Playing it back. Scraping paint. . . .
Shadows flutter and fly across a wall.


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