The Intoxication of Poetry

Scorpions On The Face - Again

Two-time Poet Laureate, Howard Nemerov, and celebrated photographer, Diane Arbus, had a great deal in common. This talented brother and sister act shared what I would call an emotionally brittle nature, and a lifelong battle with depression. Arbus, famously, lost that battle at a young age. Her suicide was no desperate plea for help; she intended to go through with it.

It was 1969; I was a 19-year old freshman punk living la vida loca at Haverford College. My father, Ian, was almost at the zenith of his celebrity, turning up with tiresome regularity in every conceivable media outlet, doing his mad-as-a-March hare environmental activist with a thick Scottish brogue shtick. His base of operations was The Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning at The University of Pennsylvania – a department he founded and chaired for decades.

The Professor was completely devoid of parenting skills, but – having written, and published, my first poem at age 6 – even he knew I was an incipient wordflinger. He taught a course entitled Man & Environment. Do not be misled by the apparent hubris of this title; since he did in fact know everything about everything the all-inclusive subject matter posed no problem. Plus, he invited a long string of tweed-jacket wearing, pipe-smoking, degree-wielding intellectual heavy-hitters to help.

In a rare moment of familial camaraderie he called to say Nemerov was giving a guest lecture and if I wanted to meet him I should show up at his office about 11:30.

So here we are, three guys in my father’s office at the U of P. Nemerov is pacing and twitching like a crack addict in a rehab. Finally he says, “Ian, I have got to have a martini.” My dad, enjoying this opportunity to swagger, tells one of his students to go to the bistro across the street, get a pitcher of martinis, and come back. The student points out that this is illegal and impossible for many reasons and my dad starts screaming at him. The terrified student races away – and is back in minutes with a stainless steel pitcher sweating chilly droplets. Nemerov’s eyes twinkle.

So I’m thinking – this is pretty cool – I am going to have a martini with one of the nation’s greatest poets. As this idea is simmering in my mind – Nemerov puts the pitcher to his lips and slowly, easily, drains the entire thing. My father and I look on in wonder, exchanging stunned glances. I will never forget what happened next. Nemerov stopped pacing, talking, twitching, fidgeting, glancing about erratically, and went perfectly calm. I had never seen a veteran, all-in alcoholic in action before; it was hypnotic.

The three of us walked down the corridor and into the lecture hall. Nemerov read his poetry for an hour; he was note-perfect. I doubt there were more than 50 people in the room, and he was a teacher, giving lectures was his bread and butter. It wasn’t about being nervous. Alcoholics get to the point where they need the toxin to be normal.

Killer In The Dining Room

ira einhorn

Moonlit Tours is a dark comedy that begins with a fundamental question – are human beings intrinsically good and evil – or – is evil behavior the consequence of increasingly questionable choices? There are many interwoven storylines involving incremental falls from grace, where essentially decent people find themselves committing unspeakable acts – including murder.

As a young man I was spared the experience of military service and have seen little of death, much less murder. So, when I was preparing to write I scoured my memories for interactions with killers. The most useful was an uncomfortable familiarity with convicted murderer Ira Einhorn, whose unapologetic expression stared out from front pages across the nation some time back. This is the story of how I came to know him.

People rarely rise to the pinnacle of their profession by accident; usually they are driven by a primal force like greed, competitiveness, or the need for approval. My father, who lived his entire life in a state of hypo-mania, genuinely loved what he did; but the emotional engine powering him was an almost pathological need for validation and respect.

I have no first-hand acquaintance with celebrity but I learned a great deal about it growing up in his shadow. One of the first things I found out is that stars attract sycophants; while some crave only the warmth of reflected limelight, others seek to attach themselves for manipulative, unsavory purposes. Luminaries, because they are accustomed to praise and crave it like morphine; are easily victimized by the latter variety. Meet Ira Einhorn.

Ira Einhorn was a self-styled anti-war, environmental activist who collaborated with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. As the first Earth Day approached, he launched an intense lobbying effort to get on my father’s good side so he could claim some of the credit for organizing it.

I remember him sitting at the massive George Nakashima dining table in our house, overlooking Fairmount Park, schmoozing with desperate relentlessness, and my father, clueless as only the truly brilliant can be, falling for it with a broad smile. Einhorn was smart, charming, affable, and determined. He had an unerring instinct for isolating what made people tick, and putting it to his advantage.

Earth Day took place in 1970. In 1977 we learned that Einhorn had murdered his ex-girlfriend, Holly Maddux and stuffed her body in a trunk which he stored in his West Philadelphia apartment. I was surprised and not surprised, having always sensed something unpleasant about him, although even today I don’t know exactly what. He avoided capture for many years and, after some convoluted legal square-dancing, was shipped state-side to face judgment. In one memorable last attempt at prestidigitation he tried to persuade the court that CIA agents had killed Maddux in order to discredit him.

Moonlit Tours explores a world where people do not choose evil; they fail to choose righteousness – where the great crimes of life are committed by unexceptional people, people essentially like us.

Moonlit Tours Cover