for my students
style, v. 5. To pierce with a stylet.
style, n. 1.b. Used as a weapon of offence, for stabbing, etc.
(from The Oxford English Dictionary)
Until you taste what failure is, you will
Never sing that pain style requires.
One dark morning earlier in this life,
I felt two hooded men approaching me
In an alley. One, or both, roundhoused me
From behind. I was carrying a blue
Guitar because I desired style then,
And thought it my gift to offer some.
Back then, I thought I knew what gifts were:
A voice, a song, combat boots, silver rings,
A blue guitar. But these two taught me
The true meaning of style as I came to
With asphalt on my tongue, a different
Kind of stars inside my eyes. They picked me
Up and leaned me against a wall. I spit
Blood and stones at their feet, but there were no
Poems inside that salt, nothing heroic.
One of them laughed while the other spit back
And removed a knife tucked between his boot
And shin. He brought it to his face, almost
In awe of it, as if allowed to
Hold it after a long apprenticeship.
The other laughed again, spit like his friend.
But neither said a word. This was their style:
Getting in and getting out with a slowness
Utterly fearless and without regret,
Taking as much as they possibly could.
_ _ And, friends,
They did. It felt then—as it does now—
Like they had taken their own sweet, autumnal
Time knocking me down again and slashing
The flesh behind my knees with precision
And grace, like a painter, surgeon, or bear
Hunter skinning his warm kill. In this way,
They assured themselves a clean, calm exit.
But not before they removed the guitar
From its case. If they could see its clear blue
Body and turtle-shell inlay—vintage
Didn’t let on until I groaned with all
The bitterness I could muster, You sons-
Uh-bitches, goddamned mother-fu…sons-uh…
To which the one with the knife replied, What
Did you say, the one and only direct
Question I’ve ever received in the slow,
Painful, confusing, and necessary
Discussion concerning itself with style.
Alexander Long is the author of three books of poems: Still Life (2011), which won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize; Vigil (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2006); and Light Here, Light There (C & R Press, 2009). With Christopher Buckley, Long co-edited A Condition of the Spirit: the Life & Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004). Long’s work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, American Writers (Charles Scribner’s Sons), Blackbird, Callaloo, Pleiades, AGNI, Quarterly West, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is associate professor of English at John Jay College, CUNY. (updated 1/2016)