Poetry A Tribute to Lewis Warsh
I loved the sound of Lewis’s voice. He practically purred when he talked to you, low register,
knowing, quietly inquisitive. Real sexy but cozy too, fireplace and old blankets, a cello playing the
low notes and just a feeling like he’d take care of you if you needed him too.
And yet, at the exact same time, his sound also seemed rich with affectionate surprise,
vulnerability, even a sort of befuddlement in response to the strangeness of the everyday.
Lewis’s sound I think could be heard both in his interactions with people and in his writing. Some
lines from his poem “The Secret Police” I hope get at what I am trying to describe here:
My students tell me I look like Jeff Goldblum, the actor, but it isn’t true.
It seems like an anti-Semitic perception – that I look like Jeff Goldblum – because we’re
When I asked my students what they were laughing about, Gloria said: “We think you look
like Jeff Goldblum”
It occurred to me that some of my students have never seen any people who were Jewish
except for me & Jeff Goldblum, but I can’t imagine how that could be possible
In the same way that people say all black people look alike or all Chinese people look alike
it’s possible some people think all Jews look alike as well
People think they’re flattering me when they tell me I look like Jeff Goldblum, but I feel
There’s such a sense of deep intimacy and, at the same time, such melancholy alienation in these
lines! The speaker – let’s call him Lewis – is close enough to Gloria and her fellow students that he
doesn’t play teacher in charge, doesn’t tell them to stop laughing. Rather, he seeks sweetly to find
out the cause of the laughter. Gloria (I imagine her grinning), spokesperson for the laughing
students, lets him know. Upon discovering that they’re laughing at him because they think he
looks like Jeff Goldblum he admits his hurt. Along the way, Lewis’s lines turn like a kaleidoscope.
The specifics of the classroom incident serve as an occasion for measured ruminations about
potential anti-Semitism, gestures of affinity between various subaltern groups, specific bodies and
faces (“my students”) morphing into undifferentiated “people,” time itself moving subtly from
present to past to no set time at all.
To be kind, to give each other breaks, to resist possessiveness. These are major lessons I learned
from Lewis, whom I first met in the mid-1990s when I was interviewing scores of poets for a
project that would later become a book entitled All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene
in the 1960s. Lewis really liked to gossip. In large part thanks to his model, gossip ended up serving
as a kind of scholarly paradigm for me – I grew to understand his and so many of his friends’
poems themselves as a kind of gossip, not just a reflection or record but an extension of real social
occasions, interactions, lives lived and loved with great complexity and passion.
Crucially, for all the “dirt” Lewis dished, it was never done in a spirit of meanness. Rather, it was a
way of highlighting how everyone, including himself, was fundamentally kind of poking around in
the dark, making mistakes, having unbelievable (wonderful and terrible) experiences that sometime
inadvertently hurt the very people you most loved. But working hard for that love to remain was a
big part of the poet’s duty. At least that’s the message I got from Lewis in life and from his writing.
I left New York City in 2007 for the United Kingdom. Every time I returned home to visit friends
and family my time with Lewis was always a highlight. We would meet at one of three places:
Angelica Kitchen (the Dragon Bowl), Veselka’s (half-sandwich / soup special), or a French coffee
shop near the home he shared with his beloved Katt. He and Katt attended my and Jenny’s
wedding in 2014. He danced a rather awkward hora.
When Lewis met Jenny some years earlier, he had immediately “taken” to her, cooing over us every
time we were back, taking care to ask her how she was doing, what she was working on. He seemed
to delight in sharing with us what his family was doing, the lives they were leading, the books he
was working on, the collages he was creating. We knew he was getting ill, but he never quite
communicated the brevity of his situation until April of 2020, when the pandemic hit and I had to
cancel my plans to visit New York. I emailed him to say how sorry I was to miss him this time
around. We wrote back and forth to each other for a couple of weeks. Telling me about his illness,
Lewis made sure to always include lovely details. Like, Percocet made it “easy to just lie in bed and
let the songs on the radio float overhead.” There was new work coming out: “Piece of Cake, this
collaborative journal Bernadette & I kept in July 1976, came out a few months ago and looks
great, if I may say.” There were important jobs to be done: “Anne and I are working on this letter
project, dealing with all the correspondence relating to Angel Hair during the years 1966-1972.”
There were children and grandchildren to love: “My grandkids call me Grandpa Lew.”
The last email I got from him was on April 30th. “Last night at midnight we heard cars and
motorcycles drag racing up 6th Avenue. When it’s warmer I’m hoping we can walk down to
Washington Sq Park & sit in the sun. Hi to Jenny as always —.” I love to think of Lewis just sitting
there in the park, time itself on holiday, the moment for him all sun-blessed and eternal.