Graft politics and business deals do not often find their way into poetry, yet Peter Waldor of Short Hills manages to capture the small, and underhanded, moments of New Jersey’s civic life in his collection, State of the Union. There are plenty of winks at insiders, who will understand references to Pal’s Cabin, to Golan Cipel, and an unnamed local bigwig who hired a prostitute and ended up in jail.
He sets the tone early with a pair of poems rife with old-fashioned corruption. The second, called “The End of Civilization,” starts:
is just the sound of a white envelope
Sliding across white tablecloth
at Pal’s Cabin — by coincidence
two old governors at other tables…
Pal’s Cabin, which opened in 1932, was a favorite local haunt for politicians and business people. On the corner of Eagle Rock and Prospect avenues in West Orange, it was demolished in 2013 and replaced by a CVS. Waldor remarked, “The last time I ate there, there really were two political figures flanking me. One was [NJ Governor] Chris Christie, and one was [former] Governor [Brendan] Byrne, having lunch with political operatives.”
But Waldor insists that you shouldn’t take the subtle poems too seriously; the individuals and incidents, he says, are almost completely fabricated. He promised that Christie and Byrne were simply enjoying a business lunch.
“There were no envelopes crossing the table, just cutlery.”
Although State of the Union promises on its title page to include “a policy for national conscription and a solution for the ISIS crises,” these are references to individual poems. Waldor warns that if you think he’s “implying this book will be an explosive expose about business and insurance [and politics], it’s really not. To the extent that it’s about those things, it’s the small moments that the FBI really would not be interested in. But it’s my attempt to make lyric poetry out of that world.”
It’s a world he inhabits by day as CEO of Peter Waldor and Associates, an insurance agency in Livingston, and one he has known all his life as the son of Rita Waldor and the late Jerry Waldor, who founded the family’s original insurance business. Peter grew up in South Orange and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. His poetry has been published widely in journals including The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and the Iowa Review. His volume, Who Touches Everything, published by Settlement House in 2013, won the National Jewish Book Award for poetry. He was poet laureate of San Miguel County, Colo., from 2014 to 2015, where he lives for part of the year with his wife and three children.
This newest collection is an attempt to merge his two worlds. “A lot of poets choose more ethereal subjects, regardless of what’s happening in their lives,” he said. While he decided to tap his business life for material, he pointed out that often, the poet is less in control of the subject matter. “A lot of years ago someone asked why I don’t write about my day job. I said you don’t choose. The muse chooses.” He readily acknowledged that for some, a poem called “New Jersey Compensation Rating and Inspection Bureau” is not the usual fare. But that is what sets Waldor apart.
State of the Union marks a departure from Waldor’s previous work, four volumes that focused on small moments in suburban family life, often featuring his family, existential musings, and the occasional hat-tip to his work by day as a second-generation insurance salesman. This volume “is more public, more about others and less about me,” he said. Consider the young mayor in his poem “Hooray”:
who upon his first meeting with Gray
brought a yellow pad
and when Gray asked why
To take notes he said
no notes, no notes!
“It’s not about putting the old guy away,” Waldor said, referring to Gray. Of power brokers like Gray, he added, “It’s just about who they are and what motivates them.”
There is cynicism for sure, but there is also sympathy, mostly for the little guy. In the second poem, “Control of the Story,” those caught in the machinations of the politically powerful are lost. While former Governor Jim McGreevey and friends figure out how to make a “clean exit” and manage to craft reasonably successful second acts, not so for Golan Cipel, the former adviser to McGreevey with whom he was alleged to have had an affair.
and poor Golan, where is he
working security for Charlie
since he got out early?
His favorite poem in State of the Union, “Handcuff Key,” is subtle, less overtly political, and more Jewish, with its references to Psalm 23. The theme is the delicate nature of the world:
Fragile, the jingle of the handcuff key
between car key and locker key.
Fragile the haystack around the needle
fragile the friendship of old friends
Fragile the food distribution network
fragile the staple in the will
Fragile the wishbone, and fragile the wish
fragile the cupped hands, and fragile
the kidney in the cupped hands.
Fragile the eyelash of the dragonfly
fragile the table set before my enemies.
Fragile the ramparts in the saying
from rampart to rampart.
Fragile, the cameraman’s breath.
“I’m a Jewish guy with a Jewish sensibility looking at this world,” he said.