NEFTALI’S SAVAGE LANDSCAPE
I make my way up the long embankment where the poet lived. Now a subdivision in the heart of Westchester, it echoes still of bucolic myth which so inspired Neftali.
Born Herman Boitz in Yonkers in the grey concrete haze of the last summer days of the 50’s, the poet soon realized that no one, least of all exotic North Westchester women, would pay much attention to a small fat boy with a name that sounded like a hot dog.
At first he called himself Hermès, after the tie, which was closer to the open-shirted Greek god of fire he emulated. Even at six, he would hold a sparkler in one hand and his latest poem in the other as cicadas competed for airtime in the lavish Yonkers nights.
Only later, when he moved farther up into the deep groves of Somers, today as near as half an hour to White Plains due to the interstate which bisects both hamlets, did the recently christened Herman B. Neftali grow into the icon today associated with Somers, that of the hard-drinking, fast-fooding, Aztec-chained god of the horseshoers: Neftali.
Somers, breathtaking gateway to the gladed north, far enough from the fashionable malls of North Kisco as to be in Finland, geopolitically; Somers, of whom Neftali had written, “gray, gentile Somers”; Somers, at once “stupid and rich,” with its evocative ruins of failed corporate America – the great abandoned Pepsico folly, arrogant smokestacks of ancient smelters presiding over the fields of daisies Neftali knew and detailed in his 279-page epic, “Spore,” embodying the mystical lyricism that was Old Somers; Somers, “temperate and damp,” would be his muse, his Llangollen, his Soria, his Thoor Ballylee, his Isla Negra, or, as he most memorably sang,
Clean Somers, taut and
Walking through the harsh uplands of downtown Somers, the air chill, pumpkin clouds (most readers will understand the reference to this oft-anthologized masterpiece), pumpkin clouds, I repeat, gently misting yellow-stalked fields as they must have the first Thanksgiving, walking here, let me repeat, it is easy to see how in this almost Norse setting Neftali had been attracted to the ten-year-old daughter of his gardener, Lascivia. The daughter was Lascivia, the gardener’s name forever lost in a compost explosion several years back.
Wracked with grief at the cruel misinterpretation of his love by torch-wielding locals, Neftali dedicated to her his one-page masterwork, “Lascivia.” They were seen frequently, poignantly, waiting for the 3:10 to Yonkers in nearby Carmel. Of her he wrote the tragic line, “But, oh Lascivia,” foreshadowing her heartbreaking demise from miner’s lung disease just before their first Lent together.
Neftali, distraught, died two months later, to the day. But, even if he only rented in Somers for six months, his spirit lives on there, although at times it may be hard to find among the apple orchards and gift shops, but where as more than adequate compensation might be discovered, thrown in the chintz doilies and branding irons, the few remaining santons of Lascivia, small clay dolls which contain rolled up quotes and antiquated predictions, should they have the misfortune to be dropped.
At the far end of town, down a violet-strewn hill and behind a stone cistern, can be found a small mound with a golden plastic license plate holder, inside whose weathered frame is a Xerox of one of “Lee’s” beloved daisies and this immortal quote; “There is no field. The field is you.” This was Neftali’s favorite hideaway, of which he wrote, “the grass up here bends before I climb.” It is no wonder Neftali was posthumously named Pepsico Poet of the Year and has been translated into both Chinese and English, again posthumously.
With his tragic verse ringing in my ears, and dizzy from the hike, I returned to the safety of White Plains, the mighty solitude of Neftali’s suburban wilderness in my step, the encroaching rings of attached housing half-forgotten.
SHOULD YOU GO
Those who make the pilgrimage to the few remaining outreaches of otherwise built-up Westchester should realize that Neftali is not beloved to all the townsfolk, and indeed should not be mentioned to anyone to whom you are not related. While his name most often draws a blank, those who remember can be quite rude. Neftali put it best: “Remember me? For why?”
Let us slink away from his adopted heath, from the unexplained mounds and sink holes that inspired him, and take away just what he himself extracted from an otherwise hostile landscape: warm doughnuts, cider, and that “blank Thanksgiving sky.”
WHERE TO EAT
There is only one watering hole in Somers, an almost-charming former tool shed. As you swagger (necessarily) past the crowd of apple pickers gathered vociferously around the pool table into the unique egg-carton-walled back room reserved for strangers, you can smell the special of the day, which, when we visited, was salmon, specially canned in Norway for the restraint. The “Neftali” is a sandwich of lettuce, tomato, and little else. It is, like everything in trendy Somers, not cheap. But, somehow, the aura of Neftali lingered, fragrant and immortal, long after the shouting in the outer room subsided.