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Peddler on the Road: Days in the Life of Willy Sypher


by Louis Daniel Brodsky


The Loneliness of an Old Road Peddler

These days, Willy spends his retirement
Suspended in contemplation of family and friends,
Depending on memories of them
To keep his mind from surrendering to sedentariness,
Succumbing to forgetfulness, dementia,
Descending into that endless cave
Whose myriad mazy chambers
Are the punishment old age imposes
With arbitrary arrogance and temerity.

But it’s been almost three years
Since he last spoke with anyone at Acme-Zenith —
Fellow salesmen, office staff, managers —
Or jotted notes of congratulations or condolence,
Mailed Christmas cards
(For Jews and gentiles alike)
To clientele he met on a road fifty years long,
Seven states wide,
In the promised lands he plied.

Nor in the five years since Leah died
Has Willy sent Chanukah gifts
To her nephews and nieces,
Kept in touch with acquaintances from temple,
Let alone mustered the resolve to attend services,
Say his shaloms, l’chaims, mazel tovs
At Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur,
Brises, bar and bat mitzvahs,
Weddings of brothers and sisters of the tribe.

Indeed, all too often, these days,
The only faces that rise up, like sweat beads,
In his persecutive dreams
Aren’t those of loved ones or old buddies
But gawking, hawknosed ragmen
Vending rotten jewfish and moldy matzos,
Scrofulous prophets stooping in soup lines,
Or frail tailors stitching body bags
For victims of usurers and mail-order lawyers.

And in his loneliest moments,
While waiting for tomorrow’s paper to be thrown,
Listening to traffic’s slapstick below,
Or startled by garish hallucinations
Shooting to the surface of pools he dives into
While viewing late-night movies,
Willy knows who’ll show up at his funeral,
To hear the rabbi’s graveside eulogy:
Just death, his closest next of kin.

 

Use the player below to listen to Louis Daniel Brodsky read this poem.

 



Summary:

In Peddler on the Road: Days in the Life of Willy Sypher, Louis Daniel Brodsky sets forth a series of poetic vignettes about one Jewish traveling salesman’s journeys as a representative for a major Midwest manufacturer of men’s dress clothing, depicting the odyssey of a fifty-year career devoted to the road and to the small towns that define it.

This novel, in fifty-two poems, is told both by an omniscient narrator and by Willy Sypher himself. We follow Willy’s progress, from the time he joins Acme-Zenith Clothing, of St. Louis, in 1938, to his languishment in a nursing home, at century’s end. In five chapters, each covering about a decade and a half, we see Willy advance into his prime, in the forties, fifties, and sixties — full of pep, tackling seven states, in two sales territories, and believing himself to be unstoppable — and then suffer the inexorable loss of his energy, the shrinking of his client base, and the ultimate inertia of old age.

This is not one man’s story of achieving the American Dream, nor is it about his succumbing to the disillusionment of eking out a living; rather, it is the tale of a dogged, proud individual determined to stay even, survive, day to month to year, against fierce competition not only from others in his trade, not only from the rigors of road travel itself, but, perhaps most significant, from the forces of prejudice and intolerance.

Reading Peddler on the Road, you will meet a genuine American hero, the unsung kind that, though all but faded into myth, once invigorated the national landscape, with optimism and faith in the worth of the common man.



Praise:

No achievement in his poetic career exceeds Louis Daniel Brodsky’s creation of Willy Sypher, a Jewish travelling salesman for a Midwestern manufacturer of men’s clothing. . . . No poet at work today has a more . . . passionate regard for the infinite worth of the experience of being alive.
— Lewis P. Simpson, author of The Dispossessed Garden


Mr. Brodsky obviously references two American classics with his title: "Fiddler on the Roof" and Arthur Miller's Willie Loman of "Death of a Salesman" (which is mentioned with disdain). And perhaps another, "The Music Man," with its opening of the traveling salesmen discussing trade: "But you better know the territory" — and in the patter of "the pitch." Willy Sypher is a vanished breed: the Jewish, Midwestern, traveling purveyor of a menswear line. The poems trace in chronological order Willy's tales of road life: loneliness and lust, prejudice and pals. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the ups and downs of sales. Mr. Brodsky nicely covers the mood swings, the inner life, the existence of someone only as good as his next sale fighting natural and man-made elements for a righteous piece of the pie. The poet reminds us that small-town America was often less than pleasant places for outsiders (Jews among the least popular) throughout most of the 20th century (of course now the born-agains are hoping the Israelis kick off Armageddon to bring on "the rapture"). As someone who has sold a few suits himself, Mr. Brodsky is well-acquainted with the terms, travails, and jargon of the garment business.
Iconoclast

Brodsky has given Willy the proper language in which to make his case before the world. Willy has a sense of humor, a sound sense of the world, and a quiet pride in himself. The language that he speaks may sound merely commonplace, but Willy is speaking poetry, for poetry is language that in its exactitude, its rhythm, its descriptive power, its precision of tone, is doing its job perfectly.
— Cleanth Brooks, author of The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry