ENFIELD, Connecticut. Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators. “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success. “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”
Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs. “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully. “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”
Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31, 2015, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend. “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”
“Zombies ahead/fear and dread/pretty soon you’ll all be dead.”
The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford. “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.
“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter. “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme. The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”
“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”
In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscure Wallace Stevens:
Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.
When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:
Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.
“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”
Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually. “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday. “On the other hand, that D I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”