CAMBRIDGE, Mass. This city across the Charles River from Boston is so thick with poets “that you can’t throw a brick in Harvard Square without hitting one,” according to Sergeant Jim Hampy of the Cambridge Police Department’s Bunco Squad. “I know ’cause we tried it one day and nearly killed a neo-formalist/symbolist outside Grolier’s,” a bookshop here that stocks only poetry.
But the plethora of poetasters here means that the shoe of poetry fraud pinches more tightly in these environs, as Hampy well knows. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a beautifully-written complaint from a budding poetess that somebody charged her a $25 entry fee, then turned around and gave first prize to one of his roommates,” he says, shaking his head at the aesthetic ambition that lures many young versifiers to waste money on poetry contests that could be better spent on foolscap or cheap wine.
So Hampy set up a “sting” operation, “salting” an entry for purposes of entrapment with lines universally acknowledged to be among the greatest poetry ever written. “If they turn it down, bingo, we got ’em,” he says with one ear cocked towards a police scanner that broadcasts reports from plainclothesmen circling the greater Boston area with sophisticated GPS equipment.
The term “bunco” now refers to a parlor game played in teams with three dice by housewives in wealthy suburbs such as Wellesley, Mass., but it was originally a confidence game similar to three-card monte and police units dedicated to rooting out fraud still carry the name as a vestige of its shady origins. Hampy has the missionary character one sometimes finds in crusading crime-fighters, and his entry is a veritable assault weapon in rhyme:
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,” it begins,
“when the centre cannot hold and
things fall apart. As for me, I think
that I shall never see a tree
’cause my love is like a red, red rose
that diverged in a woods,
and that has made all the difference.”
“I’d like to see somebody turn that down,” he says with pride as he reads from the file copy of his entry, which is at the same time about to be rejected by Floyd Inomea, a graduate student in English who has been in the state of suspended animation known as “ABD”–“all but the dissertation”–for the past two years at nearby Brandeis University.
Inomea chuckles as he mutters “What utter crap,” takes Hampy’s check and places it on a two-inch high stack of similar payments, and slips a printed rejection form into the self-addressed stamped envelope the veteran policeman included with his entry in order to obtain the perp’s fingerprints. What Inomea doesn’t realize is that the copy of the poem he has just discarded is printed on paper that includes metallic fibers, which are activated when the ball he has crumpled it into hits the bottom of his metal wastebasket.
In Squad Car 137 Patrolman Dan Glancz’s mobil unit lights up, and he turns on his flasher to clear traffic as he heads out Mt. Auburn Street towards Waltham, Mass., where Inomea rents a squalid one-bedroom apartment near campus. “Perfect for the sort of dreary modernist crap this guy cranks out,” he notes as he checks the address against the National Poetry Registry. Glancz gets out of his car, shields himself with the open door, draws his gun and turns on his bullhorn. “I know you’re in there,” he says evenly. “Come out with your hands up and your copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet out where I can see it.”
Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”