The Lot of the Poet’s Wife

The poet’s wife must endure a lot,
it’s usually not Housman he’s forgot,
or Coleridge, Wordsworth, one of their ilk.
More likely it’s a quart of 1% milk.
Of woolgathering he is often and rightly to blame
for leaving a child at a youth soccer game.

He’ll generally find there’s hell to pay
if he compares her to a summer’s day.
“It’s hot, and humid and very muggy,
if I go outside it’s also buggy.
What a terrible, horrible thing to say,
likening me to a summer’s day.”

But worst is the meter he may beat
on her back in the midst of passion’s heat
as he hugs his beloved’s entire diameter
and taps on her shoulder iambic pentameter.
“For a second, put poetry out of mind’s sight
and focus entirely on me for tonight.”

Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

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.”

Image result for led highway sign

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.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“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, 2017, 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.”

Image result for led highway sign
“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.”

Image result for state highway headquarters command center
“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 obscurantist 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.


Image result for highway line painter truck
“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.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

At the Pine-Woods Golf & Poetry Club

For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club.

                                     The New York Times Book Review

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I just wanted to get out of the damn house. I decided to head over to the club, see if I could squeeze in a round before dinner. I threw the old sticks in the trunk and, as I drove into the parking lot at Pine-Woods, saw Lowell, Berryman and Roethke heading down to the starter’s hut. Lowell had on those god-awful madras pants of his. What a preppy doofus.


Robert Lowell

 

“Hey guys,” I yelled out to them. They were absorbed in a deep discussion.  Probably talking about the club By-Laws, which had been under revision since Allen Ginsburg walked onto the putting green without a collared shirt.


Allen Ginsburg: “I didn’t know it was like a rule rule.”

 

I caught up to them as they were paying for their golf cart. The starter—a guy named Skip Derosiers—was giving them a hard time.

“Which one of you knuckleheads left the tracks on the seventh fairway the other day?


Theodore Roethke

 

“Not me,” said Roethke. Or course not—Mr. Nature Poet.

“It was me,” Lowell and Berryman said together. Figures—two confessional poets, two confessions.


John Berryman

 

“Do you guys mind if I make a fourth?” I asked.

“There’s a guy on the list ahead of you,” Derosiers said.

“Who?” Lowell demanded.

“The Old Man—Wallace Stevens.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Berryman.

“Can’t you do something?” I asked.


Wallace Stevens

 

“He’s one of the club’s founders.” He pointed to the left breast of his polo shirt, which featured a bantam rooster before a stand of pines.

“You know he’s going to walk the course, hit the ball thirty yards every time and compose poems between shots,” Roethke said. “The course will be backed up for a week.”

“No can do,” Derosiers said.

“Do you know who I am?” Lowell asked imperiously.

“Let me see if I remember,” he said, a sardonic gleam in his eye, and began to speak in a taunting, sing-song manner:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod.
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

“What’s your point?” Lowell asked, a bit defensively I thought.


“But I don’t even like fishcakes and beans.”

 

“When you talk to me, you ain’t talkin’ to a Cabot—you’re talking to a God,” Skip said, as he clicked the remote to see who was on the leaderboard at the Buick Open.

I tried a different tack. “What if we made it worth your while?”

Derosiers looked us over, one by one. “Talk to me.”

We looked at each other. Thankfully, Berryman had brought a six-pack of Budweiser with him. He tore two cans off the plastic yoke and, after checking over his shoulder, handed them over the counter.

“You know, some golf industry publications say that bribing a starter can backfire,” Derosiers said as he handed us scorecards and pencils. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he added with a smile, as he waved us onto the course.

“What if old man Stevens catches up to us?” Roethke asked.

“Humor him,” Derosiers said as he popped the top off a twelve-ouncer. “He’s really quite whimsical.”

That didn’t sound good, but we forgot about it as we waited the standard six-minute interval for the foursome in front of us to clear the fairway.

“You want to make it interesting?” Lowell asked. “Five dollar Nassau?”

Easy for him to say with all that old money to burn.

“No automatic press on the back nine,” Berryman said. On his second beer, he was already beginning to slur his speech, but like his verse, he remained in technical control and rooted in the conventions of his time.

“Sure, John, sure,” Lowell said as he made his way to the back tee. “Okay, ladies and germs, hide and watch.”

“Grip it and rip it,” Roethke said, egging him on. I personally think trash-talk has no place in golf, but ever since Karl Shapiro said Marianne Moore was “never more beatable,” suddenly everybody’s doing it.


Marianne Moore throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium—I kid you not.

 

The big guy shuffled forward, tall, slightly stooped, ran his fingers back through his dishevelled grey hair and stuffed it under his cap. He took a few practice swings, set himself, and—scorched a worm-burner into the rough! I stifled a laugh.

“I call Mulligan,” Lowell said without even looking back, as he pulled another ball out of his pocket.

“No way,” Roethke said. “Mulligans are allowed only when expressly agreed upon by all partners in advance.”

“Too late, Bob,” I agreed. “We’ve all got skin in the game.”

I knew what was coming. A manic-depressive temper tantrum.

“God damn it to hell!” Lowell screamed as he threw his driver into a water hazard and stormed off to look for his ball.

“Ooo,” Berryman said in a mocking tone. “Huffy Bobby hid the day/unappeasable.

Roethke stepped up next. He’s a deliberate player—it took him ten years to write Open House, his first book of poems, fer Christ’s sake.


Walt Whitman: “Hey—that’s my line!”

 

He plucked some leaves of grass and threw them up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. He fiddled with his gloves, his visor and his left shirt sleeve. He took in the natural beauty of the course, with all its mystery, fierceness and sensuality; the ball washers, the spike cleaners, the liquid refreshment stand at the tenth tee.

“While we’re young, Teddy-boy,” Berryman said, shaking his head, “while we’re young.”

“I don’t have to take that from you, Mr. Yips,” Roethke said out of the side of his mouth. Always lyrical, I thought with admiration.

Finally he took his stance, wig-wagged his butt a bit, then weighed into the ball–a nice clean stroke, the solid thwock, if I may be allowed just one little onomatopoeia.

His ball sailed down the fairway where a tall, austere man had wandered out of the rough. It was Stevens, and Roethke’s shot hit him square in the temple!

We jumped in the cart and tore off down the fairway, coming to a stop where Stevens lay on his back, apparently dazed.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Stevens,” Roethke said, distraught at the thought that he had nearly killed one of the major American poets of the 20th century. “Are you all right?”

The great man propped himself up on one elbow, shielded his eyes from the sun and began to speak, a big groggily at first.

Call the smoker of big cigars, Stevens began,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In snack bar cups, concupiscent frozen custard.
Let the wenches dawdle in such pink culottes
As they are used to wear, and let the caddies
Bring the clubs to the bag drop.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only captain is Walter Hagen,
captain of the Ryder Cup Team.

Lowell leaned over the great poet for a look.  “He’s fine,” he said, as he took his four iron out of his bag, and then–as he dropped his ball next to fallen bard–“Winter rules.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

August in New York

  (with apologies to Vernon Duke)

August in New York—why does it seem uninviting?
August in New York—have you tried to sleep there at nighting?
Sweltering crowds and shimmering clouds from manhole covers
Make me not want to go.

August in New York—everyone wants to be elsewhere.
August in New York—on the beach with a cold beer.
Sweat down your dress on the late Lex Express
It’s August in New York–
So tough to live it again.

August in New York—the baking rooftops are torrid.
August in New York—pouring sweat down your forehead.
Busted air conditioners
make perspiring parishioners
pray for a break from the heat.

August in New York, transforms the slums into Hades.
August in New York—it bakes Park Avenue ladies.
Lovers I fear
Will say “Not tonight, dear.”
It’s August in New York–
Don’t want to live it—again.


Ode to Artichoke Fritters

Of all God’s many culinary critters
there is none stranger than an artichoke fritter.
The vegetable, by itself, I cannot abide,
when a hostess tries to serve it I run and hide.

It’s too much like work to be enjoyable eating;
you peel, you dip, then you drag it through your teeth.
If I skip a step it’s because I’m cheating,
if you make me clean my plate I begin to seethe.

I might feel differently if I liked the taste
but the flavor reminds me of asparagus waste
that I used to masticate when I was a kid
then hold out to my mom to show her what I did.

“I’m starting to choke, mom,” I’d say through tears,
then she’d relent, hedging her fears.
I might not grow up to be big and stronger,
but at least I’d have a chance to live a little longer.

With artichoke fritters, on the other hand,
I could eat them all day at a roadside stand.
I would gulp them down at a formal dinner
or pronounce them to be a bake-off winner.

I’m not quite sure what works the tranformation
from a side dish that oughta be a breach of the peace
to an hors d‘oeuvre that brings me such great elation,
but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s the grease.

Pink Tights, Tu-Tus, and Schmaltzy Music

ballet

(With apologies to Joe and Rose Lee Maphis,
who don’t need ‘em ‘cause they’re already dead.)

Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
Is the only kind of life you’ll ever understand.
Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
You’ll never make a wife to a home-lovin’ man.

A home and little children mean nothing to you.
You’d rather spend your nights prancin’ round in a tu-tu.
You’d rather be with friends takin’ your a-dult bal-let
At a walk-up studio that’s ten miles the other way.

You say that you’re just goin’ ‘cause you want to take the barre.
I say well that’s okay I don’t really need the car.
And then I get a call from a different kind of bar
They say you’re drunk on Cosmos and actin’ quite bizarre.

Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
Is the only kind of life you’ll ever understand.
Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
You’d rather spend your time with a tights-wearin’ man.

The music that you dance to, I just cain’t understand
It’s treacly and it’s schmaltzy, played on a baby grand.
This fella named Tchaikovsky, you say he’s pretty smart
I’m sorry for you and your adult ballet heart.

The guys you hang around with, they strike me as real weird
They all wear tights in public, and there ain’t none has a beard.
And even when they’re inside, they always wear a scarf.
There’s one who goes by “Evan,” who really makes me barf.

Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
Is the only kind of life you’ll ever understand.
Pink tights, tu-tus and schmal-tzy music
You’ll only make a wife to an arts-lovin’ man.

The Curse of the Uncool

Take the hippest restaurant,
where everyone wants to go
where you can’t get a table for several years
unless you are in the know.

The place is so cool it’s frigid,
but the minute I walk inside
people complain that it’s stuffy
if they don’t actually run and hide.

“What happened to the cutting-edge atmosphere?”
asks a tattooed millennial tool.
“It’s simple,” I’d say,
if he’d look my way,
“You’ve been invaded by The Uncool.”

Or consider the stark haberdashery
where overpriced clothing is sold.
Even the mannequins have attitudes,
worse than the sales help I’m told.

The inventory comes in twelve shades of black
to adorn your torso from front to back
but I cause all present to turn and stare
when I ask “Is this sweater wash ‘n wear?”

The hipster holding a thirty-dollar t-shirt
that he thought at first quite a jewel
is suddenly overcome with a sense of dread–
he loathes to be near The Uncool.

I have this effect on people, I fear,
I don’t know how I first acquired it.
I’d be happy to pass it along to young folks
but none of them seem to admire it.

Une petit boit de nuit
as the French would say
isn’t safe from my death-ray.
I can unmake a day
that you thought complete
whether you’re low or very effete
by just being myself, in my own special way,
in a manner that many might even think cruel
and exposing you to The Curse of the Uncool.