The Madwoman Who Called on My Wedding Day

She was calling, she said,
from the bowels of a library
on a college campus where she
hid each night and slept among the
stacks.

She’d been living that way
for years, moving on when she was
discovered to someplace else
where she would blend in
with the scenery and pass
undetected among the young.

I heard her out. She’d reached my name
after running through the directory,
alphabetically. Apparently no one in the
a’s or b’s or any of the c’s before me
had done so. It was a strange tale she
told, how she’d been cheated  of her inheritance—
money her father had left her–
by a trustee, distant and cold,
far off in California.  She said she had no money to
live on, or even fight with, because of him.

I called the fellow, a reasonable sort.
He thanked me for my concern and
the attention I’d given his ward,
but he said she was off her drugs,
the police had been alerted.
They knew she’d come East and
were looking for her but they hadn’t
found her yet.  There were too many
libraries for her to hide in, in this
City of Books, a place such as Borges
imagined where for every

rational line there were rows of senseless
cacophony, a library that was the universe,
the librarians in suicidal despair.

I rolled over in bed to answer the phone and
heard her voice again, more desperate than before.
They were closing in, couldn’t I help? She asked.
What had the trustee said? She wouldn’t say
where she was—perhaps I’d turn her in.

I don’t recall exactly what I told her other than
to say I couldn’t help her that day;
another woman —the one who would
become my wife— was waiting for me in a church.
She was not the sort who’d tolerate a groom
who’d dare to show up late to his wedding and hers,
and so I demurred. You’ll have to try the
next name on the list, I said.

But you’re the only one who’s talked to me yet,
she said, and those words rang in my head
like overtones of plainsong, Gregorian chant
echoing in the chancel up to the apse,
as I repeated my vows, facing the light
streaming through a stained-glass window
thinking of her disordered mind, which kept
her running as I prepared to settle down.

Winner of 2nd place, 2018 Shadow Award, Molotov Cocktail, vol. 4.

The Sylvia Plath Foreclosure Sale

I grew up surrounded by females.  My dad owned a women’s clothing store.  Both of my sisters were girls, and my mom was a woman.  We had two female cats whose names–Big Kitty and Baby Cat–could have been taken straight from a Eudora Welty short story.  As far as I know, the box turtle in the basement was female, too.

plath
Eudora Welty

As a result, I am uniquely well-equipped to intervene in, and resolve, disputes between women, sometimes referred to colloquially as “catfights.”  At the tender age of twelve, my dad took me to see a night of men’s, women’s and midget wrestling matches.  The truths I absorbed that night, all wide-eyed innocence as the ladies leapt upon each other’s bodies from the ropes, I have put to good use.

plath1

That’s why I am frequently called on to referee the All-Female Poetry Slams that are held around New England as fund-raisers for what A.J. Liebling disparagingly referred to as “the quarterlies,” the high-brow, low-revenue publications that pluck drops of verse from the torrent of poetry that is showered on them, providing them with a brief, mayfly-length existence, before they are recycled at one of the region’s many picturesque do-it-yourself town dumps.

“You’ve got your helmet, right?” my wife asks anxiously as she eyes the bandage on my forehead that covers a three-inch cut I received last weekend when a symbolist poetess smashed a villanelle over my head after I whistled her for a shot-clock violation.

“Yes, dear,” I say sheepishly, like a kid who’s asked if he’s clipped his mittens to his coat sleeves.  It took three stitches to close the wound, and my carelessness will leave a scar that matches one I acquired four decades earlier when my helmet cracked in a freshman football game.

plath2
“Mixed metaphor–3 minute major penalty.”

“I worry about you, okay?” she says, her face a placemat of concern, like June Lockhart’s on Lassie when Timmie announces he’s going upstairs to study for his algebra quiz and doesn’t need his genius collie’s help.

“Just be careful,” she says with a lump in her throat.  “I love you.”

“Love you too,” I say.  We kiss, and I head out the door with my gym bag.

I arrive at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, one of the rougher venues on the NEPA (Northeast Poetess Association) circuit.  A crowd of black-turtlenecked women and girls mills about outside, smoking French Gauloise-brand cigarettes, “freestyling” with each other.  The losing female–the one who “craps out,” unable to come up with a quatrain after her opponent finishes–often runs off in tears to gorge herself on pastry inside.

plath3
The odds-on favorite.

I move through the crowd with difficulty, as many of the distaff versifiers have gigantic egos and yield only grudgingly.  I squeeze through the front door and notice that two women are already going at it, and the bell hasn’t even rung yet!

“You couldn’t write your way out of a Barnes & Noble bag!” one screams at the other, who has a hand full of beret and is trying to get at her adversary’s hair.

“Ladies, ladies–please,” I say, with more extreme unction than a Catholic priest at a big donor’s dying bedside.  “What’s this all about?”

“She says she was into confessional poetry before me!” the one in the beret says.

“You’re a Ginny-come-lately,” the other hisses.

plath4

The shock of recognition hits me, even though both women have had cosmetic surgery recently.  In the beret is elena gotchko, who’s had the capital letters removed from her name, e. e. cummings-style, since I last saw her.  Her opponent is jean-marie benson, who opted for an Italicized style during a recent fellowship in Rome.  I notice that she’s added a hyphen between her first and middle names and her face is still puffy from the surgery, which has not yet been approved by the FDA.  Even though neither will be eligible to enter the Yale Younger Poets Competition ever again, I have to admit that both are looking great.

“Why don’t we settle this lawyer-style,” I say, “using summary judgment.”

“How does that work?” elena asks.

“You both give me your version of the facts, and I decide solely on the law.”

Okay,” jean-marie says.  “I was into confessional poetry at such a young age I had an Anne Sexton Dream House, with working car running in the garage.”

“Hmm,” I hum.  “elena?”

“That’s nothing,” the lower-case literata fairly spits back.  “When I was a little girl, I had the Sylvia Plath Brown ‘n Serve Toy Oven!”

plath5

I look at the two, trying to conceal my self-satisfied amusement.  “That’s it?” I say.  “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Well, yeah,” gotchko says.  “I thought that made me–special.”

I can’t help but emit a mirthless little laugh.  “Excuse my frankness,” I say, “but give me a break!”

Others have started to crowd around now, anxious to hear my decision.  “I can beat you both–I handled Sylvia Plath’s foreclosure sale!”

“What?” squawks a forbidding women with a Katherine Hepburn-Main Line Philadelphia accent, and a haughty attitude to match.  It is Professor Natalia Seals-Croft, Head of Women’s Studies at Bryn Mawr.  “Sylvia Plath was never foreclosed on!”

plath6
Hepburn:  “I’m thinking of a poem between 1 and 10.”

“Well, she wasn’t,” I begin, “but the site of one of her poems was.”

I’ve got them eating out of my hand, and it makes me hungry.  “Bring me one of those congo bars, and I’ll tell you the story.”

My blood sugar restored, I launch into my tale.  “Sylvia had a summer job at Lookout Farm, in the suburbs west of Boston.  It was there that she overheard the conversations that she wove into ‘Bitter Strawberries,’ which was published in the Christian Science Monitor.  You can find it on neuroticpoets.com.”

“So?” Seals-Croft asks, one eyebrow making its way up her imposing forehead like a mountain climber with crampons.

“In the 1980’s,” I begin, “the farm had a new owner.  He’d taken on a lot of bank debt to buy the place and was going to try to turn it into a year-round attraction, with llamas the kids could pet and ride, u-pick-em apple harvesting, a butterfly exhibit.  Real estate prices dropped, the bank got nervous, and they started to foreclose.  The owner called me up and I put him into Chapter 11.”

plath7
Lookout Farm:  I’m telling the truth!

“Why didn’t you start at the beginning of the book?” gotchko asks.

“It’s not that kind of chapter,” I explain.  “It’s a court proceeding in which a company is protected from creditors while it attempts to reorganize.”

“There’s a lot of insolvency in Dickens,” benson adds helpfully.

“Right,” I say, then continue.  “Anyway, the guy didn’t have enough cash flow to pay the bank, and people wouldn’t come to the farm until he’d fixed it up, and he couldn’t raise money to do it.  So the bank got permission to foreclose.”

“On the very land that Plath walked on,” gotchko said sadly.  “So what did you do?”

“Everything goes when the whistle blows,” I said, “unless you can find a ‘straw man’–”

“That shouldn’t be too hard on a farm,” benson interjected.

“Not that kind of straw,” I explained.  “Somebody friendly to the owner who’d buy it and maybe sell it back when he could come up with the money.  So while the auctioneer’s rattling off the terms of sale, I launched into a desperate plea.”

“How’d it go?” the woman behind the counter asked.

“I’m glad you asked,” I said.  “Here it is.”

On Lookout Farm, where Plath did write
  I rise to tell you of her plight.
If no one raises up their hand
 The bank will shortly own this land.
Where she picked berries, red and blue
 and where we planned a petting zoo.

The room was silent.  Finally, a young woman in toreador pants and black glasses spoke.  “So–did anybody come through?”

“No,” I had to explain sadly.  “My guy lost it.  Since then the place has gone through two owners, neither of whom knows Sylvia Plath from a lath.”

“What’s a lath?”

“A thin, narrow strip of wood used in building lattices,” I replied, becoming emotional.  “They’ve got laths all over that place.  You’d think they could name one–just one!–the Sylvia Plath Lath–but no.”

I noticed a few tears running down pale cheeks, and the owner came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Thanks very much for sharing that with us,” she said.  “Would you like a complimentary vanilla latte or something?”

“No thanks,” I said, after I’d calmed down a bit.  “I’ve got promises to keep.  And, uh, miles to go before I sleep.”

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

Bike Gangs Show Sensitive Side With “Baiku”

MAYNARD, Mass. It’s Thursday night at the Sitting Duck Pub, a biker bar in this Massachusetts town of 10,000. A reporter asks Darlene Rivers, a thirty-something woman in a tube top, whether anyone is sitting on the empty bar stool next to her. “Not right now,” she says after blowing cigarette smoke out of the side of her mouth, “but if my old man comes in and sees you sitting there, you’d better have good dental insurance.”

Darlene is here because of her self-proclaimed “artistic” side, which she says finds expression in the many Harley-Davidson tattoos on her upper arms and her love of poetry. “I’m here every week for the verse,” she says as she flips her long hair back over her shoulder. “‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ and all that jazz.”


“If you even so much as touch my hog/I’ll come to your house and poison your dog.”

As she takes a sip of her beer, Gene Dominici, the first performer of the evening, takes the stage to read a sampling of his biker poetry, a gas, chrome and rubber genre of folk verse that has become popular as a result of the publication of the anthology “Rubber Side Down,” a collection of poems written by bikers.

Domenici leads with a “baiku,” a variation on haiku, the Japanese short-poem format.

Full tank, old lady
on the saddle. I turn, she
says “Let’s go, Pig Pen.”

A murmur of appreciation rises from the crowd. “Sweet,” says Oran “Big Dude” Swartski, who has ridden his 2012 Indian Chief Roadmaster over 150 miles to be here tonight. “Give the man a Slim Jim,” Swartski calls out to the bartender, who tosses one of the convenient beef jerky sticks that many bikers subsist on over long road trips onto the stage.

Next up is Floyd “Hard Times” Daniels, whose Harley-Davidson Low Rider FXRS announces his approach from several blocks off whenever he has a new poem ready to read to the Sitting Duck aficionados. He takes a swig of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, clears his throat, and adopts a pastoral tone that reveals the beauty of the world as seen through the bug-splattered goggles of a biker:

Some guys ride hills up and down,
Then stop to terrorize small towns.
Me, I’d rather have my fun
On a summer day for a poker run.

“That was so–freaking–beautiful,” Darlene says, and it is clear that she has been touched by the emotions that Daniels has so skillfully evoked by the image of a biker with his girlfriend picking up the winning hand at a motorcycle club’s fund-raising event.


“I promise I won’t call your bike a scooter/if you won’t refer to my breasts as hooters.”

Daniels graciously cedes the microphone to Jim “B.S.” deJong, a symbolist whose bike of choice is a Kawasaki ZX-6R Ninja.

deJong is a devotee of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and like the author of “Kubla Khan,” he’s not above a little chemical stimulation to get his creative rivers flowing:

Whose hog this is, I think I know
His straightpipes have that healthy glow.
He will not see me stopping here
To deal a little high-grade blow.

Last, but certainly not least, is last week’s winning poet Carson “Mudflap” Poquette, who honed his literary skills while incarcerated for aggravated assault in a medium-security prison. His style is edgy, fueled by rage and the ravages of social diseases he’s picked up over a long life of drunken one-night stands.

When down I bring my pool cue (maple)
Upon a roadhouse bumper table.
Be sure upon the felt of green
Your head ain’t sitting, or your spleen.

The crowd is quiet for a moment, then the sound of applause is heard, soft at first, then building to a crescendo as the audience absorbs the delicate tracery of Poquette’s four-line, a-a-b-b rhyme scheme over the subtext of a not-so-thinly veiled threat.

“You’ve got my vote,” yells Dominici as he heads for the exit.

“Mine too,” calls out Daniels, who quickly settles up with the bartender.

The only poet to stand his ground, however unsteadily, is deJong, who rises and staggers to the stage with menace on his face. “You call yourself a poet,” he fairly spits out.

”You got a problem with that?” Poquette snarls back at him.

”Yeah,” de Jong says. “You put a period at the end of the second line–it should have been a comma.”

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

The Poetry Fixer

A self-published poet who focused on homelessness in her work has resigned after only a week on the job as North Carolina’s poet laureate following criticism of the governor’s appointment process.

Associated Press

poetry

As I sat staring out the window, wondering how to jump-start my career as a poet, I automatically, involuntarily lapsed into verse:

I think that I’d feel more secure
If I could get me a cozy political sinecure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing . . . okay. Since my first poem–Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night in a Kosher Vegetarian Commune–was published by plangent voices, I’ve been anthologized twice. It’s not as painful as it sounds, really, you just get jammed between the covers of a book with a bunch of other poets, sort of like the Green Line at rush hour.

But there seems–and I don’t want to come off as paranoid–like there’s a conspiracy against me, led by my high-profile poetess and ex-girlfriend elena gotchko. She and I parted amicably enough–she dumped my stuff out on the sidewalk, I graciously carried it away–but I’ve been troubled by a pattern of commenters with suspiciously anagramatical names lighting into me with vituperation on-line and in print. NeLa K. Chetogo, Klanee Gootch, Cheona Kloget–the natural wit that continually creates the world anew was always missing from elena’s poetic makeup. That’s why she’s become more of a poetry professional than a professional poet. Editing little journals, pontificating about the importance of poetry, charging high three-figure sums to schmoes who think, if they take a course from somebody who spells her name without initial caps, they’ll magically be transformed into poets.

state house

No, if I was going to get anywhere, I needed juice. There’s an old saying–it’s not what you know, it’s who you know–and that applies in spades in Boston, a town where, as a slightly newer saying goes, the three major industries are politics, sports and revenge. So I dropped in on my state rep and asked him if he could get me on as Massachusetts poet laureate.

“I got a long list of people who wanna be poet laureate,” he said, looking at his watch after we’d been together for ten seconds. “Tell me why it should be you.”

“Well, I’ve self-published a book of poetry, and I’ve written a book about poetry.”

“That meta-stuff don’t cut it. You can’t write that kinda junk until you’re at the top of the poetry heap.”

I jabbered on about the one poem I’d actually sold, to The Christian Science Monitor–just like Sylvia Plath! I told him how I’d won a poetry prize, only to see the publication that awarded it go under before they ran my poem. I started to tell him how I’d won honorable mention in the Somerville Press poetry contest. “Somerville!” I exclaimed. “You can’t throw a brick without hitting a poet over there!”

He looked at me as if I was a pack of cold cuts that had passed its freshness date. “You’re goin’ about this all wrong,” he said with a glint of cynicism in his eyes.

poetryslam
Actual un-PhotoShopped picture of poetry slammer.

 

“But you’re my elected representative,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to . . . you know . . . pull strings for people in your district. In the name of ‘constituent services.’”

He shook his head slowly from side to side, apparently amused at my naivete. “You’re in the big city now,” he said, then he reached in his desk drawer, pulled out a business card and handed it to me. “You need to call this guy.”

I looked at the card. Francis X. Shaughnessy. “Who’s he?” I asked.

“A registered lobbyist.”

“What does a lobbyist do?”

“He comes to talk to me about good things I could do for people like you.”

“But . . . I’m here trying to talk to you about good things you could do for people like me.”

“It ain’t the same.”

“Why not?”

“If you give me money, it’s a bribe. If you give him money, it’s compensation. If he throws a ‘time’ for me, that’s everybody’s free speech petitioning government. You give to his PAC, he gives it to me. It’s in the First Amendment–you could look it up.”

Irish
“Is there anybody here who isn’t Irish?”

 

“So–I have to pay money to get somebody else to say things to you I can say myself for nothing.”

“On the nosey.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s ‘well-connected.’ It’s in the papers. Every time they write his name they say ‘The well-connected Francis X. Shaughnessy.’”

“And me?”

“You’re just an ordinary voting schlub.”

Dawn broke on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts. “Nice talkin’ to ya,” I said, with a trace of bitterness.

“Nice talkin’ to you!” my rep said.

“Where can I find this Shaughnessy guy?”

Piersall
Jimmy Piersall: Certifiable.

 

“Down the hall, out the State House door, cross the street. His office is right above Guertin’s Bar and Grille.”

“How . . . convenient.”

“Ain’t it though?”

We shook hands and I took my leave, which I’d left by the door. I was across the street and walking up a flight of stairs to Politico Strategies LLC in less time than it would take you to recite the Miranda Warning.

“Is Mr. Shaughnessy in?” I asked the receptionist, who was holding her hands out at arm’s length to let her nail polish dry.

“Whom shall I say”–she began. Apparently she went to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School on Marlborough Street.

“Mr. Chapman,” I said, interrupting her.

katherine gibbs
Graduation Day at Katie Gibbs!

 

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Me.”

“Not you,” she said, clucking her tongue. “Whom shall I say sent you?”

I was losing my innocence with every tick of the clock. “That would be Representative O’Kiley,” I said.

She smiled for the first time and said “Have a seat.”

The reading materials available in the reception area consisted of a big picture book of Boston, so that those in the Athens of America who don’t like to read would have something to look at; the two daily newspapers; and a selection of recent magazines. Newsweek seems to think Howard Dean has the Democratic nomination sewed up, but Time likes John Kerry.

Shaughnessy emerged from his office, his hand apparently attached to the back of someone whose deserving cry for help was next in line in front of me.

“So I think if we came up with a Nuts of the Red Sox series, with one each devoted to Bernie Carbo, Jim Piersall, Bill Lee, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, it could be a real winner.”

“I’ll talk to my colleagues on the Joint Committee on Vanity and Commemorative License Plates and we’ll see what we can do.”

Pumpsie
Pumpsie Green rookie card: I used to have one!

 

“Thanks, thanks an awful lot,” the guy said. He looked hopeful, so I figured he wrote a big check.

“What do I have next,” the guy asked the receptionist.

“This man here–O’Kiley sent him.”

“Well in that case, come on in Mr. . . .”

Again, I felt humbled by my lack of importance. After introductions, I was shown into the inner sanctum, where I was offered a chair and initial cup of coffee, gratis.

“So,” Shaughnessy began. “What can I do for youse?”

“I’m looking for a job,” I said.

“As are so many of my constituents in this dreadful economy brought about by greedy Wall Street bankers and mean old Republicans. What kind of work were you lookin’ for?” he asked, but before I could answer he finished the sentence for me. “Indoor work and no heavy liftin’ I presume?”

“I guess you could say that. I want to be the state’s poet laureate.”

“Jeez Louise–that’s a tough one. The pay is lousy but the hours are good.”

“It’s an important position. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

“That’s a great line,” he said as he gazed wistfully out the window. “Who said it?”

“Yogi Berra.”

“I thought so. So what’s your angle?”

“My . . . angle?” I had passed through 19 years of schooling without ever being told I needed an “angle” to be a poet.

“Sure. Are you . . .”–he picked up a laminated sheet that listed the currently favored racial/sexual/ethnic/gender categories of the Commonwealth and began to tick them off starting with “Aleutian Islander.”

“No, can’t say that I am.”

“But O’Kiley sent ya, huh? Okay, well, let’s think about it. Can you give a bunch o’ money to my friend Mr. O’Kiley?”

“Not since my wife found out political contributions aren’t tax deductible.”

“Okay–can you raise a bunch?”

“Don’t think so. My friends tend to be apolitical.”

“Okay, well it’s gonna cost you then.”

“How much?”

“A $2,000 a month retainer, and a $10,000 success fee . . .”

“I thought that was illegal.”

“Excuse me. I meant if you get the job, you hire me as a consultant to the State Office of Poetry for $10,000.”

I glared at him with eyes that I narrowed to grim, little slits. “You don’t look like a poet.”

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “Tell me a little bit about your verse,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and made a little church-and-steeple with his fingers.

“Well, I’ve self-published one book of light verse about women–The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head.

“Is that like ‘chick lit’,” he said without contempt, just an air of honest appraisal.

“Not really–it’s more like anti-chick lit. It’s dedicated to my wife and it’s a bunch of poems about the women I dated before I met her, and how they compare unfavorably to her.”

“Smart husband, dumb poet.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You gotta have a sympathetic political theme, like that poet laureate who got hired in North Carolina the other day.”

“What was her–angle?”

“Homelessness. Very sensitive. That’s the beauty of political art. You pick the right topic, anybody who criticizes you looks like jerk. Some critic pans you, you get your friends to write angry letters to the editor sayin’ ‘Oh, so your hotsy-totsy poetry editor don’t like that chapbook, eh? I guess the cruel son-of-a-bitch don’t like homeless people, neither.’ Pretty soon the guy’s busted down to writing about the spring performance of Lion King at Miss Cynthia’s School of Tap and Ballet.”

baby seal
“These poems have got to be good–they’re about baby seals!”

 

It was as if the clouds had parted and rays of light shot down to give me inspiration. “Okay, I’m gonna write the most poignant, sensitive, morally unassailable collection of poetry the world’s ever seen.”

“Whatta ya gonna call it?”

“The Don’t Club Baby Seals to Death Poems.”

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, a 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–“You guys don’t mind if I play winter rules, do you?  The course is kind of scruffy.”

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

To the Woman Checking Her Pits in the Friday Sales Meeting

It’s hot, I know,
and there are places you’d rather be;
the beach for one, same with me,
and with you I would go.

But we are stuck here, my dear;
me in the front and you in the back row
while before us drones the regional manager,
about moving product.

I see you check your pits,
your nose tilted downwards
like a duck plucking at its
pin feathers. It’s the weather,
and we’re all sweating, same as you.

There are risks to sleeveless
dresses in the heat;
yes, they help you stay cool, but by ventilation,
and so your musky fragrance is a revelation.

You hope you don’t offend, but Lord, woman—
look at these men! The thought of your sweat
is the furthest thing from their minds:
“Beer, tube, ballgame—
Ugh!” they would grunt if they could.

So let us go, in our minds’ eyes,
to a place that is cool;
a dark and shady grove is best,
and we’ll remove that summer dress.

Summer Camp for Writers

The envelope was slim, as they all seem to be these days, and so I opened it up expecting the usual brush-off:  “Dear Poet: Thank you very much for submitting your work to the Alice Wambsley 2021 Villanelle Competition.  We received over 2,348,092 entries for the first place prize of $20 and a subscription to plangent voices, and we regret to inform you that your entry was not the winner, or the first runner-up, or even the consolation prize winner, despite its evident merit.”


“We’ll be making haiku out of gimp from 1:00 to 2:00 this afternoon, then . . .”

Same to you, pal, I got ready to say as I slipped my finger under the flap, tore it open, and slowly unfolded the letter, trying to delay the moment of bitter reckoning just a few seconds more.

But then, as at a natatorium, the room swam before my eyes.  “Congratulations,” the letter began, and that was all I needed to know.  I’d been awarded a two-week fellowship at the Zucchini Loaf Writer’s Conference!  My dream of spending sunny summer days indoors with fellow aesthetes had finally come true!


“It’s a beautiful day, so we don’t we break up into groups and go over each other’s poems line-by-line indoors.”

“Honey,” I screamed out to my wife, “I’ve been accepted at Zucchini Loaf!”

“Is that a culinary school?”

“No–it’s one of the top 65 summer writing programs in America.  Or at least the original thirteen colonies located in New England.”


Black t-shirts are mandatory for all campers.

“Where is it?”

“Vermont.”

“Great!  I can go visit Marci and . . .”

“Uh,” I began, cutting her off dubiously, “I . . . don’t think you’re allowed to come with me.”

“Why not?”

“It’s in the application.”  I pulled out the brochure with the Terms and Conditions spelled out conspicuously in 6 point type on 7 point leading–italic font–and read her the relevant part:  “Writers are not permitted to bring boom boxes, electric musical instruments or spouses to Zucchini Loaf.”

“That’s kind of a strange rule,” she said.

“It’s essential to the mission of writers conferences.”

“Which is?”


“Okay, I’ve assigned you guys to the cabin for coming-of-age/rite-of-passage novels.”

“That participants receive intense, personal one-on-one instruction and engage in the maximum amount of marital infidelity in a context where time and resources are limited.”

“Let me see that,” she said, pulling the acid-free, handmade artisanal piece of paper from my hands–not that she didn’t trust me or anything.

“Look,” I said, pointing over her shoulder.  “Here’s the first-day schedule: 6 to 8 a.m., check in; 8 to 10:30 a.m., swim test; 10:30 to noon, cocktails; noon, group grope/orgy, main dining hall, or ‘buddy-check sex’ for those who have already found their soul-mates; 2 p.m., post-coital bliss/remorse; 2 to 4, arts and crafts.”

I was somewhat gratified to see her face cloud over.  So she really does love me, I thought.


“I hope you remembered to bring a thesaurus!”

“Don’t worry,” I said as I put my arm around her.  “Everybody has to submit vaccination records and a clean bill-of-health–signed by their doctor–certifying that they’ve been STD-free for at least 6 months before they go into the pool or engage in intercourse.”

“That’s not much of a vacation for me,” she said with a lump in her throat.

“Hey–I’m just playing catch-up with you,” I said defensively.  “You get to go off to beauty spas with your girl friends while I stay home, slaving away over a hot stove, making sure the cats’ homework is done.”

She was silent for a moment, then she made that funny little moue with her mouth that I love so much, the one that signals that although I may be a clueless jerk–I’m her clueless jerk.

“I guess that’s fair,” she said finally.  “Well, what’s done is done.  So what do I need to do to get you ready?”

“Let’s look at the brochure,” I said, and we turned to the list of clothing and supplies that every camper was expected to bring.  “Fourteen (14) black t-shirts, five (5) black turtlenecks, four (4) pairs of slim, faded blue jeans, one (1) beret, one (1) pair huarache-style sandals (not to be worn with socks), one (1) whimsical pair of red, high-top Converse All-Star gym shoes.”


Ready for writing!

“You already have most of this stuff–except the red sneakers,” my wife said, “so you’re pretty much all set.”

“Not so fast,” I said as I pointed to the all-caps adjuration at the end: “WRITER/CAMPER NAMES SHOULD BE SEWN INTO ALL ARTICLES OF CLOTHING.”

“I hate to sew.”

“Not to worry, you can get little iron-on labels.”

“Still–that’s a lot of work.”

“Hey–my mom did it for me.”

“All right,” she said, and she began to busy herself while I packed my footlocker.  Space was tight, so I had to make some tough decisions.  Bring Confederacy of Dunces, or The Moviegoer?   Conrad or Dickens?  Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty?  It wasn’t so much a question of what I wanted to read as what I wanted other people to see me reading.


Walker Percy:  “I want you to get this Southern Gothic crap out of your system this summer, okay?”

When I was done I came back into the bedroom where my wife was finishing up with the labels.  She handed me a t-shirt, and as I started to fold it I noticed a safety pin holding a note to the inside hem.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Just a little precaution,” she said, fighting back tears.  “I worry about you.”

I took the note between my fingers and read “Neo-formalist poet: If found, please return to Zucchini Loaf Writer’s Conference.”

I looked up at her and, hoping to allay her fears, said “I’m old enough to go to an overnight writer’s conference by myself,” with a little more confidence than I actually felt.

“You know how you are,” she said.  “Always wandering lonely, like a cloud, taking the road less travelled by.”

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

a session with my poetry coach

It was the form letter that sent me over the edge.  “Thank you for submitting your poem to plangent voices,” it began.  “Please excuse the standardized response, but due to the volume of god-awful submissions that we receive, we do not have the time to crush the spirit of each writer personally.”

Signed–elena gotchko, editor-in-chief, the lower-case poetess who I’d help to catch on with the little rag in the first place!  I thought to myself, if I couldn’t call in a personal favor from someone like elena, who I knew back when she was cutting her own hair to show the world how disaffected she was, I might as well hang it up as a poet.


Self-haircut:  “Which side do you like better–the short or the long?”

 

But that would mean giving up on the art form that I’ve been enamored of ever since I noticed, as a mere lad of twelve, the couplet so beloved by young boys on the wall of a bathroom stall.  You know the one:  

Here I sit
all broken-hearted
Paid a nickel to shit
and only farted.

The fierce beauty of those lines, their startling honesty, the possibilities they opened up to me–how could I forsake that epiphany?  Dammit–I wasn’t going to give up that easily!  My kid has a hitting coach, my wife has a fitness coach–I was going to get myself a poetry coach!

I opened up the Yellow Pages and flipped to the “p’s.”  Poetry, Anthologies.  Poetry, Brokers.  Ah, here we go–Poetry, Coaches.  There were three, but only one in my area code.  Buy local, I figured, and gave the guy a call.

“You have reached the office of Elliot Wurzel, Poetry Coach, turning poetasters into masters for over a decade.  If you have a question regarding assonance or consonance, press 1.  For issues regarding meter, press 2.  For problems with your account, press 3.  For all other matters, please stay on the line or press zero.”


Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Neo-Acmeist poet and housecleaning fanatic

 

I held while Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Russian Neo-Acmeist and the only poet with four i’s in his name, read from his justifiably-obscure oeuvre.  Finally, a sonorous voice came on the line and introduced himself in blunt fashion–”Wurzel here.”


“You call yourself a poet?  Drop down and give me ten Alcaic stanzas–NOW!”

“Uh, Mr. Wurzel, I’m looking for a poetry coach.”

“Umm.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Well, I can’t seem to get out of the slush pile.  Can’t even win Second Runner-Up in those contests with prizes in the high two figures.”

“Poetry is like maypole dancing,” he said cryptically.

“How so?”

“It’s one of those art forms that has far more practitioners than spectators.  You’re up against very long odds.”

“I know–that’s why I’m calling you.”

“And it is well that you did,” he said.

“Don’t you mean ‘good’?” I asked.


John Milton, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Blank Verse

 

“Never use a nickel word when a dime word will do,” he counseled me.  “That’s the last free advice you’re getting, by the way.”

We haggled a bit over rates–I didn’t want to sign up for a long-term membership like at a health club and then have him commit suicide, the occupational hazard–if not the occupation–of versifiers.

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get started.  Read me the first poem you ever wrote.”

I cleared my throat and launched into “Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune”:

This is kosher, this is trayfe–
One unclean, the other safe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.


Actual Kosher vegetarian commune

 

“Hmm,” he hmmed, as he considered my complex a-a-a-a rhyme scheme.  “Not altogether bad–but you need to accessorize.”


Heidi Klum, accessorizing.

 

“Isn’t that what women do when they want to complete and complement an otherwise humdrum, pedestrian outfit?”

“You seem to know a lot about fashion,” he said.

“My dad was in women’s clothing.  Don’t duck the question–what’s that got to do with poetry?”

“Think of your poem as it hits an editor’s desk.  It’s like a woman standing in line outside an exclusive night club.  It’s got a lot of competition.  You’ve got to tart it up a little if you want to get past the doorman.”


“Sorry sweetheart.  Come back when you’ve fixed that godawful spondee in the third verse.”

 

I was starting to appreciate my coach’s wealth of experience.  “Like how?”

“First of all–dedicate it to someone.”

“Like who?”

“It helps if it’s a foreign name, somebody obscure, somebody the reader will be ashamed to admit he doesn’t know.”

“Gimme a for instance.”

“That’s an add-on,” he said,  “Five bucks for access to my exclusive database of hitherto-un-dedicated-to names.”


Zsa Zsa Gabor, with Porfirio Rubirosa

I grudgingly agreed–what choice did I have?–and listened as he flipped through some papers.  “I’ve got just the thing,” he said with satisfaction.  “Porfirio Rubirosa!”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“See–proved my point.  Sounds foreign and romantic, but you can’t quite put your finger on him, can you?”

“Shortstop for the Minnesota Twins?”

“You’re thinking of Zoilo Versalles, who’s also good–don’t get me wrong.  He’s just not right for your poem.”

I felt gratified that I was getting personalized attention.  “So who’s Porfiri–”

“Rubirosa was an international playboy, polo player and race car driver, legendary for his prowess with women.”


Kowa-bunga!

“Okay–sounds good.”

“During his heyday, large pepper grinders were sometimes referred to as ‘rubirosas’ among the fast-living international set.”

He’d lost me.  “Because?”

“Because of the voluptuous shape of the grinder, the sensuous . . .”

“Okay, I got your point.  So what else needs fixing?”

“You need to strike a more outraged political tone.”

“But–it’s a little comic poem, just a pun that I . . .”

“Listen–do you want my help or not?” he fairly shouted at me.

“Well, you are the coach.  But what if I’m . . . not outraged.”

“If you’re not outraged–what are you?”

“More like–amused.  The Human Comedy.  As Mencken said when asked why he lived in America if he found so much unworthy of reverence here, ‘Why do men go to zoos?’”


H.L. Mencken

“That’s not going to help your career,” he said.

“What if I take a bi-partisan approach–criticize both sides?”

He considered this for a moment.  “Might work–what did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’d go after both Dick Cheney and Joe Biden–a Democratic and a Republican vice president–in one stanza.”

“Okay,” he said with a skeptical sigh of impatience.  “Hit me.”

Here comes the fat man, emerged from hiding place–
“Gee, I’m awful sorry if I shot you in the face!”

“That’s a start,” he said grudgingly.  “Now wrap it up.”

Old Joe Biden,
squeaks like a door hinge,
Schooled at Syracuse,
whose mascot’s an orange.

There was a silence at his end of the line.  “Un-freaking–believable.”

“Thanks,” I said, a bit surprised that I’d broken through his reserve.

“This is a major upheaval in poetry!” he exclaimed.

“What–what’d I do?”

“You’ve solved a problem that has bedeviled poets for centuries.  You’ve discovered a rhyme for ‘orange’!”

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

Spring Cleaning for Poets

Spring comes late in New England, so we’re behind the rest of the country when it comes to spring cleaning. I tackled the garage last Saturday, we did the patio and the backyard the next day, and as we finished up my better half made the sort of helpful suggestion that always casts a pall over the rest of the weekend.

“Can you do something about those four stanzas of three lines each at the bottom of the basement stairs?” she asked.

“That’s a villanelle I’m working on,” I said, and if I sounded a bit miffed, I was. “What do you care? It’s not in your way—you never go down there anyway.”

“I nearly broke my leg stepping over it when I was bringing up the lawn furniture.”

That sealed the deal—around our house it’s safety first, last and always. We keep one of those flip signs in the front vestibule: “543 days without a major household accident,” and we turn the card just before going to bed each night.

“Maybe the poetry is starting to pile up around here,” I said.

“‘Starting to’?” she asked dubiously. “We agreed that poetry was going to be your thing—along with garbage and changing the cat litter—remember?”

“Okay,” I said, recalling our longstanding division of labor.  “I’ll do a poetry clean-up.”

Yesterday when I took stock of things I found that the clutter was worse than I thought. There’s the big notebook I take on the train each day and the little notebook I keep in my desk drawer for moments of late-night inspiration—those were full—but I also found scraps of poetry in my winter coat pockets, in the console of my car, in my brief case. All of them possessing some merit, some lyrical element, but none of them finished, none of them formed into a literary whole.

There was children’s poetry—”Fuzzy, buzzy bumblebee, hope he doesn’t land on me!” There were lines that expressed the tragic sense of life: “Something is born, and something dies.” That’s not going to find its way into Reader’s Digest. There were wistful recollections from my boyhood growing up in a small town. I was enamored of them all when I wrote them but I had to admit–they weren’t going anywhere.


Eliot: “I just picked Ezra Pound’s pocket.”

 

Still, I hated to just throw them out—what a waste that would be! I try to maintain a pretty small poetic footprint; like e.e. cummings I don’t use capital letters all the time, I sometimes write haiku with lines of 5, 6 and 5 syllables (nobody ever notices) and I frequently recycle other poets’ best images. As fellow Missouri poet T.S. Eliot once said, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.”

They didn’t really hang together, though, my many fragments of inspiration. I needed some guidance that only the best poetry can provide, so I turned to this month’s issue of plangent voices magazine, at $3.75 your best entertainment value. If your tastes in entertainment run to the obscure, the impenetrable and—in the special Christmas double issue—offensive poetry.

Call me bitter, but when I was removed as editor of that forlorn little rag in a bloody coup (I was treated for severe paper cuts at the student infirmary—$10 co-pay!), I had it headed in the right direction. We had doubled our subscriber base from one to two (thanks Mom!), we had cut our backlog of unresponded-to submissions from 2,348,274 to 2,348,251, and we had adopted a tough anti-favoritism policy that would become a model for the non-profit poetry (but I repeat myself) industry. If, for example, a poem was approved for publication by an editor who had already slept with the author, a second anonymous editor had to sleep with him/her as well. Then and only then was the poem deemed worthy of publication.

plangent—as it is known to insiders of the poetry game—had lately become a fierce advocate for so-called “flarf” poetry; poems assembled from the results of odd internet searches such as “rubber bustier” and “discount tire sale” and “Vic Wertz” were combined in an aleatory fashion, producing results that were sometimes striking, and sometimes . . . crap. Just like regular poetry!

Image result for vic wertz
Say it softly, gently, and don’t fear repetition:  “Vic Wertz . . . Vic Wertz . . . Vic Wertz.”

 

But I didn’t need to go to the internet—I had random, unrelated scraps of language sitting on the desk right in front of me. So, I took my scissors and created this reusable, dishwasher-safe poem from my winter’s worth of poetic fragments. Enjoy!

Fuzzy, buzzy bumblebee—
I saw where Scott Joplin played his ragtime to trail-weary cowboys.
The Citgo sign, rolling up and down like a windowshade,

A cynical tongue in one so young—
They dropped Eddie on his head, we said.
Ah, the mistakes we make when we are young!

What were they thinking, my dad and mom
When they decided to call me “Con”?
The crazy ladies to whom I send poems

excite me by long-distance pheromones.
The cats sits on my lap, langorous, while
helicopters and gulls circle overhead.

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

My Poetic Nemesis

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and as a poet he knew whereof he spake. (Archaic past tense provided at no extra charge.)  April may be Poetry Month, but April is also the month in which the rejection letters and no-you-didn’t-win-the-Alice-Wambsley-Memorial-Poetry-Competition notices from the autumn submission cycle arrive in the mail.


Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

But I’d been through all that before, so last fall I put on a Bush-Obama-Petraeus Verse Surge, sending out over 400 poems. I would become a published poet before turning–well, I won’t tell you what I’ll be turning–or expire tragically trying.

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2022 issue.”


A (much) younger Hazel Flange

This, I thought, called for a celebration. I got in the car and headed over to the Coach & Four, the faux-colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town—insurance salesmen, CPAs, the local zoning attorney—meet to eat and greet. And to confront my poetic nemesis, Hazel Flange.

Hazel has been lording it over me for years. She’s got all the good accounts in town: McBride’s Super Market, where she composes rhymed couplets for the flyers and paper shopping bags (“Looking for something to eat on Easter?  Our ham and lamb will make a feaster!); Olney’s GMC-Chevrolet (“If you’re going to a gala, best that you should buy Impala!”); Muckerman’s Funeral Home (“We’ll bury your kin with quiet dignity—we promise our bill won’t be very bignity.”)

Then there are the special commissions—birthday, anniversary and pet poems. Have to hand it to the old girl, she was the one who came up with business model. Go to another biddie’s house for bridge club, compliment the household dog, cat or goldfish, write a poem about it for the local paper. Then, when the owner is basking in the reflected glory of compliments from all her friends, offer to make her a laminated copy, suitable for framing—for ten bucks. “I just love your little Poodie, he is such a darling cutie!” Gag me, as the Valley Girls used to say, with a spoon.

But now the shoe is on the other foot. With Kosher Vegetarian Commune I’m not only published, I’ve introduced a genre of my own creation to the world of verse; poems whose titles are at least 75% as long as the poems themselves! Count them off:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other sayfe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Pretty neat, huh? So it is with a new confidence that I stroll into the bar at the Coach & Four.  It’s not Les Deux Maggots, or The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death—but it will do. Except for the bathroom stalls—you know the one that begins “Here I sit all broken-hearted” don’t you?—the only poetry in the house is composed by Hazel, recited to a table crammed with her fawning sycophants.

I wave my hand as I stroll up to the bar and make the announcement I’ve been dying to proclaim for lo these so many years. “Marty,” I say to the bartender, “potato chips and snack foods for everybody—and see what the boys in the back room will have!”

With that a scramble the likes of which have not been seen since the Oklahoma land rush begins; there are only so many bags of Cape Cod Parmesan & Roasted Garlic Chips on the Snack-Rack, and it’s every man for himself.


Eyes on the prize.

I order my usual—a Smutty Nose Elderberry Lite I.P.A.—and lean back to take in the room, holding the tall-boy bottle Jeff Bridges-style, oh-so-casually around the very tip of the neck. I cast a glance in Hazel’s direction—she gives me the steely-eyed gaze that has caused so many budding young aesthetes to realize there’s room for only one poetess in our town, and she’s not going anywhere.

I stand up and begin to work the room—suddenly I’m every man’s hero now that the out-of-work “consultants” and “advisors” in town are chowing down on Andy Capp Pub Fries on my nickel. After many slaps on the back and congratulations, I mosey over to Hazel’s table and, with an affected look of surprise, greet her.

“Why, Hazel,” I say, beaming, “fancy meeting you here! How’ve you been?” I don’t try to party-kiss her—in her dotage she has taken to applying rouge to her cheekbones. She read in Marie Claire that Celine Dion does something similar to make her nose look smaller.

“Hello,” she replies in a measured tone and just the hint of a combination smile-sneer—a “snile,” a “smeer”?—on her lips. “I see you have something to celebrate—finally.”

That hurts. Hazel had her first poem published when she was in fourth grade. I spotted it for the Christina Rossetti rip-off that it was—“Who can see the wind, neither you nor me, but when the wind is blowing, it tickles both my knees”—but apparently the editors of My Little Messenger weren’t as well read as me.

“Yes, yes, that I do,” I reply, trying hard to retain my composure. “Of course, it’s nothing to compare with the success you’ve had. Writing rhymed couplets for discount tire and battery stores.”

Image result for tire and battery store
“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

There is a collective intake of breath by the circle of admirers at Hazel’s table, but she’s as cool as a poker player sitting on pocket aces. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” she says, going all Dr. Johnson on me.

The flow of air is reversed—the little group explodes with laughter—but I ignore the obloquy they think they are raining down on me. I’m after the Big Tuna Salad on White Toast Sandwich her own bad self.

“How’s about a little mano-a-womano verse battle—right here, right now, you and me?”

“Une petite slamme de poesie?” she replies, using up all the French she knows outside a Chef Boyardee can.

“That’s right. Winner take all. Must be original, spontaneous work, rhymed and metered.”

“My apartment has a separate meter,” one of her followers says, displaying the level of ignorance that is required in order to appreciate Hazel’s verse.

“Stifle it, Maeve,” Hazel snaps at the woman, and then says to me—”You’re on.”

“Peachy,” I say with a smarmy smile. “Ladies first—and no crib notes.”

The room is so quiet you can hear a chip drop, and from the bar I detect that Bob Smuldowney, head of the Public Works department, has let one fall to the floor.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was a Cool Ranch Dorito?” I say with a note of expectation in my voice as I wait upon the answer, showing off my ear.

“That’s amazing,” Smuldowney says.

That’s the kind of ear it takes to be a first-class poet,” I say smugly. “Hazel—your serve.”

The dowager versifier clears her throat. She cocks her head a little to one side, like a parakeet—my guess is what she comes up with will be as derivative as “Polly want a cracker?”

She steadies herself by putting her fingers on the table, closes her eyes, tosses an errant spit curl aside and begins.

How lovely to be a poet
How wonderfully rewarding
It is like a free vacation trip
On a cruise ship you are boarding.

But each night when I’m finally done
I brush my teeth and floss.
A poetessa’s job is this:
To pluck wheat from the dross.

I’m tempted to yell “mixed metaphor,” but it’s the playoffs, and I know I’m not going to get the call.  No ref wants to blow a freestyle poetry battle in front of a big crowd and I have to say, even though it’s against my interests, that I agree—let ‘em play.


Woman with distaff: Whence it came, hence the name.

Hazel’s toadies are applauding politely but this is a bar, the audience is disproportionately male, and most of the guys are sitting on their hands, waiting to hear something from the non-distaff side.

“Great stuff, Hazel,” I say magnanimously. “I’ll give you the email address for The New Yorker when we’re done.” This is known as “trash-talking,” and as a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird Era, I learned from the master.


“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

The guys at the bar are looking at me with a mixture of hope and trepidation. They’re the ones who’ve been scratching doggerel on the walls of the stalls in the men’s rooms, inking haiku above the urinals, suffering under the yoke of genteel feminine poetry for so many years as Hazel asks them to turn down the games on the four giant-screen TVs so her umpty-dumpty-dumpty/umpty-dumpty-dump lines can be heard. If I can take her down, it will be a Spartacus-like moment; the joint will once again be free for belching and bad language worthy of Dizzy Dean, who drew the scorn of St. Louis English teachers for saying “He slud in there” on the Baseball Game-of-the-Week.


Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

“Hazel,” I begin with an off-hand, informal air that catches her off guard,

this is stupid stuff;
your pansies and violets—
your fairies at dawn or later in
the gloaming.

what the hell is a gloaming anyway?
and why would you bother to use it when poeming?
I do not like it, and no man could;
find another word please, if you would.

but in the meantime, hear me out;
the matter, we say, is free from doubt.
a bar’s not the place for poems like lace doilies,
and also I noticed your nose is quite oily.


Kudos!

I hesitate to use the word “claque,” but the guys are behind me all the way on this one, and the place erupts with a noise not heard since Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. They don’t call it “home court advantage” for nothing.

The ladies’ table is a bit taken aback by the rough tactics and the thunderous acclaim, but Hazel recovers like the pro that—I have to admit—she is.

“Nicely done,” she says, although I can tell that it pains her to put a smile on her over-glossed lips.

“Thanks—you’re still my favorite poet named Hazel,” I say. Good sportsmanship is contagious, I guess. “Have a drink on me, okay?”

Hazel considers this for a moment, then says “Yes—I think I will,” and advances to the bar where Marty says “What’ll ya have?”

“I think,” she says as she eyes the racks of expensive liquor behind him, “a Brandy Alexander—with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac.”

“Hey,” I say quickly before Marty can pour. “I meant anything under five bucks.”

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