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.”

The Master of the Air

He was, the local newspaper said, a man of vision.
It was he who had seen, back when no one else did,
that even a small town could have its own TV and
radio stations.  He’d been around—Kansas City,
St. Louis.  He knew how to do it, and he got it done.
You could see his handiwork from miles away—
the lights on his tower gleaming in the night.

He was smooth, his dark hair slicked back, and
always well dressed.  He was a booster—if you
believed in our little town, you’d advertise your
business on his stations, and everybody would prosper.
He belonged to all the clubs: Optimist, Rotary, Lions,
Moose and Elk.  He knew the value of getting out
there, shaking hands, being a regular guy.

Some nights he’d look down the boulevard on which he
lived with his wife and admire what he had built;
the square brick studio with the shining glass front,
green, red and blue lights making it glow from behind.
Overhead, reaching almost into the clouds, was the spire
of steel and lights.  You didn’t need to be in a big city;
it was a big country, and you could reach it through the air.

He thought of it as magic, but magic that he understood,
the way a magician knows about the hidden compartments
in his hat and trunks.  All it took was power and equipment;
if you had those, as he did, you could broadcast your sonorous
voice to places you’d never seen and never would see.
You could send your image to other towns and other states.
He was the master of the air, and the waves that ran through it.

When he’d arrive to broadcast from a hardware store opening,
he’d be greeted like a god you’d read about in a sacred text.
“It’s the man from TV,” someone would say, and he’d say
“Howdy—glad to meet you!” with a smile on his face.
He started looking for new sites for new stations.  If he
could do it once, he could do it twice, he thought, then
again, until he’d be master of all the air he surveyed.

He lived with his wife and their little daughter, the joy
of his life.  She was a happy little girl who loved to dress
in frilly clothes.  She was, they knew, the only one they
would ever have, and for that reason all the more precious.
He would swing her high above his head when he got home,
and she would laugh.  Then she started having seizures, and
his wife said maybe he should stop—maybe it would help.

He did, and the little princess of the air was grounded.
“Daddy, swing me,” she would say, but he would say
no, I don’t want you to get excited again.  “But I like to
get excited,” she would say, and so he would take her and
rock her in his arms, singing to her she was daddy’s girl,
daddy’s girl, daddy loves his daddy’s girl.  She would calm
down as he slowed down, and he’d carry her up to bed.

The business grew, and with it the demands on his time.
He had to spend time with advertisers, or fill in for his
newscaster, who was also the high school volleyball
coach, when he was away on a road trip.  He resented
it, but it was the price he had to pay for success, he
told himself.  If the girl was asleep when he got home,
the agreement was he’d leave her be, she needed the rest.

One night he came home to find his wife waiting for him
at the door, a look of panic on her face.  “She’s having
a seizure,” she said.  “We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”
He rushed inside, slipped his arms under the girl, and held
her while his wife threw a blanket over her.  He ran out
the front door but, before he even reached his car, he
felt her kick one last time, and the life go out of her.

In his arms, as he ran, she became dead weight.  He had
heard the term before, but he felt it now.  She was unliving,
like a fifty-pound sack of grain, and a burden he could
hardly bear.  He almost stumbled but he made it to the car,
where he rested her on the trunk; less a body than an object.
He looked up to where the tower stood, and thought of what
had gone out of her; the breath of life, the buoyancy of air.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

Asleep on His Helmet

The Ides of August, the first day of football.
He has come earliest of all
in the hope that someday
he would be a hero of the fall.

It was too soon for that this season, he knew that,
but he appeared first on the grass outside the stadium
with his gear; helmet, shoulder pads, pants and all.

It was early and dark;
the stadium was on the edge of the park, next to
the practice field where the month before a revival
tent echoed with a preacher’s cries to heal
the lame, the halt and the blind.

He laid down his things and thought of heroes two, three
years ahead of him.  One, All-State, would play that year
before more people in a stadium sixty miles away
than lived in his small town.

That man’s little brother, a senior but not of the same
caliber, was captain that year.  He wore a jacket with just
a letter–no honors, bars or stars; by this conspicuous reserve
he hoped to show the others it didn’t matter what you did
last year, only who you hit in the here and now, and how hard.
Does a general need medals to command?

The boy lay down, his head on his helmet for a Spartan pillow,
closed his eyes and thought back to the day earlier in the summer
when the seniors had called to ask if he wanted to
make some money bucking hay.

He couldn’t refuse, it was a challenge;
could he keep up with the older boys all day,
doing the hot, hard and dirty work
for two cents a bale?

He didn’t even have a pair of work gloves when they called.
His mother said to take his father’s handball gloves, a vestige
of their life in the city of booze and shoes before they moved
to the country; those would do for the day, she’d get him a pair

for tomorrow.  He found them in the garage just as the others
pulled up in their flat-bed truck, joking and laughing at the
sophomore, 150 pounds dripping wet.
“You ready?” the driver said with a smirk.

helmet

“Yeah,” he said, all got-up confidence.
“You don’t look like it,” the other boy said.
He didn’t know what to say, and just stood there
for a minute, wondering what he was missing.
“Get in, you dipshit,” one of them yelled and thus began
a day that was in his mind a fair approximation of
what he thought hell would be like.

He couldn’t drive yet, and he couldn’t keep up with
the bucking–the truck bed was too high for him–
so they put him to work stacking in the back.  He was new
and the walls of bales he made were uneven, unsteady.
They had to stop the truck more than once to build them
back up again.

He worked as hard as he could and in the barn loft
he began to get the rhythm of the work, hauling
bales across the floor, stacking them before another
came up through the chute.

By the end of the day he’d found his place, junior man
on the crew at the age of fifteen.  When they dropped him off
one of the older boys yelled “See you tomorrow—same time,”
and it wasn’t until they’d driven away that he allowed himself
a grimace of pain, clutching his hands where the baling
twine had cut through his gloves into his tender skin.

He lay down in the cool grass, his stomach and feet cramping
from the loss of water.  They told him the next day to take
salt pills.  “They’ll crimp your sex life,” an older boy said,
“but your hand won’t miss you—much.”

Each night for a week he had gone to bed, sore and tired,
as tired as he was now, lying against his helmet.
He was woken by a kick to the foot, and opened his eyes
to see the seniors, his hay-bucking bosses, standing over him:
“Are you ready to play some football?” one said,
“or are you gonna sleep all day?”

 

From “Town Folk and Country People.”

Writing My Obituary

It came on all of a sudden, like a summer thunderstorm.  We had been talking at dinner about friends and family, and family of friends, who had passed on recently, and my wife became teary-eyed.

“You just never know when you’re going to lose someone,” she said as her face clouded over with foreboding.  “If you died . . .”

“You mean when I die . . .”

“I was going to say, if you died soon . . . I wouldn’t know what to put in your obituary.  You’ve done so many . . .”

She choked up, and couldn’t speak.

Image result for riderless horse

“Trivial things?” I offered helpfully.

“I was going to say ‘stupid,’ but yes, maybe ‘trivial’ is a better word.”  She had that stoic demeanor of an ancient female relation in a tale by Faulkner.  She would not just endure, but prevail against the forces that threatened to snatch me away from her at any minute–a light beer truck driven by a texting Teamster, for example.

Her concern was timely.  A week earlier I’d fallen in a hole in the pavement next to the Surface Artery, the high-speed boulevard I must cross on my way to work, and tumbled into the road, so we’d had a recent intimation of my mortality.  “You’ve mentioned a riderless horse before . . .” she said as her voice trailed off.

“I was kidding, sweetie,” I said as I patted her hand.  She was too young to remember the poignant touch that this symbolic animal lent to the funeral of President Kennedy, but I recalled it vividly.  I’d long ago decided that it was over-the-top, de trop as the French would say, right after they corrected me for thinking that “cheveux”–which means “hair”–is the French word for “horse.”

“I don’t need a riderless horse,” I said.  “Times have changed.  I was thinking more along the lines of a driverless car.”

“Like Google is making?”

“Right.”

“Well, that would remind me of the way you drive,” she said, as she stifled a sniffle.

“I don’t think it will be hard for you to write my obit.  I’ve already done a lot of the spadework.”

Image result for frank conroy stop time

“You have?”

“Yep.  Surely you’ve read my autobiography–‘So Far, So Good’?”

A look of chagrin scuddered over her face, like the shadow of a low-hanging cloud as it blows by above you.  “Actually, no,” she admitted.  “When did you write it?”

“Fifth grade.  I got an A+ on it.  It’s considered a classic of the genre.”

“What genre is that?”

“The youthful autobiography.  Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves.  Stop Time by Frank Conroy.  Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever: My Story.”

“Why does he get to have two colons in his title?”

Image result for bieber

“He’s The Bieb.”

She rubbed her finger under her nose, and I handed her my napkin.  She’d already used hers, but I wipe my hands on my pants, so mine was clean.  “I didn’t know you’d written an autobiography.  But what about . . . ”

“The later stuff?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure I’ve actually accomplished that much since then.  Remember, I was a two-time spelling bee champ, earning a perfect score both times.”

“That’s why I don’t need a dictionary with you around,” she said, as she took a turn patting my hand.

“I’d become the first class president in my little Catholic school from a mixed marriage . . .”

“Like Obama?”

“Sort of.  My mom’s Protestant.”

“And yet, you never hear about that on the news.  So after that . . .”

“Well, I was a member of a prize-winning polka troupe in sixth grade . . .”

Image result for youth polka troupe

She began to choke up again.  “Who . . . who was your partner?”

“Carolyn Spretzel.  But I’m not in touch with her anymore.”

“Not even on Facebook?”

I placed both hands on the table so she could see I hadn’t crossed any fingers.  “I promise.”  I did what I always do when I want to comfort her: I got down on my knees, scooched over to where she was sitting, and gave her a big, wet, warm, sloppy kiss.  Husband as golden retriever.

“How about your memorial service.  I know you want a traditional New Orleans band, right?”

Image result for new orleans funeral band

“Correct.  ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ to the cemetery, ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ coming back.”

She looked off into the distance.  I could tell she was calculating in her mind how the mounting cost of my obsequies was going to cut into her merry widowhood, and I’m not talking about the bustier.  I mean her decorating budget, once I was gone and could no longer stand athwart the entrance to the living room, yelling “Stop!” when she tried to put up new window treatments.

Image result for merry widow bustier
Merry Widow

“How about poems,” she said finally.  “I know you love poetry . . .”

“But you hate it.”

“I only hate it when I don’t understand it.”

“Don’t worry–I wouldn’t make you read any Wallace Stevens.”

“Who’s he?”

“According to Robert Frost, The Poet of Bric-a-Brac.”

“Like your mother used to have on that knick-knack shelf in her dining room?”

“Right–the one I crashed pretending to be Wile E. Coyote clinging to a ledge one night.”

Image result for wile e coyote ledge

“Why were you doing that?”

“I was young and stupid.  And animated by the spirit of a Warner Brothers cartoon character.”

“Okay,” she said, apparently forgiving me for a misdeed that my mother–now gone–couldn’t.  “So what poem would you like?”

‘The Lotos-eaters’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

“Why does he have a comma in the middle of his name?”

“I don’t know.  I guess he was a big star in his time, like The Bieb.”

“How does it go?”

“You don’t have to read the whole thing, just these lines:

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half forgotten things.

I waited a moment for the sound of the last words to die away.  “Do you like it?” I asked at last.

“It’s okay,” she said, and now her tears were dry.  “Just don’t come like a ghost to trouble my joy when I’m having my girlfriends over.”

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.”

Were Your Pockets Full of Stones?

I suppose I know now why
you chose the river, reading
that Virginia Woolf put stones
in her pockets to sink herself down.

She was for you a perplexing guide,
she with fierce pride
in her womanhood who
drowned herself rather than
spoil her husband’s life.

At the end she heard voices
that kept her from working,
from even writing a
suicide note properly.

You too wandered off alone
and I wonder, as you
reached the water’s edge,
were your pockets full of stones?

From the forthcoming “Deep River Blues.”