With Arthur Rimbaud at the Chamber of Commerce

French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote most of his well-known works as a teenager, then abandoned poetry for a mercantile career.

                                              Poetry Magazine


Rimbaud

It’s 11:45 and I’m standing outside Rimbaud’s Hardware, waiting for my friend Art to break away so we can head over to the Chamber of Commerce lunch at the Bothwell Hotel.  Art is listening to a customer complain about a lawn sprinkler he bought the week before–apparently the guy can’t figure out how to change the flow from one side to the other without getting soaked.

“Easiest thing to do is just turn off the hose for a second,” Art is saying to the man, an old duffer in one of those “scrambled-egg” hats worn by captains of U.S. Navy vessels and–for reasons that have never been clear to me–retirees.

“You think that will work?” the old man is saying to Art, who’s trying–but not too hard–to break away for lunch.  That’s Art for you–he’s got a cardboard sign in his little office that says “The customer is always right.”

“Try it and see,” Art says as he pats the man on the arm and starts towards the door.  “If it doesn’t work, you bring it back in here for a full refund.  If you’ve got the original packaging and the product is not damaged and you pay a $5 re-shelving fee,” he adds facetiously.


“If it ain’t right–we’ll fix it!  For a price.”

“I will, I will,” the man says.  I think he’s a little hard of hearing.

“Hey there!” Art says as he sees me lingering outside his door.  “Let’s skedaddle–I don’t want to be late.”

It’s amazing the transformation that has been wrought in the former decadent poete maudite since he turned twenty-one and his old man told him the gravy train was coming to a screeching halt.  I guess he looked at himself in the mirror one morning and realized that if he wanted to eat three square meals a day, poetry wasn’t the line of business for him.

He came back to Charleville where we grew up and threw himself into the family business with a gusto that surprised a lot of people who remembered him hanging around the Dog ‘n Suds leaning against the cherry T-Bird his grandmother bought him when he turned sixteen, or smoking pot beneath the purple glow of black lights in basements occupied by loser friends of ours who were living with their parents while they tried to put off adulthood.

He had in fact turned into a much sought-after inspirational speaker for fraternal society lunch meetings.  One week the Rotary, next the Optimists, then the Lions Club, the Moose, the Elks, and so on.  He did it all without pay, too.  He said he wanted to give back to the community, since the warm bath of affection that our small town offered a well-meaning but prodigal son who returned to the fold had saved him from a life of absinthe, bad art and boring poetry slams.  “I found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head ruefully when we first got together for a pitcher of beer shortly after he returned from the big city.


Rimbaud hangin’ with his homeys.

“One single true word–COME BACK,” he said in explanation of his homecoming, inadvertently revealing the poor math skills that made it necessary for him to hire a full-time bookkeeper.

His parents forgave him all the money he’d blown in his bohemian youth, but his dad said he’d have to start at the very bottom of the Rimbaud’s Hardware corporate org chart and work his way up.  He got the message, stopped wasting his time driving around town every night, put his nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel–and he hasn’t looked back since!  “Idle youth, enslaved to everything!” he had groaned one night after having one too many Busch Light beers.  “By being too sensitive I have wasted my life!”

We make our way into the hotel and see a few Chamber members chewing the fat.  There’s Hiram Muller, State Farm insurance agent; Bob Dunn, who owns the new AMF Bowladrome on the western edge of town; and C.J. Turner, the Chevy-Buick-GMC dealer.

“Hey Art!” Turner yells as he swivels his double chin around when he spies us out of the corner of his eye.  “You preachin’ a sermon today?”

“You will always be a hyena!” Rimbaud laughs as he claps Turner on the shoulder before shaking hands all around.  I have to admit, he’s got the gift of gab that a small businessman needs to succeed in a world dominated by big chain stores.

We take the elevator up to the second floor and see a bunch of members milling around, making small talk.  Since Art’s on the program today he’s supposed to sit up at the dais, while I take a seat at a table with Hiram and Bob and C.J.

As always, we start the meeting with a prayer, led to my surprise by Art himself.  Although he’d been one of the first of our teenage gang to go atheist, he had a religious experience, a sort of St. Paul knocked on his ass on the road to Damascus deal.  He was coming out of Hersch’s Quik Liquor on South 65 one night with a suitcase of Bud Light on his shoulder when he slipped on a ballpoint pen somebody had dropped in the parking lot, fell backwards and hit his head–hard–on the concrete.

“Life is the farce we are all forced to endure,” he had said groggily as we took the steps we had learned for our Boy Scouts First Aid merit badge, elevating his feet, covering him with a beach towel and not moving him until we were sure he was okay.  From that point on, Art had an ethereal quality about him.  I think he’d had a near-death experience, and he understood in a way that nobody else in our little circle of friends did that there is another, better world waiting for us after we pass through this vale of tears.

Art begins the invocation, his eyes downcast and his hands clasped together, “Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge.”  He continues in this vein–humble and genuine–and his sentiments are echoed by a simple “Amen” by all present when he’s done.

Then, as you might expect with this gang, it’s business.  The president welcomes everybody, including some new members–Ted Fhlegm who’s opened up an auto parts store on east 50–and a few guests, such as the sons of some members who have skipped school to see a highlights film of the Kansas City Chiefs that is introduced by a guy from the front office who tries, without much success, to sell season tickets to a room full of guys who’d rather spend their Sunday afternoons snoring on the den couch.

It’s Art’s turn now, and he sits quietly as the president introduces him, saying we’ve all known him since he was a boy and a man and noting his growing reputation as an inspirational speaker.  The crowd applauds politely but warmly, Art says thanks for the kind words, and puts the crowd at ease from the get-go with some self-deprecatory humor.  “What am I doing here?” he asks, and the crowd laughs, thinking of him as a French version of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, H. Ross Perot’s running mate in his 1992 bid to become the first independent candidate to become President of the United States.


James “What am I doing here?” Stockdale

“I’ve just noticed that my mind is asleep,” he says, continuing in the vein of humility he’s struck, and the assembled burghers lean back in their seat, digesting their lunch of Salisbury steak, steamed carrots and mashed potatoes.  If Art had any after-dinner mints, the crowd would be eating them out of his hand.

“What a life!” Art begins, turning serious as he begins the tale of his transformation from dissolute poet to successful businessman.  “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen,” he says, recounting his bouts with writer’s block, depression, dry flaky skin and existential torment.  “Misfortune was my god.”

You could hear a toothpick drop, and when Clell Furnell, the local John Deere dealer fumbles his, a few heads turn to shush him.  “I shed more tears than God could ever have required,” Art says somberly.  I notice a glint of a moistness in more than one hard-nosed businessman’s eyes.

“I’m intact, and I don’t give a damn,” Art says by way of peroration.  “A thousand dreams within me softly burn.”  The room is hanging on his every word, and he leaves them with one final thought:  “The only unbearable thing–is that nothing is unbearable.  We know how to give our whole lives every day.”

With that, he is done, and there is a moment of calm before a thunderous storm of applause breaks out.

“That was great,” C.J. says to me as he pounds his beefy hands together.

“I know–isn’t he terrific?” Hiram adds.  “A hell of a lot better than that guy who gave that talk about long-term care insurance.”

“What’s amazing to me,” I say, leaning into the table so the others can hear me over the crowd’s adulation, “is that this is the same guy who wrote ‘Then you’ll feel your cheek scratched . . . a little kiss, like a crazy spider, will run round your neck.’”

The others look at me like I’m crazy.  Bob Dunn arches his left eyebrow skyward in skepticism, then pops the question that the others are probably asking themselves at the same time.  “Are you sure about that?” he asks dubiously.  “I thought that was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.”

All quotes after the “skedaddle” one guaranteed verbatim Rimbaud.  Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

My Y Chromosome

I kinda like my Y chromosome–
I take him with me whenever I leave home,
no matter where or how far I roam.
As you may have guessed by now,
he’s the subject of this poem.

Without my Y, I’d have to watch
a lot less televised sports,
and I couldn’t wear cargo shorts.
You think I’m copping an attitude?
You don’t want to see me even partially nude.

I know a lot of folks groan at dad jokes,
but without the guys who make them
I ask you—where would we be?
There wouldn’t be any moms to tell ‘em–
to reproduce you need someone with a Y–like me.

No, I like my little Y guy,
I’m not going to tell him to beat it.
We play by our own rules:
When I drop food on the ground,
He says “Go ahead and eat it.”

We’ll leave the finer things in life
to the folks with two XX’s,
and thank our lucky stars that
that–at last count–
there were two sexes.

 

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Poets

With apologies to Waylon Jennings, not that he needs them.

They’re hard to love and harder to hold.
They’ll give you a poem ‘stead of diamonds or gold,
Ripped off from Auden, or maybe from Yeats
Somethin’ that won’t make them rich as Bill Gates.
As each night fades into a new day
They can’t find a job with their MFA’s.

They think it’s a safe job hanging ’round a faculty lounge.
But when mealtime comes, they find that they have to scrounge.
There isn’t much market our there in the world for sestinas.
They’d make more as a cop, or even a ballerina.
They’re wrong in the head, I think you know that for sure
Their poems are the symptoms, and lettin’ them write is no cure.

Poets git lost when they’re out drivin’ around,
Wanderin’ lonely as old Bill Wordsworth’s cloud.
They takin’ the road less traveled, like Robert Frost
But unlike him they tend to get lost.
They’re anal retentive about every one of their commas,
Freud would have a heyday analyzin’ their mommas.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be poets
They’re headed for ruin for sure and both of you know it.
Let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such,
the schoolin’s as long, but poets don’t make as much.
Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be poets.
‘Cause they’re always at home but they’re always alone.
Even with someone they love.

My Poetic Life Insurance Exam

“Do you think you have enough life insurance?” my wife asked with concern after watching another half hour’s worth of depressing news about the coronavirus.


“All those Star Wars tchotchkes!”

“Why do you ask?” I asked, and not unreasonably I thought.

“Well–you’re 71.  You’re at high risk.”

“I’m in good health.”

“Yes–but if you traipse mud on the new white carpet again, I might be tempted to kill you.”

We shared a laugh, but I wasn’t going to let her off easy.

“Life insurance isn’t for me, it’s for you.  If I die I won’t care how much insurance I had, and I’m leaving everything I have to you.”

“Everything?”

“Yep.  The Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson CDs, the boxing books, the Star Wars collectible plastic drink cups, the Betty Boop DVDs.”

“Thanks, but I’m going to need some liquid assets when you die.”

“Why?”

“To pay somebody to haul all that stuff away.”

I looked in her eyes and saw tiny little tears forming at the corners.  We’ve always had some common interests–ballet, wine, our children–but each of us also had other enthusiasms that lay outside the intersection of the Venn Diagram of our marriage.  I respected her space, and she had no interest in mine.

“Okay–I get it.  I’ll call the insurance agent today and get a quote.”

It was the work of just a few minutes to learn that, even at my advanced age, I might qualify for plenty of additional term insurance, at very affordable rates.  All I had to do was pass a physical–and they’d do it in my home!

I set up an appointment and the next day a pert nurse arrived with her black bag of medical equipment to check me out–I mean my vital signs.  Without even studying the night before, I passed all her tests–cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, the works.

“You’re in great shape,” she said as she took off her stethoscope.  “I just have to ask you a few questions about hazardous pastimes you may indulge in.”

“Like what?”

“Let me read the list.”

“Okay.”

“Skydiving?”

“Nope.”

“Scuba diving?”

“I used to love Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges when I was a kid, but I’ve never done it myself.”

“Okay.  Flying or parasailing?”

“Nope.”

“Poetry?”

I gulped involuntarily.  I had no idea that my ham-handed attempts at versification might stand in the way of my wife’s desire to maintain her standard of living after I croaked.

“What does poetry have to do with life insurance?”

“We don’t have to write a policy to cover someone who engages in risky activities.”

“What’s risky about poetry–besides paper cuts?”

“Here are the stats,” she said, pulling a pamphlet out of her bag, the kind you see in racks in doctors’ offices about the causes and cures of psoriasis and Osgood Schlatter’s Disease.

You could have knocked me over with a feather duster, if not a feather, but the facts were as plain as a pig on a sofa, to mix my metaphors.  The text referred to a classic study by James C. Kaufman and John Baer that found poets to have the highest risk of suicide of any type of artist.

“So your answer is?” she continued with an eyebrow arched upwards now that I’d tipped my hand, so to speak.

“Uh, yes, I write poetry.  At least think I do, even if the editors of both general circulation and literary magazines often–almost always–disagree.”

She check a box on her form in a perfunctory manner.  “What kind of poetry–dramatic, narrative, or lyrical?”

“A little of all three,” I said nervously.

“Okay–hit me,” she said as she pushed up one sleeve, as if she was really getting down to work.

“Well, uh, in the dramatic mode, I wrote a full-length verse play about St. Thomas a Becket that will probably never see the light of day.”

“Okay.  Narrative?”

I hesitated, a little embarrassed to continue.  “I’ve, uh, done a series of blank verse poems about . . .”

“Yes?”

“St. Louis Cardinals players of the 1960s.”

I thought I saw just a flicker of a snicker form on her lips.  “English major?” I asked, taking the offensive.

“Minor.  Now comes the hard part.  Any lyrical poetry in your little moleskin leather notebooks?”

I swallowed, hard, and turned my head to avoid her gimlet gaze.  Nothing I hate worse than having the full force of a woman’s gimlet–whatever that is–trained on me.

“Well?–I’m waiting.”

“YES!” I said, and I put some starch into my reply.  “I’ve written the typical moonstruck love poems any boy of 16 would produce.  Only I waited until I was middle-aged to do it–so I could get them right.  Is that so wrong?”

I could tell my words had had an effect on her.  She looked me up and down with a clinical attitude, as if to say she was only doing her part in the world-wide effort to stop the spread of bad poetry being produced right now, by otherwise well-meaning people who think that anybody else gives a shit.

“No, no, there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said as she returned her gaze to the form and made two little “x’s” at the bottom.  “But it’s going to cost you an extra $3.95 per month for every $100,000 worth of coverage.”

Don’t Come Home From Book Group With Lovin’ on Your Mind

(with apologies to Loretta Lynn)

Image result for don't come home from drinkin with lovin on your mind

Well you thought I’d be waitin’ up when you came home last night
You’d been out with all the girls and you ended up half tight.
But books and chardonnay don’t mix, leave a bottle or me behind
And don’t come home from book group with lovin’ on your mind.

Image result for book groupbooks

No don’t come from book group with lovin’ on your mind.
Keep talkin’ about your novel and suckin’ down your wine.
When you gals read that chick lit it don’t improve your minds,
So don’t come home from book group with lovin’ on your mind.

Image result for book group

You’re never home, you’re always gone, readin’ bodice rippers.
Many’s the night I’ve laid awake, yearnin’ for your nippers.
But you come in too drunk for love, it happens every time
No don’t come home from book group—with lovin’ on your mind.

I Wish You Loved Me as Much as Your Phone

We’re here together, but I’m all alone.
Your body’s here, but your mind is gone.
I might as well be in The Twilight Zone–
I wish you loved me as much as your phone.

You call me baby, you call me doll–
And then you say “I gotta take this call.”
You talk to someone from parts unknown–
I wish you loved me as much as your phone.

When we get home from our evening date
I think of romance as it’s gettin’ late.
And then I hear that little nuisance ring
I don’t know why you can’t turn off that thing.

You say you love me as you stare at your screen
The way you treat me is beyond obscene.
When you look up you’ll see this bird has flown–
‘Cause you don’t love me as much as your phone.

I Wear My Erudition Lightly

I wear my erudition lightly,
or at least I really try.
If you put on a heavily learned cloak
folks won’t think you’re a regular guy.

So I drop bon mots at cocktail parties
when the conversation starts to flag.
Like “Didja know that a guy named Tiresias
used to walk around all the time in drag?”

Or the fact that Lincoln crossed the Rubicon
to end the Peloponnesian War?
It was either that or the French Revolution,
I’m sure I read it somewhere before.

I’m also good with orthography,
I’m a former spelling bee champ.
I’ve never misspelled H2SO4
And I know why the lady’s a tramp.

I know about quantum mechanics,
Which is a concept thought up by Niels Bohr.
I take my quantum in every three thousand miles
and they lube my four-on-the floor.

I took some classes in vers libre,
which I found to be most stimulating.
I also drink mojitos and daiquiris,
and I find them all very intoxicating

If you want to display your brainpower,
don’t be afraid to let it all out.
When people say they think I’m unlearned,
I don’t leave any room for doubt.

To Make Ends Meet, More Poets Turn to Discounters

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Curtis Bascomb, Jr. is a third-generation family business owner, so he has more than just his time and money invested in his workplace.  “Grandad founded this place on a promise,” he says with a trace of a lump in his throat.  “He believed no poet should ever go without a figure of speech because of high prices.”


“I’m looking for a synechdoche for wine.”

 

And so the Poets Discount Supply House was born, a harmonic convergence of New England thrift and the historically impecunious nature of the poet’s trade.  “I’m entering my coming-of-age collection in twenty chapbook contests at an average of $22.50 a pop,” says would-be poet Todd Heftwig, who prowls the aisles looking for bargains.  “If I can pick up a slightly-used simile or metaphor at half-price, I may be able to recoup my investment.”

poetry1
“There’s a size 7 and a half sestina back here with seagulls in it.”

 

In addition to garden variety figures of speech such as similes and metaphors, the Poets Discount Supply House carries more exotic forms such as synechdoches and metonyms, as well as a deli case stocked with onomatopeia and tropes.  “We buy this stuff fresh every day,” says Bob Vibeck, who started with the company when it was run by Bascomb’s father, Curtis Sr., in the 1960s.  “That’s why poets come back to us even when they hit the big time, which is really still the little time.”

The store is located in an undistinguished warehouse off a busy commercial street, part of the family’s business plan to keep costs down.  “We can sell you a package of three generic themes–seagulls, unrequited love, the effect John Coltrane’s music had on you in college–at half the cost of the high-end retailers,” says Curtis Senior.  “That’s our sweet spot.”


“If you need a rhyme for the word ‘love,’ line up on the right.”

 

The store is ramping up for what is usually its busiest time of the year, as shoppers stop in for a turn of phrase for a Thanksgiving toast, or get ready for Christmas proposals, when the family will bring in temporary sales help to handle the crush of smitten but unlettered Romeos.  “These guys come in here with something scratched on a cocktail napkin looking for le mot juste,” says Curtis Junior, shaking his head.  “I tell ‘em you can’t bring in your own stuff, you got to buy it here.”

 

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

On Having a Non-Affair With a Flamboyant Minor Dada Poetess

Poet William Carlos Williams had “a non-affair with the flamboyant minor-Dadaist poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.”

The New York Times Book Review

Elsa, you must not take it amiss
if I do not succumb to your fervent kiss;
I have a wife I’ve cheated on before
So it’s not because I’m true to the missus.


Williams

 

It’s just that—well, I don’t know how to put this—
With a Dadaist poet a non-affair is the height of erotic bliss.
The way you Dadas turn everything ceiling to floor
If we are to love, a mile is as good as a miss is.


The Baroness, gettin’ jiggy with it.

 

Another impediment, although you I’m lovin’—
I’ve counted your syllables—and you have a dozen!
If we were to marry, my friends I would bore
Introducing “my wife, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.”

So let’s keep it chaste, between you and me,
For minor Dada-ettes forever free should be.
Oh, I forgot, one absurd thing more—
My hat rack adores your other bee’s knee.

One Hurt in Collision at Intersection of Art and Commerce

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Beth Upshaw is both a painter herself and an intrepid soul who helps others make a living in the hand-to-mouth world of the arts by operating a gallery in this upscale suburb.  “I know I could make more money at a nine-to-five job,” she says as she adjusts the frame of a work by her friend Cecilia Carver, “but I wouldn’t get that little glow you feel when you make the world a more beautiful place.”

art

Image result for suburban art galleryThat can-do attitude is what led Upshaw to take money out of her retirement plan–at a tax penalty–to open bEth uPshaw sTudios, as her stylized logo expresses it.  “It throws people off their guard for a second–they stop, look and hopefully come in.”

But Upshaw is off her game a bit as she opens up this morning; a fight with her boyfriend Kurt Mergen Saturday night has put a damper on her spirits, and she has to work harder than usual to greet customers pleasantly, much less cheerfully.  “Kurt didn’t like his wine at Boit de Nuit,” she explains of their dinner date gone wrong, “and things spiraled downhill from there.”  Upshaw took a sniff and told him not to be a whiner because the restaurant was busy and a woman she knew was waiting on them.  Mergen got defensive, saying he knew more about wine than she did, and Upshaw reminded him that she’d been a sommelier in a previous life in 19th century France.

Image result for art gallery
“The catalog says this is the air conditioner vent.”

That was the last straw for Mergen, who rolled his eyes and then struck at her most vulnerable spot; her own art, which she describes as “post-neo-pop-Abstract Expressionist.”  “I have a hard time imagining you in that context,” he snapped as he tore a piece of baguette in half.  “You, who produces the kind of art that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of a bank lobby.”

Color rushed into Upshaw’s face, and her eyes narrowed to grim little slits as she hissed “You son-of-a-bitch!”  Diners seated nearby who didn’t hear her realized there was a problem when she stood up, put on her coat and scarf and stormed out of the restaurant, stopping only to take a mint at the cash register.

Image result for art bank lobby“I’m fine now,” she says as she excuses herself to wait on an elderly couple who’ve come in to browse, “but that bastard has had his last free plastic cup of chardonnay and cheese-on-crackers at my gallery openings.”

Image result for art bank lobby
“Excuse me–none of these pens work.”

The customers–a man and woman who have moved into a +55 year-old condominium complex up the street from Upshaw’s gallery–congratulate Upshaw on the life and color that she brings to their new neighborhood.  “People who think the suburbs are boring should come see your little place!” the woman gushes.  “I had no idea we were moving into a Little Bohemia here.”

Upshaw demurs appreciatively and leaves the two to themselves, offering to help them if anything “catches their fancy.”  After a turn around the gallery the man comes back to her desk and asks about a piece that holds pride of place on the largest wall in the all-white space; a striking red, yellow and blue work that Mergen once compared to a Wonder Bread bag on acid during a previous argument between the two young lovers.

“Number 43?” Upshaw inquires hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Well, that one’s by me!” she says with a note of modest self-approval in her voice.

Image result for wonder bread bag
Wonder Bread bag (not on acid)

“Oh, you’re an artist, too!” the woman exclaims, and Upshaw blushes just a bit.  “Well, I’d better be after what my parents spent on my MFA!”

The older couple laughs, and the man explains that they just wrote their last tuition check the previous spring.  “How much is this one?” he asks as his eye roams over the canvas.

Upshaw gulps just a bit; she can tell the two aren’t hagglers, so her fear is they will walk out if she tells them that she was hoping to get $5,000 for it.  The bitter memory of the night before has given her a stiffer spine, however.  “I am an artist, dammit!” she says to herself as she recalls Mergen’s brutal put-down.  “And I deserve to be paid what I’m worth!”

She surprises herself by blurting out “Five thousand” before her resolution can become sicklied over with the pale cast of modesty, and is shocked when the man says “That sounds reasonable–I’ll take it!”

The transaction is concluded happily at the gallery’s point of sale terminal, and Upshaw says she hopes the couple will enjoy the painting in their new home.

“This isn’t for the condo,” the man says.  “I’m the president of the new bank that’s going in up the street–I’m going to put it in the lobby.”