The Poetry Kings

A grey day in the offices of plangent voices, the poetry quarterly I helped found nearly three decades ago, and from which I was summarily ousted in a hostile takeover in the early 80′s by Elena Gotchko, the Emily Dickinson-wannabe whom I had taken under my wing when she was still a naif young ingenue, cutting her own hair and not doing a very good job of it.


“You like . . . trochees?”

Elena had marched in to announce that she’d become “elena gotchko,” and with her new boyfriend, daniel de la sota, a hulking Frankenstein’s monster of a poetaster, had commandeered the only electric typewriter in the joint and proclaimed that a new era of poetry was about to begin. I was out and she and her lumbering companion were in.

So I suppose I should have felt a little frisson of satisfaction at her call, late last night, to say that she needed my help getting the summer edition out. Her body’s immune system had apparently rejected the lower case “g” she’d added to her last name, and she was groggy from the antibiotics. The doctors were fairly sure she’d recover, but the botched transplant meant that she might have to live out the rest of her days as elena Gotchko.


Back in the saddle!

An ordinary editor would have cringed at the submissions stacked high on the desks, tables, floor, air conditioner and kitty box for the magazine’s mascot, Neruda, a male tuxedo cat who’d started as an unpaid intern five years ago, and had since been promoted to the position of reader. We’d sit him down on a manuscript and if he . . . uh . . . relieved himself, it was returned to the author with our form rejection letter saying it did not fit our needs at this time.

“Your sonnet sucks!”

As I say, the slush piles heaped around me were daunting, but I was undeterred. I was just glad to be back in the game again, shaping the course of American literature. Maybe it wouldn’t mean much to somebody like Archibald MacLeish, who said poems shouldn’t mean but be, but I was happy just to be where I was.


MacLeish: “What I mean is, a poem should not mean . . . anything. I think.”

Until I looked up and saw Sound E-Fex and Back Wurdz, two rappers who struck fear in the hearts of poetry editors everywhere. The modern branch of their posse was known as The Poetry Kings; the classical branch was called The Latin Poetry Kings. In either manifestation, they were a poetry quarterly’s worst nightmare; men who were determined to git published or die tryin’. When they submitted a hard-hitting, slice-of-life, straight-outta-Bloomsbury tranche-de-vie, somebody usually went down ’cause of all the hyphens flyin’ around.


“You gonna publish our stuff, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

”Yo,” Wurdz said. I recognized the two from the picture that appears above ”Pimp Yo Poem,” their monthly verse column in The Source, The Bible of Hip-Hop.

“Hi there,” I said, playing dumb, a game I’d perfected in grade school when I’d hide behind my hardbound copy of “Our American Government” and crank out crude couplets. “The submission deadline for the winter issue is past, if that’s what . . .”

“We got our stuff in before yo deadline,” Sound said. “We wanna know whether you gonna publish it, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

elena Gotchko: Nice job on the bangs!

“We have a fairly rigorous review process here,” I began. “After initial consideration by a reader, a poem must be approved by two editors, at least one (1) of whom shall not have slept with the poet, then it goes to our board of–”

“I don’t wanna hear ’bout yo board of academic advisors,” Wurdz said. “Eggheads ain’t never done nuthin’ good for poetry.”

I nodded my head reluctantly–I had to agree with him on that one. Rappers may not be everybody’s glass of sherry, but they’ve added more life to the world of poetry than a thousand professors. They’re the 21st century’s version of Arthur Rimbaud, who produced his best work while still in his teens, and gave up creative writing before he turned 21 to work in his dad’s business.


Rimbaud: “Spackle?  Aisle 3.”

“Okay, well, I guess since you’ve made a personal visit to the office, I could take another look at what you’ve written,” I said. I knew this would be unfair to the hundreds of other versifiers who’d submitted the products of their late-night waking dreams, who’d torn their tortured lines from their hearts, their souls, and in some cases their spleens; but the men standing before me were bearing Glocks.

“Let me see, what was the title of your work?” I asked.

“The Land of Counterpane,” Wurdz said.

I gave him a look that expressed volumes, or at least an epic poem. “You realize, don’t you, that Robert Louis Stevenson has already used that title?”


An angry Stevenson: “Don’t you go infringin’ my s**t, you waffle puffin’ punk!”

“So what if he did?” E-Fex asked. “Copyright done run out.  We sampled it.”

He was right, but that was hardly the point. A reputable–or semi-reputable–poetry quarterly could hardly publish a known plagiarism. Unless The Poetry Kings were going to make a substantial tax-deductible contribution, I allowed myself to think in a moment of mercenary madness.

I flipped through the reject pile and found what I was looking for. “All right, let me give it a second read,” I said. “But I can’t promise you anything.”

I leaned back in my chair, turned on my hand-held scansion device, and started reading.


Hand-held scansion device: Don’t start reading without it.

 

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
With several bullets in my head,
Around me all my firearms lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

“You’re off to a good start,” I said. They smiled at me, showing their grillz, the hip-hop orthodontic devices that are purely cosmetic in nature. I read on.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I’d watch my leaden homies go,
Tricked out sick and lookin’ good,
Among the bed-clothes
through the hood;

“You’ve spun a rather elaborate conceit,” I said, hoping to manage their expectations. “It will be interesting to see whether you can conclude in a manner that makes the work into a literary whole.”

“Wus he talkin’ ’bout?” Wurdz asked Sound.

“He wants to see whether we game or lame.”


“Testing–a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e.”

I nodded. He had divined the essence of my task. I picked up the paper–I noticed it was scented with Courvoisier–and continued:

I’d sometimes send my Escalade
‘Neath knees bent upwards, spreading shade;
A sound–a shot?–bestilled my heart,
‘Twas but an under-blanket fart.

“Nice touch, that,” I said with admiration. “And now,” I announced with upraised eyebrow, “let’s see if you can nail the dismount.”

“Wus he talkin’ bout?” Sound asked.

“Like Mary Lou Retton,” Wurdz replied. “Anybody can git up on da pommel horse, only a champ can git down off it clean.”

“On the nosey,” I said, then looked over the top of my glasses and continued.

I was the gangsta great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
Yaddida, shaboopalaboopy pain.

It was, to say the least, a letdown. “What happened with the last line?” I asked. “You just trailed off without completing either the sense or the form of the poem.”

The two co-poets seemed embarrassed. “I’ll be the first to admit,” said Wurdz, “that it needs more work.”

“What the hell is a ‘shaboopalaboopy’ anyway?” I asked.

“It’s a neologism,” Sound said. “It originated with Bay Area rappers, the hyphy movement. They used it to . . . make their raps better by”–he hesitated, apparently chagrined–”filling in spaces.”

“So basically, it’s the hip hop equivalent of ‘Yadda yadda yadda’,” I said, a bit scornfully.


“We thought we’d have a better chance if we submitted something on our forearms.”

“Thass right,” a woman’s voice said from the doorway. It was Pho’Netique, a stone fox who was known to contribute to Pimp Yo Poem when the guys couldn’t get their copy in on time.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass on this,” I said to the 2 Jive Crew in front of me. “Take another crack at that last stanza. You’ve got something there, but it needs a little work.”

They were crestfallen, having been shown up for what they were–poetic wankstas–in front of a woman. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of manuscripts . . .”

“Wait!” It was Pho-Netique’s turn to whine. “I submitted some confessional poems a while back and I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read them.”

“Uh, I don’t recall,” I said. “What was the title?”

The Bell Jar.”

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

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Brief History

Valentine for a Homely Couple

Carl’s wife sits shotgun in his truck
Her doughy face baked whitish red.
He gets out and climbs the semi–
Smiling, he asks “How’s it going?”
We just grunt and nod our heads
at the auger hole, and how it’s stuck.

“Better you than me, boys,” he says.
“I’m enjoying Sunday off.
Got a beer and my old lady.
It ain’t much, but it’s enough.”

Bill and me look at each other;
He’s the type to make a crack.
Me–I just want to get this load done.
We’ve got 18 miles to drive back.

“Your wife, she sure is lookin’ sweet,”
Bill says–I don’t pay him no mind.
Carl’s wife smiles, then she says thank you.
“You ever seen her walk the streets?”
Carl asks, all innocent.  “From behind
Looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet.”

Carl’s wife laughs, she likes attention.
Backhanded flattered, and it shows.
Her flabby arm hangs out the window
What attracts him, God only knows.

“Have you lost weight since I last saw you?”
Bill asks, and then he calls her “Dear.”
“Naw,” Carl says, “she’s like the State Fair–
Bigger and better every year.”

We see her laugh, she’s missing one tooth.
It’s clear she’s heard this joke before.
Old Sam arrives to check our progress–
It’s his dough that we’re wasting now.
He kicks a dead mouse out the barn door
As we prepare to tell untruths.

“Howdy, Carl,” Sam says
surprised to see his foreman in the bay.
“I give you the day off and what do you do?
You just can’t tear yourself away.”

“You know my wife, Earlene–right Sam?”
Carl says with somewhat misplaced pride.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Can he be pleased by one so wide?

They talk of things, while in the trailer
Bill and I unclog the jam.
The fescue seed begins to flow
As if from out a hydro dam.

Carl takes his leave, with mock regret.
“Sorry to see you break a sweat,
I’ll keep a cold beer waiting,” he says,
“In case I haven’t drunk it yet.”

Carl starts his truck, Sam farts around,
He sticks his hand into the seed.
“This stuff’s too wet, it’s got to dry out,
A day in windrows is what it needs.”

Sam stands up straight to watch them go.
“That little peckerwood’s a card.
Before too long they’ll have them six kids
And a beat-up truck in their front yard.

“I know that it ain’t none of my business,
where ole Carl puts his prick.
But for me, I know one thing;
Them Bohunk women sure go to pot quick.”

Image result for couples country 50s

We’re silent, Bill and I, for once,
as we attempt to take this in.
It’s true, of course, there’s no denying,
and yet to say it seems a sin.

Happy the man, and happy the mate
Who care not what the world may say.
Here’s to the two whose matches are few–
May they find love on Valentine’s Day.

The Ox Who Broke Susanna Martin’s Spell

            John Allen of Salisbury testified that Susanna Martin put a curse upon his cattle, saying they “should never do him much more Service.” Allen replied “Dost thou threaten me, thou old Witch? I’l throw thee into the Brook,” whereupon Martin flew away. He headed home but unyoked his oxen when one grew tired and put them on Salisbury Beach. A few days later it was found that the oxen had run into the Merrimack River and come ashore upon Plum Island. The cattle resisted attempts made with “all imaginable gentleness” to herd them back and swam out into the ocean “as far as they could be seen,” but one swam back “with a swiftness, amazing to the Beholders, who stood ready to receive him, and help up his tired Carcass.”

            Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft, Being the Wonders of the Invisible World

I know the waters off Plum Island—
they are cold and likely to shock
even beef flesh out of a witch-induced
distemper, but why you alone?

While the others swam on,
cursed for their master’s refusal
to carry a few staves for an old woman,
you came to your senses and swam back to humankind.

They tried to help you out of the water,
but you ran off through the marshes
to Newbury, then into the woods,
and then into Amesbury.

When Allen had brought you the four miles
home, and bedded you down in the
stable, did you then dream of late, lost
bewitched kine kin, now drowned in madness?

 

Or did you envy them their exploits and
their unwonted courage, how they’d chosen
the moment of their death at the behest of a fallen angel,
rather than wait for the blow of the butcher’s mallet?

Where Are the Karens of Yesteryear?

The Megans, the Caitlins, the Courtneys
come blissfully marching along.
I know if I wait then shortly
they’ll be followed by a Siobhan.

Where are the Nancys and Deborahs
I knew so long ago?
I seem to recall lots of Barbaras
and a Karen or three or mo’.

Somehow these names have faded
into memories of the past.
At the time, before we were jaded,
we assumed that they would last.

But they turned out to be merely fashions
that now are out of date.
They once were spoken with passion
but have met a mortal fate.

I suppose it’s all for the better
if it keeps fading gigolos
from penning vapid love letters
and taking off all of their clothes

for there’s no surer sign to a winsome young lass
that she’s dealing with aging men
than to hear these words as they make a pass:
“Er, what was your name again?”

The Maple Leaf Club

Grandpa Ollie took me downtown,
me in short pants, him I seem to
recall in a short-sleeved white shirt
and long grey slacks in the summertime.
I hoped to get a toy out of it.

We walked all the way to Main Street,
then took a right. He wanted to see
something, and we stopped in front
of a building and peered in.

It looked like it had been a restaurant
to me, now it was about to collapse.
The place hadn’t been painted in years,
the wood was all grey and brown.

“I guess that’s where he played,”
Grandpa said. I asked him who,
and he said “That fella they make
so much about, Scott Joplin.
Place is pretty run down now.”

I didn’t know then what I learned later;
that Joplin was writing opera at the same
time he was playing nights for drunken
cowboys in from the Chisholm Trail,
a whorehouse piano player.

One was a failure, the score to the other
was confiscated when he couldn’t pay
a hotel bill. He ended up in a mental
home, demented from syphilis.

We walked back towards home, and
Grandpa said I could get something.
I remember I picked out an Army rocket kit.
I botched it like every model I tried to make.

The Maple Leaf Club is gone now.
Last time I saw Grandpa alive he was
watching a baseball game on TV,
complaining about all the attention
nigra ballplayers were getting these days.

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.”

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