About the Poems

108 Main Street

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Line of Poetry

It was a small yard sale on a grand scale on believe-it-or-not Main St., a few houses down from the French restaurant and the stone savings bank, the last two businesses before the historical district. The late September Saturday morning was warm and as couples walked bicycles in the slanted sun, it seemed like a city street in Paris or Berlin. Art books were propped up against a low stuccoed wall. Above the wall, a patch of grass and a wrought iron fence. Here more paperbacks and hard covers were laid out, leaning against the fence. The better known Shakespeare plays were grouped together. A biography of Don King stood next to a travel book. There were poetry books, etiquette books, and photography books.

On the sidewalk, children’s puzzles, cardboard boxes of aluminum pots, old-fashioned clothespins. On the makeshift table (a sheet of plywood on stylized saw horses painted violet and light green), rubber cars and kitchen utensils, shoes and hats in dented boxes, a block and tackle, a brass porthole. The proprietor in a blue and white striped boat neck sweater kept a small green cash box close to her, to which I added three-dollars and fifty cents.

The two hardbacks were The Adirondacks by Paul Schneider and Selected Poems by Randall Jarrell, with just the last name of the woman’s ex-husband printed on the first blank page. I drove away with five books and five red lobster crackers made by Zylizz.

Driving home, I stopped for a six-pack, but before I went in, I read the first line of The Woman at the Washington Zoo, “The saris go by me from the embassies,” and realized again the physical jolt a familiar line of poetry can bring. I could have read the line anytime at home, but sitting in the truck, with a savings of $16.95 off the cover price and no tax, there is just the pure line of perfect sound, thought, and description. It is present again and remains present.

Reading that line, I remembered another line, another book, a New Directions paperback with a side view of an unshaven Ezra Pound in a plaid shirt and sweater vest, with the signature black and white cover and block letters proclaiming SELECTED POEMS OF EZRA POUND, the paperback that defines college bookstore used book sales and college town yard sales—it’s always for sale (original price: $1.50, tenth printing, published 1957), and whenever I see it, I open to The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, and read, at least, the first line, “While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead . . .”

The lines are immediate and urgent. You receive the check you’ve been waiting for. You remember a voice.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Notes on “Tombaugh’s Discovery”

The bakery with the worst coffee (burnt and bitter) and the deadliest pastries (filling ladled out of five-gallon tubs and doughnuts smeared in grainy chocolate), was the meeting spot for a six A.M exclusive klatsch. On Mondays you would find six to eight regulars around the lime green table closest to the bay window, helping each other finish the Sunday Magazine crossword. Everyone would have made progress on it the day before, but Monday would be for helping and solving. Sunday’s crossword isn’t as difficult as those on Friday and Saturday, but it is long, and a long workweek loomed without solace or answers (pre- wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com). The ad hoc committee cracking the code consisted of a tax collector, a selectman, a building inspector, a couple of carpenters, and a few retirees. It was community assistance in action.

Years later, while doing a brick path for a woman, she began talking about crossword puzzles. She imagined people who did them regularly passed into a “parallel world.” This world was packed by fairly well-known writers and B-List celebrities whose names contained vowels or double consonants. They lived in a world of classical music and operas, loved art and sculpture, and were familiar with characters in 19th century novels. I was enthralled. It was so easy to picture. This world mirrored New York City with galleries and restaurants, but also Paris with creme brulees and arrondissements. The locals loved slogans and cliches and old songs. Citizens of this world liked to drink, but wouldn’t cheat you: they would defraud. Objects wouldn’t speed up, they’d accelerate. A river in Germany would flow into a Minnesota lake.

Black squares were sometimes stairs. Divas would appear in Versace gowns. Poets would get a line. An apple would fall on Pedro’s head. Missiles would fly by. It was a dangerous world, but a fascinating one.

After reading clues for months and studying puzzles, I began Tombaugh’s Discovery to spend some time in this world.

Hitting a Three-Pointer

Friday, March 12, 2010

Notes on “Good!”

March Madness: it was wonderful hearing my basketball poem, “Good!” on the radio today, two days before Selection Sunday (when the teams are seeded) and less than a week before games begin in the NCAA Tournaments. It’s a fourteen line poem on Jack Kerouac’s birthday, and I’m happy to see it and happy to have it read on NPR by Garrison Keillor for The Writer’s Almanac. The poem appears in Proposal, but also was chosen by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, to appear in the anthology We Came to Play, Writings on Basketball, along with selections from John Updike, John Feinstein, John McPhee, Bill Russell and Bill Bradley. It’s like hitting a three-pointer: it’s good.

Full of Philodendrons

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Notes on “Marzipan for Valentine’s Day”

This poem, Marzipan for Valentine’s Day, began in sound and curry. It was originally going to be a birthday poem, the speaker in a turban and diamond pin (to rhyme with lemon), holding a rack of rare dishes and outlandish gifts. There was an armadillo and a marble fountain full of philodendrons. They weren’t exactly puns, weren’t exactly homophones, just variations of sound. The gist would be, that no matter how many offerings were presented, that it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter or to the heart of the intended. The speaker could heap up tricks and devices to attract attention to the language and himself, but it wouldn’t be enough. An early draft had as the last line, with candles on the cake, “. . . even this is not the flame you wish for.”

At one point, the rhymes were internal. There was scheme and dream and cuisine. But I missed not seeing them at the end of the line. But the conceit became stilted, trying to be smarter than everyone else instead of being generous and bringing around the platter of scallops wrapped in bacon. I was very lucky to get the “Roberto Clemente rookie card.” You tease wool. I’m thrilled that Jell-O for some reason rhymes with cello. And please note how closely “parade” follows “float.”

The Stocks

Monday, January 18, 2010

Notes on “The Fishermen”

Sometimes you tire of those who have seen it all. Old salts and grizzled carpenters would gather in front of the store counter to badmouth people, but when someone walked in, they went silent. I would nod, they wouldn’t. They knew the big houses people were building, “must be a bitch to heat.” They had seen people come here before and think that they could set the world on fire. I just took my change and went along. But when the owner of the town sand & gravel pit appropriated approximately 25 tons of fieldstone belonging to me, to build his guest house, I went to the police chief of the town and reported what had happened. After a pause, he said, “You know, John, he’s always been greedy.” It seemed so succinct, almost ancient justice. Then I felt we needed more dictums to follow. We needed more proverb looking precepts to live by. I decided not to research them, but to just concoct new principles that would sound as though they had been written in the time of Anne Bradstreet, with yokes and stocks, with meeting houses and carts, with sugar spelled as shuger and wheat as wheate, to outdoor prisons and broken wooden wheels, so I began the poem, The Fishermen.