April 13, 2011 § 2 Comments
To kick off the Poetry portion of this blog, and in honor of the two birds we defiled with citrus, roasted, tore apart, devoured, and boiled the bones of last week, I offer an old favorite by one of my earliest influences. I was introduced to Stephen Dobyns as an undergrad with his collection Cemetery Nights, which remains my favorite of his books and contains what is still one of my favorite similies of all time, which I
stole referenced in my own poem Celestial. In “Cemetery Nights V,” a ghost sees his former lover outside the cemetery catching a bus and wonders where she is going, if she can feel his attempts to get her attention, how she thinks of him. Dobyns answers that when she sits in his chair or drinks his favorite wine “she will recall his face but / much faded, like a favorite dress washed too often.” Nice, eh?
One reason I enjoyed Dobyns early on was that he’s not afraid of narrative (not surprising, since he’s perhaps better known for his novels), which gave young me license to experiment with a more prosey voice, character, story…. He also has a playful absurdist streak, which I always admire. I think specifically of his poem “Art, et Al,” in which a man continually interrupts a back-alley craps game by repeatedly running full-speed and head-first through the players and into a dumpster while ranting about “art.” The humor often serves to set up a more solemn punchline, much in same the way that Billy Collins or Tony Hoagland use it. Other times, they just stay absurd. To all the roasted, barbecued, poached, and rotisseried birds of my past, this one’s for you.
A man eats a chicken every day for lunch,
and each day the ghost of another chicken
joins the crowd in the dining room. If he could
only see them! Hundreds and hundreds of spiritual
chickens, sitting on chairs, tables, covering
the floor, jammed shoulder to shoulder. At last
there is no more space and one of the chickens
is popped back across the spiritual plain to the earthly.
The man is in the process of picking his teeth.
Suddenly there’s a chicken at the end of the table,
strutting back and forth, not looking at the man
but knowing he is there, as is the way with chickens.
The man makes a grab for the chicken but his hand
passes right through her. He tries to hit the chicken
with a chair and the chair passes through her.
He calls in his wife but she can see nothing.
This is his own private chicken, even if he
fails to recognize her. How is he to know
this is a chicken he ate seven years ago
on a hot and steamy Wednesday in July,
with a little tarragon, a little sour cream?
The man grows afraid. He runs out of the house
flapping his arms and making peculiar hops
until the authorities take him away for a cure.
Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head. Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy. Much better to think he had
imagined it, that he had made it happen.
Meanwhile, the chicken struts back and forth
at the end of the table. Here she was, jammed in
with the ghosts of six thousand dead hens, when
suddenly she has the whole place to herself.
Even the nervous man has disappeared. If she
had a brain, she would think she had caused it.
She would grow vain, egotistical, she would
look for someone to fight, but being a chicken
she can just enjoy it and make little squawks,
silent to all except the man who ate her,
who is far off banging his head against a wall
like someone trying to repair a leaky vessel,
making certain that nothing unpleasant gets in
or nothing of value falls out. How happy
he would have been to be born a chicken,
to be of good use to his fellow creatures
and rich in companionship after death.
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head–why surrender
his corner on truth?–better just to go crazy.