Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, August 31, 2008

In prosperous America, the poet's economic reality usually involves working a crap job while scribbling nightly in a cheap apartment. Before my pal John Engman suffered a brain aneurysm in his 40s, he toiled in such obscurity. He lived in Minnesota, bussed tables, did standup comedy for a while, taught a class or two at a local community center, but only published two books. From his long-time job as an aide in an adolescent psych ward came poems rich in pathos, each tinged with his signature irony.

In "Poem With Sedative Effect," he writes, "On the hospital unit where I work/a young girl wrote 'I love you' on the walls//with excrement."

Offsetting this grim stuff, in "Aluminum Folding Chairs" Engman mocks his own attempts to run group therapy, which requires "an aptitude for nodding your head and a strong desire/to scratch your stomach thoughtfully//while someone sitting beside you opens a wound/the size of a gymnasium." Engman claims he got paid for saying, " 'Look within yourself' or 'I know where you're coming from.' " But eventually, he succumbs to his impotence and begins "to improvise/with harmless asides like, 'Keep your head down and swing/through the ball' or 'Red sky at morning, sailors take warning'//or 'Bake at 350 and cool before serving.' "

In "Work," his desire to be a "rain salesman" suggests an obscure poet's longing to break free from selling his word processing skills and move toward the exalted skill of selling beauty to readers:

I wanted to be a rain salesman,

carrying my satchel full of rain from door to door,

selling thunder, selling the way air feels after a downpour,

but there were no openings in the rain department,

and so they left me dying behind this desk -- adding bleeps,

subtracting clunks -- and I would give a bowl of wild blossoms,

some rain, and two shakes of my fist at the sky to be living.

Above my desk, lounging in a bed of brushstroke flowers,

a woman beckons from my cheap Modigliani print, and I know

by the way she gazes that she sees something beautiful

in me. She has green eyes. I am paid to ignore her.

We owe the construction of our cities and the frying of our burgers and the processing of our words to the efforts of unsung workers like Engman, who died in 1996 and whose last book, Temporary Help, still pays rich dividends, though the marketplace where he peddled his wares alternately underpaid and ignored him.

("Poem with Sedative Effect" is from "Keeping Still, Mountain." Copyright 1983 by John Engman. Reprinted by permission of the estate of John Engman, by arrangement with Holy Cow Press. "Aluminum Folding Chairs" and "Work" are from "Temporary Help" by John Engman. Copyright 1998 by the estate of John Engman. Reprinted with the permission of Holy Cow! Press .)

Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."

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