By Paul Otremba
Sunday, May 24, 2009
My initial impulse for writing a poem rarely remains intact in the completed version, but that happened with this one. The poem began out of my desire to join two close friends who were together without me half the country away. One of the earliest impressions poetry made on me was its ability to speak, how it assumes a human voice, and I took comfort in that aspect of the art for this poem. I wanted to have a conversation with my friends, even if the compensation of such an imagined -- and decidedly one-sided -- dialogue would be limited.
Thinking of what I wanted to say to them, I was reminded of the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his "conversation" poem "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," in which the speaker finds himself separated from friends he longs to join. I started my poem by imitating Coleridge's opening, with its initial interjection, "Well," and blank verse line (unrhymed iambic pentameter). The potential contradiction of using imitation to attempt sincere statement was not lost on me, but most of my verbal interactions with friends are allusive and associative, shifting easily between irony and sincerity.
In my experience, pastiche, hyper-allusiveness and associative logic contribute just as much to the texture of everyday communication as they do to making up postmodern literature and "Simpsons" episodes and Mitsubishi commercials. As negotiators of symbols, we are now comfortable with multiplicity and simultaneity, and our natural state seems to have become some play between the surface of language and the depths of meaning. Likewise, naked sentiment is often authenticated by a radical juxtaposition with ironic statement.
(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)In an Adirondack With You
Well, there's the one about the boy who fell
off the swing. Because the wind picked up.
Because after three days, I've gone outside
into the heat and heard you laugh across
long distances, crossing the road that cuts
the little cake-village, the field in view,
and behind that the spine of pine trees curved
in the sun. It's the only joke I remember.
How are the rains this year? Has the fox returned?
I don't believe in a redemptive nature,
I'm not sure I ever have. But you see,
I grew crooked in the great Midwestern
suburb pent, bending to a music of doorbells
knocked off their hinges and the greasy burn
of gasoline balloons with newspaper wicks,
while the games kept on after the lamppost
blinked in the cul-de-sac. I've been to Idaho.
I've stood at Shelley's feet but only thought
of fat rendered in the sand. I couldn't recall
a single line of Corso. I have tried to live
with compassion. So here, a list of people --
where if I could go back, were permitted
a run-in at the grocery store -- whom I'd hug:
Hugo, Neil Diamond, Lowell the polar bear
but not of the letters. Still, the accidents
continue. In the shower of break-away glass,
I, too, may or may not have been drunk,
may or may not have fled the scene.
I have tried hard to live without regrets.
By now you will have traversed the field,
the brook, the smallest bone in your body,
the yellow gravel parking lot with yellow
dust on your shoes. I would not leave you
to explain things to the cops and multiple trips
to the plastic surgeon. I like your nose,
and when I need to, can conjure a face
around it, though obscured by smoke, giving
a little something for Henry and poor Paul,
before watching the lit tips dissolve
in the nothing that waits below the bridge.
I'm not sure I know how to praise anything
except food. Your pesto was delicious.
Perfect as the simple sandwich of pecorino
and soprosata near the Piramide Cestia.
Rivaling the generosity of peaches I ate
from a brown paper sack off a highway
in Texas. Have you ever danced a two-step?
Witnessed a XXX megaplex or a closed-circuit
execution? Is not stopping for hitchhikers
along certain stretches, under any circumstance,
as morally suspect as a bower? The theater
swells with the attentive crowd, and I am
not there, ting'd with mischief, leaving
a seat open for the stranger who usurps
the performance by setting fire to a trashcan.
I wouldn't hug Berryman. I'd hug Coleridge
of "Frost at Midnight," but only to line 48.
What I heard you say over the phone
through the noisy bar was "you are mist,"
which is what you said. Henceforth, all
condensation will be reviewed as felicitous.
How awkwardly we teeter on laps in this chair,
trying to nestle like a babushka doll.
I've never been to Moscow, but I've read
it's a place to grow sad in. The best
Hungarian food I've ever had was in Krakow.
The best Mexican food, Minneapolis.
Have you heard the one about the Russian
medical student who left his first class
because he'd be studying the pancreas, not life?
I hear the bell and follow you to the table.
Where I tell you about the Polish waitress
who, holding my credit card, asked, "And who
is Mr. Oatmeal?" Everyday I seem to break
for more dogs. Because nostalgia like longing
eats its own tail. Because it has no arms.
Paul Otremba's first book of poems, "The Currency," was recently published.