Sunday, September 9, 2012

What do chickens and the male member have in common?

Another successful meeting of the minds, otherwise known as Writing Group. Conversation turned to poetry, which reminded me that poetry was, in fact, my first crush. I still love poetry and it ultimately led me to a larger literary world. It was a gateway reading material, if you will. I remember sitting on the floor of a makeshift library in Akron. The main library was undergoing renovations at that time and a warehouse had been transformed into a temporary space during the project.  It was unorganized. The vast ceilings, dusty shelves, and echoes somehow made the experience all the better. I felt like I could walk into the stacks and disappear. The poetry section was never crowded. I would sit on the floor surrounded by books, reading voraciously and making notes on an index card. I was a list maker then and am now. Every once in a while, I surprised someone who didn't expect to come around the corner and walk smack dab into a person lounging on the floor, but I didn't mind. A few halfhearted kicks was a small price to pay for such bliss.

I feel deeply in love with all poetry, but when I think back to that time, I always think of Stephen Dobyns. For me, this was a time in which there simply wasn't money to spend on brand new books. Nevertheless, I owned scads of books and with the exception of books that I'd received as gifts, they had all been obtained at thrift stores, second-hand shops, or rummage sales. If you've ever used this method to enrich your library, you will concur with my statement that this method works well only if you're not looking for a specific book.  You must be prepared to take what you get.  Unless, of course, you're looking for a book written by Danielle Steele -  shelves everywhere seem to be full of those. Do they somehow possess the power to replicate? 
Take my word for it, seeking a specific book on the Goodwill shelves is small but miserable hell.

I wanted to own a certain book that I had checked out over and over again.  I couldn't help myself. I'm pretty sure I'd already paid the purchase price in late fees anyway.  I'd had the book for so long that it felt like it belonged to me, and I began to resent having to return it. I went to Barnes & Noble and bought Velocities, a poetry collection by Stephen Dobyns.  It was a good purchase and I don't regret it.  I still have that book, and many more by the same author.

What do I love about his poetry?  Everything.  I was relieved to see that it didn't have to rhyme. I was amazed at his ability to evoke strong and thoughtful images with such simple, everyday words. I loved the quirky, strangeness of his subjects.  Take, for instance, this little gem.

Tenderly by Stephen Dobyns

It’s not a fancy restaurant, nor is it
a dump and it’s packed this Saturday night
when suddenly a man leaps onto his tabletop,
whips out his prick and begins sawing at it

with a butter knife. I can’t stand it
anymore! he shouts. The waiters grab him
before he draws blood and hustle him
out the back. Soon the other diners return

to their fillets and slices of duck. How
peculiar, each, in some fashion, articulates.
Consider how the world implants a picture
in our brains. Maybe thirty people watched

this nut attack his member with a dull knife
and for each, forever after, the image pops up
a thousand times. I once saw the oddest thing –
how often does each announce this fact?

In the distant future, several at death’s door
once more recollect this guy hacking at himself
and die shaking their heads. So they are linked
as a family is linked – through a single portrait.

The man’s wobbly perch on the white tablecloth
his open pants and strangled red chunk of flesh
become for each a symbol of having had precisely
enough, of slipping over the edge, of being whipped

about the chops by the finicky world, and of reacting
with a rash mutiny against the tyranny of desire.
As for the lunatic who was tossed out the back
and left to rethink his case among the trash cans,

who knows what happened to him? A short life,
most likely additional humiliation and defeat.
But the thirty patrons wish him well. They all
have burdens to shoulder in this world and whenever

one feels the strap begin to slip, he or she thinks
of the nut dancing with his dick on the tabletop
and trudges on. At least life has spared me this,
they think. – And one, a retired banker, represents

the rest when he hopes against hope that the lunatic
is parked on a topless foreign beach with a beauty
clasped in his loving arms, breathing heavily, Oh,
darling, touch me there, tenderly, one more time!

How does Dobyns manage to capture such meaningful topics while depicting this unexpected scene?   We know what he's talking about. We're rooting for the underdog. It's that feeling of being helpless in the face of the drudgery of life. And then there is that flicker of optimistic hope that flares up and gets us through the day, the week, our life. It also addressed that shameful  feeling we get when witnessing someone else's undoing; saddened to see it, but wildly happy and relieved that's happening to the other guy,  not us.

I was thinking today about how much my life has changed.  I buy books.  A fuck-ton of books, to be precise. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the 2-day free shipping I get from Amazon because I'm a student.  It can't be beat.  Also, I dearly love to read book reviews and research what to read next.  Unfortunately, when your reading list is as specific as mine is, browsing at the resale shop is no longer expedient.  I guess it really comes down to the fact that time is precious.  More precious than money, that much I know.  So, while I really miss the thrill of the hunt, and the smell of old books, I'll probably stock my library with mostly new books.  It's just what works for me right now.  But, this is a reminder to myself - every once in a while, I should spend a weekend afternoon shopping for used books.  If I'm lucky, I'll find one with writing in the margins, or obscure slips of paper used as bookmarks. Those are the sweetest little surprises!

I know I've probably already worn out my welcome with all this long-winded poetry stuff, but stay with me.  I absolutely must leave you with one final poem.  Spiritual Chickens.  Yep, that's the title.  Isn't it fabulous?
If you find yourself intrigued by the work of Stephen Dobyns, allow me to make one final recommendation.  Read Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides.  It's a collection of poems about a personified human heart who bumbles his way through life seeking love. You'll love Heart and you'll adore this book.

Spiritual Chickens by Stephen Dobyns

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.

So now you can answer the question that I posed in the title.  Chickens and the male member are both used as subjects in the poetry of Stephen Dobyns.  You have to admit, it made for an interesting blog title.  Shame on me.  
If you haven't already done so, check out my guest blog on Artsnapper.  You'll find fabulous ABQ art there!
Have a lovely week, my friends!


  1. Oh my goodness, I think I know the feeling of being squeezed between the world and my idea of it. Great post, as usual. Your words are the most enlightening I read each day you post. I may get out of my reading rut yet!

    1. I am truly honored! Thank you!

      If you ever want any reading recommendations, I'm your girl!

  2. I've never been that big on poetry. And the first time I read non-rhyming poetry I was put off because everybody knows poetry is supposed to rhyme! I forgot both were poems before I read more than a few lines. Very engrossing. I think I'll go "pick up" some Stephen Dobyns on Kindle. I probably won't read it right away, but I'll get to it when I'm standing in line or the power goes off again.

    Have to admit though -- I think the biggest reason I read the whole blog was the title. I just HAD to know. :)

  3. My evil plan worked! Despicable! I'm glad the title hooked you. I'm glad you liked the poetry. Let me know how it goes or if you want some different recommendations. I have plenty!

  4. Awesome stuff - Ha Ha !!!! I love chicken and I don't think I'm quite up to 6,000 yet, so am I safe :)

    Love it,


  5. Thanks for the comment, John. I love the wacky subjects that Dobyns tackles. He cracks me up. I really glad you joined me and look forward to hearing more from you.


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