Sidewalks: Where Poetic Champions Compose

April–National Poetry Month–is just around the corner and Saint Paul wants your poetry.

For the past few years, the city has been open to poetry submissions with the intent of impressing them into wet cement whenever they repair a stretch of sidewalk. The idea was conceived by Marcus Young, Saint Paul’s Artist-in-Residence since 2006, and whose projects lean toward the collective. Projects that many can participate in and projects everyone can enjoy the results of. Here are a few poems from previous years already set in the sidewalks near my house:

If you have a poem or two in you, if you’re feeling generous, and if you want your words set in cement for posterity, check out Saint Paul Sidewalk Poetry Contest. You must be a Saint Paul resident to submit your work. This year’s deadline is April 13, 2012.  I hope to see your words at my feet.

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Poem of the Hour

Last night I was searching my bookshelf for a specific book. As I turned my head sideways, reading the titles on the spines, I realized I could have some fun putting together a poem. Though the results reach no great heights, here it is, called, “Later the Same Day”:

Poem of the Hour

LIFE’S PILGRIM

by Geoffrey Chaucer

FLY from the press, and dwell with soothfastness;

Suffice unto thy good, though it be small,
For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness ;

Preise hath envie, and weal is blent o’er all.

Savor no more than thee behoven shall,
Rede well thy self that other folk can’st rede,
And Truth thee shalt deliver ’tis no drede.

That thee is sent receive in buxomness :
The wrestling of this world, asketh a fall.

Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim, forth on, best out of thy stall;
Look up on high, and thank the God of all!

Weivith thy lust, and let thy ghost thee lead,

And Truth thee shalt deliver ’tis no drede.

THE MELANCHOLY MBA by Richard Donnelly

A six-figure education must certainly lead to a six-figure salary with an end-of-the-year bonus, a guaranteed parking spot, tailoring at Brooks Brothers, coy glances from potential lovers, and entrance to the company box at Target Field. With an MBA, you have a ticket to the inner circle. You are someone who Must Be Appreciated.

Or not.

When you read Richard’s poems from his latest book, The Melancholy MBA, you will immediately find the strange, the weary, and the lunacy going on at your workplace validated. You’ll read about computers possessed by Satan, mere acquaintances who don’t filter their thoughts before telling you things they shouldn’t, confrontations with drug dealers, unyielding sexual tension, a boss who pulls employees’ hair, and a colleague like this:

JELLY BEANS

after interrupting him
in his office
for the third time
I had to
move
his giant jar of jelly beans
so he could look
at the whole file

we had lost almost
three hundred thousand dollars
since 10:00 am
he seemed undisturbed
his TV was on
loud
he peeled an orange
slowly
look he finally
said to me
are you the one
eating my jelly beans

And just as importantly, you’ll appreciate the fact that Richard’s poems don’t read like long drawn-out emails full of too many useless details. Sometimes I get the impression he’s writing at gunpoint, but in a good way, or we’d never be holding his poetry in our hands. Richard is like a still. Every poem that comes out of him is already poteen. Each one is refined to its swig-of-fire essentials:

THE GOOD MANAGER

I am not
responsible for
your car
your purse
your trouble
with
an ex-
boyfriend I
am
your manager
not
your godmother
I cannot
get you
a raise outside
the normal
channels
I do not live
for you
I have
a home and how
I feel about
my wife
has nothing to
do with
you
now let me
do my work
and
you do yours
and
while you’re at
it button
up the top
of that blouse

The real wonder is that Richard’s speaker has been able to transcend the daily grind with rich and philosophical romanticism:

TALISMAN

if I could only have you with me
I’m sure I could do so much better
I would show the HR Manager exactly
how to gain efficiency
save money have fun of course
have fun but she would see that by
watching you the
tall girl with the huge laugh golden
hair pink nails dark slacks
white blouse opened just so
brown eyes sparkling like champagne
and if the buyer is a man
my god there’s nothing more to say

we could take on the world you and I
my lucky thing my talisman
the streets of Minneapolis will ring
with our laughter
the sun will always shine
and when the day is through I
would be as thankful as a man can be
our eyes holding each other our
breath the same breath with faces close
in some hidden trattoria
our lips the same lips our words
just the same and I swear
I would only hold your hand a moment
I would not touch you

Sometimes, as writers, we dare to touch our hopes and dreams. You write a poem and the dream may or may not manifest. Sometimes you just end up with a poem. Is that enough? I don’t know. Too metaphysical for me. But Richard writes a beauty called:

OFFICE WINDOW

they gave me a new office with a window last March
here I am nearing middle age and this is the first
time I can see the Minneapolis sunshine
and a gleaming skyline
the IDS Tower beckoning like a woman
I would like to own that woman

I would like to group up wealthy laughing investors
I would promote control hire dark striking
models to pose
and do nothing else I
would persuade whole boardrooms to
sell to me at impossibly low prices banks would rush to
help rules would be ignored

all you have heard then is not true
I have not backed down from Hagan or worked
nights at Citgo
men in fact fear me women
are intrigued I have no boss no wife
no man calls me son
I am master of my own fate
and have dominion over all things

Richard writes in the mad pulse that only poets seem to have. And maybe this is why he is able to carry off the poem, “Poor People”:

POOR PEOPLE

there are some poor people
in the world
I see them at the Northland Park
Community Center or
Dell Foods in
Avery
they wear dirty sweatshirts
stained sweat pants old
broken tennis shoes
their hair hangs
around their faces
their oily hair
it’s almost like being crazy
is what it looks like to
me until one of their kids
kicks in your
door at two a.m. and says
crazy
I’ll show you crazy

I love that poem for its bluntness and its bull’s eye insight, and I applaud Richard’s willingness to point out that some people’s lives can be uncomfortable to look at as well as downright scary. Though we may work for society, society doesn’t work for everybody and sometimes that notion comes with ugly consequences. In fact, Richard begins and ends his book with poems about people who aren’t balancing work with student loans or a mortgage, a spouse, and kids in need of healthcare. People on the fringe such as the homeless man in, “I Told You”, and the moving poem, “Retarded Man” who seems to be the only one in the book who gets what he wants. Why write about these people if not to have us contemplate what life might be like if we can’t get it “right”, or the odd sense of peace that might exist if we didn’t have the obligations and commitments society expects us to endure.

By setting office scenarios aside, Richard gives the reader time away from the proverbial desk to contemplate art. To be baffled and then beguiled by a rose’s bloom. His talent for taking an entire library and spinning it down to one sentence becomes evident in this simple but elegant poem:

FLOWER

everyone
has
a favorite
flower
and
you
are mine

When we get tired and afraid, the way we often do, Richard also gives us the tender “Barn in the Rain” poem providing a different kind of sheltering experience that allows us to return “as good as you ever were.”

We return. We keep going.  I’m fascinated by his poem “Cabo” a word I had to look up, which is Spanish and means after all, or in the end. In the end, perhaps, Richard’s speaker is speaking for anyone expecting—of all the crazy things—fulfillment. It’s hard to grasp though. Maybe because fulfillment is hard to define. Maybe because it’s always in flux. Probably because it seems like those in charge are the ones handing it out or taking it away.

And what about those people in charge?  In Richard’s poems we hear all the details of what upper management feels like, stripped of any sense of stature or even enthusiasm. Success is fleeting. Pleasure provisional. The Melancholy MBA is about the speaker not getting what he wants. In this world, we are not guaranteed anything. An advanced degree does not promise love, solitude, or simple understanding. It does not prevent being confronted with mortality as in Richard’s poem, “Cancer” or in the compelling, “Bellini”. If anything it causes more pressure. More stress. Less room for fun. You have to work on multiple computers at the same time, for godssake. When it comes down to it, success may be having someone who is just happy to be with you.

Read through The Melancholy MBA and you will feel it all—the weight, the genius, the discord—all of it gorgeous and all of it transporting. Richard’s poems are personal but not absolute. They’re tough and gentle, chaste and fine and humble, provocative, funny, and often sensuous when he writes about the office trenches, married life, flowers, and that all too elusive, sought after affliction called love.

Still, his speaker is no deserter. Despite what has happened before, you can picture this man adjusting his tie yet again, and you can almost feel the air stir from the wink he’s giving the next woman he meets.

More information about Richard Donnelly can be found at his website: The Melancholy MBA The Melancholy MBA is published by Brick Road Poetry Press of Columbus, Georgia. For the cost of a lonely feast for one or a cheap lunch for two you can buy it through

Brick Road Poetry Press   Amazon   Powell’s  or   Barnes and Noble

Poem of the Hour

GRAVY

by Raymond Carver

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Poem of the Hour

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)

By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be

 

       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap

 

      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence