måndag, oktober 01, 2007

Street Poets in Autumn

While returning to my apartment from a walk the other day, an old man in ill-fitting clothes asked me if I wanted to hear a poem about his mother. He'd asked me this as we passed in the middle of an intersection just outside the Commodore, a former hotel (now condos) in which F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had once lived.

(That Fitzgerald fact is sort of silly to mention, since he lived in many places in Saint Paul. It's not quite as flat as boasting that one drank at an LA bar in which Charles Bukowski had once had a drink--Can you find one in which he didn't drink?--but it's pretty silly.)

So I said, "Sure."

We agreed it would be best to move out of the road so went to the curb. He began. It was a poem very much like a Mother's Day card. It went something like this:

Mother, you have taught me so much and given me strength. You were always there for me. I can never repay you for all of the things you did....

He recited this poem from memory over the course of 90 seconds or so, during which time I noted more closely his pants being a couple sizes too big (bunched at the belt) and probably secondhand; his shoes were scuffed badly; his blue stocking cap sat tall but looked deflated on his head. His nose hair was prodigious.

His manner of speech was often halted, as if he suffered from either weak lungs or terrible stage fright.

At the conclusion of his poem recitation, he added quickly and almost with boyish glee, "I wrote that myself."

Then: "Would you like to hear my poem 'The Owl'?"

For a moment, the old fear that I've wandered into an unstable situation rose up. (I've had a habit of getting myself into those.) But he must have sensed it too, probably in the stillness of my face, for he said, "It's a short poem." And: "I wrote it for my girlfriend who died of lung cancer seven years ago."

This poem was, indeed, short. It too sounded much like a greeting card. He began:

Give me the strength of the grizzly bear, the wisdom of the owl, the...

I think the poem ended with words like, And I see it all in your eyes.

After that he said, quickly, "I wrote that myself." We shook hands. His name was John. "John the Poet," I said. I thanked him for sharing them. He said he had 12 more but wouldn't take up more of my time. We went our ways.


Anonymous Sara said...

I'm utterly touched by this story. It made my toes warm.

9:09 fm  
Blogger cK said...

Awww. I'm glad I could contribute some warmth! Especially since the season is changing and one's toes get cold easily at these times.

(At least, they do in my drafty apartment!)

9:16 fm  
Blogger Night Editor said...

And then you hope that he helped to ease his girlfriend's pain (because that lung cancer is such nasty stuff), that he held her hand as he recited. And then you wonder if someone ever comes in to cook his dinner and if he recites to them, too.

11:02 fm  
Blogger cK said...

If I encounter him again on a walk, I'm sure I'll ask for two more poems. I've heard "Mother" and "The Owl," but what, I wonder, are the other 12 about?

11:57 fm  
Anonymous dharma bum said...

I like the subtle -- familiar -- tension of the piece and the payoff, the connection that survives this modern predicament of alienation from each other.

8:23 fm  

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