Happy April Fool's Day once more. And once more, I'm postponing my boffo birthday celebration for just a bit, so I can kick some poetry around, and do my bit for a pal and for National Poetry Month.
Yes, once again, the Right Honourable Gerald So, the Grand Poobah of Perilous Poetry, the Wizard of Wayward Words, the King of Crime and Rhyme, the Poetrymeister of Cell Block #9, has challenged me to wax rhapsodic over some vile and violent verse.
And once again, I said yes.
I mean, what else could I do? Do you know how much blood the average horse's head holds, or how hard it is to get those stains out of the sheets?
But which one? I went through them.
Maybe it's me.
Maybe I'm too thick-headed and meat-and-potatoes in my literary sensibilities to truly appreciate poetry, really. Or maybe I'm just lacking a big enough poetry gene. Or maybe I'm simply too burned out of late on bad fiction and connect-the-dots noir, and too vulnerable these days to the real grit of life to be swept away by imagined hyper-drama, in prose OR verse. Not that most of the poems are bad -- they're definitely not, and many of them linger, with a nice twist or a sharp jab that leaves its mark. These cats can write. But somehow, few of them were speaking to me.
I felt many of them -- despite all the best intentions in the world -- to be too arch and cynical, whimsical forays into lives only imagined, not felt. Too glib and callous, reeking of cut-and-paste crimes and motives, as though life was merely something distilled from watery television scripts and re-imagined in free verse.
And then, I found one that really did speak to me. Speak to me? Hell, no, it yelled in my face, slammed the table for emphasis and stomped around the room. Susan Kelly's "Last Straw" has no instant fiends or convenient psychopaths; no hipper-than-thou noir affectations or swinging dick self-consciousness. Instead, in unvarnished words, a quiet conversational tone and only the slightest dusting of detail, she offers the plain, painful reality of real lives living in less-and-less quiet desperation; of ground-down hopes in freefall, a black swirl of conditions finally converging at the the point where rage and violence in all their banal, ugly beauty meet.
The shrug of a resolution is hard and fast and all the more powerful for being tossed off: a period far more powerful than an exclamation mark could ever be.
The author says, in a brief explanatory note, that's it's all made up. But it doesn't feel that way.
I don't know who Susan Kelley, but she's given murder, as Chandler famously said of Hammett, back to the people who commit it for a reason.
By Susan Kelly
She called the police to come get her husband
and went out on the porch to wait in the rocker,
kicking it into a fast pace like she wasn't wore out
getting up before dawn’s dream to milk the cow,
gather eggs, fix breakfast every day before he left
her on this hard-scrabble farm with no luck but bad
she’d hated on sight but he’d sweet-talked her around
every time she’d begged him to sell, so he must have seen
a different farm in his rearview when he drove off
to a town job while she struggled from can't see
to can’t see, too far from neighbors or town
for friends or to save the babies that came too early
before they stopped coming at all, and even
the tractor died so she used a hoe and shovel to finish
in that hard sun and now her face was spotted draught,
she who was once a pretty girl, skin like buttermilk
and expectations different than a long row with no harvest.
But, Baby, he'd said, I'm almost ahead
enough to quit, it’ll be different with two of us here,
so he added some weekends and late nights
and she was so drug-out doing his chores too,
she didn’t complain he smelled of beer and perfume,
so he must have felt safe to tell her that morning
he was leaving while she stood at the sink,
her hand on a skillet, and he judged right because
she only felt a flooding of relief when he said
he was moving to town with another woman. But when
he said instead of support she could keep the farm—
anybody would have bashed in his head with the skillet.
"Last Straw" appeared on March 19 on The 5-2.
Labels: beer, domestic noir, Gerald So, Hammett, National Poetry Month, poetry, Raymond Chandler