Stranger Than Fiction?

Field Guide: identification of poems in their natural habitat –

Life doesn’t make any sense, and we all pretend it does. Comedy’s job is to point out that it doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make much difference anyway.
Eric Idle

Loss Prevention — I don’t know why we kept a high-theft item like Oneida flatware right by the door, but we did. One blustery day in March, Mrs. S., a salesperson in the Housewares Department, observed a young man putting boxed sets of it under his coat, while she was riding the “up” escalator, at least 25 feet away, across from the door. Stuck on the escalator, what could she do?

“STOP!” she yelled, at the top of her lungs. Standing on the sales floor, between the escalator and the door, I looked up (as did the would-be thief) just in time to see her dentures hurtling through the air, over the sales floor, toward the 11th Street exit. Forming the fricative-plosive consonant blend, s-t, and heaving it with some force had caused her upper plate to dislodge.  Seeing a disembodied set of teeth coming straight toward him so startled the potential shoplifter that he dropped the flatware and ran out the door. chattering teeth

Inventory Control — Both the dentures and the flatware were recovered. At least they fared better than the three mannequins in the Junior Department who met an untimely demise in the witching hour one cold, dark night. Arranged, as it were, like bowling pins, with one spunky teen model in the lead and her two doting companions just behind, the three of them set to head out for adventure at a main intersection in the display aisle. An insecure security guard patrolling the deserted store on the graveyard shift reported that he had heard a noise in the wee hours, (about 3:00 in the morning) went to investigate, and as his vision locked on to the shadowy figures on the darkened sales floor, he saw movement, fired, and took out all three “suspects” in a single shot.

Tempting as it may be, you really couldn’t blame the security guard, though. A few days earlier, a sweet little old lady had crept up to the girls and asked them (in all sincerity) for directions to Ford’s Theater, nearby. She leaned in closer when they didn’t immediately respond, put her glasses on to inspect the surly teens, eyes widening as she realized why the girls were mute and so ill-mannered. “Oh!” she cooed in recognition, “You’re a dummy!”

Key Performance Indicators — Although these stories may strike you as “creative” writing, I assure you they are too absurd to be made up, and do, in fact, come from my own experience working in retail (my first “real” job). Real life teems with comedic incidents, ranging from the “tickle my funny bone” kind, to the out-and-out bizarre. It might seem more like tabloid fodder than material for poetry, but I think poetry’s earned what is perhaps a well-deserved rap for being too serious, academic, and stuffy. The only remedy for this is for poets to lighten up, stop taking themselves so seriously, and throw in some hilarity, at least once in a while.

A poem I found online, Go Greyhound, by Bob Hicok, models the use of absurdly comic details:

Go Greyhound
Bob Hicok

A few hours after Des Moines
the toilet overflowed.
This wasn’t the adventure it sounds.

I sat with a man whose tattoos
weighed more than I did.
He played Hendrix on mouth guitar.
His Electric Ladyland lips
weren’t fast enough
and if pitch and melody
are the rudiments of music,
this was just
memory, a body nostalgic
for the touch of adored sound.

Hope’s a smaller thing on a bus.

You hope a forgotten smoke consorts
with lint in the pocket of last
resort to be upwind
of the human condition, that the baby
sleeps
and when this never happens,
that she cries
with the lullaby meter of the sea.

We were swallowed by rhythm.
The ultra blond
who removed her wig and applied
fresh loops of duct tape
to her skull,
her companion who held a mirror
and popped his dentures
in and out of place,
the boy who cut stuffing
from the seat where his mother
should have been—
there was a little more sleep
in our thoughts,
it was easier to yield.

To what, exactly—
the suspicion that what we watch
watches back,
cornfields that stare at our hands,
downtowns
that hold us in their windows
through the night?

Or faith, strange to feel
in that zoo of manners.

I had drool on my shirt and breath
of the undead, a guy
dropped empty Buds on the floor
like gravity was born
to provide this service,
we were white and black trash
who’d come
in an outhouse on wheels and still

some had grown—
in touching the spirited shirts
on clotheslines,
after watching a sky of starlings
flow like cursive
over wheat—back into creatures
capable of a wish.

As we entered Arizona
I thought I smelled the ocean,
liked the lie of this
and closed my eyes
as shadows
puppeted against my lids.

We brought our failures with us,
their taste, their smell.
But the kid
who threw up in the back
pushed to the window anyway,
opened it
and let the wind clean his face,
screamed something
I couldn’t make out
but agreed with
in shape, a sound I recognized
as everything I’d come so far
to give away.

Best Practices — I think what makes this poem so lifelike is that the poet dresses what is a rather mundane event (a long, cross-country bus ride) with concrete details that are, true to experience, far too colorful to be completely fictitious. As a result, not only do we, the audience, see the humor in the situation, but we also recognize in it (and in ourselves) a kernel of truth — a gesture that lets us scrutinize ourselves without condemnation. We drop our guard and begin to empathize with the speaker, rather than disparage the speaker’s plight. We can see ourselves in the same spot. This, like laughter, is good for the soul.

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