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From the February Issue

MARCUS BALES

Ode at a Poetry Reading


My head aches as some frowzy mum explains
   In psychiatric detail how her drugs
Have freed her and yet kept her in her chains,
   And after every poem gamely plugs
Her book. I sort of envy her her lot
   As, all too sober, I remain aware
   I have no fashionable brain disease,
         And think no odious thought
   Except my lack of sympathy for her despair
      Among such colleagues victimized as these.

Give me a draft of verse that makes it seem
   They've read more than a medicine bottle label,
And has more than a narcissistic dream
   To be about – but I don't think they're able.
Give me a stanza full of the need Keats
   Or Shelley had to write a brilliant line,
   Or Byron's wit, for poetry is hope
         And not free verse deceits
   Whose artlessness pretends that all is fine
      Descending down this well-intentioned slope.

They ought to read. And then read more. Find out
   What those up at the lectern haven't known,
A fret and fever passionate about
   The way clay, motion, hands, and will have thrown
A well-wrought urn, instead of some unshaped
   Unpolished mud that’s only set apart,
   The moderns and postmodernists exclaim,
         Because it has escaped
   The question whether it is really art
      By anyone who happens to sign their name.

Let's get away from here or else I'll hurt
   Somebody's feelings – or else let's find a drink
So if I have to listen to this blurt
   At least perhaps I'll manage not to think
Too meanly while they tenderize the night
   By bludgeoning it with language as they whine
   That poverty is bad, injustice worse,
         And might does not make right,
   As if they were the first to ever divine
      That power won't like truth in prose or verse.

The stage is bright enough I barely see
   The glass in front of me, but ah! I smell
Of piquant liquor cooling in the scree
   Of ice cubes clicking softly. Now the swell
Of voices starts to murmur where it blared
   To my annoyance only a swallow ago
   And fade as sip by sip the still-warm night
         Blurs by, and I've declared
   One swallow may not a summer make, still though
      The first one can make many things more right.

Darkly I listen, and sometimes now and then
   I note with half an ear some phrase's breath
That wanders over close to meter again
   Then sighs, and dies its leaden prose's death;
Now, more than ever, alcohol seems rich
   In promise as they pour out from their pain
   Their endless woes, a flowing golden shower
         Over the mic by which
   They amplify their voices and, in vain,
      Attempt to amplify poetic power.

Free verse was born as prose, and prose it stays;
   No hungry generations make it more.
These voices here this passing night don't raise
   The bar at all among the free verse corps.
It's just the same old therapy for free
   That AA offers all who will confess
   Their powerlessness over their addiction –
         The same except that we
   All wave the magic charm that makes our mess
      Seem less our own by claiming that it's fiction.

Fiction! Ah, the word is like a spell
   That we can use to write of witch or elf
Or spouse or child or boss or what the hell
   We please, pretending that it's not our self.
But now the host announces how he's pleased
   With such a turnout, and asks we tell our friends
   The reading schedule – the depth to which he's sunk –
         And so we're gently eased
   Outside, our memories fleeting as it ends,
      Or is that only me – who's slightly drunk?

 

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except he lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and his poems have not appeared in Poetry or The New Yorker.

 

 

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