In 2005, I attended a poetry presentation at Borders Books in Bangor, Maine. The featured poet was to be a man from New Hampshire named Robert J. Duffy. I arrived five minutes before the introduction, and scanned the gathering to see if I might spot our poet du jour.
Ah hah! Man in the front row... wearing an Oxford shirt and tie! Bingo! Poets... you can spot'em a mile away. They're going to show up dressed all in black, with maybe even a matching beret... or they'll be otherwise flamboyantly 'artsy,'... or they'll be impeccably neat. Hell, I told myself. Maybe I was an FBI profiler in my last life.
At last, the M.C. stood up at the podium, highlighted a few salient points of our guest speaker's bio, and gave up the floor to Mr. Duffy... who approached in (almost-)grungy workboots, faded out work-blue-jeans, and a a worn-out navy tee-shirt emblazoned with a "Granite State Plumbing & Heating" logo on the chest. I pretty much expected the man to interrupt our proceedings with something like, "Uhmmm... Somebody called about the backed-up toilet...? Which way...?"
But the ordinary guy carried no heavy tool chest... only a slender, pale blue volume entitled Ordinary Lies...
Our ordinary guy turned out to be extraordinarily... eloquent. His poetry belied a classical education; his poems that evening abounded with Biblical ("Simon on the Cross," "Divine Manifestations") and mythological ("My Telemachus," "Daedalus") allusions and images. He was a master of oral interpretation... he read with dramatic enthusiasm... and volume and mood shifts. And, damn it, he had MEMORIZED everything in his book, something I could never do, since my hard-drive-brain got filled up.
And his poetry was serious:
As she could, with just her eyes,
increase by half the sun,
be careless with her joy
and laugh to no advantage;
so then could I, as one
with finger tries an iron,
be daring and not wise.
Fall of Snow
Excommunicant angels, they circle and sink,
pausing here and there as though to think
where and if they might consent to fall,
hesitate at their first sight of such a place,
too coarse and dark for things so small
to soften with their slow descending grace,
their white benediction spun from silent air
as music is wrung out of a twisted string.
So few and slight at first they're hardly there,
but congregate into an overwhelming thing,
as chill and lucid as a memory laid bare
to unforgiving eyes that follow and stare
without remark your turning and your going,
your shabby pretense of not quite knowing.
But often it was humorous...
In "Disingenuous" (about how the public tends to exaggerate the lives of people in their memorial statuary, etc. after they've passed away)... he says at the conclusion, in essence, Go ahead! And with MY statue...:
Tell them I was twice their size.
Tell them I did crimes
they'll never dream nor dare.
Or tell them I was crazy. Or tell them
I was queer. Only leave a little space
somewhere on it to scratch the truth,
that as far as really matters I was
never here. And I, meanwhile, if dead's
not too late for me to change religion,
will be looking into the possibility
of coming back--- as a pigeon.
and then there is...
The gods have walked among us; that's
certain. We've only to look around
and study the ground
to find their scats.
So...here I was, the terminally impractical guy who can't change the washer in a dripping faucet (Is it a 'washer'? Did I get that right at least?), a poet wannabe by default, pretty much, coming to the poetry reading and thinking to myself that the lines have been drawn: poets are like the Alpha's in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World,(i.e., Walter Mitty-ish gods on pedestals who really don't have to know how to change a tire... impractical gods)... and that if I just keep telling myself I'm glad that I'm an Alpha, I'm glad that I'm an Alpha... then maybe I'll actually become one, instead of the useless Beta, or (shudder) Gamma I suspect myself to be... and that, oh well... at least I have a way with words, so maybe, if I just keep studying poetry in books long enough, I can (in some Pinnochio-ish way) become a real live poet...
And there was Mr. Duffy holding his slender collection in his calloused, working-man's hands, waxing eloquently and philosophically... and whether he knew it or not, he was teaching me that poetry does not come from the imitation of what can be found in a book; that a poet is just a soul, just any soul who happens to want to use the brain God gives him to share his life; his experience; what he's seen, felt, and learned during his time on earth... that real poets are just people and that, if I want to be one, all I have to do is re-focus myself inwardly on those things...
Ever since that evening at Borders, I've been writing like a plumber on fire! So thanks, Robert...
This morning, I happened to look up Robert J. Duffy on-line, and was saddened to discover that he had passed away at the end of May this year. So I took down my copy of Ordinary Lies from my poetry shelf, and have been re-living that very special evening where I decided to incorporate Popeye the Sailor Man's signature quotation, I yam what I yam, into my own definition of me as the poet...
His book is still for sale on-line. I've got mine. I recommend that you pick up one for yourself...