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Ken Weisner

Rumination on Proverbs, Part One

Such a good example
of exaggerating to make a point:
"don't throw the baby
out with the bathwater,"

which raises the question:
was there an original story
a distracted dad perhaps,
or a harried mom, draining the tub

over the gully behind the house
just then thinking—"who's
starting up the damn van, I told Biff
there was no oil in there . . .”

So did it initially go like:
"Don't throw the baby
out with the bathwater
the way Fred did last week"?

or more pointedly:
"don't be like Fred
for Christ's sake and throw
the baby out with the bathwater!"

Think of the power
of the proverb during that first period—
that you knew Fred, that he lived
a few doors down, drove a green Pinto Wagon—

that you’d been their babysitter, that their
family would never be the same
(you actually began to ponder
the idea of never in a different way) —

that six months later they moved away
for good. You knew the older
boy; he'd survived all his
baths over there.

He’d been a friend of yours.
You used to walk the dogs
right down at the base
of that same canyon, carpool

to school, throw the ball around.
Those were good days.
Now people talked as if Sally and Fred
weren't decent people. As if tragedy were

a moral failing,
contagious or something,
or there weren't intrinsic
value to a man

even after he'd made such
a terrible mistake, a mistake
so awful, maybe it left him
homeless, broken up,

jobless, drunk all the time,
or even in the madhouse.
It was funny.
People laughed

to get the grime off,
the grim stench,
the paralyzing
lament, no end in sight.

Fred, Fred, Fred,
you are such an idiot!
to wash their hands
of it, cleanse, steer clear

of all that emotion. Fred became
an impossible creature,
a parody of what it is
to be a father—

a pathetic clown—
maybe say to a buddy taking out
the garbage: “Hey Frank, you sure
your boy’s not in there?”

Same line to Brenda, bagging leaves…
from her Pinochle friend across the street.
Or maybe to the kids, “You don’t take that bath,
young lady, I’m going to get

that Fred what’s-his-name to give you one
you’ll never forget”— and “Clean your room,
or it’s the landfill for you pal.”
But these never became proverbs, for a variety of reasons.

True, sometimes they all lay awake and listened hard
to the garbage truck pre dawn. There were stories
of homeless in dumpsters… and it rang a bell,
a kind of deep shiver. Sanitation workers were retrained.

But mostly, they tippled, enjoyed life, and got things done,
like taking the screens in and shoveling snow,
and even if only for the time being, forgot
all about Fred and his family, their agony and eternal wound,

their mortal and immortal souls—hung on
to the aphorism, absolutely, the generic words—
their hint of disdain, their fluty pretense
of wisdom, but discarded, you know,

threw out, as it were, the annoying,
harder to bear part of the meaning—
its history—its terrible, universal,
underlying human cost.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water
       but you can’t make it drink

Your neighbor had too much.
She was a fine woman.
A spoon full
of sugar…

dried up
exploding
skin. There’s nothing funny about her
or what her sons were

cooking
in the basement. Right in
your block. You
were parched.

Conflagration.
Jesus.
How she felt, buried
in black smoke.

Stubborn
said her uncle
as a mule on Sunday.
Cascade of ash.

Victorious.

*

Now to the trough,
she wailed, bandaged
across the mouth,

or church
for the poison
light

or Father’s
boredom
& disdain

or boy
after skinny
boy.

Mother-prison,
mother
night.

You will
lead her
anywhere you want. She is

Lieutenant Pain.
She’ll spit
in your face.

*

There is no proverb
of English origin
older than this one.

Here it is then,
its essence
of tribe,

lament, the fear
we’d rather
die from,

mercenaries,
wounded,
of the status quo…

afraid to know,
heal, drink
the considered broth,

undo the mirror
of the morning
trough, its veil

of apples
and grief and
broken ice.

Natural Habitat

I have a friend who I declared
A national park—

So she declared me a world heritage site—

And thought that ought to have put an end to it

But I’ve now implied she is a wonder of the world

upon the news of which she determined me a galactic singularity
beginning and end

of the known universe,
at which point

silence itself became a poem
inscribed on the infinite (unfolding) scroll of time

which was of course followed by
the unutterable loveliness of the body

as it is, as the holy body…

Meanwhile, Smokey the Bear comes
right out of the movie screen

Saying only you
can cause
what is about to happen to you.

And he takes off his ranger hat and sunglasses
As if he were willing to talk candidly

as if he weren’t always so famous, and on patrol
to save the world,

and had the time

and had maybe slipped out of his official clothes awhile
to speak off the record—

Just bear, now…
rangy & on the prowl

in his natural
habitat of wilderness, following his nose,

wondering what the day
can bring.

Most Difficult

Bread is excruciating.
It's all I want in the sense
that I could just about live on it.

But it is so abstract
and such a daily challenge!

This could involve
making it,
having, knowing
what it is! exactly

what good the freshest
loaf, finest slice?
Devouring it! The breath
of yeast,
the ferment
You think you want it
toasted‚ you know
what you love on it.
It is so warm and familiar.

And yet—it is mostly
a toasty
metaphor
its fumes of roasted crumbs
a little ritual toast-smoke
for all that is
hungry, all that is

most lost or strange.
Smoldering. Here,
a little dark
fire. For you,
I'm brushing off — a burnt part.

Ken Weisner lives in Santa Cruz and teaches writing at De Anza College in Cupertino where he edits Red Wheelbarrow. For fifteen years, Ken edited Quarry West out of Porter College, UCSC. His most recent collection of poems is Anything on Earth (2010, Hummingbird Press). His work has been featured on Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” website, in The Music Lovers Poetry Anthology (Persea, 2007), and on The Writer’s Almanac (2010), as well as in Wilma Chandler’s “Willing Suspension Armchair Theater” productions of Lost and Found: The Literature of Fathers and Sons—in recent editions of the Chicago Quarterly Review, Porter Gulch Review, DMQ Review, Phren-Z, Perfume River Poetry Review, Caesura, Monterey Poetry Review—and upcoming in Nine Mile.

Poetry
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Ken Weisner

 

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