Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Just Us Chickens

I first heard about Stephen Dobyns from my Bookman who read, and liked, his novel The Church of the Dead Girls. It sounded like a good book but there was no room on my book list at the time. Then memory--or lack thereof--took over and it dropped out of consciousness. Then about a year ago I was reading something, I can't remember what, and the author mentioned Dobyns as a wonderful poet and excerpted a few lines. Good stuff! I accosted my beloved, "Why didn't you tell me Stephen Dobyns wrote poetry?" He wasn't sure what to say, so then I tossed out, "I'd like to read Cemetery Nights." "You would?" he asked. I nodded. Then he strode downstairs to the library and came back moments later holding the very book in his hand. I began reading almost the next day. I read the entire thing in one sitting. Dobyns it turns out is a fantastic poet. Cemetery Nights is his sixth book of poetry. The poems in this book tend to start with an unexceptional scene--a woman traveling to Brazil for plastic surgery, a man flying on a plane between New York and Denver, a family having a party--and somewhere in the middle they take a turn to a place you wouldn't expect. I think this is what made his poems most interesting to me. I began a poem knowing that something unexpected would likely happen and when it did, I was delighted. Some of the turns are just startling, others are disturbing and still others are just sort of weird. The poems are straightforward and deceptively simple. And whether they make you laugh or cry or scratch your head, they are well worth your time. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book:

Spiritual Chickens
A man eats a chicken every day for lunch, and each day the ghost of another chicken joins the crowd in the dining room. If he could only see them! Hundreds and hundreds of spiritual chickens, sitting on chairs, tables, covering the floor, jammed shoulder to shoulder. At last there is no more space and one of the chickens is popped back across the spiritual plain to the earthly. The man is in the process of picking his teeth. Suddenly there's a chicken at the end of the table, strutting back and forth, not looking at the man but knowing he is there, as is the way with chickens. The man makes a grab for the chicken but his hand passes right through her. He tries to hit the chicken with a chair and the chair passes through her. He calls in his wife but she can see nothing. This is his own private chicken, even if he fails to recognize her. How is he to know this is a chicken he ate seven years ago on a hot and steamy Wednesday in July, with a little tarragon, a little sour cream? The man grows afraid. He runs out of the house flapping his arms and making peculiar hops until the authorities take him away for a cure. Faced with the choice between something odd in the world or something broken in his head, he opts for the broken head. Certainly, this is safer than putting his opinions in jeopardy. Much better to think he had imagined it, that he had made it happen. Meanwhile, the chicken struts back and forth at the end of the table. Here she was, jammed in with the ghosts of six thousand dead hens, when suddenly she has the whole place to herself. Even the nervous man has disappeared. If she had a brain, she would think she had caused it. She would grow vain, egotistical, she would look for someone to fight, but being a chicken she can just enjoy it and make little squawks, silent to all except the man who ate her, who is far off banging his head against a wall like someone trying to repair a leaky vessel, making certain that nothing unpleasant gets in or nothing of value falls out. How happy he would have been to be born a chicken, to be of good use to his fellow creatures and rich in companionship after death. As it is he is constantly being squeezed between the world and his idea of the world. Better to have a broken head--why surrender his corner on truth?--better just to go crazy.