Monday, March 14, 2011

Poem for March

Ugly Town

Dawn Potter

The sun is under no obligation to shed its optimistic beams

on the ugliest town in Maine—not now, not in March

when I’ve steeled myself for gravel-picked mud and despair,

for broken branches and a plow-scarred dooryard

rimmed with a winter’s worth of dog turds, pale and crumbled

among the pale remaindered weeds.

But it does shine, that fool’s orb, for reasons best known to itself;

and I slouch here in my yellow chair, both cold feet

parked under the woodstove, squinting into this cheerful, bossy glare,

attempting to convince myself that unbridled nature

has, for once, chosen to be a genial master instead of the flogging brute

we expect here in the ugly town, where we don’t think

ski but shovel, don’t think flowers but floods.

Maybe I’ve been reading too many books—

too much Roth and Munro, too much Blake and Carruth,

all of them driven to detail bleak empty roads

and unmown lawns; evil alleys and poisonous rivers;

the fathers, dyspeptic, misunderstood; the mothers,

wiping schmaltz and ketchup from the shabby oilcloth; and meanwhile

those thirteen angels on their magic seats, frowning and perturbed.

Of course there’s happiness too. No one denies the happiness,

but don’t count on it to carry you through. Keep your eye

steady, your irony sharp. Stay wary; it’s best to stay wary—

though not one of these writers, I can tell you right now,

has ever stayed wary enough, and they’ve paid for it in spades—

a phrase that might, for dwellers of another clime,

connote cognac and midnight whist parties

but that here, in the ugly town, where most everyone

gambles by scratch ticket and goes to bed early,

means plain old digging:

in snow, in thankless stony soil, with a bent shovel,

with a belching backhoe; tearing up asphalt,

forking out a winter’s worth of choking black shit.

You can kill yourself when you pay in spades

for a neat square cellar hole—say, when you’re fifty years married

to a woman who’s dreamed for all those heavy decades

of trading her wind-licked trailer for a house with a furnace.

No, you haven’t had time, you haven’t had money,

all you’ve had is a middle-aged kid who won’t get out of the recliner

except to grab a beer from the icebox, all you’ve had

are those cars, one after the other, falling into seizures and dismay;

and if you can’t stop eating what you shouldn’t be eating,

at least there’s salt, there’s sugar, those reliable offerings

that remind you you’re still alive, that you haven’t yet

paid out every single spade. Yet it’s a lie, and you know it,

and I know it too because I tell my own brand of lies,

such as it’s okay to be easy on myself,

such as I mean well, such as it’s good enough

to chronicle the sweetness of this sunlight,

not to force myself to keep struggling to speak

when I don’t know how to think, when I don’t know how

to find the word, the only word, trembling, naked as a rat,

when I don’t know how to lay it down, wet and mewling,

among the schmaltz and the ketchup stains.

Someone might argue that here’s where a little wariness

would do me good, and not just me but all these writers

whose books I’ve been reading too often,

and even they might agree with you, on a bad morning.

But today, according to this obstinate sun, is not a bad morning.

Brilliance leaks and flows through window smears,

patches the dour carpet. The light refuses to let up.

It insists on itself, like a mean cat does,

gliding from nowhere to bite me on the ankle.

The world is too much with us; late and soon

is what Wordsworth wrote, but it’s not what he meant.

He was trying to say we were too distracted by our lives

to notice this sunshine, and here I am borrowing his words

to explain that I am too distracted by this sunshine

to notice my life. The world overtakes me,

I’m not wary enough, and something bad will happen

if I don’t watch out. That’s the point to remember about writing.

It doesn’t solve anything.

[first published in New Walk (autumn/winter 2010-11)]


Maureen said...

Somehow I missed this yesterday. (I'm following so many blogs now that Blogger only lets me see about a dozen updates at a time.)

This is chock full of the kind of details that make me want to re-read the poem several times. The piling on has a quite strong effect, and I found myself caught up in reading it quickly, as if every line was pushing me along with some urgency to take everything in, not to miss a detail about this "Ugly Town". I like the poem very much.

That you wrote this in a single sitting speaks to your amazing talent.

Now, if you could trade "Ugly Town" for any other place, where would you be?

Dawn Potter said...

Maureen, it's very helpful to get such a detailed response. I was working hard to use the accretion of detail as a way to increase the momentum of the poem, and I'm glad that it had that effect of urgency on you as the reader. And regarding the "one sitting" approach to writing: it's not my usual way, but once in a while a piece seems to burst forth. Those poems aren't always good ones either, so I get suspicious of the method, which is why it took me a while to believe in this poem.

Trade "Ugly Town" for somewhere else: sometimes I really, really want to be in New York City . . . not forever, just for a few days. It's an antidote and also a corrective.