Afternoon of a Poet

Vinnie Cartolucci could locate the exact moment he became a poet. He was working in Loading at Emerson Electric, going back to the hangar for another load of AC units, when he noticed that the steel boxes looked like coffins. He blinked. The light seemed to grow simultaneously darker and lighter as the impact of the image came home to him. The linkage between industrialization and death was symbolized by the gun-metal surfaces, so mute and gray. Yet the AC units were going to be loaded onto a truck, to be purchased by consumers all over the country and reborn into their homes. He paused to wipe the sweat off his brow with a dirty blue bandana.

The paradox inherent in the death and birth imagery puzzled him. But as he drove the forklift under a five-container stack, a line entered his mind: "The green-gray circuit where life is rearranged." That wasn't quite right--something off in the syntax--so he fiddled with it for a while. It seemed to go with another line that developed in his mind as mysteriously as the first had appeared, though with a tough logic that held both together, something about the pregnant hulls of warships.

A few minutes later, he walked up to Mort the foreman and tapped him on the arm. "Hey," he told Mort, who was supervising another shipment, "I need to borrow your pen."

Driving home that evening, Vinnie barely felt the three beers he'd knocked back at Hoofer's. He was preoccupied with the color gray and the word fustian, which he wanted to look up as soon as he got to a library. He owned no dictionary, and his live-in girlfriend Celia didn't care much for books, though she did have an amazing CD collection spanning ABBA to Ziggie Stardust.

"You look sorta out of it," remarked Celia when Vinnie began frowning at the take-out pizza.

"Pizza, pizza...ever struck you what a weird sound that is?"

"Yeah, well, nothing beats a pizza." Celia slapped her thigh. "Hey, that rhymes!"

Vinnie rubbed his eyes. For the first time, he recognized that he was living with a linguistically challenged individual. Later that night, when he couldn't sleep, he began keeping a journal. "Words don't make it happen but they change what they describe," he wrote in sloppy script. "The limit of my words are the sky of my world." He also jotted down the first line of a villanelle, only to realize that he wasn't a formalist and in fact had no idea of how the lines went after the opening tercet. In the end, he finished it but tossed it into a folder magic-markered "JUVENILIA." He also began dressing in black and walking around with an Oxford Book of English Verse. Half the time, he had no idea what the lines meant--"With pungent sauces, multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors"?--but that only inflamed his passion. In a week, he had come out from under the influence of Eliot and was wondering how the hell Larkin did it.

On the job, he was bemused. The whole loading area had taken on an air of gray-green melancholy, tinged by urine sniffs and metallic clangs (he was experimenting with synesthesia). Lunch hour he spent thinking of analogies for his current employment: a second grade classroom, the moment before sunrise, an ant crawling on a rotten log. Tony from the motor division wanted to know what the hell he was writing, but Vinnie just shrugged. Being a poet, he was beginning to understand, meant being misunderstood a lot.

His birthday lyric to Celia, which began, "Celia, the light from my cigarette butt," she didn't really appreciate.

"Especially that part about 'ashy splendor'--what the hell's that supposed to mean?" Celia, in a wife-beater and cutoffs, looked both provocative and provoked, a phrase he stole for his journal.

"It's just a metaphor." He sighed and took back the poem. "Look, if you want a Hallmark greeting card--"

"That's what you gave me last year."

"Sure, but I wasn't--." He paused. Wasn't what? A poet then? The word still sounded strange on his lips. "I wasn't serious," he finally said, insulting Celia for the rest of the day. When he tried to explain further, he hurt her for the rest of the week. To console himself, he sent out three batches of poems he had completed since his strange metamorphosis. One set received an immediate rejection, the second somehow disappeared, and the third was accepted by an obscure quarterly that promised publication within the next two years.

Meanwhile, work was becoming intolerable. He couldn't concentrate on driving the forklift when utility rhymed with futility. Then the guys stole his notebook and read sections from it at lunch in lisping pansy voices. At home, Celia had become moody and withdrawn. When Vinnie found a newspaper in the bathroom with a few personal ads circled, he also found a poignant poetry in some of the wording and made notes for a long narrative poem based on it.

He lost his job at the Emerson plant.

His style became more obscure.

Celia moved out on Thursday, leaving a misspelled note.

When he hit rock-bottom, he scribbled "the cliché of despair" in his notebook and wandered around putting down lit cigarettes in odd places. But time marches on like an unfinished simile, and just as he was about to settle into a life of alienation, he woke up one morning to find that all poetic urges and talent had left him. Maxim looked good to him again, American Poetry Review unreadable. And what was this horseshit he'd written about gray-green commercial depths? He threw out his notebook. Celia came back after a week, and they celebrated with a beer-bust. He snagged a job at the municipal waste disposal plant, remarkably similar to his old work.

These days he seems reasonably content, except for an odd moment or two every day when he stares at the flapping edges of a disused carton or sniffs the incinerator smoke and thinks of a gull in mid-flight, a dense haze descending like the paw of God.

About the author:

David Galef has published nine books, including the novels Flesh and Turning Japanese. His latest is the short-story collection Laugh Track. His fiction and essays have appeared in places ranging from The New York Times and The Village Voice to Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and The Columbia History of the British Novel. He is a professor of English and the administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi.