The Ante

by Rodney Jones

Featured image: Gustave Courbet. The Source of the Loue, 1864. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A few sonnets about nature and the Greek gods.
Many free-verse poems in all lowercase letters.
Huey wrote of madness, Maddox of possums.
John played the sadness of empty stadiums.
Two berets, one silver-tipped cane, tweedy blazers.
In most Natalie poems, she took off her clothes.
The year of the Tet offensive. Wallace in Montgomery.
We read James Wright, Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton.
One Friday an ex-guidance counselor from Jasper
leapt through the window of the cafeteria, shouting
“I am the son of Jesus Christ! Behold the rapture!”
But nothing much happened in Poetry Writing 301
until Walter C. Avery wrote that a black swan,
born in the infralapsarian brain of a garbage dump,
would crack the codes of the Southern Baptists.
And for this jack-surreal, mildly apocalyptic truffle
was taken for near-genius material, practically
a second Edgar Allan Poe, until Sam Maisel
submitted his “Poem for The Worksheet Typist,”
which made everyone consider how scandalous
it must have seemed for her, a local woman,
a seamstress, and mother of Christian athletes,
to run across “I know you think you’ve seen it all before,
but this is duck rape, feathered love.” And some
in the critique afterward, praised the line-endings;
one person even mentioned “The Second Coming,”
which, admittedly, made me blanch with envy,
so I wanted to say something about how
sometimes the subject is not what you think
or the ones you imagine you are talking about
stand abruptly and begin to talk back to you,
but spring was bearing down on the workshop,
ripping out pages, grinding the opinions to nubs.
So much energy in the streets—demonstrations,
happenings, awakenings—so many instances
of sudden and involuntary enlightenment,
though mostly my friends and I spent our nights
on Sixth Street drinking beer at The Chukkar
or crouched in a huddle around a record player.
By the time I thought of Sam’s duck again,
May had slipped into June and June into July,
and what is poetry in a copper tubing factory?
A cloud would fan out around the tubes
as the crane lifted them from the soaping vats
after they had softened in the furnace.
My job was to crimp a point on each of them.
Then the next man would carefully run them
through a die. Down the line I could see
the process repeating: the furnace, the point,
the die—the tubes and men diminishing.
All night the saws screeched and whined.
The pointers clattered. The press roared.
That was the beauty of it. You could sing.
No one would hear. You could say anything.

Rodney Jones is the author of eight books of poetry. His ninth, Imaginary Logic, will be published this fall by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He teaches at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

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