John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

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Poet's Corner: Dead Girl Takes Packet Boat to Provincetown

This is a long one, but take the time to read it, if only because it contains the phrase "buh-bloopedy-doop," and how often do you see that in a poem?

Dead Girl Takes Packet Boat to Provincetown

                        All day long we keep running into that dead girl:
coming out of Congdon's Pharmacy
             with her sunblock and lip gloss, tearing down Main
with her backpack-wearing boyfriend in tow, racing into
                        Espresso City for a double decaf skim-milk frappucino.

                        She's pretty lively for a dead girl, which is how
we think of her ever since we'd seen her the night before
             in Nantucket's Actors' Theatre production of Marsha Norman's
'Night, Mother as Jessie, who lays out these meticulous plans
                        for the suicide her mother begs her not to commit

                        with the earsplitting BANG! you hear just before
the curtain, a finale so convincing you're sure
             there'll be no actress out there smiling and bowing
just a few seconds later, yet there she is,
                        brains intact, pleased at all the applause, obviously,

                        and probably thinking already of the trip to Provincetown
she'll be taking today if she can just get her errands done,
             just field one or two more compliments from people like us,
saying, "Hey, glad to see you're alive and all!" and reply,
                        "Thanks, but I gotta catch that boat to Provincetown!"

                        I see former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop
earlier in the day, he of the unmistakable helmet-strap beard
             and resolute visage of an Ahab, though his foe
was lung cancer and heart disease, not the White Whale.
                        When I realize it is him, I want to say,

                        "Way to go, Mr. Surgeon General, sir! Way to fight
the good fight against teenage smoking, even if it's made a comeback
             since your post was filled with less-determined public officials!"
But I don't say anything, and when I tell locals who I've seen,
                        they say, "A lot of guys around here look like him."

                        Some are alive, some aren't, and some are in between,
like Miss Josie, my 97-year-old mother,
             who says her favorite thing is sleeping: some days
she stays in bed the whole time, though her daytime snoozing
                        is not the same as the nocturnal variety;

                        it's better, she says, because when it's dark out,
she just sleeps ("I was unconscious for 12 hours last night," she observes,
             "and nobody knew it, not even me"),
whereas during the day, she wakes often to reflect on
                        the nap she's just had and the one she will take directly,

                        and even as she tells me this, she is dozing off,
her chin dropping by degrees to her chest,
             a little smile still playing about her lips.
Certainly, none of us is immortal—well, the two old men
                        of Nantucket are, the first being

                        he of the prodigious anatomy and the second
he who kept all his cash in a bucket and whose daughter named Nan
             ran away with a man, and as for the bucket, etc.
Death hath no dominion, but even if it does,
                        you can't take your bucket with you.

                        The reason we are in Nantucket in the first place
is to see the world premiere of my play Mrs. Kaneshiro Sees God,
             a singular experience for a first-time playwright
who is watching others give life to words
                        he has written, not to mention the unsettling business

                        of running into my characters on the street,
such as my Bobby, the surfer who dies offstage
             and who, in real life, is Nantucket carpenter Tommy Folby,
a much handsomer Bobby than I'd ever imagined,
                        more. . . all-American. Speaking of which,

                        when he hums "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the play,
half the people in the audience start to stand up—
             what can they be thinking? Though at the cast party after,
I myself keep calling the actors by their characters' names
                        (My name's Martina, David, not 'Deb'!").

                        To get to the island, you can catch a boat,
like the suicide girl, or you can take a little ten-seater,
             flown, in our case, by a dumpy, unhappy-looking guy
who introduces himself as "Curtis"—I'm thinking,
                        what's wrong with "Captain Flanagan"?

                        Curtis asks us how much each of us weighs
and then bends over and puts his hands on his knees
             and has a coughing fit. I figure Curtis for two,
maybe three packs a day; it's the only time I ever want
                        to ask a pilot what his cholesterol level is.

                        Speaking of a sensible diet, right after
I run into former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop,
             I order a lobster roll at the lunch counter
in Congdon's Pharmacy, and the woman next in line says
                        she wants one, too, but only if it doesn't contain celery,

                        and I say, "You're allergic to celery?" and she gives me
a look, so I say, "Well, I'm allergic to cats!" and she says,
             "Yeah, I die if I eat it—I'm allergic to an enzyme in celery,"
and I think of the time Barbara took me to the emergency room
                        and say, "I guess I'm allergic to an enzyme in cats. . . ."

                        What is death, anyway? According to Melville,
it's "a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity,"
             like, you're standing by the taffrail, puffing on your pipe,
and a big wave comes by, or your leg gets tangled in a rope,
                        and buh-bloopedy-doop! You're up there with God

                        and the two old men of Nantucket, the one with the grin
and the other with the bucket of cash he managed
             to smuggle in somehow, and all the teen smokers are there,
still smoking, and the suicide girl, who must have missed her boat somehow,
                        and Bobby the surfer, a.k.a. carpenter Tommy Folby,

                        and the lobster-roll woman—turns out
the Congdons' "secret family recipe" has celery
             in it after all, only nobody told the counter guy.
Yes, and Curtis is there, and he's tanned and fit;
                        he's flying 747s now, and he's going back for another load

                        of—what shall we call them? Not "the dead," surely;
they look so alive. Halfway between God's big whale-ship
             and the earth, he'll pass Miss Josie, smiling and sleeping
as she floats through skies of cream and cerulean,
                        little white feet together, little hands crossed on her breast.

David Kirby (born 1944)

David Kirby is one of the finalists for this year's National Book Award for Poetry, for the book in which this poem appears, The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems.

Tags: poet's corner

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