TINA AND THE CHICKEN
One day Dorothy's mother hitched up the horse and buggy and drove to Otwell to buy clothes to make her daughters some new dresses. Mary could not leave her young fatherless daughters alone, the two boys Alfred and Bill had to work in the fields, and so Mary left her sister Tina in charge. "Now you girls be good and listen to Aunt Tina." "Yes, Mom, we will," answered Frieda, Stella, and Dorothy. Little Betty was too young to participate in the pledge.
It wasn't fair that Alfred and Bill had an air rifle that none of the girls had permission to use. "Not fair," said big sister Frieda. "Not fair!" echoed Stella and Dorothy. "Go get it!" said Aunt Tina. Frieda went and got it. Though they were poor and knew the chickens were an important part of the family farm economy and their mother's menu, the girls decided to try out their aim on the chickens, which squawked every time the air rifle spat and a pellet raised dust to the front, back, or side.
"Give me that gun!" Aunt Tina commanded. "It's my turn. I'm going to get me one!" Lo and behold, her first shot struck the mark; a chicken let out a horrible squawk as the pellet tore into its flesh. The stricken fowl flapped its wings as it fought for more life, gave out a rattling death scrape, and keeled over on its side. "Oh my God!" said Aunt Tina. You must NEVER tell your mom what Aunt Tina did. We got to bury this chicken," she announced. "Go get a shovel." All four of them, the three girls and Aunt Tina, were afraid of what might happen when Mary came back home from Otwell. The three girls crossed their hearts and said they hoped to die an instant death if any one of them said a single word.
When their mother returned in the buggy and put the horse in the barn, Frieda, Stella, Dorothy, and especially Tina were a little quieter than usual. Mother Mary couldn't quite figure out what was going on. She noticed that Dorothy—"Dots," as they sometimes called her—was acting a bit unusual, as if she were swallowing something that wanted to come back up. Little Dots was trying her hardest not to laugh out loud about what Aunt Tina did while her mom was away in Otwell. Dots felt as if her sides were itching from poison ivy and she could not scratch. Finally, she could not contain herself any longer, let out a laugh, and her mother asked her what was wrong. "Oh," said the always honest little girl, "I promised Aunt Tina I would not tell, but while you were gone we got the boys' air rifle, practiced shooting, and Aunt Tina shot and killed a chicken. I'm sorry, but it's so funny!"
After a deep frown and a sigh, Mary asked Dorothy, "What did you do with that chicken?" "Why, Mom, we buried it," answered the honest little girl. "Oh, no!" insisted her mother. "We can't waste good food like that. Let's go dig it up and fix it for dinner." Aunt Tina, whose face was the color of a cooked beet, would not look at her sister.
MR. JONES SPEAKS
Mr. Jones sits at his table sipping dry red wine, ready to listen to some of the greatest songs ever written, by the Master of Songwriting. When the music begins, he taps his foot under the table, so no one will see. He knows some of the lyrics to the songs but is too self-conscious to sing them out loud. He is, after all, a reviewer, a critic, and critics don't sing along with the crowd. Their job is to praise or pan. Truth be told, panning is his forte, or so he thinks, but despite himself, he is having a good time listening to great songs in a beautiful old theatre. Great way to make a living!
This is what Mr. Jones thinks, until a pause in the music when a poet walks out onto the stage. Even though The Master whose work is being celebrated tonight hangs out with poets and loves to weave images and phrases from their work into his eternal song and brought a poet or two or three along on the tour bus back when the thunder still rolled, the reviewer's back goes stiff when this poet walks on stage. He can understand, in theory, why a poet would be included in a show by musicians paying tribute to a poet-songwriter, but he sees something wrong, in practice, in including this poet. This reviewer, who rarely reads poems, never goes to poetry readings, because he does not like to listen to poetry. That is not his business. His ear is tuned to other things and he speaks a different idiom. Rather let poetry be taught in the classroom, or kept on the stacks of the library, than recited on the stage in the mouth of a poet with musicians collaborating to lift the poem and reunite it with its kissing cousin song. Okay to let poets do their artsy thing in cafés and coffee houses or funk it up in smoky bars, their self-imposed ghettos, but not on the big stage.
"This is wrong!" Mr. Jones announces to himself. "The guy is pushing too hard. He's got a lot of nerve to think he belongs here. Whose friend is he?" The reviewer doesn't mind listening to the music backing the poet's musings, but he tunes out the words as if deleting them from the mix. His ears do not catch the beat and the music the words make as they move together in a driving rhythm. He grabs his pen ready to write his review before this brazen blending of poetry and music ends. He's not sure how to say it best, so he waits for inspiration to strike until the right words blindside him. "That's it!" he says, squinting until he sees the light coming his way. "He has no vision, none." The critic cannot hear the applause following the performance of spoken word poetry reunited with music. "Poetry and music cannot be forced back together like this."
When the bluesman who accompanied the poet with an old resonator guitar leaves the stage, Mr. Jones feels his stomach go flippety flop. He sees the poet step up to the mic again, alone on the stage, to recite a poem he wrote about a popular woman singer in this troupe assembled to pay tribute to the Master of Song. Jones would never admit this, but he fears he's going to be ear-raped. "Why should I have to sit here and listen to the words of a gooey poem gush from the stage?" he asks. His ears, held shut tight, cannot recognize what others hear as a variation on the interlocking rhymes of the terza rima intricacy of Dante's "Inferno." "This is Hell!" he scribbles in his notebook. "Why should a critic have to listen to this? Poets must be taught how to listen to critics. Someone has to stand up for quality. Off with his head!"
Mr. Jones is so enraptured by the words and applause he hears in his head that he still does not hear the applause in the theatre for the poet. The reviewer knows his day has come. The real power comes from his—not the poet's—pen. "God is on my side," he says. "I am God!" All he can hear in his head is the words of the review that will strip the poet of any title, bring him down low, and humiliate him. "He'll have no secrets to conceal. How will he feel when he reads what I write?" Something is happening here, but Mr. Jones does not know what it is. He doesn't need anyone to give him a clue. He doesn't need or want any more insight than he already has.
The words of his review will eclipse those of the poet and steal his thunder. No more working on Maggie's Farm for Mr. Jones. He will go about his own business of saving the word and overseeing the arts. He will speak ex cathedra. He doesn't hear the wind begin to howl as two riders approach to fetch his review and pony-express it to his editor. Let the gospel go forth and all the stones in the kingdom roll down their hills. From where the Review King stands peering from on high in his watchtower, the whole world looks like his. Let the servants bring more dry red wine and the contrite and penitent poet appear, genuflect, and kiss his ring.
Norbert Krapf, Emeritus prof. of English at Long Island University, was Indiana Poet Laureate 2008-10. In 2012 Indiana University Press published his Songs in Sepia and Black and White, 101 poems with photographs by Richard Fields, and in March 2013 Mongrel Empire Press published his American Dreams: Reveries and Revisitations, a hybrid of prose poetry and flash autobiography. He held a Creative Renewal Fellowship 2011-12 from the Arts Council of Indianapolis to combine poetry and blues. See more at www.krapfpoetry.com.