And Now For Something Completely Different: Firewater Offers Up a Poem

I’m not a poet.

I appreciate some poetry, and certainly poetic language in fiction. I took one poetry class in college because all the althletes were taking it and I really needed an easy A to keep my scholarship. Turned out to not be such an easy A.

I remember opting to write a poem then, in lieu of writing an entire research paper. I thought, how hard could it be? It’s like song lyrics without the music. I wrote a rambling, blank verse poem that was equally inspired by Walt Whitman, John D. MacDonald and Daffy Duck cartoons. I wish I still had the poem. I don’t think I do. Or, it’s buried in a box somewhere, which amounts to the same thing as not having it.

What I do vividly remember, from that long-ago time of 1983, is that the poem began with this line:

“Stalking among the mangroves . . .”

That’s it. I’d never seen mangroves at that point in my life, and may not even have been sure what they were, other than an interesting word.

I do recall that in the middle of the work, I skipped a couple of lines and wrote “I am a fiddler crab,” skipped another line and indented a little more and wrote it again. This came directly from a Daffy Duck cartoon. It’s a 1953 Merrie Melodies cartoon, “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!”, directed by Chuck Jones. At one point in the cartoon, Daffy Duck begins exclaiming: “I’m a fiddler crab!! Why don’t you shoot me?!? It’s fiddler crab season!!”

Which made me think of Whitman and his “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” and Eliot’s “I am Lazarus.” The impulse was at least partially driven by the poetry I had been reading. I could also argue that those early Warner Bros. cartoons were a style of poetry unto themselves.

My professor invited me to his office to explain the poem to him. The man was an aging queen (this is not homophobic, just descriptive) with permanent halitosis. He was excited about the poem and wanted me to explain some of the poem’s imagery to him. I channeled my best W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, William Blake and T.S. Eliot (with a bit of James Joyce and Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure) and gave a rambling explanation of my poem, which had some ecological subtext via John D. MacDonald, with a heartfelt explanation that the feel of the words was more important than the words themselves. The emotions created by the images were the actual meaning of the poem, like a message constructed from an alien alphabet. The words themselves weren’t important.

This was just enough bullshit to warm the cockles of the heart of any academic. It may also owe more than a little to the consumption of mind-altering substances. This was the early ’80s.

I still wish I had the poem. The words and images moved in a fluid way, as I recall, until broken up by that strident “I am a fiddler crab,” which made the poem much more interesting to Professor Whatfor (not his actual name) and made me laugh. The truth was my poem was a con job, a parody of the stuff I’d been forced to read all my life. But, the poem meant something to my professor and earned me the A I was looking for.

Poetry, like all art, is subjective.

I’m using self-deprecating humor to make fun of a poem I wrote when I was a young college man. Since I don’t have the poem anymore, and a college English professor gave me the top grade for it, we could just assume that it was a brilliant work of art. The professor even tried to get it printed in some journal or other. It didn’t make the cut, probably because the editors had watched Daffy Duck cartoons when they were children.

The point is: Art is always subjective.

Until recently, I didn’t know the lyrics to “Kiss from a Rose,” a beautiful song made famous by Seal. Now I know the lyrics and they don’t seem to exactly fit the feeling the song gave me—still gives me—when I hear it. A light hits the gloom on the grey? Whafuh? Similarly, I know almost none of the lyrics from Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Rush songs, but I know how the songs make me feel.

That’s what poetry has always been like for me. Robert Frost is a famous poet because his poems seem simple and straightforward, but their messages are interpreted a lot of different ways. Death of the Author suggests that even when an artist explains his work, that’s secondary to the interpretation of the audience.

As much as I despise the phrase “Your perception is your reality,” I have to admit that there is a lot of truth to this. Good art, in my opinion, is never experienced the same by any two people. Yeats’ “Second Coming” makes me feel a certain way, with my hackles raised, the same way Keith Haring’s stickmen remind me of a couple of good friends from Virginia, when I lived there in the ’90s. My perception of these art forms will probably not be the same as yours. That’s not only okay: It’s the idea.

It is with this attitude—beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and all that—that I once turned to poetry generators on-line to create programmed abominations that might pass for deep, intellectual art. This momentary diversion created a few memorable images, with singing sidewalks and dancing skyscrapers, psychedelic images that seemed to be creating deep metaphors, but actually weren’t.

Which leads me to today. What follows is more found art than an actual poem. While it wasn’t created by an algorithm, it could have been.

Here’s what I did.

I pulled the 1953 Lew Archer novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, by Ross Macdonald, from my bookshelf. This wasn’t a random pull. I wanted a mid-Twentieth-Century private eye novel, the literary form of film noir, primarily for its poetic language. Kenneth Millar, who used the pseudonym Ross Macdonald, was no slouch in that department. Then, I flipped to the end of each chapter of the book and wrote down the last sentence of each chapter. Then, looking at that list of sentences, I chose which words stood out to me, suggesting images that were more than the sum of the words themselves. Some sentences, I chopped up, using only phrases rather than complete statements. Some sentences I used more than once, for effect, because I liked the way the words looked on the page.

The end result: A poem, constructed using the words of author Ross Macdonald, who—coincidentally—died in 1983, the year I wrote “Fiddler Crab.” So, a poem I’ve co-authored with someone deceased for 37 years.

This is not great art. It’s a word collage, an example of craft over art. But, if you’d like to call it art, feel free.

Meet Me at the Morgue,” by Ross Macdonald & Firewater

Gazing down into the dead face

trying to descry the lineaments of the past

Her hand touched my shoulder, lightly

Mr. Cross is just about to leave

I can’t help that, can I?

I left him

I thanked him and went west

wheels churned the gravel in the drive

If he falls twice, he falls hard

his body was heavier than lead

Her hand touched my shoulder, lightly

I hardly remembered

she moved over to let me take it

I drove as if death were behind me on a motorcycle

gusts of sound like wind blowing in an iron forest

hammering it

whizzing around in his skull

I had a strange fear of falling in

though I had never been afraid of water

We drove on

the voices bawling and lamenting in her house

the lineaments of the past

words being recorded on rolls of permanent tape

I can’t help that, can I?

I said that I intended to

but not out loud

Her hand touched my shoulder, lightly

3 thoughts on “And Now For Something Completely Different: Firewater Offers Up a Poem

    1. Thanks, tref. It’s a poem that pits love’s competing influences—selflessness and self-interest—against each other, juxtaposed against man’s inhumanity to man and the tactile residue of memory. I am, after all, a fiddler crab.


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