Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Bread and Meat and Cheese" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Bread and Meat and Cheese
Lowell Jaeger

"Currency" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
As a tourist, I yearn to ramble
cobbles worn to a visible groove
through centuries, pathways
carved by mules and carts.

I want to stand in a 500-year-old plaza
and read names on the plaques of statuary
 – architects, warriors, princes, and poets –
then lift my gaze to nearby high-rise
citadels of glass and chrome glinting
under the persistent sun, as if to promise
an end to the age of suffering and injustice.

I don’t want these beggar children,
smudge-faced runny-nosed reminders
of lasting desperation.  Hands
adjuring from shadowed doorways.
Or packs of disconsolate voices, whining
and buzzing at my ears like stinging gnats.

The front-desk attendant advises: As long
as you provide them with coins,
their meth-addicted parents
will send them out collecting.  He looks away
and adds: Imagine what happens
if they return home empty-handed.

You look hungry, I say to a beggar-child.
I am, she replies.  When I offer her bread
and meat and cheese, she refuses.
Her eyes are the eyes of a mad dog.
She stares at the food.  Impossible

to name her sadness.
It’s so much bigger than that.

Poet's Notes:  To paraphrase Yeats, “Out of quarrels with each other, we make politics, and out of quarrels with ourselves, we make poems” (see Editor's Note). I do find that I am often compelled to write my thoughts and imaginings down when I am in turmoil.  Lots of people have written about the benefits of thinking on paper.  It’s like Freud’s “talking cure,” except there’s no therapist in the room, just a notebook, a pen, and a troubled mind.

Some of my poems are more accurately biographical than others.  I don’t think, as poets, we are bound by facts.  We are not journalists, not scientists, not judges, not lawyers. Poets can bend the facts in order to tell the truth.  The deep truth of a situation—the emotional, instinctual, spiritual truth—can be obscured by particular facts which from a far view are more or less irrelevant to larger meanings.

Having said this, it’s now time to confess that for the most part the poem “Bread and Meat and Cheese” recounts—with fidelity to the facts—an experience my wife and I had in Mexico City in which we encountered a pronounced quarrel within ourselves. We wanted a vacation from seriousness. We wanted to relax and stroll through the streets at leisure. But we couldn’t ignore the beggar children though we tried, and this became a mental battle.  Then, once we were willing to admit into our consciousness the world’s agonies, we learned the futility of trying to fix other people’s lives.  This only compounded the war within us.

I’m not sure that the above quote of Frost’s is entirely true.  I made this poem to bring some stability and balance to my own thoughts but I see it now as a distinctly political act.  Poverty and drugs bring pain.  Innocent children suffer.  That’s a political message.  Opening our eyes to the problem is surely the necessary first step toward change.

Editor's Note:  The precise quote attributed to William Butler Yeats is, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70114/william-butler-yeats-easter-1916.

"Bread and Meat and Cheese" first appeared in Earth-blood & Star-shine.

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