Monday, August 13, 2018

"Don’t Be Obscene" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Don’t Be Obscene
Lowell Jaeger
"Redacted" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Like shoving your arm
up a cow’s vagina, says
the freckle-faced ranch kid.

Don’t be obscene! says
his teacher.

I’m today’s classroom guest.
We’d been discussing
our country’s quagmire wars
in foreign lands.
Our brothers, fathers, sons
in uniform.

You go in hoping you’ll 
save the calf, says the kid.
You’re only guessing, groping
for what’s wrong and how
to set it right.

Don’t be obscene!
his teacher insists, sternly.
She’s worried I’ll be offended
by the kid’s unexpected metaphor.

Deeper than your elbow, says
the kid, before you know it.
Kinda stuck for what comes next.
Now there ain’t no quick exit.
Now there’s gonna be pain.

Poet’s Notes:  I’ve visited lots of schools as Montana Poet Laureate--grade schools, high schools, and colleges.  I’ve learned as a speaker/reader/presenter how to coax the audience to join in on the discussion.  When someone raises his hand and asks, “What are your thoughts on how poetry should be taught?” I take a deep reflective breath and reply, “What are your thoughts?”  This visibly surprises people.  

In our culture, when we gather together, too often we are expected to sit passively and listen. The “expert” at the front of the room is supposed to know more than we do.  I like to say, “Tell me more.”  Or, “Please expand on that.”  I also like to use, “Who can add to what’s just been said?” Or, “Does anyone have an alternative point of view?”

Montana is rich with folks who live on ranches and farms, hearts and minds in direct contact with the natural world.  They are poets and they don’t know it.  They are more at home with concrete realities than they are with abstractions.  When asked to explain an idea, they will ground their thoughts by using real-world specifics. At times, as in the poem “Don’t Be Obscene,” they will employ metaphor with remarkable ease.  “No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams. He would have admired my Montana students.

And isn’t war itself obscene?  Strange and ironic how a word like “vagina” is taboo and to talk about reaching into a cow’s womb to turn an unborn calf causes embarrassment and discomfort.  I know an effective metaphor when I hear it because it causes me to “see” via comparisons I’d never imagined. Poetry wants us to speak about things that are difficult to discuss.  Poetry wants, as Robert Frost said, “to take life by the throat.”  Poetry wants to illuminate, not prettify and euphonize.

Editor's Note:  "Don't Be Obscene" first appeared in Earth-blood & Star-shine.

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