David Kirby

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The Ha-Ha

David Kirby

2004 International Shortlist

 

 

Borges at the Northside Rotary

If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other,
may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him.

– Jorge Luis Borges, foreword to his first book of poems

After they go to the podium and turn in their Happy Bucks
  and recite the Pledge of Allegiance
and the Four Truths (“Is it the Truth?
    Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill
and better friendships? Will it be beneficial
  to all concerned?”), I get up to read my poetry.

and when I’m finished, one Rotarian expresses
  understandable confusion at exactly what it is
I’m doing and wants to know what poetry is, exactly,
    so I tell him that when most nonpoets think
of the word “poetry,” they think of “lyric poetry,”
  not “narrative poetry,” whereas what I’m doing

is “narrative poetry” of the kind performed
  by, not that I am in any way comparing myself
to them, Homer, Dante, and Milton,
    and he’s liking this, he’s smiling and nodding,
and when I finish my little speech,
  he shouts, “Thank you, Doctor! Thank you

for educating us!” And for the purposes
  of this poem, he will be known hereafter
as the Nice Rotarian. But now while I was reading,
    there was this other Rotarian who kept talking
all the time, just jacked his jaw right through
  the poet’s presentations of some of the finest

vers libre available to today’s listening audience,
  and he shall be known hereafter as the Loud Rotarian.
Nice Rotarian, Loud Rotarian: it’s kind of like Good Cop,
    Bad Cop or God the Father, Mary the Mother.
Buy Low, Sell High. Win Some, Lose Some.
  Comme Ci, Comme Ça. Half Empty, Half Full.

But in a sense the Loud Rotarian was the honest one;
  he didn’t like my poetry and said so – not in so many words,
but in the words he used to his tablemates
    as he spoke of his golf game or theirs
or the weather or the market or, most likely,
  some good deed that he was the spearchucker on,

the poobah, the mucky-muck, the head honcho,
  for one thing I learned very quickly
was that Rotarians are absolutely nuts
    over good deeds and send doctors to Africa
and take handicapped kids on fishing trips
  and just generally either do all sorts of hands-on

projects themselves or else raise a ton of money
  so they can get somebody else to do it for them,
whereas virtually every poet I know, myself included,
    spends his time either trying to get a line right
or else feeling sorry for himself and maybe writing a check
  once a year to the United Way if the United Way’s lucky.

The Nice Rotarian was probably just agreeing with me,
  just swapping the geese and fish of his words
with the bright mirrors and pretty beads of mine,
    for how queer it is to be understood by someone
on the subject of anything, given that,
  as Norman O. Brown says, the meaning of things

is not in the things themselves but between them,
  as it surely was that time those kids scared us so bad
in Paris: Barbara and I had got on the wrong train, see,
    and when it stopped, it wasn’t at the station
two blocks from our apartment but one
  that was twenty miles outside of the city,

and we looked for someone to tell us how
  to get back, but the trains had pretty much stopped
for the evening, and then out of the dark
    swaggered four Tunisian teenagers,
and as three of them circled us, the fourth
  stepped up and asked the universal ice-breaker,

i.e. Q.: Do you have a cigarette?
  A.: Non, je ne fume pas.
Q.: You’re not French, are you?
    A.: Non, je suis américain. Q.: From New York?
A.: Non, Florida. Q.: Miami?
  A.: Non, une petite ville qui s’appelle Tallahassee.

dans le nord de … And here the Tunisian kid
  mimes a quarterback passing and says, Ah,
l’université avec la bonne equipe de futbol!

    He was a fan of FSU sports, of all things
so we talked football for a while, and then
  he told us where to go for the last train.

Change one little thing in my life or theirs
  and they or I could have been either the Loud Rotarian
or the Nice one, and so I say to Rotarians everywhere,
    please forgive me,
my brothers, for what I have done to you
  and to myself as well,

for circumstances so influence us
  that it is more than an accident
than anything else that you are listening to me
    and not the other way around,
and therefore I beg your forgiveness, my friends,
  if I wrote this poem before you did.

From The Ha-Ha, by David Kirby
Copyright © 2003

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