Saturday, May 10, 2008

Matt's Own Favorites - Wal Mart Blues

Sorry it took me a few days to post another one of my own favorite poems. A few weeks of work travel just came to an end and it was so refreshing to sleep in my own bed last night. But back to the matter at hand. I honestly don't hold a massive grudge against Wal-Mart. It's a successful corporation providing a service to communities, in fact it provides a plethora of services. My beef with Wal-Mart is that I like small town shops. Yes, I know the conveinience of one stop shopping is ideal for many people, myself included sometimes. And yes, I know Wal-Mart employs elderly and handicapped people as greeters at their stores. But how can you walk down the ruins of any main street in any small town in our country and not long for the personal touches of family owned businesses of yesteryear. Am I waxing poetic, damn right I am. In a perfect world, the large corporations, such as Wal-Mart, would genuinely embrace the sincerity and passion of small town shop owners, not meagerly try to replicate it through emotional ploys. My views could be a desperate attempt to return to a nostalgic view of our communities and towns that has long been outmoded and outdated by, among other things, technological advances. Writing this poem was about not apologizing for being nostalgic and, of course, about poking fun at Wal-Mart, an all-American company who essentially swallowed up the industries of whole American towns to become the juggernaut it has become. How can you not laugh at the fact that you can buy your groceries, winter coat, hunting rifle, computer, and get your nails done or go to your eye doctor all in the same store? Tell me that is not comical and vaguely communistic. And it only seemed natural that this poem about modern American consumerism would also take on a uniquely American form: the blues. Is there anything about Wal-Mart that indicates it would have soul, that it would know the depths of sorrow required to compose and sing a good blues song? Absolutely not (and if you disagree with this answer, well, then I'd love to take a walk down the gleaming aisles of Wal-Mart with you). A key aspect of this poem was setting the topic against the tone against the form. Everything in this poem had to be at odds with each other, yet it all had to operate within a specific and measured form. I love that controlled chaos. I love the emphasis on images. I love that I was able to write a poem that I read and couldn't help but chuckle.


Hardly super---Wal-Mart,
sea of messy consumers,
harbor of loaded carts,

you chewed every store
in your culture-swallowing path
and now---you’re a profit whore:

obese, open all the time,
unzipped, unbuttoned,
nothing about you rhymes.

Canned Peaches, aisle six.
Hunting Rifles, aisle fifteen.
Sheets on special, aisle eleven.

Wal-Mart, I want to erase you
like a squiggle of lines
on an etch-a-sketch---but

you’ve even found a way
to mass produce irony,
profit driven, of course:

I’d have to buy

the etch-a-sketch from you
just to get rid of you.

---First appeared in Redivider Vol 4, Issue 2, Spring 2007

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Matt's Own Favorites - Picture Of My Grandfather At War

I've become a big fan of pictures---looking at them, taking them, and, yes, even posing for them. I'm sure my mom would contend that last little bit, but I'm fairly sure I've learned the value of pictures. Viewing my parents, grandparents, and greatgrandparents (not to mention myself!) at different stages in life is magical. Seeing them at times and ages that I'm passing through or have recently passed through allows me to draw valuable corollaries. Not being alive for many of these pictures, my perspective of these people I love pre-me is a strange and unquantifiable thing. A few years back my mom was going through some boxes of photos from her dad's days in the Marines and the Korean War. I joined in the sorting of these pictures and found one of my grandfather in Korea rising from the hatch of one of the tanks he worked on. On his boyish face was a bad attempt at a goatee. He looked so young and then I realized that he was younger than me. I was in my early/mid twenties, but he was younger than me in that picture. He was at war and he was younger than I was. This realization sent shock waves through my body. I thought my stresses were difficult, but I was wrong. The picture stuck with me and, like a seed, planted itself in my mind. Over the next day or so I loosely fictionalized my grandfather's life, taking elements from both of my grandfathers' military experiences to create the character in this poem. I also took elements of their great loves with my grandmothers and elements of their shared hometown of Chicago to texture the poem with a setting and story. It was challenging to write a family history that loosely stuck to the facts, choosing frequently to steer off course for the sake of the poem's story. In the end, I'm proud of this poem for a few key reasons: I gave it to my grandfather and he read it; I created a story within the tight constructs of family and history; I revised this poem until every word was necessary, causing the whole poem to reflect a craftsmanship and concision I wish for all my poems.


He’s too young to have this firearm
holstered to his waist. At boot camp,
they told him when to run and puke
and crap until he was Semper Fi,
breaking the boy but not his blue eyes,
clear enough to see through, back
to jumping turnstiles at Chicago Stadium
to watch the Golden Gloves, shiny boxers
toeing canvas, bruising under hot lights.

A letter peeks from his shirt pocket
and I wonder if its white lines are worn
with my grandmother’s loopy script,
and if after each letter he remembered
sweaty nights on the south side
throwing stones at her windows
until she snuck down to take tulips
he’d picked, and send him off with a kiss,
sticky lipped, sweet with berry juices.

In this fuzzy edged picture, he pops
from the hatch on one of the tanks
he repaired to load artillery shells.
Shrapnel will slice his torso and legs
leaving fleshy spider webbed scars.
I rotate the picture; nothing changes.
My grandfather, younger than me,
smirks and dreams of outlasting
the black and white that’s captured him.

---Matthew Kaberline

First appeared in Tar River Poetry, Vol 45, Number 2, Spring 2006

Monday, May 5, 2008

Matt's Own Favorites - Walt Whitman Rest Stop

Sources of inspiration are varied, unpredictable, and and odd, at least this has been my experience. Driving from Boston to Washington DC about 4 years ago, I was speeding along the Jersey Turnpike making fairly good time. I had been holding it for close to an hour and really needed a rest stop to use the facilities, but for some reason I had passed two perfectly good rest stops. It was as if I was testing myself, pushing the limits to see just how far I could go. I do not recommend this, especially for anyone who's not had their bladders fortified by years of car trips (as I had as a child). The waiting, in this case, was fated; I pulled off into a rest stop bearing the name of the immortal American Poet Walt Whitman. New Jersey has the dubious distinction of rest stops named after noteworthy New Jerseyans. I think my initial thought was something like this: I wonder if Clara Barton was founding the Red Cross and hoping to herself that someday she'd have a rest stop in New Jersey named for her. Obviously this is meant to contain ample amounts of sarcasm and mocking. But it was only natural to ask what Walt Whitman would think of his rest stop? And as I stopped, I noticed the stores, the people, the products, and the food. I noticed bits of Walt in all of these, but I also noticed the antithesis of Walt in them. Eventually, the negatives outweighed the positives and I truly saw this distinction as utterly ridiculous. New Jersey couldn't have named a library or town hall after Walt (actually, upon further research there are a great deal of places and things named after Whitman in NJ). I remember running from the rest stop to my car and pulling out a pen and paper to start the first draft of this poem. The first draft was far different than the one you see here, but this was a poem that came remarkably easy. It was a poem that in many ways, even in revision, seemed to write itself.

Why is this poem one of my favorites that I've written? It's overwhelmingly ambitious, like Walt Whitman. The poem addresses Walt and examines the cultural changes in our country since he lived. The poem utilizes repetition and sound in a similar manner to Walt's writing style. Finally, the poem underscores the hillarious modern honor of having a rest stop named after you. Decide for yourself if you like the poem or not, but this poem and the whole process of writing it still resonates with me and that is why it's one of my favorites.


Father of American Poetry, your brilliance
won you a rest stop in New Jersey.
Bureaucrats praised your spirit, then hung you
between the bathrooms---fuzzy picture
and eight lines from Song of Myself
separating the quarter twist dispensers:
men’s room licorice flavored condoms
and women’s room Tylenol and tampons.

Gray beard, straw flop on your head, smile blurred
by photo’s age---to travelers shuffling through
you’re a mystic grandpa, rolling pant legs high
in all weather. They wouldn’t be far off.
After daylong walks across fields
abandoned by farmers who bloodied themselves
in the brotherly war, you picked out what stuck
in your boot soles, and from that retread you sang
yourself electric and our country alive,
assembling life rhythm-by-rhythm, line-by-line.

But here, along the Jersey Pike, people stop
to crisscross your food court---the grease glazed oasis
of Sbarro, Cinnabon, and Roy Rogers.
They can’t get past the shadows you wear
comfortably, like a gypsy. If only they wondered
who you’d be. Trucker at the coffee counter
stuffing his mouth with jelly filled donuts?
Goof digging in linty pockets for change
to feed the love machine ready to label him
something between scorching and stud muffin?

Oh Walt, you’d be the bicycle rider appalled
by the modern wilderness of the highway,
where car horns and rumble strips overwhelm
our songs. It may be true that taillights burn out
more frequently than people read poetry,
but you have a rest stop. For you, there’s no chance
of returning to history’s obscurity, of becoming
a name on a building waiting to be renamed.

---Matthew Kaberline

Friday, May 2, 2008

What I learned from this experiment...

National Poetry Month has come and gone. It would be cliched to say that the month went by in a flash, but cliches are used for a reason: they're undeniably true. April was my busiest month at work, a busy month with travel, and a busy month of writing. This month I relayed for life, I traveled in New Jersey for work, I saw my cousin get married in Illinois, I went to a writing workshop, commemorated the one year anniversary of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and did countless other things. Most importantly, I shared one of my favorite poems with all of you each night. The essays I wrote about these poems were not work; they were an exercise in centering myself. Each day as I sat down to post a new blog entry I was reminded, through this process, of the things I value and the travesty of easing them into the peripheries of my life. I preached in previous blog entries about how these poems spoke to me. I'm not delusional; I realize these poems will not speak to each of you. My hope was that through my words you would feel and see a glimmer of the poem's magic. And from this spark, you just might want to read the poem again, or explore more poems and poets. If that happened---well, then I guess my goals were achieved.

There have been questions about if I will keep this blog going even though national poetry month is over. I'm contemplating the idea and have yet to come to a conclusion. I'd like to continue it, but I'm not sure I have enough favorite poems to last every day of the year. I might have to wait and make this an annual endeavor for April of every year. We'll see. But in the meantime, I did promise to post some of my own poems on this blog, mainly because you asked me too---well, my biggest fan asked me to and how can you say no to your mom. I'll start with a poem of my own and a brief essay this coming Monday, May 5. This should continue for a week (possibly longer if I find enough poems of mine that I believe suitable for public consumption).

Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to embrace poetry.

All the best
Matthew Kaberline