Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Poetry Reading

Last night I attended the annual Wisconsin Review fall prose & poetry reading at UW-Oshkosh. Three English professors were reading their work. I’d had one of them, Ron Rindo, as a creative writing prof back in mumbletyhummina, and another I’d had as a father since 1979, the year in which he adopted me. (Or maybe it was 1980; I don’t know, I was like, five or something. I couldn’t even read yet.)

Anyway, my dad is a recently-minted English professor after many years in the criminal justice field. He read some of his autobiographical narrative poetry last night, kicking off with one of my favorites (reprinted with permission from the author Peter Martin, my pops):

The Summer I Was Seventeen

The summer I was seventeen I found a dead girl
in twelve feet of water in a stone quarry
in Waupun, Wisconsin.
I’d gone there early in the evening of a hot July day
after putting in a twelve-hour shift
for Green Giant Canning Company running blanchers for an
unending river of green beans,
French cut.
Two men with a row boat were just pushing off in the quarry’s shallow end.
One of the men knew me and spoke to me.
“Pete, can you swim?”
I said that I could.
But I did not like the way this day was turning out.
The quarry was too small for boats, and I knew
there must be some terrible reason for theirs.
“We’re looking for a girl,” he said.
Scared, I swam alongside the aluminum boat
while one man rowed and the other stood looking down
Into the green quarry water.
I paddled along beside them while on shore I could see
a crowd beginning to gather. And a white
rescue truck with a red cross pulled up.
The man standing said quietly,
“I think I see her.”
My skin crawled but I dove down to find nothing.
Spring-fed currents moved across the quarry’s bottom
like cold black hands. I came back up
and we kept looking. While the small crowd watching grew.
“There she is,” said the standing man, pointing down.
I dove again, this time terrified because I knew I would find something.
Halfway down in the murky water
I saw her and had to fight the urge to swim back to the surface
where things like this didn’t happen in the summer I was seventeen.
But pride more than bravery pushed me deeper, and lying
on her back on the bottom I saw a very dead-looking
nine year-old girl.
Her lips and fingertips were purple, and her
frilly swimsuit, like her hair,
undulated in the cold current.
She was wearing tennis shoes against the sharp quarry stones.
I reached for one shoe and a wrist. Then pushed
off the bottom with my feet, looking up and away from the horror
in my hands. I broke surface and
heard at once a mother’s wail on the quarry cliff.
I handed her up to the men in the boat without looking at her.
They took her from me and tried to blow life into her mouth.
One man rowed and I
swam back toward shallow water and my parked
1953 Oldsmobile. I didn’t
feel like swimming anymore
that day in the
summer I was seventeen.

From this he segued into a few select poems about seeing—at age 15—a stripper shooting ping-pong balls from her vagina, the use of an Alka-Seltzer bottle as a sex toy, and the concept of human genitalia growing to epic proportions after exposure to weed killer.

So, you see where I get my classiness from. (Don’t worry, the poems were much more respectable than I make them sound, with redeeming themes about Coming of Age, Loss of Innocence, Determination to Succeed, and Mankind’s Sometimes Scary Urge to Mess with Nature.)

Bottom line: it’s always nice to sit in a roomful of people while your father talks about penises the size of Box Elder limbs.


  1. Jess, this time you've thrown me completely for a loop.

  2. it's nice to see, however educated a father can be, will still speak of things on a 16 year boy's level.

  3. WOW, I'm envious and embarassed for you all at the same time!

    Seriously though...he sounds very cool. I liked his poem a lot.

  4. Your Dad's poem is riveting. Loved it. As far as the embarrassment? Makes life interesting, doesn't it?

  5. What it must be like around your family dinner table. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meals.

  6. holy shit...

    i liked his 15th year more - it seems more festive.

  7. That poem killed me dead.
    ANd my dad? Is a poet too. Seriously. Published books and everything. WE should start a club: "Daughters of Poets Who Talk About Their Penises."

  8. I think I love your dad. I want to hear the ping pong poem now.

  9. OMG I remember working at Green Giant in Beaver Dam. I actually went by there today and where preclean and the cutting room and final inspection was is being torn down. I was on the major sanitation crew and worked mainly in Preclean and Final inspection. Oh I can't believe it has been so long since it closed.

  10. Do you think he'd adopt me? I'd be a really awesome sister! :)

  11. Wow, that is amazing. Such a moving story. No wonder you're so talented. Bravo to your dad and to you!

    Hi from down under, Jess!

  12. Eileen,

    Very, very moving words.

  13. That poem almost blew the top off of my head. Ugh. Heartbreaking. That's what the good stuff does, huh?

  14. Yeah. Loved Dad's poem.

  15. Gosh, my dad just had a boring office job.

  16. Jess ma chere, I'm sensing a theme:
    -Death of a 12 year old
    -Death of a nuthatch
    -Death of the Republican party
    -Death of Catholic schools to Walgreens
    -Death of meat
    -Death of the family pet, which might have been the precursor to the rest?

  17. I went back to that quarry today, and the whole time I was thinking of your Dad's poem.
    That's why the girls stayed in the car.

  18. This is a firecracker of an entry. I'm off to find my table tennis paddle.

  19. Incredibly vivid. I felt cold the whole time I read it.

    Couldn't they have had a police officer or someone go in after the girl? If I'd have been his mom, I think I would've been upset.

  20. Wow. What an impressive story - sounds like your Dad is in the middle of a successful career transition. It's probably best that you didn't post his piece on the ping pong balls - that would have brought you all sorts of unfortunate internet traffic that might not understand how your previous post could possibly be about fillling your bird feeder (it's hard to imagine that as a metaphor).

  21. Whoa. That gave me the shivers, and I'm not just talking about the box elder thing.

    Now, where can we buy his book?

  22. Oy. My stomach feels kinda funny.

    That's one cool-creative-funny-smart poet of a dad you've got!

  23. It's clear that talent gallops through your family.

  24. Box Elder limbs, huh?


  25. Okay..that was an amazing poem. Usually, poetry readings make me laugh just a little. I know this woman in town who is very serious about them, but her poetry is all very accusatory

  26. Ahhhh, Some poems from "Licking my wounds". My favorite is "throwing tomatoes at heifers". That is sooooo your dad.

  27. Not exactly the poems you'll see anthologized in old Norton, huh? But lots of points for vivid imagery :) Anyone who can write poetry impresses me, I've never been able to do it myself.

  28. Seems like me trying to remember when I was 17, would be like trying to remember when there was no flushing toilets!

  29. To think, my father used to embarrass me by lipsynching into a turkey baster.

  30. Anonymous6:39 PM

    damn, your dad sure knows how to make poetry interesting. ;)

  31. Your dad's poem gave me goosebumps. Wow. I wish I could have taken one of his english classes years ago.