Friday, September 4, 2009

A Poem A Day #9

Today's poem is an atmospheric, secretive piece by Henri Coulette.  His work calls to mind Columbus poet Will Dockery for me, as both of their work seems to exist in a shrouded other-world: for Dockery it is Shadowville, which we'll address in another column; for Coulette it is the smoky noir Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler, full of spies and madams and detectives and liars, people with secrets hanging out in scuzzy hotel rooms and putting out cigarettes in empty bottles of cheap beer.  He only published two books, and nearly every copy of the second was accidentally pulped and destroyed by the printer.  He lived in L.A. all his life, and worked in the publicity department at RKO before he became a professor (he is often credited with being the one that saved all the publicity stills from Citizen Kane, which otherwise would have been discarded).

This poem, from his first book "War of the Secret Agents and other poems," is so deep in Coulette's dark alternate world that you can see Philip Marlowe sitting by himself down at the other end of the bar, with his hat pushed back on his head, looking at his drink, thinking.  But it's the voice of the poem's speaker that's most interesting.  The character is drawn in a few nasty strokes, just a few lines from inside his head, and yet there's a sense of who he is, and where he's going, and how bad things will be when he gets there.


We sit, crookbacked, at the bar,
each of us with his own telephone,
all of us with the same itch.
The tight-assed operator
in the opera stockings
--the only one worth having--
hovers, wisely, out of reach.
She has got all our numbers.

My phone rings: it's the matron
with lost eyes and a horse jaw.
I get rid of her: I have
an ugliness within me,
whole as I am not, a kind
of sleeping cancer.  Who needs more?
I listen to the broken
English of an Amsterdam

blonde, seduced in her twelfth year--
it was summer!-- by a man
in a Silver Cloud, but I
can have her now for the price
of a taxi ride.  I can
have her in a Murphy bed,
while the roaches on the sink
stiffen their fine antennae.

I would, I would, dear lady,
but I have a plane to catch,
one piloted by a sly
Tibetan.  I have a date
with some porters in the snow.
I buy her a Grasshopper,
and slip out into the night.
How cold the stars are, how clear!

- Henri Coulette

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