Perhaps the hardest thing to do when on a roll is to get off it with panache. I’ve read work by so many poets who can beautifully deliver a riveting description of something occurring between humans, without knowing quite how to make an exit, and stick their landing. The following poem by Mark Kraushaar does so beautifully. It originally appeared in New Ohio Review 7, Spring 2010.
- - - - - - - -
She’s in the first booth left of the planters.
She’s been waiting an hour now.
She’s been waiting at the Watertown Family Buffet
with her little girl who’s dreamed up
some kind of a costume:
giant glasses, backwards cap, taffeta gown
which is clearly for him, for Al who’s
just now arriving, finally, and now
he’s seen them, and now
he’s walking over, and now
he’s standing there, standing there,
husband and father, or boyfriend and father,
or boyfriend and father figure, except
he’s way too late,
he’s too late times two and the party’s over
thank-you, and, no, they’re not having,
not the grin, not the story, not the hug.
The woman gets up, and then, face baggy with patience,
she nods to the girl who scoots out too,
and they exit together.
So over the chips and spilt dip,
over the drained Pepsi and big white cake
with “AL” in caps and quotes
he watches them go,
looks out at the parking lot,
opens his book.
Here’s the waitress with her pad and pen.
And what in hell is he reading?
- - - - - - -
These details evoke far more backstory than you’d think possible in a mere 28 lines. I feel I know this Al, this long-suffering woman and her keen-to-please daughter, and I can guess how many times Al’s pulled this sort of thing before. What interests me in particular is the way the final line suddenly foregrounds the speaker and his emotional involvement without going so far as to detract from the power of the scene itself. This has also been done brilliantly by Thomas Hardy and C.K. Williams (several in Flesh and Blood come to mind). We see that Al is not opening the book to save face, because he has not been glancing self-consciously at the people around him in the restaurant, but rather looking out at the parking lot. Apparently he really is able to reenter his book after such an event, with such a cake still sitting there. Is he so callous as that, or is the book that good? Is the speaker judging him, or envious? I admire the open-endedness of the final line as much as I do the casual richness of description that precedes it.
Mark Kraushaar’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry as well as Poetry Daily. His first collection, Falling Brick Kills Local Man, was published in 2009 by University of Wisconsin Press, and a new collection, The Uncertainty Principle, appeared from Waywiser Press this year as winner of the Anthony Hecht Prize.
Till next week, fellow aficionados of the lyric moment! (JAR)