I wrote this poem 20 years ago as an exercise in a workshop I took in fall 1995 with the great poet Philip Levine. He didn’t really give out homework assignments so much as tell us things we should do. One of them was to read Robert Lowell; another was to imitate poems you love. I love Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” and was under the misimpression I could write my own version, with my hometown, Maple Shade, taking the place of Lowell’s Nautilus Island. Although I don’t think this is a good poem, it is a curio for it’s stanza-by-stanza imitation of the original, rhyme scheme and all, as well as swapping out of “Careless Love.” for Journey. It also shows the obsession I’ve had with Maple Shade goes back two decades. It’s much longer than that, but still.
Frankie, the unhip record store owner,
roughs it out
two miles from the mall.
He closes at 7. His wife’s a nurse.
His father fills the cash register,
accepts gas and phone bills,
cashes checks, folds t-shirts by the cassettes.
There’s a photo album of girlie posters.
County road workers play Lotto there
every Friday, scarred
and rough-tanned by black tar.
Last fall, we had another sidewalk sale.
The governor didn’t come
to wave and speed
past the bingo tables,
past the custard stand, the cone-
strewn sled hill, where kids drink Bud ponies,
smoke butts in the firefly-tall grass. One night
last spring, I borrowed my mom’s Cougar
and drove behind the Acme,
hoping to spot a younger sister
maybe, alone, flat-footed, lanky,
pocketbook-full of hairspray
shuffling to the pizzeria, needing a ride.
The soft rock station played Journey—
“So now I come to you,
with open arms.” As if sacrificed
out there, I stalled in the parking lot,
talking to myself, scarfing a slice,
chafed and thinking, so this was home—
Maple Shade, its abrupt streets,
half-full bottles in yellow lights.
Then a trolling monster truck slowed down
with open windows, arms swanning
to girls on the sidewalk. I sat alone,
first in front of the Catholic church,
then by my mom’s TV,
and watched music videos,
late-night deflated on the couch,
and stared at detached sexless bodies
that can’t exist, can’t possibly care.