Baker 5

Cyntactical Poetry

Gretchen Tessmer

I always have good intentions when I start writing poetry. It all begins nicely—all naturalist, homespun vignettes on Beatrix Potter-esque subjects—purple finches and green linnets chit-chattering on telephone wires about weather forecasts and sky map coordinates. Beneath the wires, a red fox slinks through gnarled, twiggy underbrush. A shaggy-haired goat forages in the vernal, peaceful glen.

7.3This is the poetry of my idealized memory, since I grew up in a white farmhouse that stood next to a red barn with wind-blown fields all around. Life was simple and colorful. Corn tasseled up in John Deere green and buttermilk gold. Canary and timothy grass grew wildly, sprinkled throughout with vetch, trefoil, and buttercups. Everything was as pretty as a postcard from Lancaster County. Gorgeous, beautiful, wish you were here!

But childhood must be left behind. Everyone says so. We can take a few treasures with us—sea stones, wheat pennies, a few photographs of people who don’t exist anymore. In the end though, real life must be embraced. Money must be made and bills must be paid. Happiness, creativity, joy, and an extra half hour for lunch must either be stolen or bartered for. Tax season is here. Even though, I swear, we just went through this nonsense. It’s a hard truth and a hard life out there. Anne of Green Gables becomes Antigone, Wendy Darling becomes Anna Karenina. A pleasant, lyrically-inclined poem suddenly becomes a cynical, raging treatise.

Despite my best efforts, the intended tone of my poetry can’t survive my daily life. I spend too much time in a Mad Men-esque office (post-feminism, sure, but still sporting shag carpets and wood paneling)—the day job can’t be avoided forever. And here is the appropriate, professionally-decorated backdrop for the massacre of my prettiest poetry. In this cheery atmosphere, all morning dialogue is reduced to ironic eye rolls and references to the weather. Nouns are passed off as adjectives by randomly inserting “-esque” whenever it feels right. A long-standing feud with my printer remains unresolved. At lunch, a glass of wine becomes the most compelling reason to finish the day. Another pen runs out of ink on the signature line. The afternoon drags its feet like a petulant child and the four to five o’clock hour is a complete waste of brain power. Inevitably, profanity creeps in. Damn the weather, damn the taxes, and damn the DMV (and their four-six week response time for everything).

7-1But I don’t let it get me down. You wouldn’t think that overwhelming cynicism and bright-eyed lyricism could coexist, but I guess it takes all kinds. And poetry is life and my life is a mixed bag of butterflies and beetles, passive-aggressive e-mails and major scheduling conflicts. Leave a number. You’re on my list. I will return your call in the order it was received. Don’t worry. It’s all about striking a balance. It’s all about scribbling out a poetic line in between the business formalities, acknowledging reality and the tenets of practicality without completely throwing out the fantastic and surreal.

So yeah, in my poems, the purple finches and green linnets complain about hurricanes and overcrowding at the rendezvous point in Myrtle Beach. Whoever’s running that catastrophe has some explaining to do. And down in the underbrush, that red fox is off to mischief involving mice, rabbits, and all the other small creatures that spend half their lives paralyzed by a sudden noise in the bushes. Shhh!  What the hell was that?  Oh, my poor nerves. Shake it off. No worries. It’s just that shaggy-haired goat stripping leaves off a miniature, half-grown chestnut tree. As an aside, the chestnut is not amused—its whole family is nearly endangered, for God’s sake. It deserves a little respect.

But the goat is unmoved and continues swallowing those leaves whole and ripping them off as fast as she can, before anyone notices that she’s jumped the fence again. She’s a wild child with a history of staying out past her curfew and mixing with the wrong crowd. They drag her back and lock her up, but they can’t kill her dreams. Given half a chance, she’d take off with the finches and linnets and meet up with some old acquaintances (a couple monarch butterflies who know how to party) for some pomegranate-flavored margaritas on a sunny beach in Mexico. She’s optimistic like that. Someday, she thinks. Yes, someday.

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in northern New York.  For her latest projects/publications, follow her at Gretchen Tessmer is featured in North American Review‘s issue 297.4, Fall 2012.

Tim Foley

Illustrations by: Tim Foley

Foley was born in Flint, Michigan in 1962, spent most of his school years in the nearby town of Durand, Michigan, and attended college at the Kendall School of Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Over the past quarter century, his clients have included national and international magazines, book publishers and advertising agencies, such as The Wall Street Journal, Cricket Magazine, Barrons, New York Newsday, LA Weekly, Penguin BooksAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Aside from drawing pictures, he is also a musician and songwriter, currently playing upright bass for The Jukejoint Handmedowns, sails on Lake Michigan in the summer months, and is an avid reader. He currently lives and works in Grand Rapids Michigan with his wife, Terri (a photographer and graphic artist), and his son, Keenan is grown and working as a jazz musician in Chicago.