barton sutter | the third use of the penis

6 10 2007

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Poetry Dispatch No. 25 | November 9, 2005

Bart Sutter is one of a small handful of great writers and poets living around the Duluth and Superior area, including the short story writer, Tony Bukoski and the poet, Louis Jenkins. They do the Midwest proud. Sutter is the author of CEDARHOME, PINE CREEK PARISH HOME and Other Poems, and THE BOOK OF NAMES: New and Selected Poems, among other works, including a magnificent book of ‘UpNorth” essays called, COLD COMFORT: Life at the Top of the Map. You will find beauty and delight and a thoughtful life in every line he writes. Norbert Blei

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THE THIRD USE OF THE PENIS by Barton Sutter

My friend Ann, the reference librarian,
Sits at her desk like the goddess of knowledge,
And people come to her—regular people
And people in raincoats, people in turbans
And some with shaved heads, the kid
With his suitcase of dead radios,
The girl with the cue stick, people who smell bad,
People who can’t remember their own last names,
People who tremble and stammer, people
Who haven’t slept in six weeks—the people,
Yes, the people come. But Ann is no goddess
But rather a regular woman with breasts
And an excellent head for crosswords and Scrabble.
She is unbelievably brave. For the people, they come,
The troubled ones. They ask her things.
It’s frightening.

Oh, some of them are easy ones, some of them are nothing.
She could answer them in her sleep, and she does.
How long is the longest river? Ho-hum.
How deep is the deepest lake? How many
Miles from here to the moon? Why are there stars?
What are the seven names of Jehovah? Excuse me,
But where is the bathroom?

But then there are those who have lost their way.
The boy with the briefcase and pocket of pens:
“Do you have any plans for atomic bombs?”
The woman so ashamed she blushes and sweats
And insists on writing her question down:
“What is a black belt in karate?” And who could forget
The man from City Hall who called to demand:
“Say, what century are we in?” These are the screwloose,
The scary, the ding-dongs, the very dangerous ones
On whom the future of the world depends.
Even these, very often, Ann is able to answer.

But one time she was completely stumped.
A middle-aged woman in a pink pants-suit
Inquired discreetly: “Can you tell me, please,
What is the third use of the penis?” Ann thought
Quite quickly of two, but the third?
Befuddled, she sent the woman away.
Research yielded no answer. Ann laughed.
She asked her husband. He laughed.
The both of them laughed. What on earth
Was that woman thinking?
They made love that night. It was fun.
But that was the second use of the penis.
What was the third use of the penis?
Eventually the question became
Kind of a parlor game
For Ann and her circle of friends, of whom
I am lucky enough to count myself one.
That question has happily filled
Many lulls in late-night conversation.
Over the years, we have proposed
Towel rack, swizzle stick, emergency fish bait.
Nothing seems exactly right.
Any man who goes off to the John
Is apt to be asked on his return
If he can answer that woman’s question.
Nobody can. The question’s a joke
But has also become a kind of koan.
Many of us, when we’re alone—
Washing the dishes, out hunting grouse—
Ask ourselves (and we’re serious);
What is the third use of the penis?

Having failed for years, having broken their heads,
Having had laughter but no satori,
Ann and her friends have chosen me
To disseminate this mystery.
So I send out the question about the third use
Beyond these friends, this neighborhood,
Out of town and out of slate,
To rapists and to feminists,
To homos and to whores,
To men’s groups and the motorbike gangs,
To doctors and philosophers, to honeymoon lovers
And couples stuck in counselors’ rooms,
To old men fishing in wooden rowboats,
To widows knitting socks and afghans,
To those alone and those with mates,
This question, good to think upon,
A mystery that puzzles, teases, pleases:
What is the third use of the penis?

from THE BOOK OF NAMES, Boa Editions.

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