barton sutter | fishin at forty

6 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 26 | November 11, 2005

Back-to-back poems by Bart Sutter (author of the previous Poetry Dispatch #26, “The Third Use of the Penis”) for readers who may have felt that poem ‘light reading’. To quote from the back cover of the book in which that poem and the following poems appear: “…Drawing from the narrative, formal tradition of Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson’s poems, Sutter’s poems are full of the grist of rural life,—old farms, old shops, wild mushrooms, beaver dams, roadside bars and eccentric but vital people. His verse is so sharp and unforced that its underlying artistry risks vanishing in epiphany.” Norbert Blei


FISHING AT FORTY (for Louis Jenkins) by Barton Sutter

We got ourselves up
For one last trip, gathered our gear,
Kissed the women goodbye, and drove
A hundred miles under smoldering skies.
Decorated with yellow leaves,
The lake was a mosaic of reflections
Where we drifted, casting this way and that,
Like someone searching his mind for an answer.

What was it you wanted
Back there in your twenties?
A woman writhing and moaning your name?
The nod and good word of a man you admired?
Wishes and dreams had come to pass,
And still you felt like a failure.
The woods had promised visions once,
But what you got was what was there:
Spiced air and silence, mist on the water …
You got what you brought: sausage and cheese,
Your own foggy thoughts, passing
Brandy around the fire. And what was left,
What had you saved for your later years?
The consolation of memories? Insomnia? Disease?
You might still put together some words
That would last. But aging meant gradually giving up
All you loved best: tobacco and liquor,
Reading and sex. In the end, in the home, you’d refuse
Even food, groaning and waving the tray away.

I caught one fish, a small rainbow,
And held him high for my pal to admire.
The shimmer, the sheen, the shine of a trout!

Then rain dotted down. We made for shore,
Where I gutted the fish, tore out his gills,
And left the red mess for the coons to devour.
What next? Nothing to do but drive
The back roads, pull at the whiskey,
Stare through the rain, and wish it would quit.
Car-fishing, we called it.
You didn’t catch much, but you didn’t get wet.
We nosed through the bush, jounced over rocks,
Swerved around deadfalls, splashed
Through mudholes, planning, complaining …
The lake we wanted never appeared.
We took the wrong roads,
Misread the map, and just like that
Our season was over. The rain had eased off,
But the daylight was gone. We found
The highway and turned toward home. Wind
Whipped wet leaves through the headlights.
The branches of birches flashed by
Like lightning. Quick as a thought,
A coyote shot across the road and into the woods.
So a man over forty thinks of his death—
Quickly, several times each day.
My friend groaned out
The words to a song about “easy lovin’,”
Though he knew it wasn’t. Weary,
We wondered whether the trip had been worth it.
I thought of my rainbow back in the cooler,
Already losing his pinks and blues,
His silver and steel; the whiskey
Behind the seat, half gone;
The long, hard winter coming on.

from THE BOOK OF NAMES, New and Selected Poems, BOA Limited Editions.


barton sutter | the third use of the penis

6 10 2007



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



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.