Jan 22, 2013

Pouncey's Restaurant and Stephen Dobyns' "Tenderly"

Pouncey’s is a Mom & Pop in Perry, a fairly remote town in northwest Florida.  We chose it because the parking lot was full, and 80% of the vehicles were pickups. I tried fried ribs, which I’d never heard of. They were pretty tough, and ribs have enough flavor prepared the traditional ways. I’ll stick to chicken hereafter. The cabbage casserole and black-eyed peas were only OK, but the ambience was a solid A—all locals, it seemed, greeting each other and saying a fair amount of not much, as we all do when we’re locals.

I wondered about the 100% Caucasian clientele when 40% of Perry’s population is black and 2% Hispanic. Are southern Mom & Pops, like our churches, America’s most segregated places? Maybe it has nothing to do with the South.

From the next table, an elderly-but-not-ancient couple struck up a conversation. They’ve retired from Perry to 160 acres with three fish ponds in 35 miles north. He speaks with pride of his children’s outcomes (his son runs a business in Perry). 

The Mrs. is trim, with short, slightly wavy, senior citizen hair, and a classic church lady manner. Her smile seems genuine, but I’d swear there was a hint of ferocity below her surface. 

Only when they’re about to leave does it become clear that he’s on a walker. She takes it from the wall where it was leaning and pulls it over to their table. Then she positions herself behind him, grabs his pants and belt in the middle of his lower back, and with one hand, hoists him into the walker, as a mother might do with a misbehaving four-year-old. 


I’m not sure you'll see a tight connection between that little sketch and Stephen Dobyns’ poem, “Tenderly,” but here goes.

I’d also like to know how much you like and respect the poem. At first I gave it less than a grade of  A  because it seemed to be so completely a story in prose—broken arbitrarily into lines of wannabe poetry.

However, the thing has stuck with me for a few days now, and I’m beginning to reevaluate. Like many of the best poems of the “School of Accessibility,” there’s a powerful whole here that might overcome rather ordinary language.  I will not soon forget the central image of the man on the table, plus some of the details about the other diners and Dobyns’ implied theme(s).  What is it that does or does not draw us together? What are the best images of despair? Is it ever acceptable for us to know only the final result, the despair, without knowing the events that led up to it? Sometimes the answers are bizarre. Maybe.

I also wonder about the way we respond to explicit sexuality in poetry—it’s not all that common, after all. Is Dobyns playing unfairly by appealing to our baser interests—not just sexuality, but a weird take on it? Or are the rest of us too reluctant to accept sexuality as an important human experience and therefore very much the property of poetry? 


WAS said...

Ooh, what’s not to like about this poem? The art for me is in the choice – however garish it may appear – of the incident to base this on. It may have really happened, it may not have (the choice of “fillet” and “duck” afterward suggests that I put my money on the latter). It isn’t compellingly depicted anyway which is part of the point, since it is about story-telling, our capacity to live through our anecdotes, which are, it turns out, dreamed up in our separate skulls in the first place. All it takes is a little prompt (like these poems and diner experiences you hand over like a delicious menu) and everyone’s traumas are turned into victories at the expense of … nothing at all. Oh, and that classic Hollywood ending, like in, say, Trading Places or Office Space, the tropical island vindication for the service of the hero on his journey, turned through the wonders of vicarious projection into a consolation for abject failure. Just brilliant. It’s like that classic exchange from the Simpsons: “I wonder why stories of degradation and humiliation make you more popular.”(Homer) “I don't know, Homer, they just do.” (Moe).

Oh, if you are really wondering why no black folk were in that diner, reflect on the lack of collards, fried chicken and pecan pie on the menu.


Pasadena Adjacent said...

Funny coming to your blog after just finishing this article

"L.A. church leaders sought to hide sex abuse cases from authorities
Documents from the late 1980s show that Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and another archdiocese official discussed strategies to keep police from discovering that children were being sexually abused by priests"

I did relate to the group being connected by that moment of a man's unhinging - kind of like concluding a guilty verdict among your fellow jurors.

Ken Mac said...

Damn, I would love to eat there. I'd show up in my ChevyVan!

Hannah Stephenson said...

What a bizarre poem. But I like it...

So, an observed freak incident lingers with us, within each of us, gets more life. And how strange that the poet makes a village of all the witnesses to this (non)-event. He isn't wrong....when we view something together, even with strangers, we share point of view for a moment.

There is also some weird desperation right under the surface in this poem (especially at the end)....the tone is interesting, I think.

GPU said...

I think there's a meta-commentary here about how we read a poem. Will we, here at Banjo's diner, remember this poem on our death bed's? The thing is more about poetry than sexuality or extreme behavior.

(Stay put until this deep freeze breaks. Damn, but it's cold up here.)

Brenda's Arizona said...

Odd little poem. I like the comment left on the poem's site - that is about how we cope with the burden in life.
Where did you find this poem?

Rune Eide said...

I agree with the comment above (and the comment on the poem's site). In addition, I suspect that the sexual theme was chosen precisely because it is often avoided and considered unsuitable by many (and I suspect, especially in the US). But an important issues is like a knife - it stands best on its pointed end.

Banjo52 said...

Bill, I'm not sure why, but I'm surprised at your enthusiasm for this one. Good! And I don't watch the Simpsons, so I'm glad to get this wisdom from Homer.

PA, "a man's unhinging"--have you run that phrase by Mr. V? Ouch. And yes, I'd think a study of what (kinds of) things are best at binding a group together. Surely that's somebody's Ph.D. dissertation? Seriously, it's quite a topic, I think. Tribalism. School colors. And now the horror we witnessed together.

GPU, thanks for that take. I probably agree--will read it again to be sure. Bundle up.

Ken, I think you mean it. Got map? Got GPS?

Hannah, I agree. I don't know if anyone would want to laugh it off, but I sure don't. Yet there's a wicked humor brewing.

Brenda, I've already forgotten the steps that led to it, but in hindsight they seem odd steps. I'd been looking at the latest Billy Collins and Galway Kinnell in New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, and those poems were odd in a somewhat similar, brutal way like the Dobyns.

RuneE, "esp. in the U.S." Isn't it weird that we love it when women't tops fall off at halftime in the Super Bowl and wear all this REVEAL clothing, but we still respond like Puritans in so many other ways. And I love your knife analogy.

Stickup Artist said...

Oh, I think of this subject often and wonder about people pushed to the brink, being right this very moment frustrated beyond redemption or relief, lashing out at themselves or the "other(s)." It's a deep, important subject and a cautionary tale. I can understand how this stuck. It is very timely.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

One bad word will put me off. I really couldn't get past the part where people were articulating.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Gotta pull out my old New Yorkers and focus on the poetry. The essays always catch me first...

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