It was a droll event…which is no doubt what the overflow crowd of listeners who made their way through the fog to Common Good Books last night was hoping for. Louis Jenkins’s prose poems are full of commonplace phrases and brief, concise descriptions rather than wildly imaginative flights of fancy or dramatic personal confessions. Yet almost invariably, there’s something mesmerizing about the plodding pace, the deadpan tone, the unabashed sense of futility, and the subtly twisted logic by which a seemingly ordinary train of thought veers slightly from its presumed course into a zone where metaphysics and the rocks on the beach are indistinguishable.
It wouldn’t be easy to convey this effect in a few words or lines—it depends so heavily on the meticulous pace with which a thought-cluster unfolds—but the poem “The Fishing Lure,” might be taken as a case in point. Here the speaker compares the wide-eyed look he’s taken on due to a lifetime of pondering seemingly inane, unimportant questions, to the look of stupidity—or is it terror?—on the face of a fishing lure. As Jenkins proceeds to describe the lure, it seems he’s changed the subject, though the exercise is an example of those bizarre reflections he was referring to a minute earlier. After dissing the exaggerated appearance of the lure for a while, Jenkins concludes; “There isn’t a way in the world that I’d bite on that thing. But I might swim in just a little closer.”
Jenkins didn’t read that poem last night, but he did read a few of his other classics—the one about the Florida T-shirt; the one about a “deeply disappointing” life. He read several from his recent play, Nice Fish, and one about the challenge of deciding when to get a haircut which led eventually to a lament about sleeping through the prime of one’s life—a two-hour span.
Jenkins was under the weather and he stumbled a bit here and there. He couldn’t find his sheaf of new poems. It wasn’t the kind of reading that brings new layers of insight to a poet’s work. But it was a lot of fun. And the shelves at Common Good Books are dazzling works of art themselves.
I kept thinking I saw people I knew—Is that Cary Waterman? Is that Julie Ingebretsen?—but when you reach a certain age, everybody starts looking like someone you used to know. I’m sure Jenkins could fashion a poem out of such an experience. For myself, I can’t imagine how it would end.
Before the event we met some friends at the Neighborhood Café on Selby just off Snelling. True to its name, the cafe actually has the look and feel of a neighborhood place. Good Happy Hour appetizers, generous pours of wine.
Then the neon lights in the fog.