The Unhappy People
Professor, may I introduce you
to two of the Unhappy People, whom you’ve described
as inhabiting a cultural vacuum
somewhere between the swamps of Frustration
and the salt sea of Despair.
May I present my wife’s cousins, Corey and Brent.
You will note immediately that their teeth are translucent,
the colour of reconstituted powdered milk,
which can be attributed to hereditary malnutrition,
as their lack of earlobes can be ascribed to inbreeding.
You are free to make notes, if you wish.
At worst, they’ll merely laugh at you.
Professor, I must ask you to forgive
the mandolin, the five-string banjo, the guitar, the fiddle
and the jew’s-harp. I must ask you to bear with
Brent when he dances – he prefers it to walking to
the refrigerator for another beer – and Corey when he
his groin in symbolic tribute to the girl in the yellow
playing with a frisbee on the grass across the street.
I know it’s distracting when, for no apparent reason,
they break into song. I can understand your not laughing
with them when they talk about driving
four-year-old cars at one hundred and ten
miles per hour down dirt roads with the police behind them,
of overturning and wondering drunkenly how to shut off
the headlights, until logic triumphed and they kicked
I beg you not to be disturbed when they whoop
at the tops of their voices – it’s in their blood,
I’m afraid, their way of declaring an instantaneous holiday
and, besides, Brent got out of jail this morning
or, as he puts it, got back from his annual vacation,
having been locked up this time because he didn’t
know his own strength, he says, and when he was refused
at the liquor store, being drunk, forgot he was carrying
nothing under his left arm to offset the force of his right
pushing open the door on his way out and so, purely by
drove his fist through the glass:
it could have happened to anybody, Your Honour,
he told the Court. You must excuse Corey, Professor,
like every other member of his family he walks in and out
of rooms without thinking it necessary to offer
any explanation. When they arrive at my house
or any other, they open the door, come in, sit down
and, perhaps, switch on the radio. They’d expect you to do
If you go to the window, Professor, you’ll see
that he’s talking with the girl in the yellow bathing suit
and already has her laughing. “Once you got them laughing,
you’re as good as in bed with them,” Brent says.
he jumps up again and dances. They’ve brought venison
and wild rice and a half-dozen jars of their mother’s
homemade preserves and pickles, fresh loaves of her bread
two double cases of beer and a forty-ounce bottle
of dark rum, having shut down the cannery
where Corey works in honour of Brent’s homecoming.
“I said to hell with ‘er, let’s tie ‘er up.”
and with unanimous approval of his fellows,
conveyed without a word, he tied her up well
by making certain delicate adjustments to the machinery
when the bosses weren’t watching. His laughter and his
laughter and the laughter of the girl in the yellow bathing
mingle and rise like water from a garden hose, spraying the
from inside and out. The passersby turn
and smile, a neighbour’s dog runs to see what’s happening,
a host of starlings take wing, the tiger lilies are in flower
at the edge of the parking lot next to this house.
Professor, I don’t suppose you’d care to arm-wrestle?
Alden Nowlan ~ Smoked Glass ~ 1977
This poem is dedicated to some guys I used to know.
Gone, most of them, flamed out and crashed and burned in (mostly) self-imposed self-destruction.
The hard living took its toll, but they had a grand time while it lasted.
And they made a lot of people laugh.
Gone, but definitely not forgotten!