Saturday, October 15, 2011

Grown-Up Conversation

A busy Friday and one keeping me away from home until late in the day. This is Octoberfest, a biker’s weekend in my part of the world, and the roads in a hundred mile radius are echoing with the roar of Harley Davidson motorcycles, and police passing out traffic violations as though they were raffle tickets for the big prize. Don’t be mislead to think it's a time of Hell’s Angels gone wild, because for the most part the huge crowd of visiting bikers are always polite, friendly and cooperative. Heard from someone that half of them are doctors and lawyers from out of state enjoying a long weekend of indulging their hobby.

Trouble free or not, a day of driving in and out of hundreds of motorcycles can be tiring, and the thought of coming home and closing my windows and doors to the celebrations was number one on my mind. For much of the day my thoughts kept returning off and on to a poem I read on The Writer’s Almanac earlier in the week, one by poet Charles Douthat. Difficult name, but correctly pronounced as Dow-set.

He is the author of a recent collection of poems titled Blue for Oceans, which is his debut collection. A native Californian, he graduated from Stanford University, and for the last thirty years has lived in Connecticut where he practices law. Poetry for Mr Douthat began as a diversion during a long mid-life illness. His work has been published in several magazines and journals and on several occasions featured on The Writer's Almanac. Blue for Oceans received the 2011 L.L.Winship/PEN New England Poetry Award for the best book of poetry by a New England author.

In one interview the poet said, “A poem is not a poem until it surprises me.” I had a good idea of his meaning when I read the poem below and discovered the surprise of the final line. Perhaps the writer’s surprise and my own surprise fail to converge, but I certainly understand what he means in suggesting that a poem should always contain a surprise. “Mrs. Miller” is taken from Blue for Oceans, and a link to booksellers offering the book is not included here because it is a hard one to lay hands on. Amazon offers a paperback copy for $200.00, but that seems a little steep.


And to the south lived dear old Mrs. Miller,
the first next door neighbor I really knew.
A doctor’s widow. White-streaked, yellow hair.
With a nervous New York way of talking
though she’d lived out West for twenty years.

A grown daughter—Dorothy—lived with her,
worked somewhere, drove a red sports car.
Fruit trees grew behind their gabled house
and a crunching path of white crushed stone
ended at a Japanese-style fishpond.

I was tall enough then to climb the bamboo fence
and pull oranges from the tree that overhung
their pond. What fruit I couldn’t reach, fell.
In January, you’d see lazy, blurred goldfish
tailing beneath navels floating on the pond.

Saturdays, I’d wash Mrs. Miller’s Buick
with a bucket, soap and sponge. The fifteen cents
she paid was good money in ’61. Later, on the lanai,
she’d pour my coke, wave away her cigarette smoke,
and engage me in grown-up conversation.

“Since nothing ever goes according to plan,” she’d say,
“You’d think we’d figure out the plan.”
I was at most eleven. She was a drunk, I suppose.
Confused, but open-hearted. Lonely, of course.
The first person like me I’d known.

The painting included here is one of Douthat’s own. In addition to writing poetry and practicing law, he also paints. The cover of Blue for Oceans shows a detail of John Constable’s 1827 painting Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, a work similar in style to Douthat’s.


  1. Really good poem. Evocative; drawing images with every word counting. And interesting in the sense of his law work and writing and painting. Have often wondered how many millions do the same thing: work at something gainful and labor in the evenings, on the weekends, letting words spring forth from seemingly secret place and demanding that they be ordered for best effect.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America