~Both of these poems previously appeared in The Alabama Literary Review (2012).
Western Lit in Poultry Science
After French we had fifteen minutes to leave
the columned quad, climb Ag Hill and find
PoulSci, its smoked-glass doors our portal
to a fetid planet, its atmosphere
the face-slap you never got used to -
chickens in the basement being chickens.
Our professor offered no jokes, welcomes.
Yes, an angry young man, we thought. Finally.
Perhaps he even read The Village Voice.
Easy to now see he was a grad assistant
pissed at this departmental exile.
Why me? he must have thought. Why did I
get sent to the barnyard, far from Park Hall
where the tenured read their ancient lectures
in the eternal air of burnt coffee,
where round-bottomed girls leaned to copiers
in the halls whose walls bespoke verse.
He sighed at our orange plastic chairs and
the green blackboard with its smudged equations.
He said it’d be tough to read Homer here,
even though Greece had maybe smelled like this.
And in that first class he used in medias res,
he skipped ahead to get our attention,
to Helen’s sigh, “Shameless whore that I am.”
We liked hearing that word in a classroom.
This was college, where you didn’t giggle.
The thick air coated our throats all quarter,
forced us to spit it out after class,
a smell that didn’t bother the PoulSci majors
in their white t-shirts and unpressed Levis
who would soon be rich from using hormones,
genes, drugs to grow strips, fingers, McNuggets,
vanilla protein the coming world would crave.
We brushed elbows with them in the hallway
on our way to read lines from the old world
with our still grumpy teacher. We invented
back-stories for him – a lost love, a jilt.
But mostly we worried how he’d grade.
There was a war, and we could be drafted.
- Run get your father. His dinner’s going cold.
I am maybe eight, dispatched to “the joint”
up at the corner, a job I know well,
one of his buzzed buddies, as usual, hoisting
me to a stool, the shiny red seat where
I can see the barman’s long stained apron.
A drink for me is proposed, seconded,
milk produced from somewhere, quite suspect,
already warming in its just-washed mug.
The milk sits becalmed, contaminated
by the glass whose life’s work is to hold beer,
and there is so much of it, topped off
by the barman who surely has no kids.
The talking goes on. I stare at the milk,
now mine, an unwanted social fate.
His friends keep the strong-breath questions coming -
do I have girlfriends and how many?
Any answer I give is well received.
The pin-ball machine makes modern noises
over in the corner, begging for quarters.
I want to play but too shy to ask.
My mother is waiting. The milk is waiting.
My father is talking to somebody else,
and now my own food is going cold
in the quiet light of home at the table
where I am fed, where I want to be.
I put my lips to the glass for one sip.
It’s awful. I manage a Mmmmmm. They cheer.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
“Western Lit in Poultry Science”: There had been a livestock show in the University of Georgia Coliseum the weekend before registration so it was both hot and stinky as I ran from table to table trying to get “easy” courses because failure of just one class meant the loss of one’s 2-S student deferment and a near-certain trip to Vietnam. Thus in the heat, stink and stress I ran out of there without noticing that my first Western Lit course would be in the PoulSci building. And I had so looked forward to being in tweedy Park Hall. I told this story at a dinner party last year, and it got such a laugh I knew I had to try to do something with it.
“Honky-Tonk Milk”: Atlanta in the 1950s was like a collection of small towns, each with its own little grocer, drug store and sometimes a bar. I like to refer to this as my “Dickensian” chore, running to tell my father that dinner was ready. The bar is still there, barely changed - Moe’s and Joe’s. Now though it’s mostly home to Emory students and hipsters basking in some imagined retro-land. I never go there. This poem too grew from positive reactions to my stories of having to “have a drink” with my father’s buddies when I really did not want to. It’s kind of an end to our childhood when we first do something just to make another person feel good.
ABOUT RUPERT FIKE
Rupert Fike was named the Finalist (2nd place) as Georgia Author of the Year 2011 after the publication of his collection, Lotus Buffet, (Brick Road Poetry Press). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction and poetry. His work has appeared in Rosebud, The Georgetown Review, A&U America’s AIDS Magazine, Natural Bridge, storySouth, The Blue Fifth Review and is forthcoming in The Southern Review of Poetry and Alligator Juniper. He has a poem inscribed in a downtown Atlanta plaza, and his non-fiction, Voices from The Farm, is now in its second printing with over 200 photographs of life on a spiritual community in the 1970s.