Money and Fame

It is not the way I desire to end
Up, like this man in his fifties, at the crossing
Of two thoroughfares, selling his poems—
Sheets of salmon colored devotional literature
Spread across a plank by a fruit stand.
Cantelopes, mangoes, plantains and peaches:
A worthwhile market for poetry.

A makeshift sign lists famous names:
“My poems have appeared in books
Along with Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Langston
Hughes…” I ask about his books and he shows
Me a thumbed and battered grade school reader
Like one I had. The only thing I remember
From it is Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem… “meter
You to Jones Beach…” The poet talks and an audience
Forms. I try to read one of his poems. He talks of the time
He appeared on television after winning
A poetry contest. Seventeen years old,
As predicted in a vision of his grandmother’s.
When his father brought home their first set
She looked into its cloudy round screen, and dreamed
His face would someday smile from its glass.

His poem is about raindrops, pretty
Raindrops. It rhymes predictably.
Now, he is chanting: “Money and fame,
That’s all I want. Money and fame.” What a lame
Reason for being a poet. I am not much more
Than 24, trying to live on whatever I can
Without having to ask parents or friends for help.
As the poet repeats his line
To the gathering of marks, I wander
To the mangoes and papaya,
3 for a dollar, 2 for a dollar.
This whole city has its price—
Vice to virtue. I don’t buy
his poems. But I do make a pact:
To work hard every day,
And listen more, not to join
The poetry Mafia,
To leave New York,
And come back,
To marry a woman I love,
Never to sell myself
Short.

Out of the gray sky, raindrops begin a patter
Summoning umbrellas from the sidewalk
Like mushrooms. The poems start to run
And the poet collapses
His folding chair, covers his frightened children
With garbage bags.

Under the shelter of the awning I ponder the fruit
Laid in careful pyramids, the secret form of spheres
Made clear in the stacks of fresh lemons and pears.
And musing nearby, not mute, but never saying much,
The grocers, faces wizened and ever on the watch.

 

Originally published in Cincinnati Poetry Review 25, 1994.