I’m not a poet. This was confirmed for me in graduate school. It wasn’t that I had to read a bunch of the stuff–that was at least mildly interesting–rather it was I had to produce a bunch of it. I don’t think I’ve willfully read a poem since except for one: Stephen Dobyn’s “Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine.”
I read that poem every year around this time, along with “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and I have to say the former packs more of a punch with each passing year.
Consider the repost below my contribution to National Poetry Month.
Stephen DobynsWhen I was twelve, I happened to guess the winning horse
of the Kentucky Derby. It was on the sixth-grade
field trip to the Henry Ford Museum where we learned
that plain common sense is the key to the moral dominance
of the United States. The man on the car radio discussed
the horses and when he came to the name Dark Star, I said,
That’s the horse for me. I mean, it seemed clear that any
horse named Dark Star had to win; and when Dark Star won,
I said, Sure–because in sixth grade life was like that.
My teacher said, Hey, you could have won a bundle.
I thought, What could be more simple? From that event
I date my readiness to be stupid about racehorses.
So on this May 2nd twenty-eight years later I shut down
my typewriter at five o’ clock and hurry across to
Barbara’s Lunch to watch the 107th running of the Derby.
It’s been a lousy day and instead of writing or reading or
cleaning up my desk, I keep brooding that my marriage
is breaking apart, that my life seems aimed at a ditch,
is clearly out of control, and in the ornate bar mirror
I see my hair standing up in attitudes of bewilderment.
The restaurant is closed, TV dark and bar empty except for
the bartender, who’s barely twenty and just learning to mix
cocktails, and a table of five people from the chicken plant
who I bet have been drinking beer and shots since breakfast.
Two of them are fast fat girls in tight shorts and loose
blouses and one wears a dog collar. Then there’s a boy
as thin as a razor who has snipped off the sleeves of
his jean jacket and has homemade tattoos on his biceps
and bare shoulders. Another is a chain-smoking old man
destined, I’m sure, to die of cancer. And lastly
there is Leo, who resembles an aging country-western
singer, with a chin like a brick and thinning brown hair
swept back to look like Johnny Cash. The girl with
the dog collar strokes Leo’s hand and tells the boy:
We love each other, we fight, but we love each other.
The boy nods. Although no Apollo, he knows about love.
But this is Derby Day: twenty-one eager horses
and I’m told Tap Shoes is the horse to beat so I
call over to the bartender and say, Hey, turn on the TV
and let’s watch the Derby. He says, What’s the Derby?
And I say, The Kentucky Derby. And he says, I never
heard of it. But he’s a nice kid so he flicks on the TV
and there’s Churchill Downs and thousands of flowers and
happy fans. Jesus, says the kid, look at all those people!
It’s the Derby, I say: See, there’s Muhammad Ali.
Who’s that? says the kid. You know, I say, the great boxer.
Hey, says the kid, those horses going to pull little carts?
Not today, I say. Too bad, says the kid, I like the carts.
On the TV the announcer is predicting how the race
will be run and famous people are asked their opinions.
I wait for a twinkle in my brain but nothing happens. Still
it’s all so exciting I want to talk to someone about it–
say how making a bet is like falling in love or that
the horses and jockeys look like centaurs before the rape
of whoever–but the bartender is learning to make a Pink Lady,
while the five chicken processors are deep in their sadness.
The girl with the collar puts her hand on the boy’s shoulder
and says, He needs me, Joey, I don’t care if he hits me,
he wouldn’t hit me if he didn’t need to do it. And Leo says,
Hey, I’m no good. She thinks I’m good but I’m a pig.
The light from the door throws their shadows on the wall.
I think how defeated their lives are and wonder why
the girl wears a dog collar and what Leo must do
to mistreat her, if the old man will really die of cancer
and why the boy sticks holes in his arms to make dumb
tattoos with the name Jesse and little stars and crosses,
how he will die with that sentimental doodling still
on his body, having spent his life as a poor man’s
advertisement for unrequited love. In no time I start
thinking of my own life with its insoluble problems–
how I can’t afford health insurance and my parents
constantly fret and that my marriage is falling apart.
But on the TV they’re getting ready for the run for
the roses–one hundred and forty thousand happy fans.
Maybe Bold Ego, I tell myself. Maybe Cure the Blues
or Proud Appeal. Maybe Top Avenger or Mythical Ruler.
What notable names. They all deserve to win. The bartender
looks up from his little red guide. I like gray horses best,
he says, it makes them look sad. Now they’re in the gate.
The TV’s by the jukebox and the flashing lights become all
the flowers at Churchill Downs. Then the bell and they’re off!
Right away the horses string out rounding the first turn as
the favorites take an early lead. But oh-oh here come the girl
with the dog collar with about five bucks for the jukebox.
Hold up, I tell her, this is a big race and it’s almost over.
She’s indifferent but polite so she waits. What’s your horse?
she asks. Maybe Bold Ego, I say, unable to see him. I love
those country songs, says the girl. She stands beside me
and when I look down, I find I can look down her blouse.
But on the TV terrible things are happening: all the heroic
names are falling behind and coming up fast at the finish
is Pleasant Colony, while the number two horse, Woodchopper,
pays over twenty dollars and I’ll bet they never announced
his name, because I spent half the damn winter chopping wood
and if I’d put a thousand on Woodchopper or even a hundred,
then right now I’d be winging my way south to better times.
Troy has fallen, I tell the girl, play those country songs.
She puts a hand on my arm. It’s a crazy world, she says.
And I say, What’s a smart girl like you doing here
in Barbara’s Lunch? Why, she says, we’re just waiting
for Big John to get us out of here. Aren’t we all, I say.
The girl feeds her five bucks into the slot and goes back
to Leo, drapes herself over his shoulder as the jukebox
begins to pound out “Take These Chains from My Heart,”
which drowns out the TV where Pleasant Colony and jockey
Jorge Velasquez and trainer John Campo and the owner
Thomas Mellon Evans accept the quarter-of-a-million-
dollar purse and their corner on the world’s happiness.
As I watch the horseshoe of roses being lowered onto
Pleasant Colon’s neck, I think of my life and wonder
how to cope with my marriage coming down to certain divorce
and a son who will be the subject of long-distance calls
and for whom I’ll be an occasional visitor. Is he taller?
I will ask. Is he doing well in school? And I will remember
kissing the soft part of his neck, the velvet indentation by
his collarbone, how I would nuzzle it and he would giggle.
On the TV the winners keep mouthing their thanks to the world
as the jukebox plays songs of infidelity and rejected love
and the girl with the dog collar keeps glancing at the door,
waiting for Big John who is a phenomenon I have no faith in.
But dammit all, I’m wrong. Just when I think it’s a joke
in comes this big fellow and the girl jumps to her feet.
It’s Big John, she says. And Big John looks foolish and grins.
He’s a fat man in a red T-shirt that doesn’t reach
his waist so the roll of fat looks like a white snake
wrapped round his belly. But everybody’s perking up
and the girl twitch their shoulders. Come on, shouts
the one with the dog collar, Big John’s got his Winnebago
So we troop out to the street where the fog’s rolling in and
parked at the curb is a golden Winnebago with a huge stereo,
soft chairs and all the beer you can drink. So what if you
don’t know horses? So what if your life’s shot to hell?
Hey, I shout, can your fat god in his fat machine fix my life?
Happy days ahead, calls the girl, hanging from the back step.
But before I can decide to act, Big John hits the gas.
The gutters of Belfast are filled with the white feathers
of chicken trucked daily to the processing plant, and as
Big John takes off feathers are swept up in the wake like
a taste of hot times. The Winnebago disappears into the fog,
like some winged Pegasus, I think, or Trojan Horse cruising
the coastline for holiday villages to pillage and burn.
In any case, it’s gone and on the dead streets of Belfast
I find myself stuck without wonderful racehorse, joke
or sad life with which to divert myself by watching.
Where are the tricks to help me through the day? It’s here
I must take my first step but I’m torn between Dark Star,
the Winnebago life or finding my way home where my wife tries
to push me from her heart because I’ve told her she must.
Think of the wedding picture and everybody laughing.
Think of all the contemptible ways to say good-bye.
And unable to move a foot, I turn this way and that:
Dark Star, Dark Star, where are the winners I was promised?
But I’m not dumb; I know you only win when you bet real money
and play for keeps. Instead, I stand in the street as feathers
drift over my shoulders. Like Icarus? I ask myself, hopefully.
No, just another damn fool who won’t make up his mind.