Poetry Reading at a Local Library

by Boris Kokotov

[Editor’s note] How shall we classify “Poetry Reading at a Local Library”? As a short story? Flash fiction? Poetry? Drama? Essay? As an article for The Critics’ Corner? We can confidently check the option “All of the above.” Accordingly, we are bringing it to you as an essay, the schedule category that allows you to see it earliest.


“Our next and final guest for tonight’s event, Ramon, will read his poem. Afterwards we’ll have five to ten minutes for a discussion, and then the meeting will be adjourned. I’ve already introduced the author at the beginning of the event, so please welcome Ramon.”

(Thin applause from a dozen people sitting on folding chairs in a small room of a local library)

Ramon: “Good evening everybody; thank you for coming. The poem I am going to read is called ‘Live Lobsters on Sale’ and, sure enough, it’s about lobsters. They are fascinating creatures, you know. I mean, all creatures are fascinating, but not all of them are on sale, at least not in our supermarket.” (Chuckles)

Live Lobsters on Sale

“Can I help you with something?”

Staring at lobsters in a fish tank,
a dozen of them crawling slowly,
climbing on top of each other,
not fighting though, their claws
held tight with rubber bands...

“I don’t think so,” I said.
“It’s like bird-watching.
A pity they cannot sing.”

“I see,” the saleswoman ventured,
“no seafood for dinner tonight?”

“Right,” I said, “just bread,
cheese, and olive oil.”

Why did I say that? In truth
chicken with rice,
a glass of red wine, maybe.

She’s already turned away
busy wrapping fish
for another customer.

“Good night,” I said,
chiefly to the crustaceans.

(Thin applause)

“Thank you all for listening, thank you!”

Moderator: “Any questions for our guest? Any remarks?”

A middle-aged woman raises her hand: “I like your poem, Ramon. I think, however, your descriptions are not very innovative. For instance as soon as ‘lobsters in a tank’ are mentioned, a listener immediately has in her mind the whole scene, and the details you provide, like ‘climbing on top of each other’ or ‘their claws are rubber-banded,’ add nothing to the picture. Same thing with the saleswoman. We are told that ‘she gets busy serving another customer’, but that’s exactly what any salesperson usually does, isn’t it?”

Ramon: “I see your point, Jennifer. Well, thousands of verses have been written about, say, spring. Glistening grass, blooming flowers, birds making nests, and so on. By your logic, as soon as the word ‘spring’ is uttered everybody has imaged it; why provide any further details? But a spring-verse is not necessarily about spring. ‘The spring’ isn’t the picture; rather it’s a frame. For something else. And a frame should not be ‘innovative’.”

An older man speaks: “I am confused. Why did the narrator lie to the saleswoman about what he will have for dinner? It seems to me there is no reason for that.”

Ramon: “People usually lie to hide something or to impress somebody. Same here. To him, the lobsters are captivating animals; to her they are just ‘seafood’. So he says, ‘bread, cheese, and olive oil’ — veggies only. Kind of making a point. In fact though... of course he will eat chicken!”

Another asks: “Ramon, ‘good night’ was said ‘chiefly to the crustaceans’. Why not to her?”

Ramon: “It is late evening; the supermarket will be closed soon. Most of the lobsters will live through the night, not in a very comforting environment, but still alive. To them being alive is very important. So the narrator feels compassion for them. He also feels compassion for the saleswoman: she’s been all day on her feet, and she’s not young anymore. By the end of her shift, she’s cooked. But she has certainly had her share of ‘thank-you’ and ‘good-night’ from customers. The lobsters haven’t.”

Still another: “I thought she was trying to be personable, even playful. But your protagonist kept his distance. To me, the last sentence sounds not as a nice gesture toward crabs but rather a cold rejection of her. Is that how it happened in real life?”

Ramon: “The ‘real life’ is inside the poem, not outside. Poetry is retroactive. But it does not recreate or replace an actual event. Rather it fills in blanks. Crabs, by the way, weren’t on sale that night.”

Moderator: “Okay, last question, we are almost out of time.”

A young girl jumps to her feet. “Are you sure lobsters can’t sing? Whales and dolphins, for instance, can. Fish also make some sounds, we are just unable to hear them...”

Ramon: “I agree. The definition of the word ‘song’ could be stretched to embrace the entire spectrum of noises any living creature — alien races included — may produce. Then it would be reasonable to propose that lobsters, at least some of them, are singers like, say, a mockingbird. Expect a small surcharge on those individuals.”

Moderator: “All right, thank you, Ramon. Thanks, everybody for coming and participating. Good night.”

(Muffled applause, sounds of chairs collapsing. The room becomes empty in no time.)


Copyright © 2014 by Boris Kokotov

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