(This is a piece written years ago that I made extensive and unsuccessful efforts to sell.)
I was introduced to the splendor of accidental poetry years ago, when I scrounged a box for packing from the back of a stationery store. At home I discovered, written on a flap in magic marker, a lyric that began
Across the miles
I call your name
It went on in that aphoristic way, getting more nebulous as it went. I felt a need to call a halt to my packing and think for a moment. Who would scrawl a poem of such tenderness on a discarded box? More to the point, I thought of secret pals I’ve known, how many times in anguish and yearning I’ve called their names, across the miles.
I didn’t encounter such lyrics again until my brother the Southern California surrealist poet gave me a set of refrigerator poetry magnets. They come in flat rubber blocks of words, which adhere to the metal of your fridge as invitations to serendipitous inspiration. You separate out the words or fragments of them (s, ing), which are inscribed in stark black on white, lower case except for the imperious I. The juxtapositions arriving on the blocks already give you ideas:
goddess blue who say
whispers one preformed line. More arresting are the accidental artifacts, blocks stripped of most of their words to leave the hint of a story, breathlessly told, reminiscent of e e cummings:
Another artifact is a teenager’s conversation:
like like like
Another ascends from speculation to being:
And what could beat the heroic randiness of
apparatus raw but bed
In a block next to the freezer handle we find ourselves in the middle of a word and of an evocative, somehow disturbing scene that’s left the speaker stuttering in dismay:
ing a a chain
Magnetic poetry is something to pursue late at night or in odd moments when there’s nothing else to do but have a bowl of cereal and contemplate eternity and the refrigerator. It’s swell for parties, too. Have contests! Entertain your friends! (And writing about refrigerator poetry can help provide an answer to a question that applies to a lot of one’s private enthusiasms: Everybody thinks their own stuff is fabulous, but does anybody else think so? Or are they more apt to find other people’s, for example, dreams, aspirations, refrigerator poetry just stupid? A writer friend of mine insists sternly that nobody else is interested in your dreams or your refrigerator poetry.)
On my fridge the mine of raw words spreads across the top of the freezer door. From there poetry drips down in clots, strings, random profusions. There’s a simple but sternly enforced set of rules: Anybody can make a poem, but woe to any who, in selfish pursuit of their own mot juste, strips a word from somebody else’s poem, or is so barbaric as to edit others’ work without permission. The job is to take words from what’s left and let inspiration bubble up from happenstance–the conjunction of imagination and serendipity being, after all, one definition of the creative process.
Below the mine of words on my freezer door, the trail of poems begin tentatively, prosaically:
From there the expressive ambitions mount:
frantic repulsive eternity
shot from bare feet
I don’t understand that one. But the next one hits home, like a rhythmic summary of my emotional life:
I heave my enormous essential lust void
From there on across the white quasi-porcelain material of the refrigerator door, verse runs amok. There’s a curse directed to a beloved:
may you sit in shadow
Every time I look at that I want to flip it to an ironic but sunnier version,
may you sit in honey
But that would be against the rules.
I rarely remember who pasted what, but I know this guy, the one who has to be naughty:
tiny finger up moaning woman
In wielding the sex motif, our kitchen poets get fresher and grittier:
sordid tongue worship
Also more concretely steamy:
The meatier stuff turns to the cosmic, here to the sullying of nature herself by our little angsts:
languid scream power will urge spring away
Nature turns up a lot, partly because the mine of words supplied by the poetry-magnet company is lush in natural imagery.
from behind the rain
Renewal springs eternal on the fridge as in life, metaphors turning to ripe and fruitful–
There’s something Borgesian about this genre of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges was into the offbeat profound, the cosmic fortuity. In one of his stories a philosopher of an imaginary country declares that the entire visible universe is a handwriting devised by a subordinate angel to communicate with a demon. Like my refrigerator, Borges plays the border between the outlandish and the wise, the random and the revelatory.
So our kitchen poets veer into philosophy, at first with high irony in the form of lines to be chanted by phalanxes of existential fashionistas, their challenge to the absurdity of life:
iron the blow
live like show
But at the end of existentialism a horror of reality:
stop the true
Just below, a frail plea for higher Meaning:
need place like eternity
Maybe in answer to both, a childlike evocation of the grace of small pleasures. The lines themselves are tilted jauntily up, blowing in the breeze.
Come to think of it, that might evoke an atrocity on a summer afternoon. This interpretation sits badly with the flanking poem, where emotion reflected in tranquility becomes lapping music–
lazy beat felt still
Below, the aesthetics get more urgent:
bare moon whispers frantic raw beauty
Beside that one we find a cynical but spot-on evocation of modern politics–
repulsively we manipulate gorgeous
In this profusion of mini-lyrics, every time I look at the refrigerator my attention is drawn to the shivery, X-Files implications of these lines:
our egg but
Strange as it sounds, for my part I’m sorry to report that refrigerator poetry isn’t my medium. Most of the good stuff is by friends and partygoers. By way of example, here’s my latest–
rock love ache road
rip sky petal
Oy. It’s purple, pretentious, and as Borges would not fail to observe, the second line lapses into facile surrealist drivel. I suppose it has some of my trademark musicality, but the sentiment is vague, dithering, probably sadistic, even actionable. Forget I said it. But as for the refrigerator: Once it’s there, it stays there. That’s another rule.
I’ll take solace in the works of my betters, who give us more wisdom for this our brief sojourn: the rueful
sleep bitter blood
and the meditative
most take from moment though it must incubate
I jotted these reflections at a late hour, standing groggy before the icebox munching a bowl of my favorite British cereal, Weetabix. I’ve enjoyed it for years. What I like about Weetabix, in contrast to American cereals, is that it doesn’t even attempt to stay crunchy. The biscuits come out of the box crisp enough, but as soon as milk touches Weetabix, it turns into gelatinous goo. It’s the most existential breakfast cereal I know. Virginia Woolf wrote: “To see life as it is and love it.” This was in her suicide note (in the movie version, anyway), when her life had become unbearable. But Woolf still, in the movie, loved life as it is. Loving Weetabix as it is amounts to my answer to the superficial darkness-rebuking of iron the blow/ live like show.
But I don’t know, some people don’t like Weetabix. I’ve had heated discussions on the subject, and the affectionate resolution of such discussions is also adumbrated on my refrigerator:
was you mad
I suppose the moral here is the wisdom of accepting life as it is, Weetabix as it sogs, poetry where you find it. By the way, only some time later did I realize what was going on with the poem I found scrawled on the box: “Across the miles/ Secret pal/ I call your name.” It had been a boxed selection of greeting cards, noted on the lid by the first line of each card. It was an accidental poem.
Of course poetry’s best when it comes at you from unexpected angles. Best when it’s succinct too, usually. And the best magic is the unanticipated kind. That’s when something stops you in your tracks, cereal in hand, and adheres once and for all to your mind. Adheres like like like, O secret pal, like magnetic poetry on icebox door.