I heard Carolyn Dahl read this poem of hers at Brazos Bookstore last month, and it struck me — and many in the audience — as both funny and somber. It has to be a sophisticated poem when it can capture a complex tone.
Remember when people used to joke that some one was a ___ nazi? Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? Remember how that kid in your English class who was so good at grammar — so good she couldn’t abide its misuse, who would even, in an effort to stop the grating on her sensibilities, would sometimes politely correct yours in conversation — got called a “grammar nazi”? Remember when all of that was kind of funny?
As I explained to a friend on social media about sixteen months ago, when he posted that he was looking for a spelling nazi to help him edit something, that maybe now that actual nazis have crawled out of their caves and started making trouble again, we should stop using that word lightly. On the other hand, turning something into a joke robs it of some of its power and influence.
It’s a fine line to walk. Not everyone gets it right, but this poem walks a fine line really well.
My mother tears two photos from an album.
. One of her in wartime short skirt and bare legs,
. holding a fat white rooster in her arms.
. The rooster in profile lifts its head high,
. confident, red comb blazing in black and white.
The other photo is of my father, who she calls
. a sweet looking man, dressed in work clothes,
. holding the same white rooster. Raising
. chickens in a newlywed’s yard was his idea
. of a good, hard-times start. But he never
. expected one to walk up the steps, peck
. at the door, want to be held like a child.
Why does a rooster do that, my mother wants to know.
. I mean, leave his own kind to live with humans?
. But she missed the farm, needed an animal to hold,
. so she brought him in. Named him Little Hitler
. because he was cocky and demanding. Evenings
. he sat in her lap as she smoothed ruffled feathers,
. rubbed the yellow pads of clawed feet, listened
. to the news of war as he clucked contentedly.
These were his final photos, my mother says, because
. then we had you to hold. They took Little Hitler
. to a farm to live out his days. Her last look saw
. him flapping his wings, crowing in betrayed fury.
. She didn’t see the farmer wait until the car
. disappeared around the curve, then catch
. the bird by the neck, wring it for chicken and
. dumplings. Nothing, he later explained,
. with the name of Hitler should be allowed to live.
Carolyn Dahl was the Grand Prize winner in the 2015 Public Poetry/MFAH national ekphrastic poetry competition, ARTlines2. Her essays and poems have been published in 25 anthologies including Women On Poetry (McFarland), Goodbye, Mexico (Texas Review Press), Beyond Forgetting (Kent State), and in various literary journals including Copper Nickel, Plainsongs, Camas, Hawaii Review, Colere, and Pirene’s Fountain. She won a finalist award from PEN Texas in nonfiction, is the author of Transforming Fabric (F&W Books) and Natural Impressions (Watson-Guptill Publications), and co-authored The Painted Door Opened, poems and art.