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Unread 01-11-2021, 08:27 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,612
Default Bad Policeman

Bad Policeman

The policeman who walks the alley
wishes he had a money belt coiled
around his waist to hand out coins
and bills to the alley's lonely residents.
As it is, there is little he can do but listen.
Tonight the lion has no companion.
Getting up in years and favoring his feet
as though they had been pickled,
the lion talks as usual about how much happier
he’d been when he lived at the landfill.
The policeman listens until the old lion
grows quiet, then pushes on.
The lady of the evening, who often thinks
of the snow back in Mankato, says
she’ll sleep soon and dream of the nights
she wore gowns and enjoyed the hospitality
of the wealthy man who took her to restaurants
where they lounged on big pillows
while waiters pushed trolleys of recently
harvested vegetables and thinly sliced meats.
The wealthy man had offered her a ring
and she can’t remember what words
she had used to tell him no.
She had slept with him freely but without
enough joy and it was this inability
to feel joy that drove her to the alley.

The orangutan once had a secret crush on the lion
and had let it fester too long and now
she is bitter. Tonight she talks about germs
and knows the lion carries them, not
to mention the diseases plaguing the string
of potential mates he brings to the alley.
It's a threat to all and she wants it looked into.
The paperboy uses the dollars
and nickels he collects to place bets
on a multitude of unrealistic possibilities.
He has lost wagers about the height
of his grandma’s azaleas, the depth
of a farm pond, and the time it took
to walk from Lincoln to Omaha.
When he lost the last bet he had no desire
to return home and kept walking
until he reached this city with
just the right alley. He is so lonely
he asks the policeman to frisk him
but he’d been frisked the night before
and it wouldn’t be wise to spoil him.
The policeman’s superiors say he is lazy.
Every year they shrink his beat.
He has no choice but to leave the alley
some nights to arrest a few miscreants.
The policeman wishes he’d chosen a different profession.
When the morning sun lights all but the alley’s
most shadowed corners it’s time for him to leave.
Strolling down the street toward the station
the policeman wishes he called the alley home.
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Unread 01-14-2021, 06:57 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 2,878

Just checking in to say I’ve been wrestling with this poem. It seems to be clearing its throat from start to finish to my (sometimes tin) ear. There’s an obliqueness to it that leaves me stranded in the alley. My hunch is that this is the primary reason for the slow response. It’s puzzling.

I’ve tinkered with the stanza breaks, nudged it into prose form, looked for places to cut or condense, questioned the need for so much detail, imagined it as a sonnet – My gut says it is a prose poem. But my sense is that this is not yet your usual good telling of a story borne from personal experience and careful contemplation before being synthesized into a voice that is your own.
It may be that you are trying to do too much. You are scene setting, but the story struggles to come through.

I can't get a grasp on it. Still, with a few tweaks and some muse-luck, this feels like it could be good, very good.

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Unread 01-16-2021, 07:27 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
Join Date: May 2016
Location: Staffordshire, England
Posts: 4,027

Hey John, I enjoyed this a lot. It feels like a sad dream about sad dreamers and it seems infused with compassion. It all makes just enough sense at that dream level. Everything fits and the tone is right. The lines about being frisked are sad and funny, as is much of it. You have a little Desolation Row here.

Sorry I have nothing more productive!

Last edited by Mark McDonnell; 01-16-2021 at 09:15 AM. Reason: Spelling
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Unread 01-16-2021, 10:04 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 7,073

Jim, I like the imagery very much, especially of the lion, and the overall vibe as the stories unfold with such leisurely pacing.

I have trouble seeing the logic of why some characters are consistently referred to as animals, while others are consistently referred to as humans, but maybe that's not a bad thing. The lack of logic inclines me to see "the policeman" as a delusional denizen of the alley who really has made this place his home, rather than as an actual policeman with a station and home elsewhere to provide shelter and comaraderie.

There's very little other evidence in the poem to support this reading, though. If the poem contained more clues in that direction, I would find the protagonist much more believable. As it is, it's hard to take the last two lines as anything but a literal policeman wishing to be a person experiencing homelessness on this particular alley, and my literal mind can't quite buy that.

My biggest logical difficulty with the poem is believing that such an idyllically peaceful alley could have existed at any point in history. It is patrolled by a solo beat policeman with plenty of time to get to know the characters on his beat, and no supervisor checking up on him or paperwork to fill out. And it is populated by quirky characters like a solo "lady of the evening" who also does not seem to fear any threat of violence, despite being in a profession notorious for experiencing a high rate of violence from customers and pimps alike, and who does not seem to regard the regular presence of law enforcement where in the place she regards as her turf in any way bad for business there (despite regarding competition from other women as bad for business). I just can't quite buy it.

The policeman’s superiors say he is lazy.
Every year they shrink his beat.
He has no choice but to leave the alley
some nights to arrest a few miscreants.
The policeman wishes he’d chosen a different profession.
I have not heard of any police department implementing such an innovative managerial technique--responding to an officer that they feel is lazy by shrinking his beat every year, and still (apparently) not providing any supervision or demanding that he provide documentation of increased productivity--more tickets written, more reports, etc. That sort of passive discipline might happen in a small town like The Andy Griffith Show, but not in a place with real crime to deal with and real pressure on the police department's budget and real departmental management trying to show accountability to a cost-conscious city council. So again, are his superiors just in his head?

Apologies if I'm just missing the point. I do feel that the tragicomic portrait has overall potential, but I need more help to suspend my disbelief.
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Unread 01-16-2021, 10:48 AM
Andrew Mandelbaum's Avatar
Andrew Mandelbaum Andrew Mandelbaum is offline
Join Date: Jul 2011
Location: Portland Maine
Posts: 3,627

I guess you could question the lack of fear of violence in the psyche of hooker like Julie said. Maybe there was a dimension missing in that one character as I reread this over the last few days because I did pause my immersion at that point each time. But it isn't a problem over the whole (in my opinion) to be missing the parts of these vocations that have infested our realities. This is obviously wanting to push past those points to something else. The subject is a bad policeman, one not fitting the demands of the role or the moral expectations of our present.

Maybe each character is bad in their role in some way. Maybe this is an interrogation of roles at the same time as a bit of whimsy and just letting go of the bannisters of realism at the same time. I like it over all. Maybe it can get sharper in places, tie the character's roles into an interdependence that underlines how our systems work to fail us. I dunno. It is pretty cool as it stands. It definitely does the work it intends with the policeman.

I might consider the specificity of orangutan here. Ape maybe more fitting with the rest of the characters but maybe orang carries something into it you need. Interesting that orangs are so often violent characters in fiction but are fairly gentle beings in "nature". No matter here. Just a thought the reading prompted.

The paperboy/cop interaction is quite good. Maybe the hooker and the Orang need to have there relationship spoked off the cop more directly. To center the cop in each of the compounds.

Still thinking about it.
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Unread 01-20-2021, 11:50 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,612

Thanks to each of you for your comments. I apologize for taking so long to respond. Lots of Covid in my life right now and I've been preoccupied with that. My eighty-nine and ninety-year-old in-laws managed to get it somehow. They're holding up remarkably well so far.

The questions you each have brought up are causing me to take a fresh look at this. One thing I never foresaw was reading this in the context of contemporary events. I love to read Robert Walser. I know some think he was a light-weight but I don't agree. His stories that may not be stories and even his feuilletons are insightful and provoking and remarkable. I think I wrote this in that spirit. I wasn't questioning anything. I was marveling. I was moved to write a sort of fable about a "bad cop" who wasn't bad like on television but was bad because he approached his job and life with compassion. He is considered to not be a good cop because he isn't mean enough. As I was writing, and I realize this isn't an answer, suddenly I was writing about a lion with feet that felt as though they'd been pickled and a heartbroken orangutan. The flow between human and non-human characters happened and I was glad it did. I can't explain it more than that. I think I'm confessing that at its heart this is light verse, which isn't something I've ever considered writing before, but the writing of this was so pleasant and left me with emotions I've enjoyed for a change. Maybe I'll try it again.

I realize this isn't really a response to the critiques but it's the best I can do.

Thanks again to each of you for reading my little poem.

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Unread 01-20-2021, 12:15 PM
RCL's Avatar
RCL RCL is offline
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Posts: 5,816

Your talking beasts remind me of an amazing novel I'm currently reading about the most articulate talking bear on earth. Especially interesting to you might be that he's a jazz phenomenon on alto sax and introduces (at least to me) the vocabulary and details of composition and performance. On Kindle: The Bear Comes Home: A Novel: Zabor, Rafi.

I should add, it's hilarious!

Last edited by RCL; 01-20-2021 at 01:22 PM.
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Unread 01-24-2021, 02:55 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 3,953

Hi John,

I liked this a lot. It does has a sort of dream vibe, or else the feel of a children's story. Either way there's sort of sad gentleness to it and somehow I find myself untroubled by the lack of realism, even though all the characters seem to be homeless people living in an alleyway.

My main wondering is why this is appearing in lineated form. I'm not seeing the use of lines / enjambment adding anything to my reading of it.


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Unread 01-26-2021, 12:17 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,612

Thanks, Matt, I'm proud you like it. I feel warm toward it also. You are right about the lineation. It could work as well without line endings, although there are some here I like.

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