Friday, June 1, 2012

The Miraculous Poetry Machine

This is the miraculous poetry machine. I found it today on Front Street in Issaquah.

What you do, is this: you take a piece of paper, you write five random words on it, you slip the piece of paper in the slot on the side, you wait, and presently out pops another piece of paper on the other side. The new piece of paper has a poem freshly penned, using all five of your words.


Miraculous enough in itself, but there is more. Let me start at the beginning.

I have been in the dumps for a week or so now, and realized that, with this Friday off from work and free from family obligations, I had the opportunity to take my sorry self out for a me-date, and perhaps refresh the old amygdala.

This is the first Friday of the month, and that means it's the night of the Issaquah Art Walk. All the shops on Front Street open their doors and invite local artists to show their wares, either on display in the shop itself, or just outside the door.

I arrived just as the artists were getting in place. I settled down on a bench in front of the old Shell station that is actually an arts shop, housing a number of photographers' wares. There was a three-man band set up in front, calling themselves the Trainwrecks and doing pretty good covers of the Eagles and assorted new country singers. I watched them for a good half hour, enjoying the music and their ease with eachother. Which was fortuitous, because for at least twenty minutes of that half hour I was pretty much their only audience. They didn't seem to care all that much about how big the audience was, or wasn't - they simply were laughing and singing and playing and generally having a great time. It reminded me of the truth of art - you don't wait for an audience to make art, you make art and share it if anyone shows up.

Then I wandered off to the chainsaw carver and checked out the pine gnomes. Next to him was the guy who makes garden stakes with flowers on top, the petals made out of spoons. Across from him, the woman who makes purses out of old clothes and the other woman who makes hats out of old men's slacks.

I wandered into an art gallery and checked out the pottery, the paintings, the mixed media offerings of cats on couches, dogs on beaches, birds flying across landscapes, city scenes, still lifes, portraits. I cradled a clay sparrow in my hand and enjoyed the heft of it, so unlike its real counterpart.

I people watched for awhile; a grandfather with his granddaughter and their very old, very much loved dog. A woman with pink highlights. A man with a grizzled beard and a fedora. Ten year old boys in a small herd, grazing down the street. An Indian man with his young daughter in a stroller, her hair all touseled from napping, the curls across her forehead tangling through her fingers as she wiped her eyes.

And then I came across the Poetry Machine. It looked more like a voting booth, red, white and blue folded panels with plastic bunting taped on the top, and peacock feathers for good measure. A chalkboard sign on the front, with stick on letters that said, "I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions: James Michener"

It was pretty easy to see the two women inside, sitting on stools and writing on small notepads. Even though an MP3 player tapped out the sound of an old typewriter, the pieces of paper that came out with finished poems on them were all handwritten.

Nobody cared. Kids hovered around the front of it, clutching notepads and chewing pencils, trying to come up with five good words to feed into the machine, so that a poem would be ejected back to them. Mothers giggled as the kids asked for advice. Some of the parents took up notepads of their own.

I took a notepad and wrote five words on it: Paleological. Laughter. Resurrected. Squirrelly. Victory. I passed it through the slot and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Poems popped out the other side. A poem for Matt. For Angela. Tony. Chris. But not mine.

I waited.

And as I waited, leaning against a telephone pole, a woman approached me and told me I looked like an angel. Which is weird, unless you think of angels as being 60 pounds overweight and dressed in jeans and tee shirts from the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

I smiled, leaning against the pole further and extending my arms out in front of me, striking what I hoped was a beatific pose. She said I reminded her of someone she knew who was gone. And then she complimented me in ways I don't even remember. I thanked her and added, "And all of it, of course, covered in milk chocolate."

And that's when she burst into tears.

"I knew that's what you would say, " she said. "It's exactly what she would say."

And she fell weeping into my arms.

Sometimes you go someplace because you have a random idea, or because you are bummed out and need distraction, or because you're bored, or because if you stay home you'll eat ice cream and blow your diet. That's usually the times when God decides to make something really interesting happen.

I started to think maybe I understood why I had gotten in the car and schlepped down to Issaquah from Maple Valley, on a whim. I got a better idea of why my poem, of all the poems, was so tardy. I got an inkling as to the importance of this particular telephone pole. I was meant to be here when she came by. Sometimes they shoot the messenger; today, the messenger was hugged. I hugged her back and told her that her friend loved her very very much, and that I was sure that's why I had been sent there, to wait for her and tell her just that. I felt her cry and shake against me and hung on tight, rubbing her back, pressing my palm in her shoulder blades, feeling the ridges of her spine. She thanked me for being there. I told her I couldn't take the credit, I only did as I had been told. We both laughed. "Yes," she said, "she would be bossy, wouldn't she?"

My poem popped out. We read it together, and it was yet another affirmation for her. This is what it said:

I hear my own laughter
ring in my own ears;
a squirrelly sound;
a good sound.
I hear my triumph
resurrected from my fall
and I feel paleological as
I am of the oldest times.

She gasped, laughed, then cried some more. I held her hands. I kissed her cheek. More laughing. She told me she loved me, and I said I loved her, too. I know that she was talking to the woman who had died, and I allowed my voice to say what I knew that woman would have said. It was the most natural moment in the world. What I was saying was true. I told her it was time for me to go, but that she would know she was being watched over, taken care of, and always loved. I turned around and walked away. We lost sight of each other in the crowd, just as it was meant to be. Amygdala refreshed, mission accomplished.

Sometimes I think my words don't count for much. Sometimes I feel restless, uninspired, invisible. But in that moment, I did not feel invisible. I felt transparent, free, with someone else's light was shining through, the both of us feeling its warmth, and that was certainly visible, on both sides of the veil. I felt lucky to be chosen, grateful and humble.

A gift all the way around. A paleological resurrection. A miracle in front of a poetry machine, as delicious as milk chocolate. A very, very good day.


  1. Oh Aunt Karen, I am sobbing. What a moment, eh? You are definitely a conduit of awesome, real love! A wonderful package of all GOOD THINGS! I love you so much and I am sending you a massive hug. I LOVE the idea of a poetry machine!! Please frame that poem! Please?

  2. Can I cut and paste this into my blog? I would LOVE to share your amazing blog and brag about how awesome you are and just how lucky I am to call you family.