Thursday, June 9, 2011

Counting on things -- a prose poem

Russell Edson is one of the contemporary masters of the prose poem (a poem whose words are organized into paragraphs rather than stanzas). A selection from May Swenson's prose poem (and short novel) "Giraffe" is available in the October 19 blog posting. Here is Edson's poem "One Two Three, One Two Three" -- which considers the secrets hidden inside one's head.  Another mind, even that of one of our children, is a mystery incompletely known to any of us.

  One Two Three, One Two Three     by Russell Edson

       A Clock has twelve numbers -- Father, the clock has twelve
  numbers, and I have ten fingers, which equals twenty two things --
  Father, father, mother has two eyes which I saw with my two
  eyes, which is four eyes . . .
      Will you stop counting on things.  They never turn out
  when you count on them, said father.
     Father, you have two eyes which with my fingers is twelve,
  said the son.

      The old man said to his wife, will you make him stop count- 
  ing because it's like having bugs crawling on everything.
      I can't, because he do it in his head where I can't make him
  stop.  He do it like in secret, said the old woman.
      Why do he have to be so secret, asked the old man.
      Because he have a funny shaped head, she answered.
      The old man said to his son:  Why have you got a funny
  shaped head.
      So I can wear little hats instead of big father-hats.
      But you bigger'n me already, and you still wearing little
  hats.  Ain't you never going to wear a big people's hat,
  said the old man.
      Father, I have one head, I counted it, screamed the son.
      Mother, said the old man, make him stop having secrets.
      I can't because his secrets inside his head, she said.
      Well, maybe if we have dinner he'll put food in his mouth
  so he can't tell his secrets, the old man said.
      We having your favorite because we ain't got nothing
  else, which is just as well because it's our favorite anyway,
  she said.
      What we having, he asked.
      One two three, one two three, father, screamed the son.
      We having, said the old woman, water and love.
      Their son said: Water & Love & my head equals three.

      That's poor folks' food; they lives on love.  I'd rather
  have some of your nightgowns -- Why don't you make some
  nightgown stew, and you could throw the boy's photograph
  in for flavor, said the old man.
      I'm going to my room. we'll have dinner tomorrow night,
  she said.
      I don't care, go to bed forever for all I care -- Your son's
  got a bullet-head, shouted the old man.
      Look out father, or I'll shoot you, screamed their son.
      He's going to shoot me with his bullet-head, the old
  man said.
      Well be damned you old fucker, his wife screamed.

Edson's phrase "counting on" reminds that we not only count with numbers but depend on them as well. I do not myself have a completely articulated understanding of the poem but I have read it half a dozen times and have made some associations -- seeing, for example, the son as "sharp" and an "egghead" and finding between him and his parents a wide "generation gap." 
This poem is found in Edson's collection, The Tunnel: Selected Poems (FIELD Poetry Series #3, Oberlin College Press, 1994) and is used here with permission from OC Press.

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