If I’m in such good company, please
explain why I have to keep looking
over my shoulder to see who’s not there:
ghost of the staircase, living
room phantasm—whispered jokes,
unheard and ungotten—or maybe not.
I call them the comedians of chance,
and I have discovered that they’re
completely cornball. Canned.
They’ve written routines
in sharpie on their luminous
hands and keep looking down
to see what comes next. My father
used to laud people who know
“what goes where,” but I swear,
I don’t anymore—it’s all up in the air,
half-visible pins twirling end over
end, and I, their ghastly juggler.
Whispered Jokes gets your attention in the title and alerts the reader to look for what might be forthcoming: perhaps jokes whispered to self, some kind of cryptic messaging. The opening strophe gives what could pass for a joke: “If I’m in such good company, please/ explain why I have to keep looking/ over my shoulder to see who’s not there.” And who’s ‘not there’ is, namely, a “ghost”, or a “phantasm.” In short, “whispered ghosts,” perhaps unheard or whose punch lines are “ungotten.” The speaker calls the joke-tellers “comedians of chance,” and tells us that they’re “completely cornball.” Further attention is given to how and where they’re written, such as “in sharpie,” and “on their luminous hands.” The processes involved are alluded to as “routines.” There is a tone and content shift in S5 where the speaker speaks of his father who “used to laud people who know ‘what goes where,’” and uses the construct to insert an unsettling sense of ambivalence in personal experience: "I swear,/ I don’t anymore-it’s all up in the air.” The poem ends in a characterization of the problem and consequences of not knowing or understanding something key and fundamental in the evocative image of pins which are “half-visible,” and “twirling end over end,” with the speaker as the “ghastly juggler.
This poem, with its seemingly off-handed and light tone, has much to offer in speaking to the fundamental nature of how we learn, how we know, and how we accommodate to things we feel we can’t understand. The poem’s rolls out freely with easy words and syntax. Nothing complex here. And yet, there is a kind of deceptive foil here for an underlying deeper consideration of identity and self-appraisal. Additionally, the formal presentation, though not rhymed (except for 'swear/air' near the end) is nonetheless nicely put together in neat, free-flowing tercets, further directing the reader into the poetics of the speaker.
Some key questions are raised at the beginning of this poem. What is the nature of these “whispered jokes,” who are the people that are saying them… and to whom are they being said? As well, the poem seems to be addressing the issue of how we process what we’ve learned, what we make of past failures, for example. And how do we make order out of what often appears to be a disordered, random world.
We can see by the speaker’s opening interrogative, that there’s some degree of equivocation in his voice. This is not a prescriptive essay or a document on how to solve the world’s problems. It is the speaker sort of talking out loud, remembering his own ghosts and phantasms walking around his house (perhaps as a child), jokes uttered and not heard, or not understood. But the jokes aren't one-liners. These are innuendos, rationale, ways of thinking to ward off other ways of thinking.
The dissonance increases in S3 where the speaker, who has his own expression for these jokesters, “comedians of chance,” makes a decided tone-shift away from self-examination and toward mild invective. Here we find that the speaker has a distaste for the joke-tellers who tell 'corny' jokes; but worse, actually write them down (in indelible ink) and then refer to them as needed. This is perhaps the moment at which the poem turns from inward to outward commentary. The speaker seems to be making an ethical statement regarding meaning. Is it enough to rely on past performance, old jokes or riddles which cannot suffice, in unwrapping the serious issues of life? Indeed, they often return (as ghosts) to haunt, rather than providing any sort of apologetic for living. The speaker references his own father, and relates his (the speaker's) obvious disdain for that kind of philosophy which is blithely self-confident (“people who know what goes where.)” It leaves one wondering what the subtext is here. As with many poets, a father (or mother) theme will pop in and out of poems freely, and the poem gives room and desire to hear more on this subject. Still, it amps up the immediacy of feeling. There is a bewilderment in the voice here, that it should be so easy for these kind of people to be cavalier in their movement through life, that they would have nothing better to do than rehearse old jokes.
This is a direct poem. It tweaks the reader to ask their own questions and assumptions about what makes them sure. Not that we should be fettered with doubt. But the poem speaks to a kind of unguarded optimism that doesn’t examine deeply into meaning. And what is left? “Half-visible pins twirling end over end, and I, their ghastly juggler.” Here we find the result of such thinking: enervating, dangerous, a vacuous pursuit.
Aaron Belz writes poetry in Los Angeles. He has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Saint Louis University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from NYU. His first book of poetry,The Bird Hoverer, was published by Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, in 2007. Aaron’s second book of poems, Direction, is forthcoming from Persea. Some of his poems, essays, biographical history and much more- may be found at these websites (just click):
belz poetry on wordpress