Ethan Coen’s Poem

The other night, driving home from The Village and listening to NPR, I heard a wonderful interview with Ethan Coen, closed out by William Macy reading one of the poems. You can read it, too, by clicking here.

“The drunken driver has the right of way,” is the title of the poem, and toward the end of it, Coen notes, “When facing an oncoming fool / The practiced and sagacious say / Watch out / one side / look sharp / gang way.”

That line stopped me short with its uncanny familiarity. After all, I’ve seen an oncoming fool or two in my time, and I’m sad to say it never dawned on me to step aside. For all of my study of the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, I still can’t say that I have the sense to roll off a speeding sled before it hits a tree, a wall, a door.

Faced with an oncoming fool, I’m still likely to stand there like your typical deer in the headlights. After all, what is more likely to shake up my life than pure foolishness? I know I have welcomed foolishness more often than not with open arms, leaving no one to blame but myself when the smoke finally clears and suddenly it is time to sift through the saw dust on the floor to identify the bullet casings.

In many ways, Coen’s poem reminds me of both of my ex-husbands, Patrick the Liar and Pretty Boy Boyd. They were and are still, I’m sure, masters at getting their way, often by creating a massive presence so wildly unstable that sharper souls than I can easily recognize its foolishness by the undulations alone, and stand clear.

Til now, at least, I’ve lacked the energy to remain vigilant, especially when I was never really sure whether that careening vehicle headed down my lane was evidence of an alert driver dodging raccoons — or a drunk driver navigating entirely by the sound of the gravel road against his tires.

I get tired just thinking about those days, yet think about them I do, preferably from the haven of the front porch of my turquoise conch cottage here on the edge of the ‘glades, just out of sight of the Slice of Heaven 24-Hour Pie Shop and Driving Range.  Sue Ten and my other friends here are great anti-fool detectors, and I know I am safe with them nearby.

Even now, I can hear “Walk Like an Egyptian” playing on the distant jukebox, so I know The Morning Guy has flung open the pie-shop windows, and soon he’ll be punching in the numbers to play some Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Prentiss, my pie apprentice, has already served up her latest confection and  gotten rave reviews. Joe Sparkle Junior is fussing around the new putting green, replacing the divots that the Clown and her pals kicked up during the night. It’s an excellent day, just getting started with no drunken drivers in sight.

Untensed, I return to Coen’s poem, and my reverie, thinking how some time ago, I read an English-to-Chinese-to-English translation of a quotation attributed to Mother Theresa.  It was finally rendered as “The opposite of love is not hate. It is carelessness.”

I’ve thought about that for a long time, and have never been able to shake the odd truth of it.  Perhaps “apathy” was the word that the writer — or translator — sought, but “carelessness” makes more sense to me. The drunken driver is careless, from the moment he or she says, “Set ’em up, Joe.” I prefer a life that is careful, or at least full of caring.

Let us not be careless, my dear friends. And now, I must warn you, I feel a country song coming on, a song about being careless. I don’t know the tune, but here are the words:

You threw the white silk nightie of my love
into soapy hot water
with your red-flannel heart
and ruined them both.

You took my long-playing records
and left them to melt
on the radiator of your disregard.

You said you had no secrets
and left a trail of credit-card carbons
all the way to the motel door.

You left me waiting at the butcher shop
while you had bratwust at the bar.

You were careless with my car
and careless with my love
but there’s no no-fault insurance
for what you have done.

Obviously this song still needs a little work, so perhaps I’ll get back to that and polish it up before Sue Ten says it’s time for another meeting of the Tone Deaf Choir next door at the Swing Barn. I think she’ll like it when I am done, and maybe you will, too. Drop by soon. We’ve missed you.

3 comments

  1. tenenbaum.susan says:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Based on my experience, jumping off the track BEFORE the train arrives, is no better than standing there like a cow waiting to be caught. Avoidance, I think they call it avoidance. Or subterfuge. That’s a good method of staying out of trouble, subterfuge. In this method of dealing, when you see the muzzle of the rifle being raised toward your skull, you smile as if nothing’s wrong, and jump into the centrifuge, where you are spun to death. One method works as well as the other.
    And the opposite of love? I think the translator wanted “indifference” and yes, that’s one opposite of love. Let’s do one of those facebook things: “My 25 Best Opposites of Love” – in no special order:
    1. Indifference
    2. Showing of teeth
    3. Saying “that’s just the way I am. Get used to it.”
    4. Getting drunk
    5. Embarrassing guests
    6. Mimicry
    7. Minimizing
    8. Failure to brush teeth

    Oh, really. You can finish this for me. If we polled the swing dancers, we’d have thousands of opposites to love and loving behavior. Open your arms. Open your legs. Stand still as the light approaches or jump out of the way. Isn’t this the danger we’re trying to avoid? I’m going to dance now.

  2. Bjean says:

    What a coincidence. I just noticed what Prentice had scrawled on the pie-shop blackboard for today’s special: Subter Fudge Delight!

  3. mogalj says:

    Walk Like An Egyptian Lyrics

    (L. Sternberg)
    Vicki, Michael, Susanna

    All the old paintings on the tombs
    They do the sand dance don’t you know
    If they move too quick (oh whey oh)
    They’re falling down like a domino

    All the bazaar men by the Nile
    They got the money on a bet
    Gold crocodiles (oh whey oh)
    They snap their teeth on your cigarette

    Foreign types with the hookah pipes say
    Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
    Walk like an Egyptian

    Blonde waitresses take their trays
    They spin around and they cross the floor
    They’ve got the moves (oh whey oh)
    You drop your drink then they bring you more

    All the school kids so sick of books
    They like the punk and the metal band
    When the buzzer rings (oh whey oh)
    They’re walking like an Egyptian

    All the kids in the marketplace say
    Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
    Walk like an Egyptian

    Slide your feet up the street bend your back
    Shift your arm then you pull it back
    Life is hard you know (oh whey oh)
    So strike a pose on a Cadillac

    If you want to find all the cops
    They’re hanging out in the donut shop
    They sing and dance (oh whey oh)
    Spin the clubs cruise down the block

    All the Japanese with their yen
    The party boys call the Kremlin
    And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)
    They walk the line like Egyptian

    All the cops in the donut shop say
    Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
    Walk like an Egyptian
    Walk like an Egyptian

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