Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Neil Aitken: "Forgetting to Fill Up in Saskatoon"

Certain poems can be a good kick to the nether regions; others are a smack in the face or a push into a glacial pool or a precise (even jagged) incision to the marrow. But some are just good for the diaphragm.

Humor and wit in poetry (as in all writing, really) can be hard monsters to manage, but when they're done well, the resulting poem can be a trip into that part of ourselves we keep hidden because, like the awkwardness of adolescence, we don't think anyone wants to relive our mistakes or embarrassments with us. You know, like when you tripped onto the stage in front of the whole school and stood up only to realize that your fly was down and you had a piece of TP stuck to your shoe. Or when you sneezed in the middle of a(n) [insert subject here] test and everyone turned to look at you and you realized you had a snot string hanging from your nose.

Or when you and friends who were on a big coming-of-age road trip in a borrowed car and you forgot to fill up the gas tank before heading through the middle of nowhere where, thank goodness, the only things watching were the cattle who, let's face it, were just going to end up on some restaurant plate soon enough. But still, you had to tell the story, had to relate your faux pas to the world.

Such is the subject matter of Neil Aitken's poem, "Forgetting to Fill Up in Saskatoon." And though my summary is somewhat exaggerated and though the humor in the poem is subtle, I still laughed out loud when I read it. Not a cock-my-head-back-tears-come-to-the-eyes guffaw, but a laugh of appreciation, a recognition that, yes, I've been in a similar situation (running late for a test one day and the gas tank said, "Sorry. I've got nothing more for you," just blocks from school) and, yes, I can laugh at my forgetfulness and even my willful disregard for gas tank etiquette.

I especially like these lines: "Dry as December, we coasted / all the way home, whispering prayers / and holding our breath as if to lighten / the load" (lines 9-12). Been there. Done that, too.

Although the poem is funny in its nuanced, fully human way, its meaning for me really boils down to the final line (which I won't repeat here: go read it yourself), which contains a moment wherein the poet realizes the truth, I think, of this phrase from Eastern mysticism, "To go is to return"---wherein he realizes just what it might mean to grow up.

So, Neil Aitken, thanks for forgetting to fill up in Saskatoon. If you had filled the tank, you might be halfway to somewhere else right now and I'd never had known your poem.