POET AND CHIPMUNK

(10/16/93: Stephenson, Michigan)

 

            “Where do I start,” Poet asked himself. He was riddled with emotions, none of which seemed capable of being refined into an artistic mess of inkspots.

 

            He had wrestled with the problems of the inner-city, the crushing blows of a woman breaking his heart and the search for meaning in a Godless age for so long that he had no idea what to think anymore. He sat down hard onto a fallen tree trunk and pouted like someone half as hip as he.

 

            He stroked his goatee, which always calmed him. Sometimes he would stroke it gently, like when he was searching for just the right word for a poem. Sometimes he’d stroke it with medium pressure, like when somebody he respected played him a pop song – which he was predisposed to not like. And other times he would stroke it hard to calm himself, like when the barista REALLY FUCKED UP HIS ORDER!  At that moment, in the woods, he was giving it a pop song stroke.

 

            A chipmunk scurried out from some brush, stopped at Poet’s feet and looked him in the face.

 

            “I can’t write about trees and flowers and shit,” Poet said to the chipmunk. The chipmunk jumped at the sound of his voice and scampered a few feet away. Before it disappeared into the brush again, it turned and looked back at him. It sniffed the air. Poet pulled out his inhaler and squelched the oncoming asthma attack. He looked back at the little rodent. “What?”

 

            The little critter darted to the disfigured tree trunk and settled in where it could gaze at Poet.

 

            The young man in black took a sip of his thermos full of Pellegrino and shook his head at the small animal. “What’s the purpose,” he yelled at the endless trees that seemed to stare down at him.

 

            “Who need to know,” asked a voice. The voice wasn’t very strong, nor very frail. It was close and it definitely WASN’T Poet’s.

 

            Poet turned his head so fast toward the voice that his John Lennon granny sunglasses flew off into the leaves that covered the forest floor.

 

            “What’s the problem,” the voice said. “You were talking to me, right?”

 

            Poet’s eyes lowered and focused on the chipmunk, who was busily engaged in licking his tiny paws. It stopped and looked back at him. The small animal raised its eyebrows as if waiting for an answer. A beam of sunlight seemed to burn right through the forest canopy and fall on the little creature, giving him a golden halo. Poet’s hand shot out and began searching through the leaves for his sunglasses. The chipmunk blinked casually and continued his line of questioning.

 

            “So, what’s your problem again?”

 

            Poet slipped off the tree trunk into the mud and leaves and stammered, dumbstruck. “What?”

 

            The chipmunk moved to the end of trunk where he was eye level with the human.

 

            “What are you whining about?”

 

            “I... I’m not used to these surroundings. I’m out of my element here.”

 

            “Is that so?” The critter pulled out a small pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Poet watched with fascination as the chipmunk lit it. “Why did you come here? Are you lost?”

 

            Poet shook his head and pushed himself up off the ground. “No. I came here on purpose.”

 

            “Why?”

 

            “I’m not sure,” Poet shrugged. “I was looking for inspiration, I guess.”

 

            “Ah. So, what is your element?” The chipmunk moved back down the log and gave Poet his seat back.”  If this isn’t your element, what is?”

 

            The boy sat down. “I don’t know.”  He felt sick, elated and yet still morose, all at the same time. One thing was sure. He was getting more comfortable with the idea of talking to the little woodland creature.

 

            “Mmm-hmm,” the chipmunk nodded thoughtfully. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

 

            “No, go right ahead.” Poet thought for a minute. “I don’t know if I have a ‘natural habitat’. Everywhere I go I can find something to complain about.”

 

            “Ah HA!” The rodent leapt down from the tree trunk and began pacing. “What do all the places you go have in common?”

 

            “I don’t know. Nothing?”

 

            “Wrong!!”  The chipmunk bounded up Poet’s leg and sat on his knee. “They all have you.”

 

            “Huh?”

 

            “YOU are the one thing they all have in common.” It took a self-assured drag off its square.

 

            Poet squinted in confusion. “So?” He looked into the watery, black eyes that stared up at him.

 

            “You’ve been out here for ages moaning about how you can’t find inspiration. ‘What’s it all about’.  What are you really complaining about? Do you think you’ve handled all the issues you can handle, Poet? What gets you angry?”

 

            “Injustice. Poverty. War. What-not.”

 

            “WHAT-NOT?!” The chipmunk’s fur puffed out. “What-not?! I thought you were a poet. Look, what I’m trying to say is – you spend too much time screaming at the sky. You don’t know what to feel because you don’t know who you are. Figure that out and your world view falls into place- then the words just come.  You said that you can’t write about flowers and birds and shit... why not? You came out here to find inspiration. If you find nature calming and peaceful write about that. Stop being a poet and be a person.”

 

            “What does that mean? I am a poet.”

 

            The chipmunk ran up the boy’s chest, forcing Poet to lean back. Then he sat there and poked Poet’s beard.

 

            “What’s the beard for?”

 

            “I.. uh...”

 

            “It’s a signal. Like the black mock turtle neck, the Pellegrino, the clove cigarettes and the beat up composition notebook under your arm. They are character signals that tell everyone ‘I’m a poet’. If you can’t write about flowers and birds, even if they move you – you’re no poet. You’re a pop song writer.”

 

            Poet rocketed to his feet and the chipmunk tumbled to the ground. “WHAT?!”

 

            I  said...” The chipmunk cleared his throat, grabbed a leaf, rolled it into a bull horn and put it to his mouth. “YOU’RE A POP SONG WRITER. You write what you think people want to hear. You think people want to read dark poetry about heartbreak and corruption and injustice. And even though you find inspiration and beauty in the forest, you’d never write a poem about it because ‘that’s not your scene’.  A poet writes what they feel. They find whatever it is that moves them and turn those feelings into words. You pick and choose because you’re writing to a demographic. Just like a pop song writer.”

 

            The chipmunk finished his smoke and tossed the butt into a puddle of water. Then it turned and dug through the leaves until it found Poet’s granny sunglasses. Poet sat down hard on the log again. The animal’s words stung. He felt a little salt-water in the corner of his eyes.  He looked down. The chipmunk was holding the recovered sunglasses out to him.

 

            “Peace offering,” the little furry thing said.

 

            Poet just nodded and took the glasses. “So, what do I do now?”

 

            “Stop worrying about whether other people know you’re a poet. Just ... be one.” He scampered up Poet’s leg again.

 

            “But where do I go? Where do I make my home?”

 

            The chipmunk nuzzled the young man’s chest with his nose. “Here.”

 

            With that a cloud floated across the sun and the golden beam of light left the chipmunk. It shook its head for a moment and then caught sight of Poet, squeaked in surprise and quickly scurried away into the forest.

 

            Several days later Poet walked out of the woods. His face was smooth and his thermos was filled with tap water. As the sunlight fell on him, a smile drew lazily across his face. He was enjoying the day.

 

            He ran his fingers through his hair and headed that way.

 

            Whichever way that way was.