Lines on the Poet’s Turning Forty
And so, at last, I am turning forty,
In just a couple of days.
The big four-oh.
Yes, that is soon to be my age.
(And not fifty-eight. No way. That Wikipedia is a bunch of liars.)
Nope, not any other age, just forty.
What other age could someone born in 1969 (and not 1951)
(And please do not listen to my ex-wife, that sad, bitter woman in her late fifties.)
What does it feel like, old bones?
Yes, I have lost a step or two in the hundred-metre dash.
I accept these changes.
But if a guy says in a published poem that he is forty,
As I am doing here,
It’s obvious that must be the age that he is,
Cattail down blows from the swamp like smoke,
Ice bares its teeth on the surface of the mud puddles.
It is fall—but not for me in any metaphorical sense,
Because forty, while not technically all that young, is hardly like “the autumn of life” or anything;
And also because Natalie Portman, the famous actress,
Is in love with me. And why not?
After all, there is not that much difference, age-wise,
Between a person who I guess is in her mid-to-late twenties
And a person who is only just turning forty,
You walk across the room carrying a bouquet of phlox in your hand
(“You” being Natalie Portman, the famous actress)
As a present for me on my upcoming fortieth birthday.
Come sit beside me, my dear,
And I will tell you about my previous thirty-nine,
Except for the year when I was in sixth grade,
Which is a total blank.
I do remember fifth grade, when we had Mrs. Erwin,
And seventh grade, when we moved to the new junior-high building;
But when I try to remember sixth—nothing.
Let us not mourn what is lost.
Sixth grade was probably not that great.
Now, and on into the serious years that lie ahead,
You and I will have each other.
An alert reader may point out
That we did not move to the new junior-high building during the 1981-82 school year
(As would fit with my being in seventh grade and having been born in 1969)
But eighteen years earlier, in the school year of 1963-64.
This is baloney!
Whoever says such statements is wrong.
I think that when it comes to the details of my own life
My own word should be trusted over that of some random reader,
Unfortunately, because of this business
About when we did or didn’t move to the new junior-high building,
Natalie Portman’s suspicions somehow were raised,
And she had a completely unnecessary “background check” run on me,
And then left me for Shia LaBeouf,
Who is hot right now.
This poem is becoming a disaster.
It happens sometimes—
I get into a poem, and the thing goes haywire,
And I don’t know how to get out.
According to some nitpicker at the Ohio Department of Education,
Mrs. Roberta Erwin retired and left teaching entirely in 1967,
Two years before my birth.
Thus, the argument goes,
She could not have taught me fifth grade,
As I claimed in Canto III.
Look, I am turning forty, all right?
Let’s just leave it at that.
Critics and people in the media who would ruin a celebration with this kind of “gotcha” behavior make me sick.
If you still doubt me,
Please be assured that this magazine has a rigorous policy of fact checking,
And all the information in this poem has been checked,
And directly verified with me.
Well, it’s going to be great being forty.
I am looking forward to it.
There are plenty of other beautiful actresses around;
I may also try out for the forty-and-over division
On the National Professional Rodeo Association tour.
Recently someone asked me if I remembered when the name
Of Idlewild Airport in New York City
Was changed to J.F.K. International.
“Of course not,” I replied.
“That was long before my time.
Back then I had not even been born.”
– by Ian Frazier
Here’s your bonus for all those hours spent reading “Dover Beach” and Shakespearean sonnets and Auden and “To His Coy Mistress” – as if the pleasure of reading those great works were not enough. On top of all that poetic pleasure comes something like this dollop of whipped cream.
This is, obviously, not a serious poem, and anyone who wants to set aside his or her humor and dissect the traces of the author’s genuine feelings about aging ought to be stripped naked, wrapped in rough tweed, and planted on a hard seat in a stifling lecture hall to listen to stuffy professors discuss deconstruction of literature in a monotone. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but just don’t do it, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.
All that said, part of the fun is catching the whiffs of the poetical that Frazier feeds us. If you read the poem aloud, you can hear faint echos of the real poems you have read and enjoyed. When you hear him admit he’s lost “a step or two in the hundred-metre dash,” the back of your mind turns to “To an Athlete Dying Young”. The references to nature and non-metaphorical fall might remind you of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 –
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .
When he admonishes us to ignore his lost 6th grade with “Let us not mourn what is lost”, perhaps Dylan Thomas’ majestic voice reading his “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” came to mind.
If your poetry reading enriches your experience in enjoying a pleasure like Ian Frazier’s poem, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to catch every allusion to enjoy the humor, and there’s no sense in pressuring yourself to track down every clever reference.