St. Louis Jim

by Henry Shifrin
Wild Poetry Forum
First Place, September 2008
Judged by Tony Barnstone

He picks his nose, index finger deep in the nostril,
face turned to the window. Passengers file by, stutter-step
to stare at the split-seam back of his gray suit jacket — a camel’s
back spreads its feather-duster hairs to wave
in the heavy breathing of the air conditioning.

His reflection a map in the glass. The creases in the cheek
highway east and west. Soot gives them a macadam glow;
maybe it’s the settled ash of a cigarette. The rolling paper
in his chest pocket. The smell in the fibers of his jacket
and pants. On his bottom lip, a black spot
where the nicotine dies the way a dinosaur
drops off its carcass (a font the oil companies will

one day drill). His finger pops out — it’s a champagne-bottle
cork–no, it’s a finger, dark from worming
in the space between seats. A momentary smile.
The sheen of a quarter. He licks off the bubblegum.
It’s a fruity flavor. He sticks a hand in his back pocket. Compares
the taste to that of threads and Froot-Loop bits.

He tongues his fingertips. The sweetness. Then the salty taste.
The train stops, opens doors. He stands, re-buttons his jacket.
Curls his fingers for another view. Hitches up his beltless
pants, the waist a wrist too wide. Then leaps
through the closing doors. His pants fall
when he lands. The sight of half his butt,
the underwear torn to flap away from the right cheek.

His hands are two squirrels. They grip at the air.
Timidly jot down the trunk of his leg. Stammer for
a belt loop–or no, they want to survey the sidewalk.

Yes they pull up the pants. Up over the rear, a sidecar rounds
a hill, he swaggers the drumbeat of a sidewalk musician.

I enjoyed this portrait of St. Louis Jim, simultaneously tender and gross. This poem has a condensed, packed image-palette that swells with assonance and consonance and internal rhyme. Listen to its great language: "Passengers file by, stutter-step / to stare at the split-seam back of his gray suit jacket -- a camel's / back spreads its feather-duster hairs" --- don't you love those sounds? I also liked how the theme of mute musicality becomes verbed into the poem by the hands that "Stammer for / a belt loop," by the passengers who "stutter-step." Mutely, the poem comments on the speechlessness of the mentally challenged protagonist, and of his instinctive, natural self, picking his nose, licking old bubblegum for its flavor, swaggering to his own drumbeat. --Tony Barnstone