To you, dear reader, I submit a painting–my first since high school art class–inspired by the poem, “The Unicorn” by Billeh Nickerson. But, as is always the case, the translation, through both error and intention, has resulted in something quite distinct from the original.
What’s great about poetry is that it’s usually short. That’s what my students tell me and I’d have to agree. But that doesn’t mean that it wants any less of your attention.
While the title of Billeh Nickerson’s book of poetry, McPoems, refers to the fast food restaurant he worked in as a teenager, it could just as easily indicate the form of the poems themselves: fast and tasty. Some could easily be Facebook status updates, like his poem “Madonna”: “The only thing harder / than being named Madonna / is being named Madonna / and having to wear a name tag.” All of the poems relate incidents as witnessed by a McDonald’s employee. These poems could be seen as merely a collection of amusing anecdotes, but they’re also catalogue of human idiosyncrasies, a parade of eccentrics, goof-balls, idiots, the mentally ill, the desperate, the pathetic, and also the simply incongruous–like the wedding party concerned about the possibility of mustard stains on the wedding dress.
The speaker is not condescending. In fact, he empathizes with his customers, or at least humours them, or discreetly ignores them. Still he will occasionally reach out, like when he sits down to talk to the woman who’s been enigmatically writing the name Gloria in french fries and underlined in ketchup on the table tops. Even as the antics of his customers are mined for humour or poignancy, Nickerson seems to identify with them. They are fellow sufferers of the indignities of daily life: loss, confusion, drudgery, poverty, and frustration. But perhaps this is an overly dark set of words for such light verse.
The titular character in the prose poem, “The Unicorn”, is known for tromping around the restaurant with a soft serve ice cream cone stuck to the top of his forehead, until it slides off. “Sometimes the melting takes a few seconds, but other times you’ll see him sitting with rivulets of cream trickling down his face, his proud cone still intact. How can you not watch a man with an ice cream cone on his head?” The Unicorn stuck with me, not only because it is a ridiculous and striking image, but also because of the ambiguity in the poem. It seems likely that the man is mentally ill, but he could easily be a joker who doesn’t mind telling the same joke over and over to an audience of strangers.
The image I have created has a major inaccuracy, I should point out. The poem implies that the unicorn sticks the soft serve to his head with the base of the cone pointing up, whereas my unicorn balances the cone on his forehead with the ice cream on top. This would be a very difficult if not impossible balancing act, but it gives the figure the tension of a circus performance. The man stands quietly, his attention focused on the cone, as it slowly melts down onto his face; Nickerson’s unicorn walks around the restaurant, drawing stares and concern, and probably spreading sticky drops of soft serve everywhere. The man in the painting is reverent, face raised to the white, torch-like cone. He is the humble base of a ziggurat that reaches upward. (Towards what? A fast food nirvana? An exalted consumer product? The acme and intersection of manufacturing and gastronomy?) Nickerson’s unicorn, meanwhile, plays a joke on the cone and everyone in the restaurant, turning a food object into a costume. The cone no longer belongs to the set of the edible. It is just filth now. The man is walking around with filth on his face, which also happens to be the food you are eating.
McPoems is a quick read. The creation of my painting took much longer, and probably occasioned more thought about the book than I otherwise would have given it. I tell my students, when defining poetry, that calling something a poem is a way of asking the reader to slow down, to pay attention, to reread, to give more to the text. If the text gives back and makes your time worthwhile, it’s a good poem. If not, maybe it isn’t–at least not for you. To create a quick and pleasant book like McPoems is therefore a risky endeavor. By not asking much of the reader, it sets itself up to be consumed like a cheeseburger. But Nickerson’s book passes the reciprocality test: it rewards sustained reflection, continuing to give, as you spend time with it.
Your homework, dear reader, is to recreate visually, an image from a written text, and note briefly the differences in subject, tone, implication, etc. between the two.
As always, if for an alternative assignment submit something on McPoems in particular.