The 5¢ Poem


I sat down at my desk an hour ago.
My left leg and ruptured discs in my lower back
barely hurt. My head was fresh, clear.
I breathed evenly. I was relaxed.
I wanted to dance and sing,
bringing note to the brief pause
from insufferable pain.

A sudden rush of wind surrounded the house.
The small gas furnace that heats this room
went out.
The pilot light is about four inches from the floor.
Norma and Saroyan won't be home for several hours.
Knowing the risk I am taking,
I decide to re-light the furnace.

Carefully, using my chair and desk as supports,
I slowly lower myself to the floor.
On my hands and knees,
I open the pilot light door.
I strike a wooden match
against the furnace's rough front,
push the gas button. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s,
the gas flows through the pipe's mouth.
The quick explosion of the fire to the appointed jets.
The furnace works!

Slowly, I pulled myself up.
Immediately, when I was standing, 
the deep, throbbing pain exploded inside of me.
I couldn't move. My eyes swelled with tears.
I wanted to scream. Oh, how I wanted to scream,
ridding my body of the constant, unbearable pain
I would live with permanently!

I didn't scream,
it would worsen the pain.


During the next month, February, 1977,
Jim Schevill and I were walking on the 
Brown University campus, when he said
I should make the pain work for me
by writing against it. 
Minutes later, I spotted a nickel on the ground.
Jim picked it up and handed it to me, saying, 
The 5¢ Poem is the title of your next poem.”


Maybe it's time to give it a try.

Brightly painted wooden Indians
standing in front to tobacco shops
holding 5¢ cigars
And prowling, cheap whores,
are all that 5¢ brings to mind
for a nickel's worth of pain.

When I was a kid,
six juicy mouthfuls of Bazooka bubble gum
came in a silver and red room for 5¢.
5¢ played the juke box. 5¢ played the pinball with 5 balls.
5¢ let you ride on the bus all around the city.
A big, foamy mud go A&W root beer was 5¢.
And for 5¢, a girl every guy in the neighborhood made out with, 
let me put my hand inside her training bra.

That was 1949, and I was 10.
My parents were scum.
Any nickels I earned,
they took and turned into alcohol and dice,
locking me in a closet without supper
because I should have earned more.


We all scream.
It's as American as commercials and cancer.
They are mostly silent screams
without solitary echoes for comfort,
like the pain locked in my body.

And no two screams are the same.
–Be an individualist
–Scream like no one else
–Develop your own personal scream,
an enduring, sympathetic voice inside us instructs.
–Proclaim to yourself and to your family
that you're an artist because you can do something
no one else can.


An artist's life has few rewards.

Did anyone hear John Lennon scream?
Did anyone hear Janis Joplin scream?
Did anyone hear William Saroyan scream?
Did anyone hear Fireball Roberts scream?
Did anyone hear Dorothy Parker scream?
James Dean couldn't scream.
Who heard the Sioux Nation scream?
Have you heard your scream?
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mother Teresa said,
“Only special people are allowed to suffer,
and God knows better than us
who they should be.”

What does this all mean, anyway?
Have I written anything worth recording?
Has the pain turned my brain to mush?
Are these just hysterical words
piled on top of hysterical words?  

Is this my way of screaming?
If so, does anybody out there hear me?
I mean, really hear what my screams are saying?

                                                   September 1981
                                                   Woodland Park, Colorado

from The 5¢ Poem. Copyright © James Humphrey Trust.


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