Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Secret Word

Here's the latest of my poems. Old heads who went to Catholic schools with the good sisters will find familiar echoes. In fact, one of my poet friends, remarked that the poem is nostalgic. And indeed, it is, so I wonder just how much sense it will make to people to don't know who "Grocho" is--although that's hard to imagine--and to whom the idea of a black-and-white TV show conjures up images of ancient history such as paintings on the walls of caves. Ah, well! Here is is for those who can dig it.


The Secret Word

No computer-conjured marvels
in those black-and-white quiz show days.
Just a stuffed duck, word placard
in his beak dropped on a cord
from a beam above.
“Say the secret word and divide $100”—
Groucho’s standard line to the pair
of just plain ole American contestants,
one guy, one gal—always,
playing “You Bet Your Life.”

They didn’t, of course, risk much of anything
save their dignity,
and only occasionally did they say
the secret noun or common verb.
I mean, how often does “oven” or “crank”
or “silk” or even “word” come up in
ordinary conversation, even
with a magnificently mustachioed
funny guy in a bow tie
and a line of banter as long as the queue
circling the block to cram the tiny studio?
Fifty bucks went a long way in the Fifties.

The very decade of my elementary school years
at St. Rose de Lima and St. Francis Cabrini—
both bastions of Crescent City Catholicism
patrolled by hooded gospel guardians,
silent as sidewinders and twice as mean,
Amazons astride our daily universe, enforcing
God’s relentless law with habitual rigor.
One can only imagine what gimp-curdling,
rosary-wringing mayhem would have visited us
had they ever heard our secret sixth-grade word.
For all of us a just-learned noun, adjective, verb,
succinct and wickedly versatile. Four letters,
and it rhymed with “duck.”
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