Two Poems

Kathleen Flenniken


Sometimes it soothes me to remember them, those clever
and industrious men who fashioned machines bigger
than the factory floor, conveyor belts like long-winded
sentences with commas to twist on caps or bend tubes
to 64-degrees or remove cooling metal from its forms

and then on, jars jiggling, a cheerful off-to-work-we-go,
and pause, the great jaws that closed in a steel kiss,
then a controlled waterfall of ping-pong balls
or rubber boots or bottle stoppers into a bin, into a box
that's sealed and loaded on a train for Omaha or Toulouse.

Weren't we happy then? Especially those men
who went home whistling each night and tossed their hats
with flair, with gap-toothed sons and daughters running in
to hear what Dad invented that day. It was always
something. They drew schematics on cocktail napkins

using peanuts to illustrate a point, and on Saturdays
puttered in the shop, or the kitchen, where they got
in the way, watching cherry pitting until they disappeared
along with pitter as half the batch lay bleeding in the sink.
The Envy of the World. That proclamation rang

as fresh new pencils came rolling down stamped U.S.A.
and the factory smelled of wood and paint and gear grease
and was loud with clangs and steam and metal teeth
engaged and turning, turning, turning. Sometimes
I think of that America, the one before I was born—

grocers unloading boxes of fruit, newspaper boys on bikes,
mothers ringing cowbells to herd their children in
for cherry cake. I imagine my countrymen, like a child
imagining his parents in their youth, needing to believe
that once they were beautiful and in love. We were.


The main character sits on his childhood bed
naming everything that's gone—ex-job, ex-wife,
ex-best friend—and finally apprehends

the breakdown we've felt coming since chapter five.
When his doctor calls with test results, most of us
decide to remain minor characters

like the quixotic neighbor growing
bonsai sequoias, or the waitress with thick
glasses and a passion for chess,

because the main character, in the thrall
of a relentless plot, can't help hurtling toward
the crumbling cliff edge. And who needs that?

Some inherit genes from generations
of minor players, some must learn to guard
those sunny Sundays with the paper

full of heroes in distant gunfire. And some of us
who've gotten smug over the years turn another page,
turn on the football game, until one day

the doorbell rings. We close our books,
adjust our eyes, and the protagonist
sweeps in insisting himself into our lives

with his entourage of lust and language,
sorrow, brio. Hero, anti-hero, it hardly matters
with the lights this bright. The music crests

and it's time to speak.

"The League of Minor Characters" previously published in the Atlanta Review, Spring-Summer 2001.

Kathleen Flenniken

Kathleen Flenniken's first collection, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry; it will be released in Fall 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Poetry, and Poetry Daily. She is also a recipient of fellowships from the NEA and Artist Trust.