When I was offered the chance to review a book of poems by Ethan Coen (one half of the filmmaking Coen brothers) I accepted happily on the grounds that a) it seemed like a gloriously unlikely proposition and b) I love poetry and hate the fact that so little of it gets published nowadays.
The poems weren’t all my cup of tea (I’ve always hated limericks and Coen is rather fond of them) but the collection covers a wide range of topics from farting alpacas to relationship regrets, with an ode to the big-assed women of the world in between. Quirky and irreverent, The Day the World Ends will no doubt please Coen brothers’ fans and those who hate stuffy, flowery verse. If you cringe at the merest hint of crudity, however, then this collection is probably not for you.
Having said that, it would be unfair to paint Coen’s poems as entirely crude or macho, and to illustrate the opposite view I wanted to share my favourite poem from the collection here, which is called ‘On Turning Fifty’. Here, Coen shows a gentler, more introspective side without resorting to the flowery or the fluffy. For me personally, this is where he is at his best.
‘On Turning Fifty’
Having arrived I send back word
On what to expect,
What not to expect,
What to avoid,
What to do.
First of all, don’t come here the way I came.
Not through the forties.
The forties are nothing but a good dream gone bad.
Not like in your youth when peers’ flameouts
—Drugs, motorcycles, etc. —
Little bothered you, or—
Let’s admit it—bothered you not at all.
In your forties, the Sad Diers
—From cancers, weird blood diseases, the occasional
astounding heart attack—
will give you pause.
These Not-Old who die a-wasting,
Or are smothered by a tumor,
Leaving stunned young families to pick up the pieces,
Send a message that you now know how to read
And don’t want to.
So there’s that.
Things get a little drab:
Doing this, doing that—things you’ve
And just in general the
Idiotic optimism that lit your tripping way forward
Through your twenties and even (if less brilliantly) your
And then one day,
When you’re, oh,
Forty-three or forty-four,
It gutters out altogether
With a hopeless pfft
And a little spitcurl of updrifting smoke.
So don’t come this way.
Skip the forties.
“Skip the forties?” you say.
“Go straight to fifty from—what? —thirty-nine?
Miss ten years?”
You’re not missing anything, is my point.
And once you’re fifty
You can start the long peaceful coast down to white-haired
Wheelspokes humming as age’s breeze
Lightly riffles your hair.
Waste a decade
Dodging the medical lightning bolts,
Through the emotional brownouts,
And squint and squint and squint until you realize,
Fuck! I need reading glasses!
I’m telling you: the forties are nothing.
The forties are less than nothing.
The forties are the ugly stretch of the Interstate.
The forties are taupe.
The forties are ten pieces of shit on a stick.
All right, so this poem wasn’t about turning fifty so much
As about your forties, your miserable forties.
But if I’d called the poem “Skip your Forties, Fuckers,”
Would you have read it?
Now that you have—
Learn something for fuck’s sake.
Don’t stumble around for a hundred and twenty months
like I did, blindfolded,
Waving a stick,
And the piñata in the next fucking country.
For fuck’s sake:
I’m trying to help you.