Literary Hook : A poet—and poem—with a smile on its face

Have you ever had a day when you have come perilously close to throwing your computer out the window? Have you ever had a day when the various rudenesses of modern society made you want to scream? Have you ever had a day when you felt invisible, a day when clerks, secretaries and other “service” people didn’t make eye contact with you? Do you, like me, have a special knack for getting into the slowest lane? Do you, like me, have a knack for drawing needy people, people who seem to think that you and you alone have the answer to all of their questions—now?

Here is a poem that examines the vagaries of living in the Age of Technology, a poem that tries to come to terms with sharing the planet with all sentient beings, including the incompetent and the needy. I had been reading the Dalai Lama and tried to put the experience into a more humorous context. Perhaps you will relate to this.

Smile Poem Found at the Bank

During a particularly difficult transaction

With a new young bank teller named Jason,

Who finds transferring funds

From savings to checking

A computer nightmare

For twenty minutes while the line gets longer

And agitated, and I have to resist

The thought that they are blaming me

So I must blame Jason,

I catch a sunbeam and chant to myself:

“All sentient beings seek happiness

And want to avoid suffering.”

Something I catch myself thinking

A lot these days. Walking out,

I see a man who might be a customer

Or a derelict or Timothy Leary.

I try not to make eye contact,

But it’s too late.

“I like your smile,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say,

For I am pathologically courteous

And unaware that I am smiling.

All these years I have wondered

Why strangers always and everywhere

Talk to me. Oh, I could tell you stories,

But that’s for another poem.

I worried: I must look like a sucker,

A loser, or worse—a person with no boundaries.

No standards, some wide vibe screaming,

“Please bug me. Bother me. Talk to me.

Whatever it is—you can tell me.”

But today, today I learn that all along

It was just the friendly smile

I didn’t even know I owned.

This poem was first published in Powhatan Review, then in Who Walks Among the Trees with Charity. My gratitude to the editors.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Writer’s Garret” for this newspaper.

from the Sept. 19 – 25, 2007, issue

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