Poet's Notebook: The poem is a steal

Two coincidences provide both an inspiring title and an indelible memory of Paris.

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: The poem is a steal
Jeanne Meinke
Though scientists inform us that criminals

have insufficient zinc I’ve always believed 

it’s insufficient gold and silver that gets

them going  The man who slipped his hand into

my front pocket on the jammed Paris Métro

wasn’t trying to make friends...

The other day during cocktail hour we feasted on goose paté, a rare feat these days, Jeanne being (mostly) vegetarian; and this one — like Proust’s madeleine — brought back memories of Paris. It’s a long time since we’ve been there. Here’s one of the memories.

Jeanne and I were in Paris with 13 students, a boondoggle which was a grand plaisir for us, leading them through the pleasures to be found in the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Musée d’Orsay, and other sites Eckerd College paid us to visit. As a bonus, we escorted them to literary and artistic hangouts like Shakespeare & Company and the Café Les Deux Magots, plus bistros with their camembert, flan, and goose paté, so that more than their heads got stuffed with information. And I was working on a new book of poems.

Late one morning on a trip to Sacré-Coeur, we were going to have lunch in Montmartre (below the basilica), and our Métro station was packed. Somehow we all squeezed into the train (several students didn’t speak French; we tried to keep together). The last one in, I could hardly breathe, much less move, but once the doors managed to close behind me I thought about what I had told the students: In crowded places watch out for pickpockets. I inched my hand down to my front pocket, where I kept my wallet — and another man’s hand was already in it.

Well, this is a funny story too long to tell, but basically we held hands amicably enough until he scuttled off at the next stop. For the next few days, between touring, I worked on a longish free verse poem about it, which included the students as well as the pickpocket (pale, balding, thin, shorter than me), but it didn’t seem all that funny or exciting as I tried to catch the feeling. When writing, I often sat upstairs at the Café Cluny, a comfortable spot near our hotel on the Boul’ Mich (the Boulevard Saint-Michel at the axis of the Latin Quarter), where you could nurse a café crème or a vin rouge all afternoon while you scribbled in your notebook.

One afternoon, I was there reading the International Herald Tribune and came across an article about what American criminals held in common. An odd item was that along with poverty, poor education, etc., many of them had a zinc deficiency. I liked this, and restarted my poem (see lines above). This seemed like a decent beginning, and I began writing from a different perspective, though the poem was still unfocused two days later when we got a letter from our daughter Gretchen, a scientist working at Yale. She was all excited because her lab was studying a “directional” protein whose pseudopods — each with a trace of zinc — latched on to our DNA to help determine where the cells in our bodies go. The name of this study, she told us, was “Zinc Fingers.”

Bingo! Robert Frost said a key to the art of poetry was the ability to take advantage of happy accidents. “Zinc Fingers” became the name of the poem, and eventually the name of the whole book. And now, the goose paté and the pickpocket seem to be pulling us back to Paris this summer. We may be a bit old for long journeys, but the hell with it, we’re going anyway. It’s the zinc: We can’t help ourselves. Allons!

Interestingly, the French word for pickpocket is — pickpocket! (pronounced peekpokette).

...This brought me back

to mon ami the pickpocket:  I wondered

how he chose his hard line of work and if

as a boy he was good at cards  for example

or sewing and for that matter what choice did

I have either...

—both quotes from “Zinc Fingers,” in Zinc Fingers by Peter Meinke, U. of Pittsburgh Press (2000)