Jackson Wheeler, a Ventura social worker and one of the county's best-known poets, used to play a memory game with his college buddies in North Carolina. They would gather in someone's room, imagine they were stuck on a deserted island, and try to reconstruct their favorite poems.
Thanks to that game, Wheeler said, he will always have Lewis Carroll's "The Jabberwocky" with him, 18 lines of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" and, his favorite, Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro."
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
But Wheeler is not unique.
Contacted by phone recently and asked to recite any poem they could recall on the spot, several Ventura County residents rose to the occasion. Their verbatim responses, which may or may not be poetically perfect, follow.
Marco Antonio Abarca, 27, staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard:
First, he offered a verse passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" about misty mountains, deep caverns and forgotten gold. He called back an hour later, asking to substitute some lines from "Dos Cuerpos" by Octavio Paz.
Dos cuerpos, frente a frente (Two bodies, face to face)
Son aveces dos olas (Are at times two waves)
Y la noche es oceano. (And the night is an ocean.)
Dos cuerpos, frente a frente (Two bodies, faces to face)
Son aveces dos piedras (Are sometimes two stones)
Y la noche desierto. (And the night is a desert.)
Dos cuerpos, frente a frente, (Two bodies, face to face)
Son aveces raices (Are sometimes roots)
Y en la noche son enlazadas. (And in the night are intertwined.)
Scott Werner, 43, owner of Waveline Ventura surf and sport shop in Ventura:
"I like Samuel Taylor Coleridge a lot," Werner said, even though the structure of his "Kubla Khan" is "an artistic cop-out. The guy was a heroin addict."
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man....
A maiden with a dulcimer once I saw
And if I could recall her sweet song
I could something something tell you the story of Kubla Khan.
Farmer Rob Brokaw, 32, co-owner of Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy:
"I'm going to let you down. . . . I'm going to go home and dust off my Robert Frost book, so next decade I'll be ready for you."
Ding dong the witch is dead
The wicked witch
The wicked witch
She's gone where the goblins go
Jeff Casey, 29, general manager of Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park & Mortuary in Westlake Village:
"There are several of them that we hear around here quite a bit. There is one little thing that I've heard--it's really not a poem as much as it is a saying."
To live in hearts
We leave behind
Is not to die.
Allan Ayers, 46, teacher at Poinsettia School in Ventura and Santa Paula farmer:
" 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' . . . And of course it goes on and on. . . . When I was single years and years ago, and used to read into the night, I'd read poetry."
We are none other than a moving row of magic shadow shapes that come and go
Round the sun-illumined lantern, held in midnight by the master of the show,
But helpless pieces of the game he plays upon his checkerboard of night and days
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays, and one by one back in the closet lays.
The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: and all your piety nor wit
Can call it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
Dixie Adeniran, 47, county director of library services:
"The Canterbury Tales."
Whan that April with hise shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne;
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
Michael D. Bradbury, 48, county district attorney:
"I'm ashamed to say I can't recall any epic works . . . but I have been humming 'The Wicked Witch Is Dead' for the last three weeks," Bradbury offered. Moments later, he summoned from memory a healthy portion of verse from cowboy poet Baxter Black. "I was on a long ride a couple of years ago, and he was there and told it around the campfire. There are some verses missing."
It ain't easy being a cowboy
Like the Marlboro man
'Cause the public expects us to all be from Texas
And roll cigarettes with one hand.
Hollywood painted a picture
They'd like to perpetuate.
The streets of Laredo still echo his credo
That a cowboy always shoots straight.
I envy that smooth urban cowboy
Whose dance card always seems full.
I'd be almost willing to take penicillin
Or ride the mechanical bull
'Cause I'm tired of kissing my horse.
The 20th-Century cowboy,
What I'm supposed to be,
That rare combination of civilization
And Jesse James on a spree.
It ain't easy being a cowboy
So I've made myself a vow
To avoid inspection and public rejection
To just stay out here with the cows.
Cathie Wright, 61, assemblywoman (R-Simi Valley):
"I learned this when I was 3 years old. I don't know who the author is. It's called 'My Shadow.' "
I have a little shadow
That goes in and out with me
And what can be the use of him
Is more than I can see.
He is very very like me
From the heels up to the head
And I see him jump before me
When I jump into my bed.
Now the funniest thing about him
Is the way he likes to grow
Not at all like proper children
Which is always very slow.
For he sometimes shoots up taller
Like an Indian rubber ball
And he sometimes gets so little
That there's none of him at all.
I'd think shame to stick to nursey
As that shadow sticks to me.
One morning bright and early
Before the sun was up
I rose and saw the dew
On every buttercup.
But my lazy little shadow
Like an errant sleepyhead
Had stayed at home behind me
And was fast asleep in bed.