Then Pancho Villa came to town
hanged the mayor
and summoned the old and infirm
Count Vronsky to supper.
Pancho introduced his new girl friend,
along with her husband in his white apron,
then asked the Count to tell him
about his unhappy exile in Mexico.
Later, the talk was of women and horses.
Both were experts.
The girl friend giggled
and fussed with the pearl buttons
on Pancho’s shirt until,
promptly at midnight, Pancho went to sleep
with his head on the table.
The husband crossed himself
and left the house holding his boots
without so much as a sign
to his wife or Vronsky.
That anonymous husband, barefooted,
humiliated, trying to save his life, he
is the hero of this poem.
A couple of years ago, deep under the fevered spell of Raymond Carver's writing, after having wrenched every drop of ink out of his prose works (Carver is best known for his short stories, although he never wrote a novel), I finally found myself wading into the murky waters of poetry. I was at the Brooklyn Public library and pulled a thick, hardcover volume entitled All of Us: The Collected Poems from the shelf. At home, I read a few poems and thought they were fine, but it was this poem, The Baker, that awoke an understanding of what poetry is capable of in me. It was the kind of moment in which I actually shot up off of my couch and repeated the poem out loud to anyone who would listen, like I was a character from a Kerouac novel.
As for the poem itself, like many of Carver's stories, it serves as a touching tribute to the everyman who toils away in obscurity. The conquerers and doers of great deeds in history may well lay claim to the popular imagination, but this poem cuts through the gilded veneers of legend to reveal that sometimes naked, quiet survival of the everyman, the ability to walk away unscathed after being caught in the orbit of the egos of the powerful is a triumph in and of itself. And one worth celebrating.