The Last Poem I Loved: “Oh Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie” by Philip Appleman


Of all of the people I know who own a smartphone (a majority, anymore), most of them get up in the morning and immediately reach for said smartphone from their cozy nest in bed. The first thing they do is check Facebook and/or Twitter, or they check the news and post links to news stories on Facebook and Twitter.

How do I know this? Do I sleep with all of them?

Um, no.

Every one of them types into their statuses, their posts, “Just woke up and saw this…” “Ugh, it’s Wednesday, just want to stay in bed…”

When I wake up first thing in the morning, however, I reach for my phone and listen to a podcast. It’s a short, sweet podcast, and holds a fresh poem for me every day, like a single flower extended by a shy child, and that shy child’s voice belongs to Garrison Keillor. I have listened to “The Writer’s Almanac” for nearly two decades, stumbling across his voice one frosty morning in Ohio when I visited my parents for the holidays from college. My mother was listening to NPR and baking something with whole pecans and caramelized sugar. When “The Writer’s Almanac” piano music began and the narrator began to speak, I cried “That’s Garrison!” and pointed at the radio like identifying a miracle, startled to hear him on a weekday morning. He was supposed to stay on Saturday nights in my psyche, and this appearance was like hearing your preacher in your home during breakfast. My mother smiled. “Yes, he’s on every day about this time.” I moved to the big, blocky speaker and listened intently while he talked about history and then read a poem. “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch,” he said after the poem, and then Morning Edition came back on, and he was gone. I hunted for him for months back in Missouri where I went to college, until I found him on the local affiliate.

I graduated from college in the fall of 2000, just a few weeks after that year’s controversial election. I remember the morning after the election (or would one say DURING the election?) I was in one of my English classes, all of us on fire with argument. Missouri was in a purple state of wonder then; we voted for a dead senator, but were still socially conservative, and many people voted for Bush. People said a lot of things in that room without thinking first that day, on both sides of the argument.

The following February, after I graduated and Bush was sworn in, I was listening to Keillor with my morning coffee as he recapped literary history and started in on a poem by Philip Appleman:

O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck, & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice—
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good—
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

I stopped sipping; I put my coffee cup down somewhere. I went to “The Writer’s Almanac” webpage. I copied and pasted and printed the poem, folded the paper in half, and placed it in my journal. I woke up in the morning and went to bed at night singing lines from that poem, like an anthem. I pulled emotional nourishment from that poem in the literary equivalent of snacking on a loaf, or a fish, in never-ending supply. I chewed and chewed and chewed that poem, quoting it to people who might know it, people who should have known it, people who were annoyed that I knew it, people who didn’t know it and didn’t want to know it.

As a literature major, I wasn’t supposed to like this poem. It rhymed, damn it, which made it too “easy” to a majority of my professors. When I first entered college I took a composition course where we were asked what our favorite poem was, and I made the faux pas of revealing mine as “The Highwayman.” The professor hit me over the head with Eliot, Stevens, Dickinson. His successors hit me over the head with Ginsberg, Sexton, Carver, Williams. I loved their efforts and the results, yet how could they know…how could they know that my mother had been hitting me over the head so much longer with Silverstein, with Brooks, with Nash, with Parker? “Karma” was my natural state, the innate poem, the poem I was supposed to inherit all along.

I recited it to myself in line order, over and over, in the beginning years. Then I started shuffling the order, and then a remembered order of what fit the arguments that I made with myself. Sooner or later the paper was lost, but the poem stayed on the vision of my mind, the lines so often visited that they burned themselves into the screen.

When I watched the news of 2001 and a liberal protested, I remembered “Karma,” and I’d hum a syllable or two. When a conservative defended 2002, 2003, and all the military and fiscal years that followed, I remembered “Karma,” and tried not to shout the last line of the poem at the screen. The poem evolved: first as a mantra, then less as a mantra and more of ingrained fabric. I have played with this poem so much that now, given an audience, I can’t recite it properly. I have to look it up on my smartphone and read it aloud, trying not to skip ahead, or to stop and say, “Heh.”

Eleven years after I first heard that poem, when Garrison is finished holding out the morning’s next flower, I move on to news on the ‘net. The soundtrack starts in the background, and I move to the rhythm of the rhyme I know too well: words beat out on Facebook and Twitter in drumbeats–“make the bad people good”…”and the good people nice”–reading the news, the posts of others, the comments of others, trying to shape my own statements. I bite my tongue and think, believing, just a little.

Sarah J. Schlosser is a former substitute teacher, call center trainer, and middle manager. She was raised on a farm in Northwest Ohio, and earned a Bachelor of Arts at Missouri State University in literature. She is currently writing a baseball novel. Sarah lives in a coastal community 470 miles south of San Francisco, California, where she operates the social media platform for the San Francisco/New York City writing group Shut Up and Write!, and where she reads her way back into the world every day. More from this author →