Mona and the milkmaid immortalize their trip to the scream, translated from French, author Travailwiki; Travailwiki, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael suggested the name Bob’s Rhubarb Lounge.

I couldn’t stop laughing, at least on the inside. I imagined commissioning someone to make a neon sign with those words, maybe ten feet high. I’d place it in front of my house, of course.

Why not? The point of the lounge would be to serve as a place where people can explore the meaning of life, just as I once explored the meaning of rhubarb. The imagination has no limits! At the same time, it has all sorts of limits, some of which are deeply painful.

All this emerged from an event at the house last week. My daughter, Alison — the Stained Glass Poet — who came to Chicago from Paris, is the one who organized it. “We should do a reading, Dad.”

A reading at the house. I was a little taken aback, having lived essentially as a hermit for the last couple of years. This is not something I would have imagined, but soon enough a skeptical “hmmm” morphed into “wow.” It’s not like we filled Soldier Field or anything. Maybe fifteen people came. We pretty much filled up the living room. I was amazed, relieved, overjoyed.

Both Alison and I read some poetry — Alison performing with her friends Erin and Michael, two documentary filmmakers who also happen to be musicians. They backed up her poetry on guitar and drums.

I read half a dozen poems, all of them exploratory in ways I couldn’t imagine, except as poems. I read about my relationship with my father, my relationship with snow (and snowballs), my relationship with fire, my relationship with . . . well, rhubarb. Yes, I confess: I read a poem called “The Coming of the Rhubarb” — the mysterious, annual arrival of rhubarb into my backyard. The poem, which wanders into some strange places, ends thus:

. . . And the rhubarb
has been pushing up through
the ground here in my
yard for 30 years, since
before my daughter’s birth,
and I am so grateful for it.
The worms have disappeared
but the rhubarb so miraculously
keeps coming back
and yesterday I went outside with my notebook
and looked at the progress of the rhubarb,
red-green hands reaching up in
fetal wonder,
life emerging screaming
a billion years of evolving.

Nature isn’t just a chunk of scenery or
the scary and powerful behavior of inanimate huge forces
like wind or waves or rockslide gravity
but … life
that ugly fetal rump red-green
cervical wounded
up push
breaking of earth

Oh how do I break words
into pieces
fine enough
to bless the process
of life becoming
aware of itself?

I can’t share a poem without wondering what the hell a poem actually is. I fear that any activity that happens to fall under the label “art” becomes vulnerable to, shall we say, cultural kidnapping. It’s either good or bad, in some condescending, externally determined way. Art is exclusive! Only some people are “artists.” I can’t stand this.

I taught writing for many years, at college, high school and even elementary-school levels; it was side work to my career as a journalist. The starting point was always this: Everyone can write! Everyone has a voice. The key is finding it, letting it come forth. The other stuff comes later: the sharpening, the polishing, the digging. And yeah, the spelling, the grammar. But too often the “other stuff” is all that’s taught. It’s imposed on both children and adults before they actually know they can write, far too often turning it into no more than a dreary chore. Teaching can too easily push students out of the subject being taught — teaching them only that they’re no good at it. In particular, this is too often what happens with those subjects labeled “art.’

So in the midst of the reading a “what if”” feeling began emerging in me, resonating louder and louder. Several guys who came later performed their own songs on Erin’s guitar. A number of fabulous musicians were present. I started imagining an event where everyone feels their inner artist awaken — where people can participate both at their best and at their most frightened and uncertain. Whatever that might mean.

It felt indigenous.

Bob’s Rhubarb Lounge is just starting to take shape, in and maybe beyond my imagination. I guess that’s called fetal wonder. There’s no neon sign yet.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him or visit his website at