"A Quarter, A Dime, and Two Copper Pennies" -- A Look at Homelessness and the Heart
Seldom is the general public exposed and given insight into what we have conditioned ourselves to quickly glance past and pretend doesn’t exist: homelessness. Conditioned to donate to “charity” or send money to nameless, faceless entities to fulfill our need to “help,” society rarely gets elbow deep in the true nature of people who have nowhere to live. Justin Booth, former 30-year drug addict, ex-convict, and homeless citizen of Little Rock, Arkansas, brings his experiences, along with those surrounding him during his time on the streets, into the stark open in A Quarter, A Dime, and Two Copper Pennies.
Booth has a pristine talent for painting stark images of life outside. In “Second and Cross,” we catch a glimpse of a “brooding summer’s day” filled with various characters. One pushes a bike with “tireless / wheels / loud on asphalt covered in grit / and broken glass,” a poignant representation of the struggle of endurance. Booth is even able to shine a tender light on such harsh conditions, describing “the sweet sickly smell of reefer / [going ] up, / as the sun sets on Second and / Cross.” Other vivid descriptions such as “A punch drunk / smile spreads across / the thick chested / man’s face” (“This Morning’s Afternoon”) and “Thick as a brick / skin now, / face set sure as / concrete” (“Puddle of Water”) illustrate the harshness of reality expressed poetically in Booth’s diction.
Readers get a jarring insight into the mind of the people we so often hurry by in Booth’s “Street Poet,” which describes what it’s like for the homeless to see passersby and know they are being judged and avoided: “Your grimace / tells me that / you have already / judged me, / sized me up, / and wished you / had crossed the street. / I do not / blame you.” He reveals his desire not to beg for money, but to ask for people to take bits of his heart and soul: “I clutch the homemade / chapbooks firm / in my hands / that I sell / too cheaply; / my heart and my soul.” The poem continues with Booth’s learning that “art is not small, / the ones that love it / will fit it in no book.” He finishes the poem by revealing his pleasure when able to share his work: ‘As you move to / pass by me by / I smile, and ask / ‘do you like poetry’ / and am pleased / that you stop / just long enough / to look at my work.” This poem resonated powerfully with me personally, as a person who simply wants appreciation for work born of the soul. Booth clearly is able to articulate the desire to share his work and benefit in some small measure, even if just to buy his next meal.
In “Advice on Writing from a Great Black Bird Near the Broadway Bridge (with apologies to Phyllis Levin)” Booth brilliantly casts poetic conventions to the wind by embracing the poetry itself and not the technicality of writing poetry:
Forget the comma, the crow said,
onto another branch, random joy
da DA sounds under your breath
its been done
Forget the rules of grammar, and
societies niceties, but rather
Leap then soar, first with
Then in homage to the Beat Daddies
You cannot be groovy while
grounded . . .
Booth doesn’t want to write so much as fly. “Fly with your words / . . . and forget the crooked fear that / gives you pause on Earth.”
The rest of the book is filled with touching portraits of the life the homeless, mixed with childhood memories in others. Themes of god, addiction, sadness and grace help bring the faceless to life.
In 140 pages, Justin Booth has created a masterpiece of reality, creating beauty out of ugliness, and hope from despair. Booth hopes to draw attention to The Van, an organization established by his friend, Aaron Reddin, who works tirelessly to keep the homeless in Arkansas warm, dry, fed and safe. This book, which I purchased via Amazon, is well worth the $11.00 just to read such riveting poetry; however, readers can be happy to know that the proceeds from the book gives back to The Van and www.theoneinc.org who will continue to help those in need, one person at a time. As Justin survived and overcame his time on the streets, he is allowing his words and experiences to benefit those still out there. Reading this book is just a small step to understanding and helping all at once.
About the Author: Ginger Beck is a writer and English teacher in Little Rock. She advocates for at-risk youth, sings in a band, and is obsessed with dinosaurs and space. She lives with her boyfriend Michael and their 12-year-old poodle now that her 18-year-old daughter has left for college. Her most recent work appears in Foliate Oak, The Molotov Cocktail, Red Savina Review, Blue Lyra Review, Intrinsick, Silver Birch Press, and Pithead Chapel, among others.