“Dear Internal Revenue Service” by John Brehm

John Brehm


Thank you for your letter informing me of the errors
in my 2005 filing. I’m enclosing a check for
$5,657.00 to cover the tax which I evidently
still owe and the interest on that tax.
I would hereby like to ask, however,
that you forgive the penalty of $1,136.00
since the employer failed to send me a 1099
for the income I made as a consultant that year.
Of course I realize it’s my responsibility to report
all my income, but in the absence of a 1099
I simply forgot. I have a number of clients
and I’m (obviously) not the best bookkeeper.
Nor am I particularly “good with money.”
I am a poet as well as a freelance writer,
and being a poet isn’t quite as lucrative
as you might imagine. You may notice,
for example, that for all of last year I received
$57.00 in royalties. (A friend of mine helpfully
observed that I could have made more money
“as a parking meter,” to which I replied that
I could have made a lot more money as a parking meter,
and gotten a lot more respect as well.)
Unlike most hard-working poets in America,
I don’t teach, mainly because I don’t know anything.
I’m probably not all that far from the clichéd notion
of the romantic poet you yourself may hold.
I get stoned sometimes and stare at trees and clouds
for hours on end, try to see the wind, etc.
I weep for no reason, remember real or imagined
slights for ages, and lick my wounds with words.
I live in a studio apartment, a garret if you will.
I have a huge desk—it’s like the deck of a ship,
and I its landlocked captain, gazing out to sea.
It sits underneath my sleeping loft, which
my girlfriend likes to call “the lofty loft,”
for reasons I won’t go into here as they may seem
inappropriate, or too personal, or perhaps
irrelevant to my purpose, which is to ask your
forgiveness of the penalty and to offer reasons why
by explaining the hardships of the poet’s life.
I’ll just say that sometimes it gets pretty lofty up there
and sometimes we imagine we’re on a magic carpet
drifting smoothly above the city below, in its state
of semi-controlled, slow-motion collapse,
and on out over the ocean, which she loves and fears,
just like I do, or over the summer-campy Catskills,
where we can’t afford to buy a country house,
with their worn-down mountains and charmingly
self-effacing trees, so unlike the impossibly massive
and overly serious cedars and hemlocks and
Douglass fir trees of the Pacific Northwest,
where I used to live until poverty forced me East.
Those trees are brooders—dignified, mist-shrouded
monsters—beautiful, of course, and awe-inspiring
(I wonder if you have felt this), but too damply
archaic and imposing and uncomprehendable
for my taste. I like a tree you can take in with
a single steady gaze. I wonder if you are as bad
at poetry as I am at accounting. Perhaps we are
the inverted mirror-images of each other.
I don’t imagine you get asked that question
very often or receive many letters like this one.
Maybe you’re reading this out loud even now
to your office (I almost said “cell”) mates. Of my book
a reviewer once said that “one simply can’t resist
reading these poems out loud to someone else,”
and I wonder if you feel this—the irresistible
need to read this poem aloud. I’m sure
the letters you receive are mostly angry ones,
the kind that say things like, “Here, take my
Goddamn money and buy Dick Cheney a few more
gallons of puppy blood for his nightly ablutions,”
or “Dear IRS, please use the enclosed check to
purchase some hand-held rocket-launchers to blast the fuck
out of some poor Iraqi’s house, which you prefer
to call ‘a suspected insurgent stronghold.’”
Or, “Please give this money to the CEO of Exxon
so he can buy silk socks while I regurgitate
my supper and try not to starve.”
I thought of taking that approach, I felt
that desire to get in a shot or two, to give voice
to righteous indignation, treat you like
a non-person, someone mindlessly
and heartlessly saying “no” all day long.
But I’m done with all that, I want to reach you,
to speak to you as a fellow human being immersed
in the same joys and suffering as I am—didn’t you
once write poems yourself, poems of anguish
and loss and loneliness?—and to remind you
of the karmic delights of forgiveness that
await you if you release me
from this debt.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention


John Brehm: “‘Dear Internal Revenue Service’ took shape after I’d written a very similar, though much shorter, letter to the IRS, explaining my predicament and asking for mercy. (Which, no surprise, was not granted.) While I was waiting for a response, I showed a copy of the letter to a friend who said, ‘That sounds like one of your poems.’ And so I turned it into one.” (web)

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