Poetry & Murder

An excerpt from 'Nameless Dame: Murder on the Russian River'

I‘d been resisting this trip for some time.

It was one degree when I flew out of Minneapolis early in the morning but fifty-nine a few hours later in San Francisco.

My buddy Bobby Sabbatini had been trying for some time to get me to visit him and the family out in Sonoma County, near the Russian River. It was Bobby and Blossom, and baby Milosz. They’d left behind an upscale condo along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and moved to an off-the-grid cottage outside the town of Cazadero.

I wondered which of them favored the seclusion more. Sabbatini, the former homicide detective who’d found poetry, or his wife, the wily Blossom, who’d once been my assistant and whose wayward twenties had included a formidable stint in prison.

Clearly, this was Sabbatini’s adventure. Blossom loved the man madly, and if following his bliss meant opening a poetry karaoke bar in the town of Guerneville, she wasn’t going to stand in his way.

Every Sunday morning, Sabbatini called from California and recited a new poem. They were never his, but I feared those might be lurking.

“Check out this gem, Augie,” he’d say, “from the Monte Rio poet Gail King.”

I will always have

boxes and chairs

boxes like I never moved in

chairs like where

are all the people.

“That describes our life, the simple glory of it. We have giant redwoods, a gorgeous river, the sweet salt air from the ocean. If there ever was a place made for poetry, it’s the West County of Sonoma.”

I wasn’t having it. I’d come from Northern California and wasn’t anxious to return. Not even for a visit. I had no family left, and my youth and early twenties in the Bay Area had faded into a charmless daguerreotype, blurred at the edges. All my adult life I’d struggled to find a work ethic, and I was afraid that even a short visit to California would turn me back to a full-time slacker.

I’d also been pissed at Sabbatini and Blossom for leaving me alone in Minnesota, with my P.I. business floundering, my meager investments disappearing, and my head filled with verse from that damn poetry-rabid detective.

Sabbatini had surprised everybody a couple of years earlier, bailing from a career gig with the St. Paul Police Department. I thought he’d gone mad. Newly married, with a baby on the way, he gave up a way of life along with the paycheck. He’d inherited the Cazadero cabin of an old aunt and claimed he had some money set aside. “I’m fifty-five years old, Augie, and I’ve got a dream.” That’s how he described his bonkers notion of the poetry bar.

The night he came over to break the news, he tried sounding reasonable.

“Of course, we won’t be doing poetry all the time. I’ll have to cultivate the neighborhood. But the beauty of it, Augie, is that the folks out there aren’t interested in being socially networked. They’d rather sit down, smoke a doob with you, drink a good local. I’m going to get them breathing poetry. Memorizing it. Living it.”

Sabbatini had become a poetry charismatic once he discovered it after 9/11, but now he’d truly gone crazy.

A year and a half after arriving in Sonoma County, Sabbatini was actually opening the poetry tavern and wanted me there for the gala. Broke, depressed, and clearly in need of some sort of vacation, I gave in, bought a cheap airline ticket to San Francisco, and signed up to bunk with Sabbatini and family for a couple of weeks.

Doubling Down

Although I was starved by the time I picked up the rental car, I pushed on a little past the town of Petaluma, where I found an In-N-Out Burger. At an outdoor table, I roared through a Double-Double so quickly that I had to order another, along with a pouch of fries. I told myself that this was a strategic move—I was heading out to the wilds of West County. Who knew when I’d find my next meal?

On the drive up from Petaluma, I composed a haiku about my meal.

Famished in late winter,

a pair of Double-Doubles

crunched at an outside table.

The haiku had become a recent habit. After years of listening to Sabbatini spout poetry, I’d gotten with the program and had begun memorizing poems. Casting around for some new stuff to memorize after Sabbatini left town, I discovered the haiku, an ideal form for the lazy man. I read a couple of collections of them, and pretty soon I was writing them. The little poems issued from me as reflexively as small farts. It became an instant way of digesting my experiences. Always looking to make things easier, I decided to forgo the syllable count. As the rest of the world twittered, I tweeted myself with haiku.


I made it without trouble up the gracious, redwood-lined road from Highway 116 to Cazadero, but that’s when things got crazy. Sabbatini had sent me a hand-drawn cardboard map highlighting the unmarked dirt roads beyond Cazadero that led to his cabin. Big red arrows showed all the turns—right, left, left, right—and I thought I was pretty much on it. But once I turned off onto the first dirt road, indicated by a dotted line on the map, I lost myself in a spiraling maze that led nowhere. I didn’t see the red traffic cones Sabbatini said he’d set out to mark their road. I didn’t see the base of the steep hill, marked by two good-size madrones. And I sure as hell didn’t see a cabin painted the color of Dijon mustard.

I cursed myself for not picking up a GPS device when I’d rented the car. My cell phone had no service out in the wilds, and I couldn’t even find my way back to town. After a good hour of going in circles, without another car in sight, I pulled over and got out. It was four in the afternoon, and I had half a tank of gas left. Time to regroup.

The web of roads might have been my life in the last few years—a labyrinthine gloom that I’d been unable to shake since my wife left me. Every time I thought I’d steered myself clear, I’d slip back into the muck.

Despite a full tummy

and a nice piss in the woods,

our hero is lost again.