I love poetry. I freaking love it.
Mind you, if asked to write a poem, I’ll evacuate an open-mic night quicker than a fart from the guy in the front row who just gorged himself on Golden Corral. Reading it, teaching it, spouting it off? Well, just ask me to recite a few lines. I’ll strike a melodramatic pose and drop some Keats on your ass:
“‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.”
These melopoeic lines flow like liquid sex appeal out of even the most inexperienced, rhythmically challenged maw, mine included. They’re so resplendent every nightingale since 1819 has had a bit of a superiority complex.
Contemporary poetry, on the other hand, I used to shun, snurl my nose, as if catching the wafting miasma of the aforementioned buffet flatulence. It was hard for me to differentiate between the stuff shortlisted for awards and the rambling, unrhymed, free-verse diatribes of some 14-year-old emo holdover’s blog. Hardly my fault. My training was in Victorian literature with a liberal sprinkling of the Romantic Big 6.
Virtually all my reading had been mired in the 19th century, so a couple of years ago, I started collecting Mariner Press’s annual publications of The Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. I subscribed to The New Yorker, not just for the essays but the weekly dose of fiction. I even forked out the exorbitant rate to get The Literary Review mailed to my house quarterly.
The short stories resonated, and I’ve always been a sucker for a good literary essay. The poetry, however, still made little sense. I felt the insuppressible urge to blow a raspberry at the page while thinking “Yeats would not be impressed.”
Then in February of 2016, Randall Horton visited my university to promote his new book, Hook: A Memoir. Horton, a professor at the University of New Haven, has a bit of a–shall we say–sordid past. All the details are in the book. Intrigued, I attended both scheduled readings, overwhelmed with slack-jawed awe.
Memoir it was, but he is a poet by trade, and he had done something I encourage my students to, though they seldom accomplish the feat: find poetry in the prose. After the readings, I tagged along as the department took him to dinner. We conversed, I basked in the glow of his greatness, I asked numerous questions, I probably bugged the ever-loving beejebbers out of him.
The next day was a stressful one for me. I had three classes to teach, a quarter ton of essays to grade, a department meeting to doze through, etc. Naturally when I got home that evening, my only option was to go to sleep.
Which is why I opened Hook and began reading.
Seven hours later, as the herald of the morn–the lark, not the nightingale–was singing outside my window, I contemplated the epilogue as I closed the cover.
It was a heavy book, not in the literal sense, like Harry Potter or the Norton Anthology of [insert nationality] Literature, but in thematic content. I laughed aloud. I gripped the arm of my chair until I got the stereotypical white knuckles. If my Anglo-Irish upbringing would have allowed me to cry, I–Oh, fine, I confess. Tears streamed down my face.
Sleep deprivation made that day one of the most miserable of my professional career, and it was worth it. I read a few other contemporary books last year, but Hook unequivocally won my top prize.
Immediately, I sought out his poetry. It was raw, visceral; it was rhythmic and mellifluous. It deviated substantially from Tennyson and Hardy, Barrett Browning and Rossetti, only vaguely comparative even to Whitman. And it was fantastic.
For the first time in a long time, I began paying attention to the snippet of a poem that incongruously appeared somewhere amid a piece of long-form journalism towards the end of each month’s Atlantic. Some of them, I concluded, didn’t suck.
Fast forward a little over 365 to the inaugural Shoals Reader Riot, authors from all over the Southeast and the nation descending upon our little corner of the planet to read their scribblings and hawk their wares. Among them was Randall. (I hope we’re on a first-name basis now. We’ve had dinner together, so Dr. Horton seems too formal.)
He was headlining Friday’s events alongside fellow poet, Frank X. Walker. I sat once again entranced by Randall recitation of passages from Hook, but I was equally drawn in as Walker treated us to poems from his books Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evars and About Flight.
As both read, I closed my eyes and listened to the cadence, swaying in my seat, as enthralled by the weight of the words as I was the delivery. The staccato notes, the assonance, the consonance assaulting my ears like pleasurable punches. Just like Randall wrote in Hook, “Jab. Sidestep. Rope-a-dope. React. Combinate.”
I spewed unctuous praise on Walker as he signed my books and wrung Randall’s hand, thrilled he remembered me. Hard not to be obsequious when one is in the presence of grandeur.
That night, I read About Flight numerous times while sipping scotch in the vain hope that it would bring the desired slumber, the earlier experience like amphetamine-laced coffee to my cerebral cortex .
Sleep-depraved again, I set out for Saturday’s festivities. Writing guerrilla haiku at the UNA English Club tent, browsing the library’s used books for bargains, running into acquaintances I hadn’t seen in months.
After getting my books signed by him and discussing the merits/demerits of using 2nd person in short stories, I began meandering towards 116 E. Mobile, where Donika Kelly, another poet, was slated to do a reading of her collection Bestiary. A colleague of mine had sung her praises earlier in the week and exhorted me to make an appearance.
Sure, why not? At least I’ll know some folks there and won’t have to set alone like some wallflower.
The bard took the stage, a tall, slender sliver of kinetic energy with a honeysweet voice and charm whirling off her like pollen from the Eastern Cottonwoods outside. Before she’d finished uttering her third sentence, I got the impression she was affable and funny, undeniably brilliant but instantly approachable.
The first poem was “Out West.”
“Look. If you could bear sobriety
you’d be sober.
If you could bear
being a person, you would no longer be
an iron bluff.”
She’d explained in her prefatory remarks she’d written this piece while traveling through Utah and reveling in the natural eye-candy landscape. “Iron bluff.” Clever. Literally, a cliff with deposits of said metal running through it, but metaphorically, iron represents the uncompromising rigidity of our attitudes, bluff, as in “a deception.” Like the sessile, jagged crags of the desert, we harden ourselves into something we’re not to present to the world.
And, like sedimentary rock, so many layers of meaning in a simple phrase.
Like so many poets before her–from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton to Keats to Poe–birds featured prominently in her oeuvre. She’d also penned many a lay focusing on otherworldly beasts, her “Love Song” series. Centaurs, Satyrs, Minotaurs, Mermaids. Before each poem, she would elucidate the attributes of each creature.
The entire day I’d felt under-dressed. Usually to attend such events demanded a shirt with buttons, but when I exited the house that day, I felt as if the Fates were conspiring against me. Every article I conceived of to swathe myself turned out to be in the hamper, too snug against my ever-expanding frame, or in desperate need of pressing. Again, lack of sleep. I was not keen on breaking out the ironing board and starch.
So I threw on an old vintage T-shirt bearing the logo of Pegasus Records, CDs, and Tapes, the tragically defunct music store that used to serve our fair settlement. I felt self-conscious about the excessive casualness of my sartorial choices. Turns out it was kismet.
“Love Poem: Pegasus.” She described the physical attributes of the wingèd stallion, prompting me to smile and flare my chest where the crudely sketched representation of her fantastic beast resided. She smiled, nodding while everyone around craned their necks and briefly glanced at me.
He’s basically an amalgamation of horse and bird, two common symbols of freedom and movement, an obvious go-to for a poet. Yet she wasn’t interested in that. She wanted to suss out his origin story.
He sprang from the neck of Medusa when Perseus beheaded her. How did that conception take place? How does a freaking horse gestate in one’s neck?
will your blade free next? What call will you loose
from another woman’s throat?”
To me, Pegasus conjured fond memories of buying CDs and, when I got older, used records that the hipster in me still spins on my aging turntable. Sure, I know the myth, but I’d never given it much thought.
I doubt anyone has seen it through her eyes, a majestic being of ethereal beauty who was born of an act of brutal, sanguinary–dare we say misogynistic–violence. Not exactly the “ugly, abortive birth” of Baudelaire’s Ennui, but a confused, forlorn creature trying to come to terms with unprecedented, harrowing circumstances that breathed life into it.
That, among myriad other reasons, is why this world still needs poets. We need people who are gifted with a sensibility that approaches things sideways, with a mind that dares ask “why” to the workaday occurrences we accept as status quo. We need to be jarred, our perspectives and preconceived notions challenged. We need the throbbing metre that shakes us, the vocal stick-and-move of an auditory pugilist to smack the sense into us.
Serendipity wasn’t done with me. Since Donika was an friend of my colleague, I was able to judiciously invite myself along to dinner. Breaking bread with two different poets in a little over a year?
I say that not to name drop, but to humbly offer appreciation to whatever cosmic forces saw fit to grant me favor. Maybe this time when Fortune twirled her wheel, I stopped at the summit. Maybe the Moirai spun a golden web of fortuity. Maybe the four aforementioned mythical ladies will become the subject of later poems by Donika.
Normally the social butterfly gets the best of me in such situations, and I wind up droning on, monopolizing the conversation. While I did made small talk, I mostly just let our resident wordsmith enumerate her personal philosophies and observations. I wanted to fetch my legal pad from the car and take notes.
Instead, I soaked in as much as I could, internalized our dialogue as we uttered our valediction. We had that awkward moment where I extended my hand and she flashed that wide grin and instead hugged me tightly.
Randall Horton, Frank X. Walker, Michael Knight, Donika Kelly. I make it a habit to never pass up time spent with bright, creative people. Last weekend, my cup runneth over. Surely poesy and epiphany shall follow me.
I took my leave, intent on zigzagging through traffic at unsafe speeds so I could plop in my recliner and spend another few hours lost in verse. My aching body yearned for shut-eye but my stimulated mind was recalcitrant: pumping its pistons, no sign of applying the brakes. I figured I’d be spending a few more hours amid the Bestiary.
I opened her book, for the first time reading the inscription.
I glanced at the cracked, white Pegasus still nestled on my chest, its faded wings ensconcing a grooved vinyl shield. “Thank you for your Pegasus and your light.”
Thank you, my new friend, for an unforgettable experience. Thank you for your birdsongs, your sideways perspective, your light.
myself a rising, feather and hoof, neigh