There never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
-Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West
He begins somewhere in the back of the bookstore. The bearded guy who announced him looks befuddled at first until we all hear him approaching through the rows of real crime books. “Is there a poem in here somewhere?” he’s saying aloud. “Where will I find it?” This sort of thing. And then he’s among us, those of us sitting patiently in folding chairs—most attempting to look away to avoid eye contact. Some poor man with an aisle seat gets the brunt of it: “Is there a you and an I or are we one?” he asks an unsuspecting sheepish looking fellow, who is no doubt focused only on summoning enough courage to read his own poem when the open reading starts. I’m focusing on the spines of books now, reading their titles, comparing fonts, hoping my friend sitting next to me doesn’t catch my eye or, worse, nudge my leg. I don’t want to discourage anyone, after all. When he gets to the podium everyone seems a bit more relaxed. We’re waiting for the poems now, wondering if he’s found them, but what we get is a ten minute definition of the difference between the soul and the spirit—how our culture has the whole thing muddled, how one is reaching down and the other up.
I started writing poetry because at the age of nineteen the outside world no longer vibrated at the same frequency as my insides, which, in their seemingly fragile and unceasing trembling, rendered me a fixture on my parent’s couch for a stretch of about two months. I had finished my first year of college with a growing since of Otherness, a feeling I had kept at a safe enough distance with a concoction of recreational chemicals for most of my adolescence. The formulas weren’t working anymore, however; I was running out of combinations of self-medication and growing more afraid of what waited beyond the haze. I still have the journals I was writing at the time. I was pushing at the limits of language I had come to accept as part of life’s incompleteness; I wanted to write what was happening to me. The words flap wildly like spasmodic wings on the page, like an injured bird trapped in a shoebox. I love their energy still: “I’m tired of my mind and the silence of stones. I want to chew the world to pebbles,” I write on August 5, 1988. The mixed metaphors howl and snap at an unknown foe. I don’t know whom I was reading at the time or if I was even capable of reading. That would come later.
I want to write this carefully. How after the spirit/soul guy finished his definition, which I realized then was a poem, a woman rose to begin the open reading. She looked uncertain as she made her way to the front. She took a folded piece of paper from her purse and carefully pressed it smooth on the podium, a gesture that seemed to calm her for a moment. “I’m a bit nervous,” she said. “I’ve never read a poem in public before. You see, I started writing poetry because something terrible happened to me.” It was clear now that if I were to laugh involuntarily it would be unforgivable. I even thought about stepping outside to avoid such a social disaster, but I didn’t want to her to take my departure personally, especially after the words that followed. “I was sexually assaulted two years ago.”
One is always hesitant to paraphrase the contents of a poem, and considering the context here, the stakes seem even more dangerous. And yet I suspect that I will never forget the image of a “turd” swirling around the bowl while being coaxed by a speaking toilet to “take the flush”(the poem’s title). This metaphor is, of course, hilarious, if only for its scatological innovation. But to laugh? I was not alone among the hunched figures attempting to ascertain the poem’s intent. Her face, too, was hard to read; she seemed earnest, yet capable of ironic self-defense. What if she meant to be funny and we didn’t laugh? What if she was attempting to heal herself through humor?
I can almost remember the fever with which I would search out a phrase I had come across in my reading that I needed to find again as a way of making some sense of my own body in the world. I knew, for instance, that the line “Worm be with me, this is my hard time” came from a Theodore Roethke poem, but, pie-eyed, I would pour over the pages of his collected just to find somewhere in the middle of “The Lost Son” the actual inked letters that corresponded to the shape in the middle of my chest.
I remember, too, later when I began writing more seriously, that poems felt like lost names—how you remember their shape on your tongue but are unable to call them into form. Writing, then, was like that moment of remembering; it satisfied. It felt like the clicking of a jewelry box, as if something precious had been successfully preserved.
I didn’t read a poem that night at the bookstore. I simply wanted to get out of there without incident—back to whatever book I was reading at the time. And, yes, I felt somehow self-righteous, snobbish even. No other art form I know of treats its practitioners in such an egalitarian manner. And I know how this sounds—but would Keith Jarrett, for instance, invite his audience up on stage after his performance to hammer out versions of “Chopsticks” on his piano? I’m a horrible person, I know, for thinking this, but there it was/is. I was/am an elitist?
Clearly, I’m no Keith Jarrett in the poetry-publishing world, if you’re wondering. And I don’t expect to be. At least not anymore, though there was a time—a time when ambition and suicide swung over me like two large birds casting ominous shadows. I had to fill those aforementioned holes not only with the well-wrought word, but also with the praise and acceptance of others who sought what I believed to be the same relationship to the world. In a word, I wanted connectedness— a connectedness that words are incapable of enacting, a connectedness that obliterates loneliness. I wanted simply for other poets to like me, to like my work. The alternative was a kind of obliteration I imagined ended all such considerations. Now, I’m not so sure where I begin and end, or how I might endeavor to clearly delineate myself from infinity. I am frightened and comforted by this. I write infrequently. I go on.
When the women finishes her poem, accepting, as she must, the flush, the other readers deliver their poems timidly. Even the New Age-y lady, who usually reads with such relish as to summon visions of orgasm, relents from playing background synthesizer music on her cassette player and leaning her head back in ecstasy in favor of a more humble delivery. There is a sadness to the procession, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels it.
The reading over, I turn finally to my Pale Ramon (my fellow poet/friend Mark, actually) for some kind of simpatico. We know each other sometimes terrifyingly well—swapping OCD behaviors like oft-told jokes both tiresome and naggingly humorous. I value him, however, like no other friend, and as we walk out into the night he speaks: “I’m sorry,” he says, “for subjecting you to that. I know you didn’t want to come.” “I only live a couple blocks away,” I say. “And besides, the turd one is growing on me upon reflection.” “My God, I almost lost it,” he says. “I know,” I say. “She measured to the hour its solitude.” “She is the single artificer of the world,” he says. We like to impress each other with allusions. And then we say our goodbyes and part ways at the corner.
As I begin to cross the bridge, I’m suddenly giddy in my solitude beneath a full sweep of stars. I’m quoting lines form “Take the Flush.” And then the swirling turd was gone/ And the toilet sighed. A man approaches with his dog pulled tight against his hip, as if what I have might be communicable. We pass on the narrow sidewalk without eye contact, but I want to stop and call out to him as he walks away. I want to tell him to take care of his soul, which is reaching down to preserve every last turd from the world’s infinitely vast toilet. I want to tell him this is impossible, but to try anyway. I’m beside myself.