Saturday, January 21, 2006

the poem, the book, and the black shawl

i. the poem

The poem was not supposed to happen yesterday. Yesterday was supposed to be responsible, perfectly respectable: run to the park, shower, breakfast, walk to the library, edit novel, eat lunch, edit novel, walk back home, get ready, get on the subway, go to dinner and movie with friends.

Instead, poem came barreling out of the back room, out of my gothic heart, out of the blackness of memory: winter, our poetry classroom. Poem came and took six and half hours and would not be stopped and would not be denied and is still not done and is only twenty lines.

And. Upon reflection. Is not as good as I thought.

When I ran, half-dressed (black dress pulled over jeans, blue slippers, brown coat flapping open), late to the movie. When I brought it with me, folded in my bag. When I slipped to the bathroom in the bar afterward, amid the thumping music and messy graffiti, and read it over the sink.

Still, it’s a gift and a comfort. And it’s mine. And I said it, you know.

I’ve been dancing around, fiddling with metaphor. Just say it, a teacher said to me in grad school when I was trying to write about my hearing loss (more on that later). But it’s complicated. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to use the words.

This time, in a poem about something entirely different, something else I’ve been circling, I said it. No metaphor. No pretense. I said it, you know.

I’m just going to go on saying it.

ii. the book

Back to the gift countdown. This poem comes in, and also comes a book from a month back: Christmas, my friend. We have no money, you must understand. Absolutely no money. We are a writer and an artist, and he is my best friend, and he gives me Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books, an old old copy, a real copy, and it has been given before.

I like books, clothes, rings that have been given before, that have been worn before. Another person, years ago, lived in them, lived their lives, walked around, loved. Maybe there is hope for me.

The book has been given before, and there is a lot of writing on the leaf: an inscription from almost one hundred years ago, Christmas, like today, a woman giving the book to her male friend. She writes their full names. It is 1908.

On the opposite side, one hundred years later, Christmas, my best friend signs a new dedication the same way, to me.

In one hundred years, what will they say when they read our inscription, when they read our lives? Read between the lines. Read the handwriting, the loops and valleys. The story is right here, if you pay attention.

iii. the black shawl

Go back ten years. I am eighteen. I am graduating from high school, and having the best party: my friends from school, few as they are, and my friends from the theatre, all ages, all wandering through my parents’ farmhouse, popping balloons. I get books, money, books, a pencil sharpener, a desk set.

Then Ashlee, a beautiful girl I am in Sleeping Beauty and Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood with; last I heard she auditioned for Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway; her sister is a ballerina in Cleveland; Ashlee’s mother gives me a long, soft, black velvet shawl.

It is lined in silk, wrapped in tissue, capped on each corner with a thick velvet tassel. She has sewn it herself.

To wear to your premiers, the card says simply.

It is without question the most beautiful clothing anyone has ever given me, the most beautiful thing in my closet, luminous, a presence. So lovely, it scares me. I can’t wear it. I have scars.

Mrs. Clark, I am sorry to say I have no premiers. That hasn’t ended up my life. No auditions. No opening nights. No parts. No stars.

But I do have readings, book signings, writers’ conferences, classes, coffeehouses, libraries, workshops, days spent writing a poem, days spent flying or driving across the country, students, pigtails, ballet slippers, raincoats, love letters, pens, regret, time.

I have this life I am making out of paper.

It’s not what we thought it be, but it’s mine. I am doing my best. I am wearing your black cape in my dreams.