March 20, 2006

Trouble with Form

Her favorite reclusive poet: she wrote him so many letters that finally he invited her to his haven in the woods. A cottage straight out of a folk tale, with ivy softening away the walls, and snow and rain and bird feet crumbling the chimney mortar. Inside, though, the place was a disaster, only getting half-straightened once a month when an old woman from the village came to clean.

Dinner came from the same stewpot night after night, lunch from week-old roasted meat, and the poet drank two bottles of wine with every meal, following by distilled spirits through the evening. He belched, he coughed without covering his mouth, he dribbled gravy down his chin, he laughed chokingly at his own vulgar jokes and hawked spit into the fire to punctuate them. He sat spread-legged in a hole-ridden old motley robe, he stumbled the narrow lanes of the parlor drunkenly cursing his competitors, and from his bedroom – where after one look she refused to enter – he snored loudly enough to wake her in the hall.

She wrote in her diary: “He’s impossible! Crude, uncouth – if I didn’t know he was a great poet, I’d think he was a bum out of the gutter.”

Next day at breakfast, after spilling oatmeal down his front, he looked up unashamedly and said, “Bum out of the gutter is a bit too strong, I think.” Which puzzled her, because she always kept her diary locked under her pillow. “Well, we’ve all had our troubles with form. Shakespeare chasing after his grimy little drag queen, Coleridge with his opium, Pindar mooning after those naked athletes, Rimbaud – Rimbaud for just about everything. Perhaps I should show you a more civilized face.”

And before her eyes, in a cloud of smoke with the sweet cherry scent of good tobacco, the soiled-robed poet changed into a plump, sedate, silver-caparisoned, quietly smiling green dragon with deep-seeing, vertically slit red eyes, and a wrinkled mouth which, though razor-toothed, conveyed the wry satisfaction of one who, while telling much, knew a great deal more than he would ever deign to share. With calm, self-assured hisses he exhaled long, thin streams of the cherry-scented smoke which, thinning as they reached her nose, filled her with a sense of wellbeing.

“Now this is what a poet should look like, don’t you think?” he said, and, excusing himself politely, slithered off to work on his sonnets.