Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poet as Water

Recently, I saw a trailer for a film about John Keats' life. Or perhaps I should say, about his love life, which is much more film worthy than an hour and a half of someone coughing and sitting in a dank room in Rome trying to write poems. The irony of Keats being sent to the eternal city was that he arrived in January when all was wet with river and even the cobblestone streets under sun held ice all day long. I cannot tell you the cold I felt while living through two winters there and I certainly figured out how to say "bone cold" in Italian and purchased a coat that looked more like a sleeping bag with a fur collar to wear even in my apartment at night.

While I was teaching twelfth grade British English at the American School in Rome, I took a group of students to the Keats' House which overlooks the Spanish steps. We were taken on a tour by some overly-British Keats scholar who seemed to know the scent of the young poet's breath. While this scholar brought out artifacts and books, I couldn't help but notice how bored my students seemed. It's hard to convince a group of Italians that some meek man of 24 could contend with the likes of Virgil or Dante. They didn't even seem fazed by the fact that Keats was sent by his doctor to go to a Mediterranean climate, a respite from all the grey of England, only to find himself more ill-suited than ever while his more popular poet friends were off traveling in Greece and being Lord of something. Nope. Not even drama and death seemed to pique their interest. Not yet.

All the students acted sluggish and foot-heavy until we were lead into Keats' bedroom and shone his death mask. The students crowed the plaster and moved in closer. Finally a bit of curiosity filled the room while our tour guide's voice became a soft whisper. Keats had both a "life mask" and "death mask" and they were side by side each other under glass. Questions arose and suddenly I didn't feel like the outing was a complete loss. I stood in the back of the room, which is what you do as a teacher: you monitor and ask questions during the dull silences, feigning interest for everyone. But thankfully, everyone was engaged and I was silent. Trying to see over the heads of my students I couldn't identify which mask was which. I waited until everyone had left so I could get a closer look. No wrinkles, no lines, just lips and eyelids. Closed.

I'm not sure what I was expecting to see. As if images of death would be one of grief or anguish, but under the dusted glass of the case were two small faces of calm. As if they were just napping side by side; each other waiting for all the visitors and tour guide to leave them alone so they could wake up, look out onto the city and watch all the fashionable and beautiful people below.

We toured more of Keats' spots that day, including a cafe he used to frequent, and ended at his grave. We had another tour guide through the Protestant Cemetery and found Keats' tombstone with the inscription, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." It was the most decorated grave with fresh flowers and my students just kicked gravel around with their shoes and pulled out their cellphones from their pockets to check the time and for texts. I admonished one of my students, "Orlando, please get off your cellphone. It's a cemetery, you'll make all these dead people envious that you can talk and they can't." Maybe I didn't say that exactly, but it was usually humor I used with "disciplining" Orlando.

Orlando Miani stood at least six foot three, had a shaved head and large curled wooden earrings in both ears. Orlando was the kind of student that other teachers would say in passing, "Good luck with that one, Ms. Walter" and keep walking away. I had to meet with Orlando's father once. His father spoke of all the "bad things" Orlando had done in the past holding my eye contact as if looking for my compliance, looking like an overgrown child sitting in a student desk. His father appeared and acted more Germanic than Italian and perhaps was why Orlando stood as some Italian giant amongst the shorter Romans in his class. I cannot say Orlando become my favorite students, nor did I make some major breakthrough with him leading to some "after-school special" moment. And despite his father's catalog of horrors, Orlando pleasantly passed my class. But what happened that year which is far more impressive than passing was that Orlando understood Shakespeare.

I had decided not to teach Lady Macbeth as their textbooks had suggested that year, but Hamlet instead. My class of mostly twelfth grade boys, who were not in the AP English class and were most likely not going to Harvard or Oxford or even the voc-tech if Italy had one. These students were barely passing anything and not because they were ignorant -hardly the case, they were all just too busy enjoying life already, perhaps too experienced one might say. Such was the case with Orlando. While discussing Hamlet's need to do something and yet his inability to act on it. Orlando started talking. He didn't sit there and talk about his personal life or how Shakespeare made him feel, Orlando was both too cool and too private for that, but what he did say was that Shakespeare created this character of not acting to prod us, the audience to act. "It's as if he's (Shakespeare) giving us hindsight," Orlando just blurted out one day. Perhaps even surprising himself.

It's hard as a teacher sometimes not to jump up and down and scream, "yes, you crazy kids, yes you are finally thinking and not just feeling." I recall nodding, looking at Orlando and saying, "interesting point, does anyone want to expand on that idea of audience giving hindsight?" Yet privately, I knew Orlando was finally present in class. Privately, I wanted to tell him that he was right.

Later that year, I went to graduation and watched tall and bored Orlando collect his diploma and walk with his long gait off stage. I was getting ready to leave the courtyard after the ceremony and I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to be shadowed by smiling Orlando.

"Meez Walter, you are here. Thank you, really, you know you got me here."
"Oh, no Orlando, you got yourself here. We are all just players, just players Orlando, even me."
"Die Meez Walter, really thank you."
"You're welcome, Orlando" nodding I just didn't know how to even navigate hugging someone so big or so tall so I just smiled and walked away.

Had I had hindsight myself, I would have hugged him. I wished I had. Years later, I was informed by another student via a letter that Orlando had died in a car crash in London. He was only 22 and I believe going to art school.

I'm sure if you were to ask any of my former students from that twelfth grade class if they remember any lines from, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" or even our outing that fall day to follow Keats life, I'm almost sure they wouldn't. But I doubt any of them have forgotten the masks or if they have forgotten Orlando. I know I haven't. Nor have I ever written a poem about either. It is just too much. There are some things you don't put in poems, some things you let live as they are, without the encumbered task of being weighted by metaphors. For sometimes, we are capable of being and living in uncertainties. Sometimes we don't have hindsight, so we can ignorantly appreciate what we have, today.

Enjoy the poem.

Sweat Pants

Seattle swallows rain for a month
straight. Gutters fill, water parts in alleys
where men wrestle with cardboard boxes
and disappointment. A man waits
by the bus stop without an umbrella, exposed
when a few of us hunch under a store front, slickered
in rain jackets, while this man stand reading
without a coat, just a grayed Henley and a pair
of sweat pants. The sweats are blue, flap
at his calves. His socks hiked up, once white. None of talk
to one another, sulked in silence.
The man in sweats turns his paper, reaches
under his belly to scratch himself. Not a hesitant itch
or rub. A dig. He reads the Times and I wait
for something. A slight twitch, a nervous cough,
or shrug. Instead, for the first time in thirty-six days
I forget it's raining. I want to forget about everything,
expect for this man in sandals, who stands back
when the bus arrives, letting a mother and her child,
who's dressed like a lady bug, board first.
The squelch of tires pushes water onto curbs,
trucks grind back up. The girl turns and waves
to the man. He tucks his paper and waves back
with both hands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blogging Bombs

Perhaps it sounds oh so aptly convenient of me to say, I learned to cook about the same time I learned to write poetry. But I did. Yet, what wasn't convenient by any means for either pursuits was the location: Kielce, Poland. During my last year as an undergraduate, I had taken a class by professor Thylias Moss, who boldly titled her workshop, "Poetry that Matters." We were a "selected" group of students huddled around a small table like some boat that was sure to sink, while at the helm was a four foot eleven African American woman who stared us all down over her glasses if anything we wrote was considered fluff. How could we not write fluff? We were coddled. White. Isolated. Naive. Young. What could we possibly offer to the world of poetry?

Yet during that semester we read a book titled, Contemporary Eastern European Poetry which focused mostly on Polish poets and I was hooked. I don't think I really understood half of what I read. No, I am sure I didn't. But what I did know was this was poetry that didn't need a lot of show, ego or even gold-leafed edges. If poetry could be compared to furniture, Polish Poetry is like a Swedish couch. Upon first glance, one might say simple, subtle and good design upon first glance, but upon further study or sitting one begins to understand a lot of attention has gone into making something so modestly aware. So after a post-graduate course in teaching English as a Second Language and a trip to Poland in the middle of winter, I landed a job just 120 miles north of Krakow in Kielce, the knife city.

There is nothing in Kielce that would cause anyone to want to visit. No monuments, no castles, not even a walled city section left. There are rolling hills that surround the concrete industrial blocked town, but mostly Kielce is grey all year long. However, I had landed a job at a small British school and found myself teaching six year olds English via cassette tapes of sing-alongs with such phrases as "I can jump. Can you? I can skip. Can you?" Yes, I thought this was truly the beginning of a life of a serious poet.

Sure, I took Polish lessons twice a week and found myself slow to learn and practice with the shop clerks who smoked over muted colored vegetables at the market and addressed me with comments such as, " Cwzego" which means," What?" No, this wasn't your American in bountiful Europe or Julia Child in the post war streets of Paris. This was Poland and oddly enough, I found myself at a loss at being able to buy even groceries as much as I was at a loss to write poetry.

Needless to say, I found myself drinking more than writing and one evening having found myself with a small crowd of English speaking Poles at a bar, I met a young man by the name of Tomas Bomba, laughing I said, "your name is Tom the Bomb? what kind of post-war kid are you?" Not exactly the kindest thing to come out of my mouth. Luckily, Tomas had taught himself English by reading Henry James novels so even his insults sounded faintly like compliments. Also, I had read a bit of Henry James so I could muddle my way through his early 19th century English diction and also fumble an apology despite the potent vodka on my breath.

Thankfully, Tomas and I became friends and we both had Wednesdays off and decided to spend our midweek day collecting food and then cooking it in my closet of a kitchen. Tomas had picked up a Penguin edition of French Cooking in England while on his visit to his British girlfriend and this was our guidebook through the markets of Kielce. We made souffles, ragouts, and we even found a coconut once and made a delicious dish of chicken curry for my British roommate who had sworn off meat, yet when she came home and found the smells of the whole apartment drowning out the hint of vinegar of our apartment complex, she couldn't refuse. We'd make crepes with nothing but two bowls and a pan Tomas would borrow from his mother. Slowly my Polish did improve, but more importantly, I learned to shout back to the ladies at the market if they tried to give me a wilted bunch of beets. I started to forage not just for survival, but for pleasure.

I cannot say the same happened for my writing. Sure I could say, like Hemingway, I wrote about Europe in Michigan and wrote about Michigan in Europe. But really. I just didn't write at all while living in Poland. Really. This was the mid-nineties, the Velvet Revolution was still a visual memory for most of my friends and Tomas himself told stories of rations. Poland was still arguing to find itself part of Europe and not just The East. Internet cafes weren't like ATMs and I still paid for groceries with zloty. My contact to the outside world was via a staticed phone line plugged into a wall. No Facebook to post my days of collecting root vegetables, no blogging to write about how much I had witnessed now as an enlightened American abroad, no cellphone to text or send images quickly home.

And I'm glad. I'm glad I was forced to be present. Ironically enough as I write this on my blog now, I recall how before all this business of being connected, to text, to blog, to tweet, we had just one verb, to be. We had to just commit to be where we were. Regardless if you wanted to or not. Sometimes you had to just stand next to men who stunk of canned meat on a crowded bus, or to learn how to strike up conversations with others waiting to catch a train that might or might not arrive, to cook from a borrowed copy of French Cooking and to navigate yourself through an ugly city with nothing but your token ability to talk to strangers.

Neko Case states, "the most tender place in my heart is for strangers" in her song, Hold On, Hold On. And this is true for me too. It was true while I was living in Poland and even now as I am in Montana sending out these words read by friends, family and hopefully strangers, I believe in the importance of being present. Certainly this sounds vague and full of fluff and if Thylias Moss were to read this, I am sure she'd be looking at me over her glasses. But the simple act of being where you are and not trying to connect to someplace else is hard. It was hard for me and still is, but it is worth it. It is worth sometimes just sitting with what and who are really in front of you. Sure it sounds silly, but it is true. Being present is a simple and yet essential quality for writing poetry, for cooking and for being a good friend even to someone whom you might at first off have offended. And frankly, no matter where you live in the world, you still have to practice it.

This poem I share with you came from an evening of being stuck in a train station in the middle of winter in a town I don't even remember where, but I do recall stepping out to catch some air and from Yugoslavian smoke from the waiting room, to watch a woman repeatedly sweep iced sidewalks with a broom. I felt so alien and lost, but I had no cellphone, no one else to talk with and oddly enough I am grateful I had to be where I was. Hell, now I get to blog about it. Enjoy.

Stop Request

You wouldn't mistake your mother
for a woman who walks through glass
and sits beside your book.
So you pass the time and frame
the woman's face, the one who
isn't your mother. She's like a Budapest tram
ticket you carry in your wallet
next to the taste of oranges
shared by a boy whose name
you don't remember. You watch her hands
brush a bit of hair away from her brow while she opens
a can of beer. Not cheap beer either
and rinses her teeth. The warm yeast fills
the room like the smell of sex on cotton. She spits
on the floor. In that moment you love her
more than your own mother, who would never spit.
When you leave the room, she shouts
Happy New Year in German. And you believe her.