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.


  1. Ems, I am reminded of a Hemingway qoute reading this post "You lose it if you talk about it" though I prefer, To speak of it is to lose it. Great to read Sweat Pants again, one of my favorites.