Three Reactions to Three Chance Encounters
Dear Mr. Stafford
in lieu of a fan letter
it begins smoothly enough
for you are dear—Sara agreed
after reading Passwords
and she is never wrong—
but how would it end?
If there were a letter
posted here in Charleston,
it would be laced with ironies:
my stumbling upon your “Bess”
the day after I drafted my “Sharon.”
The letter might rip open a tender spot
sealed up by time’s envelope,
of watching baseball and Buddy’s
signs to the catcher, his fingers
held just so, fingers I had touched
in a thousand young dreams.
That year I mailed a valentine
unsigned. My face flushed hot
as he began to wave
in front of the crowd
until the blonde behind me
stood up, returning his wave,
as smug as a shortstop
who has stolen three bases.
Or the day I stood in a line
longer than the busiest one
at any P.O. in Birmingham
to get Mr. Styron to sign.
To try and lift his darkness
I echoed his very words,
I have felt the winds
of the wings of madness
but he only glanced up
from where he sat,
slammed the book shut
on his pinched name,
silent except for rage—
or was it disdain—
in the hollows
of his eyes.
So, Mr. Stafford,
how will this end?
You might think it queer
for one so new to poetry
to sign sincere or true;
friend might be too bold
and love would surely
make you laugh.
You smile as I leave
from my front row seat.
The risk is too great:
There’s Mrs. Stafford.*
Perhaps she would be kind
enough to pass along
a few lines?
* I handed an earlier version of this poem to Mrs. William Stafford at a writers’ conference in Charleston in the ‘90s. I told her that two women from Savannah were in love with her husband and his work. She laughed with me, and said, “Just two? They’re everywhere.” The next morning Mr. Stafford and I were in the book room at the same time. Across the table he said very gently, “I like your baseball player.”
Close, But No Cigar: What I Would Write If I Were A Billy Collins
on the occasion of dinner with the Charleston poets and Billy Collins before his reading, late 90s
I would not write of calendars
or snow or foul winds that blow
away hats and people, not sonnets or haikus
or villaparadelles but this disease I have,
congenital, foot-in-mouth, faux pas’s, very plural—
those I would write over, make funny if I could.
I would eat my first short story, its green
pastoral setting as bland as the shepherd’s promises,
instead of sending it out to the New Yorker.
I probably could laugh about that blind date;
I would not say to Jane Smith that he kissed
like a cow at the drive-in. I would check
for a recorder under the seat, all around,
everywhere; I would strain harder to think
of something more glib to say to William Styron
than his quote about the wings of madness.
I’d laugh about jotting down a name
for Collins, so sure of myself,
about where Trip taught school, so smug
that I, myself might have been mistaken as the visiting
poet that night, rubbing elbows with writers at Zebo’s,
secure that mine was the tangiest balsamic vinaigrette,
one my lesser could only hope to taste.
I’d double over
at what Collins must have thought
when he fingered inside the left pocket of his jacket,
you know the one, for my card, proclaiming who I am,
to hear him read from its back, in my eloquent hand,
Trip Franklin, teacher, Montgomery Academy,
to see the headmaster’s knitted brow, puzzling
over one whom the librarian guessed might teach
at their near-unspeakable rival, Trinity Presbyterian.
(I try to placate myself. Trip was in the same town.)
Given the chance,
I’d rather run, hell-bent like some hyena,
relentless bloodhound, streaking
through a pasture of fresh cow piles,
then scrape my soles
onto my pristine carpet,
grinding the smell
into its weft and woof—
than to admit tripping again
red-faced, about this teacher
friend of my son’s
and his whereabouts.
Will mistakes matter at all, though, I muse—
by the time the new millennium poem is finished?
I wish a word were dead when it is said
and what it might purport, for such an epic
as life hardly merits a footnote about fools,
and I wish I were going west in a box
with Joe Priskulnick who probably killed himself
(before Eavan Boland* could in the poem)
deeming stupidity of such magnitude,
like mine, truly terminal.
*At the time of this reading noted poets were composing a millennium poem on Amazon. Collins had been invited to submit lines.
What Of Us?
Sentimentally I am disposed to harmony,
but organically, I am incapable of a tune.
- Charles Lamb
“A Chapter on Ears” Essays of Elia (1823)
written on the occasion of meeting W. S. Merwin
at Spalding University, Friday November 17, 2006
Yes what of us Mr. Merwin
Those who try but have no ear
Or at best appear tone deaf
You’ve implied only singers
Born with the musical gift or
Trained should attempt poetry
Could your verse hit the high notes
Without a cacophony of the inspired
If raucous behind you tuning up?
And what about you now writhing
About your dead black dog wondering
Whether Louis Simpson is sentimental
In the latest Hudson Review
You asked me if it was good
What could I say so I quoted
Frost’s discursion on tears their
Import for both reader and writer
But what I wanted to say is this:
When dogs of death come sniffing
Close enough for us to feel fear
Curling up into our very nostrils
The finer points of any scale
Become moot as we fend off snarls
We sing “Chamber Music” Old Ben
In whatever chord or key we can.