The poet is a light and winged and holy thing,
and there is no invention in him
until he has been inspired and is out of his senses,
and the mind is no longer in him
Plato / The Ion
GENEVIEVE – the poet
There she sat, all five feet six of her, mostly leg, all one hundred and twenty three pounds of her, mostly bone, her huckleberry hair pulled back into a low-slung ponytail because another damp jungle-hot Chicago summer simmered outside.
There she sat, all thirty-seven impatient years of her, slumped into the contoured seat of a library chair listening, listening, listening …
Rhythmic music came from a close-by conference room. A thumping hum came from the ventilators. A voice flowed down the heavy oak library table like a rivulet along a forest floor displacing all other sounds. It carried words poeticizing an act of love.
“… Lying with a woman brings thoughts of mountains … bones rising up out of her flesh … soft wetness, the warmth …” The voice wrapped around the words like soft cotton, “… a snake-like river … uncoiling slowly in the sun …”
The recitation transformed this after-hours poetry workshop into a sexual experience, hardly what Genevieve Dupont had anticipated from the promotional flier’s promise of a brief two-session introduction to verse.
“Sweetest is being held by a woman …”
Her body tensed. She bent forward to check out the baritone strains and caught a glimpse, halfway down the table, of a stoic face that was intense in concentration, tanned and patrician, sculpted by years of emotion. His eyes looked over spectacles to read the words he had put to paper. He enunciated each syllable so every ear would absorb the sounds as sensitively as he had experienced the very act of penetration.
“… She takes the seed as the earth takes seed in the spring …”
As he read, the summer evening sun seeped through the elongated gothic windows behind him. His shadow crept across the table, a movement as fluid as the voice describing a beloved in lilting tones, admiration and lust tripping over each other in lines of unending beauty. Genny absorbed that love and pledged that if she could write such poetry, if she could find such love, she would wake up in the morning eager to engage the day.
The class was equally absorbed and offered admiration rather than the expected criticism.
Genny asked him, “Has your lady read that poem?” She wanted him to say “No, there really is no lady.”
Instead he answered, “Well, yes, those lines I had already written for her.”
“Damn,” she thought, but rather said, “Does she know you’re reading them now in public?”
He lowered his head, “I don’t think she’d want me to.”
Genny sensed his captivity, sprinkled with a bit of rebellion.
The class moved on. Other students followed with a miscellany of adventuresome attempts at word play. Genny didn’t question the work of any other participant.
“Genevieve Dupont? Genny?” the instructor asked as he looked down his sign-in sheet, then around the room. “Do you have a contribution?”
The focus swung to Genevieve DuPont. She muttered her improvised effort, an unsuccessful haiku. Its unattained humor stumbled off her notebook and splattered on the floor. She looked helplessly beyond her pad of paper into the dark eyes of the quiet woman sitting across from her, who asked, “Did you mean that to be sarcastic?” The question, though it came from a woman a decade younger, shorter and frumpier, fed Genny’s insecurities – her belonging in a poetry class, her belonging in Chicago, her being unsupported in this quest. Genny had meant it to be poetic.
She felt small and captive in this behemoth of a building knowing she could instead have been out among the more content population, shopping, downing cold beers, delighting in the warm summer breezes.
Genny was approaching her thirty-eighth birthday. She cursed her wasted years. Twenty years ago, as the poetry editor of her high school paper, she would better belong in the seminar. Instead, taking priority over poetry, she was an honors graduate in one of the more highly regarded schools in the west. She played the town bon vivant. She made her mark on the local business scene. She breezed through it all. Now she took on Chicago and still none of it, the honors, the parties, business, none of it worked for her. Poetry may be her last chance.
Above her, ceiling lights dimmed, brightened and dimmed again. It was the library’s signal for those using its private meeting rooms that their allotted time was up.
The Mountain Man gathered his papers into his satchel and followed the stream of ersatz poets out the door, taking the damp warmth with him. Slim and straight, t-shirt stretched across his torso, jacket tossed over his shoulder, to her he was a winning combination of an artist’s soul in an athlete’s body, a poster boy for “Viva Virility Weekly.” Her eyes followed the thinning tousled hair, blonde blending into grey. Soon he was gone from sight.
She sat in the charged air, lingered over her pencils and notepad and watched him go, then rose and walked toward the door, passing by the sign-in sheet where she copied his name in ink on the palm of her hand to remain until she washed dishes. The echo of his lush words lingered. “But maybe there is no land so soft and smooth, so full of honey and sweetness …” In her longing she wished the words had been created for her, rather than the muse who certainly must share his bed.
She envisioned every step he would take – the long journey down the spiraling stairs from the upper floors, opting for the escalator to complete the descent, slipping through the crowd, exiting onto the street, nodding good-byes to familiar faces. In a fantasy vignette she would rush to his car, nestle in his front seat, accompany him home, take off his jacket in his hallway, take off his jeans in his bedroom. She would lay him down, kiss his lips, stroke his thighs, make love to him. And leave.
But instead, resigned, she sighed and waited at the bus stop with the bustling crowd headed north. The noise of the city drowned out the murmur remaining in her head. She tried to hold onto it in spite of the cars, buses and trucks that clattered past her. She stood again in the midst of the city’s hard surfaces, her flip-flops planted on the cement sidewalk, her back leaning against the glass of a building wall.
Later, in the quiet of her apartment and the darkness of her bedroom, she tried to recreate the flow of love that came from his words as seventies love songs purred from LITE-fm, as silken pajamas slid across her skin, her fingers probing parts of her she wanted him near.
A week later the group came together again. Lenard Lavinski, the poet-on-loan charged with making them into more than they were, stood aloof in the corner of the room waiting for his class to reassemble.
The night was stuffy. The participants sauntered in bringing the smells of exertion to the closed-off room and settled around the library table with sticky, bare legs rubbing on wooden chair seats.
Genny was early and signed in again with her name, email address and phone number. She was tempted to draw a brazen arrow at the entry. The name of Jonathan Waterhouse, her poetic Mountain Man, the name now disappeared from her palm, did not appear on the sign-in sheet. She sat alone as she waited for his arrival, cool under an air vent and vitalized by its freshness coming in rhythmic spurts. The bottle of tart lemonade she sipped cut through the dryness of her throat.
Then, standing at the door, Mountain Man surveyed his options, circled around the table and landed across from Genny, avoiding the dissonant voices belonging to boisterous young women. High pitched laughter filled the room. He backed away from it all and settled instead among quieter folk. His gentle voice overrode all the chatter like the cello’s tones in a Vivaldi sonata. It was all she heard. She looked up and smiled to a distracted face.
Inspiration hit Genny this second time around. A week’s effort produced a stirring poem on Einstein, his concept of time and how the unknowing all slip through it. She sat back in her chair, studied her words, pleased.
Following poems by unwashed youths who wrote of erotic pleasures they had never known, by well-padded ladies who wrote of what had thinly filled their lives, by young toughs who made no sense at all, by steely eyed women who screamed in rage, she rose to read, her voice distinct, as would befit Einstein. Her eyes rarely left the paper, only to look at him sitting opposite her, or to scan other faces. Some were attentive. Others looked elsewhere – at papers in front of them, out the windows or inward with their eyes closed.
As she approached the final stanza she became aware of his eyes on her. The wrinkles in her blouse loomed in her mind like faults in rock formations. Her eyebrows were unplucked, her elbows calloused. Her nail was chipped. Was her part straight? She lowered her eyes and sat, not hearing the critiques of the class delving into the meanings of her poem. He remained silent.
No Einstein for him. He began his recitation slowly, speaking of jasmine. His skin glowed with a sunned luster. He wore a meticulously ironed white shirt, as pure as the petals of the flower he memorialized in the words he spoke. “Extravagant in smell and bloom … A sprinkling of petals … like sparklers … Cascading showers of light.” His powerful words evoked the silky smell of the flower that filled the gardens of Mexico.
As he concluded, he looked out beyond the walls as though waiting for his muse to fill his head with yet another, more eloquent stanza. “Cascading showers of light” settled on a cushion of soft “ahhhh’s” around the table.
Humbled, Genny rushed out of the room at the flickering of the ceiling lights sensing any ties to him evaporating like summer shower puddles on the city streets. Even with Einstein as her claim to inventiveness, she neither pierced his time and space nor his focus. The intoxicating time she spent around the library table ended, the sessions completed. Without time, she was without opportunity. Without opportunity, she was without hope.
As the first one out, if she waited at the street entrance could she have ventured a casual conversation opener? Perhaps a “Hi, your poems certainly do capture an audience. I’d like to read more of them. Have they appeared anywhere?”
“And then what?” was her next thought.
Or maybe he would come up behind her and ask which bus she took and could he join her? Or maybe he wouldn’t.
But perhaps he could come out with a crowd around him that she could join, slyly slipping in with the group.
But he hadn’t arrived with anyone and he left alone. Genny didn’t wait at the library doors. He didn’t ask her what bus she was taking. She didn’t slip in with a group. She left for home by herself.