This surreal satire of the literati’s psychological foibles can be read in full at Poetry magazine. I may be a fiction writer now, but clearly I’m still a poet by temperament. Highlights:
I live with a poet. Her boyfriend before me was also a poet, and published a book called Crane, in which all the poems are about her. She looks like a crane—the bird kind. I often find her standing on one leg, leaning against our bookshelves, very still, staring into a book as if for a fish to snatch out. Crane upset her. I remember her tearing up one of the poems, shouting, “Want to publish a book: write poems about your goddamn miserable sex life!” The poem, titled “Interdiction,” was about him having a real hankering for all those things in the Bible you’re not allowed to eat—particularly bivalves. What this has to do with The Colonel and Mrs. Whatsit, I can’t imagine.
But then I’ve never understood poetry. You see, I’m a fiction writer. If my Poet ever appears in one of my books, she shall do so as a once-beautiful, but now tragically disfigured nun. We fiction writers are a different breed from poets—alert, happy, optimistic. If you want to find the fiction writer in a crowd, just pretend to throw a stick. He’ll be the one who looks around.
…As any true fiction writer knows, fiction writers don’t have time to read, since we’re always writing. Poets, on the other hand, read constantly. My Poet leaves books all over the apartment: in the kitchen, Emmanuel Lévinas (more like Icantunderstandasinglewordovinas); in the bathroom, A History of Bees (what is it with poets and bees?); in the bedroom, A Compendium of Shipping Terms (“fo’c’sle” slant rhymes with “asshole”); in the sitting room, the biography of some naturalist who was in Darwin’s shadow (poets love peripheral historic figures, without understanding that the person no one’s talking to at the party is dying to tell you all about his collection of Victorian hat pins). The reason poets are able to read so much is because they spend more time “waiting” than writing. Waiting! What a bizarre concept. Reading, taking walks, debating whether an autumnal oak leaf is really red ochre or more a perinone orange, all the time twisting the miserable wire coat hanger of their souls this way and that in the hope of becoming receptive.
…My Poet loves words in a way that I feel is quite unhealthy and unnatural. She owns a dictionary decades old and so large she uses a small buffet cart to wheel it around our apartment like some invalid relative. For true fiction writers, words are just a kind of filling for the plot. A novel is like one of those mock apple pies made with Ritz crackers and cinnamon—and anyone who claims he can tell the difference is a damn liar!
Today she’s suspending her crane-like attention above this dictionary.
“You need to get rid of that old thing,” I say.
“Henry James used this same dictionary.”
“Is he a relation or something?”
“Henry James,” she repeats, looking up, as if I might not have heard her properly.
Letting out a wounded, whimpering sound, she sinks her face into her hands.
I’m just teasing, of course. I’m fully aware that Henry James is probably some important poet, or maybe one of our presidents.
While I’m not sure if this is what my professor friend means by “the real thing,” one thing I’ve learned from living with a poet is that a passionate antagonism with language is what defines them. As many alcoholics are said to be those who have a kind of allergy to alcohol, so a poet with language—compelled and ruined by it. The secret to a poet’s soul lies somewhere in the little cells of that dungeonish dictionary, in the slow languishing of those old, mad, forgotten words. It’s also in the very particular kind of art she—and every poet—seems to love. Joseph Cornell. I guarantee you will not find a single poet who doesn’t start rubbing herself against the furniture the minute you mention Cornell and his little boxes full of human residue, the pleasures of the miniature.
[After the Poet has read some review copies by more famous authors:]
…These books have clearly very much upset my Poet, who lies sputtering, raging, and roiling about on the floor, shouting, “The agony! The agony!” (I should warn you that she’s not a very happy drunk.)
I can’t say anything for a moment because, in truth, I’m deeply moved by how beautiful and young these writers are, and because I realize, all at once, that both will be characters in my next novel. The girl’s mother—no, her father—no, both her parents die, and she turns to writing poetry, her beauty wasted in brainy pursuits until her hair catches fire on the candle by which she writes at night and she’s horribly disfigured! And then she writes about her lost loveliness in a way that’s so touching that her old high school boyfriend, who is now blind, marries her and reads her scarred skin like Braille! Oh, why would anyone be a poet and roil around on the floor at bad poetry by troubled, sensual, pre-Raphaelite infant theorist prodigies when one can write such stories! I want to tell my Poet this. I want to tell all poets this, but in truth I find it quite sexy when she roils about on the floor wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a pair of boxers.
“There, there,” I say, “it’s not all that bad is it? You’ve got to let young people have their ideas. Young people love their ideas.”
“Idiots!” she shouts.
“Well, hardly,” I say, and to prove it I read out the author bio for the beautiful young girl: “Masters from Princeton, Ph.D. from Yale. She was awarded an NEA, as well as Stegner, Fulbright, Bunting, Guggenheim, Lannan, and MacArthur fellowships. She’s spent the last two years modeling in Milan, and has a rare blood disorder that means she will never visibly age or feel pain.”
Read the whole thing here.