by Ryan Sparks
We were in the Pufferbelly Ltd. restaurant, a converted railroad depot that sat between the rotting train tracks and Franklin’s bricks. The Great Ernesto and I had been invited by Bailey to share a dinner with the visiting poet, Leonard Kress. We’d arrived early to find one of the rare parking spots and passed the time until Bailey and the others arrived with Bass Ales and conversation at the tiled bar.
“What’s this poet like?” Ernesto asked me as we tried to get comfortable in the barstools. “And will he steal Bailey? That’s the important question.” Ernesto had been a student of Bailey’s like myself and felt somewhat protective of her.
“You just hush about that. No one’s going to persuade Bailey to leave Kent. Anyway, I brought the book with us,” I said, but I wasn’t sure why I needed the book when I was going to be meeting the man. “I’ll read to you,”
“Thanks, love,” Ernesto said. My roommate and sometime co-conspirator and I often treated each other like a dissatisfied, married British couple. We had many private jokes but many more private ideas of a graver nature. He turned in his stool to face me, one tan arm on the bar and the other hung over the back of the stool. He lowered his head like he always did when he listened to things intently, the attitude his Italian eyebrows and lips giving you the sense that you were either interesting or about to be killed.
“It’s about Orpheus,” I said. “The poems are all about Orpheus, except Kress uses his own life as a background. So you have Orpheus talking about going into the underworld to save his wife, but you also have him hitchhiking across the Americas and porking barroom girls.”
“Oh, don’t be lewd,” he said. “Just read.”
“Damn that twinkle in your dark eye,” I replied as I opened the chapbook. “Okay. This one’s called ‘Practice’.
“After I lost my love a second time–
(My fault, I know, don’t fling it in my face.
A failure of imagination, a disgrace,
I couldn’t picture her, is that a crime?
afraid she’d lose her way or trip or stop to rest,
and so I ccaught those deep-set eyes and chiseled
cheeks, the unbound hair that would glow gold
in light of day, and fall at night across my chest…)
I thought I’d practice going down. That’s why
in the peaks above Boulder, I entered a cave
the bearded locals called Hole in the Wall.
And deep into this abandoned mineshaft, this sieve
to the underworld, I took a young runaway
girl from Boston, and entered her as well.”
“Well, I see what you mean, Sparks,” Ernesto said. “But is that really safe?”
“Safe? What has safe got to do with it?”
“Well, you’re the English major; do they let you get away with twisting myths like that?”
“Orpheus is Greek, you shit, not English. And yes they let you get away with this now.”
“But you and I know who Orpheus is. We were read the myths as children. Not everyone who hangs out at Brady’s is going to get this stuff.” He was talking about a local coffee shop that seemed to be, at least whenever I took him along, overrun with vegans and bad poets. I couldn’t convince him that sometimes pure words could be found there, strong as the colombian brews.
“Well, I think we should have more of it,” I said. “Look, the poems are good on their own anyway. His style is terrific. It’s like he leaves you wanting more, but in a good way. He’s working with a limited form here, the sonnet, but that’s not really the reason. The reason is he doesn’t want to overstate everything like most poets want to do. He’s confident enough to let some things go unsaid.”
“So you think that’s enough to draw people in, then. Then they’ll go and find out about Orpheus on their own.”
“Why not? Then when they come back to it, there’s even more waiting for them. Look, getting people to read the Odyssey or Metamorphoses is like pulling teeth nowadays. They gave us this illustrated, paraphrased version of the Iliad in high school. In high school! I say anything that can get people interested in this stuff again, the very foundations of Western poetry, is a good thing.”
Ernesto thought for a while, chewing on a cocktail straw, bending it up and down like he was Hunter S. Thompson with a cigarette holder. “How do you know he’s not just, you know. Being smarmy. Showing off his knowledge. Maybe this book is only meant for snobs like you.”
I raised my little finger to him, which between us was more obscene than the flipped bird. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Listen to this one. ‘Orpheus in Therapy.’
“All that singing and all that grand passion
was not for her, oh no, let’s be quite honest,
no, not to praise her beauty or the rest
of her fine package (just listen, calm down),
no, not her face or bolt-of-lightning hair,
not the arch arch in her back and not the place
you came to rest inside. (Refrain from, cease
these dangerous delusions!) All you care
about is the wild note of your own sick
grief, and how those jingling tears might serve
as currency in hell and how that plucked
string resounds inside the dark handpicked
audience of stone. You’d found the perfect lick
and then looked back to see if she approved.”
“So he’s making fun of Orpheus?”
“Kind of. He’s playing around. There’s stuff like that all through it, but also really tender cuts. He tinkers with the myth; he plays with the words. He toys with entire cultures and rams them together like two plastic action figures from separate cartoon series. But it’s not all fun and games. It’s a challenge, too. Like he’s brandishing these poems and daring people to complain about them, to whine that he’s diluted the myth or botched the translations that he’s done (this one translated poem I haven’t read to you yet, but it’s a heart-killer). I wouldn’t be surpised if, when he comes in here, he looks like Santa Claus but with an eyepatch.”
Ernesto laughed, and we abandoned the conversation for a while and instead talked about Serpico. After about an hour Bailey came through the large oak door followed by Leonard Kress and several other creative writing students. Ernesto waved and she smiled at us. Kress didn’t look like Santa Claus or have an eyepatch. We all arranged ourselves around a large table in a back room. As usual, I didn’t say anything during all of dinner to Kress. I do not respect celebrity, and have had more than one occasion to prove it, but when a writer enters the room, I do go a bit starstruck. Ernesto made fun of me as we drove back to campus, where Kress was going to be giving a reading shortly, and I tolerated him.
Many poets can’t read their own work well, but Kress did. Ernesto and I sat at the extreme left side of the large room and listened to him. I sat looking between people’s heads and listening to the words which were made somehow more clear to me in temporal stereo, the past and present uniting across channels.
All poems used with permission from the author.