The Poet – Summer
After thirty-five years of teaching, Helena is no longer affected by the despondent young faces staring at her after handing back graded assignments. She dismisses the class, gathers her dog-eared books and lecture notes, and tosses them into her leather briefcase. Too late. Jasmine has made her way from the middle of the room to her desk.
“Excuse me, Dr. De Vries,” Jasmine says. Helena knows what comes next. It’s a conversation that Helena would relish on most days, but today is different. “I was hoping you might have a minute to discuss your feedback on my last poetry submission?”
Helena glances at her watch. “Sorry dear, I have a reading at noon. It’ll have to be brief.” Jasmine approaches her master’s in poetry as if she’s scaling Mount Everest. She reminds Helena of herself when she was a student- bent over at the edge of her seat, scratching out notes, raising her hand at the slightest doubt. An encyclopedic familiarity with poets both past and present that she’s perpetually imitating.
“Professor, I was hoping you could elaborate on what you mean by ‘Dig deeper?’”
“Listen, Jasmine. You have a gift with words – no question there. But poetry isn’t simply constructing a series of images, or stringing together phonemes to create a certain meter.” Despite what Dr. Janus has taught you, she refrains from adding. “It also has to be mining the crevasses of your soul for the thing you most want to hide, laying it bare.”
Other days, Helena has counseled students, Be an ardent lover of language; it’s multidimensionality, its vivacity! In my day poets such as Robert Hess, rebuked language as if it weren’t enough! Imagine Vermeer proclaiming paint insufficient! I tell you, the problem is not the paint!
Or If you want to be a poet, don’t treat your relationship with language like a dead marriage, as if you’re a captive to its confines! Handle it as if it is your one truelove whose secrets only you have the pleasure to unlock!
Jasmine chews her lip and her cheeks color, but she doesn’t respond, so Helena continues. “Other animals eat, procreate, build homes, even string meaningful sounds together. Humans are the only ones who create poetry. Poetry is declaring your self-awareness! A sacrifice for the greater good! It requires brutal honesty and is therefore an act of courage!” Try being Ohio’s lone poet in the 1960s surrounded by football jerseys and pom poms, she could add, but not today. She tilts her head back, shaking her waist-length locks, colored black and fuchsia, to match the cover of her latest publication. She’s come a long way from Springfield, Ohio’s milquetoast wallflower with the dishwater bob and fingernails chewed to the quick.
“Ok, well, thank you Professor.” Jasmine fills her cheeks with air, sighs slowly without letting out a sound, and turns to leave.
Helena checks the time on her phone. 11:15.
A text message from Simon: Hello Love. Looking forward to your reading. I’ll be the handsome guy in the back row.
“Jasmine-” Jasmine pivots at the door.
“Courage!” Jasmine nods, but Helena detects a suppressed eyeroll.
Helena follows Jasmine out of the lecture hall. Crossing the quad leading to the parking lot, she passes Carolyn Janus, the University’s head of Poetry and Poetics.
“Hello Helena,” Carolyn says, a perfunctory greeting through pursed lips. “Off to your reading?” Even having to acknowledge the fact strains the frayed threads of their cordiality. Carolyn’s invitation to teach this summer class had surprised her. Student demand must’ve forced Carolyn’s hand.
“Hi there, yes, off I go!” Helena says, throwing her shoulders back.
Helena brushed it off last year at her retirement party when Carolyn’s toast turned out to be little more than a thinly veiled dismissal of her published works. When Helena held up her champagne flute, in her mind, she toasted the end of overhearing Carolyn reference her own academic publications on rhythm, meter, and structure. After the toast, Helena congratulated Carolyn on “now being the longest serving faculty in the department after so many years of dogged dedication.” Helena relished the agitation on Carolyn’s face.
At Re Bookshop, Helena scans the crowd for Simon. He’s in the back row, wearing the red scarf she gave him last Christmas. His thumb and index finger stroke the fringe of the scarf, like they always do when he’s uneasy. Catching her eye, he waves at her with the scarf still between his fingers and his You’ve-Got-This expression. This bookshop, this podium, her poetry in hand, an audience of adoring readers; this is her homeland, its soil embedded in her DNA.
Andres, the bookshop owner, wades through the seated crowd, and makes his way to her side. “If we pack anyone else in here, the fire department’s going to shut us down.” He chuckles, then adds, “Guess we better get started?”
“I’m all set,” she says, patting her book on the podium in front of her. He nods, turns to the crowd, and waves his hands until the room quiets.
“Thank you all for coming to Re Bookshop to meet our very distinguished guest, local poet and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Poetry and Poetics, Helena De Vries. This afternoon she’ll read for us from her new collection entitled Colloquy.” Helena pivots from Andres to her fans.
“Thank you, Andres, for the kind introduction. I am delighted to be here today to share my new book of poetry with you.” The faces are captivated, adoring. “As Andres said, I entitled the book Colloquy, because as a collection, the poems are just that. They are- uh, a contact. No, no, they are a-“ The faces register her confusion, their eyes starting to look around, perhaps searching for the thing distracting her from her train of thought. But she isn’t distracted. The word she was going to say has vanished. The irony amuses her. “Well, perhaps I’ve used up my quota of words for this lifetime. Seems the word has escaped me.” The faces laugh with her. Except for Simon. Simon is wincing. “Conversations! There’s the word!” She throws a triumphant finger in the air and the crowd claps and chuckles.
As she concludes the reading her fans jump to their feet and applaud. Jasmine is leaning against the back wall behind the chairs, clutching Colloquy to her chest and when they lock eyes, Jasmine smiles and nods. Helena wishes she could take a snapshot of this moment and send it to herself as that lonely, misunderstood child in Springfield or the gawky teenager so full of self-doubt.
Simon puts his hand on her back, kisses her cheek just as Jasmine reaches her at the book signing table. “Dr. De Vries, I wanted to congratulate you and thank you for your guidance.” She is gushing, not a hint of the annoyance she suppressed this morning.
“Thank you. Lovely of you to come.” Helena turns to Simon. “Honey, I want to introduce you to my student-“ Her eyes widen. “Oh, she is my best student. How could I-“ Simon rushes to shove his hand into Jasmine’s outstretched hand. “Simon. Helena’s husband.” His words dart out.
Jasmine nods and shakes Simon’s hand emphatically; Nothing as irritating as being placated by her students or Simon, let alone both!
“I’m Jasmine. Nice to meet you, Simon.”
Well, how many students have cycled through her classes over the past thirty-five years? It’s no wonder she forgets one every now and then.
Helena lets Simon drive. She yawns and rests her head against the window as the sun descends behind the beautiful old homes. She is constructing a poem: casting off the shoddy construction of her childhood home in Springfield for the historical houses of this enduring American town.
“Now that was a success! What a showing- all there to hear my poet!” Simon squeezes her hand. She squeezes back and smiles out the window. At the stop signs Helena pretends not to notice Simon watching her studying the houses; his vigilance strikes her as paternal in the worst way. “Lena?”
“What happened? In the beginning- did you forget what you wanted to say?” His voice is soft as falling snow.
“Oh! My boobs sag, I forget a word, and you’re ready to trade me in for a newer model?” she says. He smiles with his mouth, but his forehead wrinkles. “Don’t look so worried, Sy. This is not the start of Alzheimer’s. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It was just that thing, you know, when you can’t think of the word.”
“It’s been happening more and more,” he says. She turns back to the houses, now whizzing by. “Let’s make an appointment with Dr. Taylor.”
“I’ve probably been working too much. With the collection being published. Agreeing to teach summer classes, right up to the start of my book tour. You really think I could manage all that if I were in the early stages of dementia?”
“I’m sure right. Still- could you humor me? How about I schedule an appointment for the end of your tour? Maybe having the single thing to focus on will be easier-you’ll stop forgetting words and we’ll cancel the appointment. But if you keep having the same trouble on your tour, you can see Dr. Taylor as soon as you get home.”
She pats his hand resting in her lap. “Ok Honey. If it makes you feel better, I’ll go.” If it gets you off my back, she refrains from adding. I climb mountains and he wants to play hero-at-my-rescue at my slightest stumble!
About the Author
Gretchen Gossett a practicing speech language pathologist. Gretchen has taken writing courses at Gotham Writers, including Intro to Fiction, Plot, Character, and Publication. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.