Pity the Beautiful

“Now you are twenty-one/ Finally, it makes sense/ that you have moved away/ into your own afterlife.” — from Majority by Dana Gioia

It rained off and on all day. I was attempting to write. The new book is very different from the first one. The first one wasn’t easy but I knew it meant something. It felt important to me and sometimes I was able to get lost in it. The new one is hard to write all the time. I lose track of what I’m doing. Still, every day I work on it. Today I moved some paragraphs around, cut a few sentences, tried not to lose faith in it, or in myself.

I took Doe for a walk in the afternoon. She likes to go to the Corner Bookstore on Madison because the young writer who works there always gives her a treat. He spotted her immediately as we came in. She followed him into the back room, while I read the first few pages of Nadine Gordimer’s new one, and then the beginning of a memoir called “Wild.”

On the way out, I noticed a sign about a reading that was scheduled to happen later. “Poetry Tonight,” the sign said. I didn’t know who the poet was, but I decided to go on the spot. I love being read to. I love stories. I love writers. So I was already looking forward to the evening, walking home in the drizzle.

By 5:45, it was raining again. I hurried over to Corner Books under a black umbrella. The bookstore was already packed with a sharp looking crowd. I saw Doe’s friend, the young writer, standing behind a table of wine and cheese. One man was holding court. I heard him say he had just arrived from California. He was tan and looked very successful. I thought he was probably a publisher or an agent. But it turned out, he was the poet. I’m unfamiliar with tan poets who look so successful. The ones I know are a different sort. Not so tan, for one thing.

I took a seat near the back, in the corner. As every seat filled, a woman about my age squeezed past to sit beside me. I learned she had been the stage manager for City Opera for twenty-three years. We got to talking about second chapters, about starting over. It seems to be a very common thing for many women in mid-life.

When the poet came over to greet my new friend, he introduced himself to me. He asked me if I was a singer, an opera singer, assuming I might be because I appeared to know this woman. I told him I was indeed a singer. But not an opera singer, no.

Soon he was being introduced, in the most generous way, by another man who seemed to know him well. The man’s eyes filled with tears describing a kindness the poet had shown him. Turned out this poet had also held a government office for a time. He’d wielded great power over other poets, other people in the arts. I grew suspicious of him then, because I’m suspicious of power and position. I can’t help it.

But then he began to read his poems. The first couple had rhymes that distracted, but by the third, I was drawn in. Listening to his thoughts gleaned from loss, and hard won perspective, I was moved by his insights. He was a beautiful poet, it turned out. There was one about the nature of mature love. He was married to a woman named Mary, and had been for a long time. He and Mary had lost a child, he told us. The last poem he read was about the lost child, watching him grow up in the bodies of other children.

I bought two copies of his new book and stood on line to thank him. When I reached him, he said, “Would you like to make a record one day?” I said, “Yes, I would.”

No, I didn’t. That’s only what I wish I’d said. Instead, my ego kicked in and I defended my accomplishments, quickly and inadequately.

Then I walked home in the rain. I didn’t bother to open my umbrella. It wasn’t raining very hard. I was feeling the combination of having been moved, in this pure way, by the poetry I’d heard, and also the discomfort of having my ego triggered. It’s an unwieldy beast when awakened, my ego. It wants the world to take notice of me.

But most of the time, I am content to live my own reality, to document my own insights. The poet and I have this in common. Tan or winter-pale, it doesn’t matter. We’re both attempting to make sense of things. Ego is no help at all in this, and neither is the recognition of the world.

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