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Scenes from a Weekend Poetry Conference

By Rebecca McClanahan

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Friday Evening, Dressing for Art

Never before so much hair in one space, so much hair so carefully out of place, and to arrange a ripped T-shirt to slide over one bare shoulder is an art in itself, as is the negative capability of shawls that fall just far enough. Here are jeans slashed to reveal knees polished to perfection. The mysteries abound: why such violence? Was it passion, going down on the Muse, and who mussed her hair into such chaos? Yet I too confess to artifice. Once from a catalog I ordered The Poet's Blouse, $29.95, but it drooped too sadly over my wrists. I exchanged it for a bracelet to chain to my bare ankle, for on this mountain all the poets are barefoot or sandaled, even the oldest ones, braless beneath loose sweaters. And all are beautiful, even at breakfast. They speak in line breaks and whispers, their faces pale, cheeks flushed from the all night tussle with the Dark Angel, demanding to know his name.

Saturday Afternoon, High School Seminar

When I see the students, I break into acne again, remembering my English teacher, tweedy breath and patched sleeves, when Dylan Thomas was young and easy under the apple trees and cummings slept with a lady named death. Nothing has changed. This boy wears a black beret, reads Ginsberg and howls. Back home, a perfect domestic moon lights the boy’s head, but he borrows the ancient moon pasted in the sky, whispering to the girl with dark eyes and breasts he would die for, who writes of flowers, generic, unnamed. The pale boy beside her (whose father’s eyes, I happen to know, are headlights screaming at him each night) blinks back the glare and squints into the sun of a dozen abstractions, writing guilt, control, the words white and safe as aspirin, and it stops thudding awhile, this ache between his eyes.

That Night I Dream I Win the Contest

When The Great Dealer in the center of the casino calls my name, I let fall to the floor my clothes, my bag lunch, the Bingo bucket rattling with my meager shakes of consonants and vowels, and make my way through the gasping crowd. The Great Dealer caresses my verses, pronouncing them lovely, and in an alphabet of praise he enters me and the flush that purples my throat is more royal than passion but what name is he calling now, his gaze flying above my head, his eyeballs rolling, scrambling like a slot machine's fruit basket turnover--apples, oranges, apples, pears--finally settling on a young woman whose lean narrative lines stretch all the way to the podium and now her name is filling the hall and I am scurrying nakedly back to my chair, reaching for my bucket of sounds, please god just let me hear the letters click into place--oh welcome back! another poem composing itself badly, but mine.

Sunday Morning Workshop, Public Invited

The insect whir of a wheelchair, her name on a tag admitting her to a room where poems are worked up and over. Her hands are palsied, the face a shattered Picasso. At breakfast someone said all writers are beautiful, as if words could make us, move through us like ocean wind or the clouds in the Stafford poem I fell asleep with last night: Just by looking we become them. A young man hired for such things (“I will be her hands and voice”) leans toward her, expectant. Seafoam gathers at the edges of her mouth and an animal grunt starts low in her throat, each syllable yanked whole from its tap root. Has a word ever cost me this much? Exhausted, she rests against the lines the young man translates for our ears: I remember summer screens, the blues and greens, my father’s voice against my ear, breaking.


Rebecca McClanahan books include The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, winner of the 2005 Glasgow Prize in nonfiction; five volumes of poetry; and two writing texts, including Word Painting. Her work appears in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and numerous anthologies. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Wood prize from Poetry, and the Carter prize for the essay, she lives in New York and teaches nonfiction and poetry in the Queens University (Charlotte) MFA Program.

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photo by Leslie Miller