The Mad Poet’s Triumph

When Abender arrived in the city he found his way, through a series of elaborate, directionally significant exchanges with random cab drivers who were not thrilled by Abender’s lack of moneymaking potential, to the hotel at which he had reservations. Once he’d checked in at the hotel he sat for some 12 or 15 minutes on the edge of the bed, stupefied with strangeness. Then he called down to the desk and in a few minutes a young man came up and took his pants away to be steamed and pressed. They were returned a half hour later and Abender paid the young man a few coins. The young man got to keep 5 cents.

Abender began to fantasize about the upcoming meeting. In another 20 minutes he began furiously writing poetry, filling pages in his notebook which were subsequently crossed out and in some cases torn out. This was because, in the first place, Abender pictured Haffermaid or Barnstone (as he called them in a chummy sort of way, in his fantasy) asking him jovially, “Well, well, my boy, my promising young poet, and what have you written lately?” And this question, asked by the phantasmic Haffermaid or the ephemeral Barnstone, was of course only the set-up. The real point of the fantasy was when Haffer/Stone took a look at Abender’s latest poem, choked politely on his scone, and then said, “Good lord, it’s better than the one that won the contest. I believe it’s better than my own latest work. Young giant indeed!” In one variant, Hafferstone turned quite purple with ill-disguised envy and crushed the forgotten scone in his left hand while his right hand, shaking, held the notepaper.

And unfortunately it was just at this moment that Abender, sitting on the bed, realized with horror the complete immaturity and insufficiency of all his previous works. Still, that did not mean the works which could inspire envy were not in him. That, in fact, was the problem. They were in, not out of him. Better out than in.

But the desire to provoke envy in his elders was not inspiring; the poetry Abender churned out was not up to his snuff.

If you would not be the object of fraternization
Know thyself, know thyself, know thy place in
Ill company is like a birth in Grand Central Station
An ill wind that blows off a dustbowl migration

This is the only poem not crossed out. So that gives you a fair idea.

At 4 in the afternoon Abender removed all his clothes. He washed up the important bits, shaved and cracked open a new bottle of aftershave that Olive had bought him, put on a clean shirt, underclothes, and socks, from his carpetbag, packed by Olive, and then the newly-pressed pants and the suitcoat, which had lain carefully draped across the passenger seat of the car all through his drive. The underclothes smelt like sundried grass and when he had pulled the undershirt over his head and smelt it, Abender’s head emerged and he saw granite towering over him out the hotel window and was aghast for a moment at the reality of the change he had walked into. He knew then he would never live anywhere but on Olive’s mother’s farm. Or, at the most, a different farm in the same county.

Abender waited another thirty minutes before going down and getting into his car and driving to the restaurant where the Young Poet’s Dinner was to be held and he was to read his bull poem and receive the 250 dollar award check. Then he could stop off at a pawn shop and buy a real diamond ring, and put some more fuel in the automobile Olive’s dead father had left in a shed, and drape his suit coat carefully over the back of the passenger seat and drive home. He and Olive would be married at Christmas.

Abender arrived at the restaurant a half hour early and as none of the rest of his party had yet appeared, he was set to wait in the lobby. He found himself slipping again into stupefaction as he surveyed the glittering array of light fixtures and utensils and, when he peeked into the kitchen, the company of the white-robed Lithe and Lissome. Abender almost forgot that he was supposed to be an up and coming young poet, but remembering this fact suddenly in a fit of self-consciousness, he whipped out his notebook and jotted down a few words, his impressions of the place.

Between the corners sharp and staring
gently go, swiftly go,
servitors both wise and daring,
Has all your life been spent seafaring
ducking, bobbing, shearing so?
And when one wears what you are wearing
does one know – what you know?
Trays go high and eyelids low,
Between the beached and docked you flow
Never tooth or psyche baring
After tips and wages haring,
And all the jazzy cornets blaring
Secretly they sing of you, oh,
Secretly as to and fro –
My lady yes, my lady no,
Moscati or, perhaps, Bordeaux?

After this burst of creative endeavor, Abender was enraptured and read the poem over and over to himself until suddenly a shuddering hand was laid on his shoulder and a nervous voice spoke close to his ear.

“Your party? Young poets? Over there, the others are arriving. Blend in. Do not speak loudly or flap your arms. You will do quite well.”

Abender looked up at an oddly squinting man with a beefy red face. The man was bobbing and grinning, and gesturing at Abender’s notebook. A feeling of immense dignity spread over Abender. He stood.

“Mr. Haffermaid, I presume?” he said, quietly and with a self-deprecating gesture.

The man stood and regarded Abender, his features paling and smoothing themselves, his hunch and his twitches disappearing.

“Barnstone, actually,” he said in clipped syllables. “Don’t know whether to give you points for seeing through my little charade or dock you for mixing me up with that blitherer.”

Abender was speechless with mortification for roughly two seconds. Then he burst into a babble of excuses, during which Barnstone snorted and swung away toward the table. His suit, as Abender subsided and watched it, was a thing of beauty. Abender, who had not known men’s clothing could do that, decided that immediately upon arriving home, even before giving the ring to Olive, he was going to burn his brown suit, which had been fashionable shortly before the end of the second world war, and had been cut for his deceased father.

The stupefaction set in again and in a dreamy state, from a distance, Abender watched the Young Poet’s table, a large round affair stuffed with place settings, fill up until only one seat was left. Then he saw Barnstone gesturing toward him and talking to the others, who looked at him, then at one another in puzzlement. A waiter arrived and they began ordering drinks. Barnstone swung back toward him.

“Come on, Abender,” he said. “Don’t make yourself conspicuous.”

Abender meekly followed Barnstone, hiding his notebook in his coat’s inside pocket. He sat at his spot, endured a bewildering round of introductions, and listened to the others talk.

A lady – Abender had a vague idea she was some sort of librarian, though he wasn’t sure why, was talking about flirting. “You men don’t notice when a girl’s doing it,” she insisted.

“Oh come on!” Barnstone said with another snort. “You’re at a dance. A young lady prances up and cracks a joke about her figure or the royal wedding, taps you on the arm, and mentions how energetic she’s feeling in the foot area. What’s to notice?”

“My goodness,” the librarian said. “Has that happened to you?”

“Any number of times!”

The lady laughed with delight. “Oh, but you’re proving my point! The poor young ladies find it necessary to be that forward with you? What are you doing, standing along the wall comparing their ankle sizes, when you might be discovering their charm as you whirl face to face around the floor?”

“I’ve yet to meet this charm of which you speak,” Barnstone snarled.

“This explains all his poetry,” Haffermaid remarked languidly. “Notice his positive refusal to acknowledge anything, well, positive.”

“A good poet is brave,” Barnstone said superciliously. “He turns his attention toward the ill-reputed and the vile and does not flinch from his duty.”

“Yes, we all know that you think a poet’s duty is Census Taker of the Underworld – and I don’t mean Hades.”

Barnstone stared at him, one eyebrow lifted, for a few moments. “One poem about gansters – ”

“One name-dropping register of mobsters you’ve treated to a drink!”

“What I mean by flirting,” the lady librarian said deliberately, “is this. Watch. I’m barely smiling. My face appears placid and smooth. I’m still. I’m looking down toward the middle of the table, but I’m aware of you, so when you glance my way I’m ready to let myself glow just a little.”

Abender watched carefully. The lady’s lips lifted and parted minutely and her eyelashes flashed, once. Everyone at the table caught his breath.

“Then you speak to me,” she went on. “Instead of turning toward you eagerly like a school girl, I tilt my jaw toward you first a bit, and glance your way. I appear to be checking whether it’s worthwhile to look you full in the face, but in passing, I’ve bared to you this extremely vulnerable place just beneath my jaw, at the top of my throat. At one and the same time I’m making myself seem vulnerable and unattainable. Your protective instinct immediately begins to war with your desire to be admired. You check to see whether I’m beautiful enough to be worth these feelings. If you conclude that I am – “

“A forgone conclusion,” Haffermaid murmured.

“ – then your feelings will make you momentarily breathless. This is close enough to being in love that you will remember me the next time we meet – or the next time you feel like asking someone to dance.”

The table was silent for a while.

“Look at us, speaking frankly of these things!” the lady said. “I’m very impressed. We are so advanced! Now, let us meet our contest winners. Who are they?”

The  people at the table turned their attention toward Abender, who was most obviously not of New York City. He had won second prize. The first prize winner had not been able to attend. He would read, wouldn’t he?

Abender was drawn out gradually. At first he only answered questions. Then he ventured an opinion or two, which were received with the sort of stunned interest he thought he had dreamed of.

“You mean,” said the lady librarian, “that you actually consider the sound to be more important than – but which school do you adhere to?”

Abender looked at her for a moment, and then ventured – “Asp Hollow doesn’t have its own high school. I went to Barleycorn High when the weather was good.”

The lady kept nodding and smiling brightly. “Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yes, and you’re not an Imagist?”

“Oh pooh,” Barnstone said. “No one’s an Imagist.”

“Be polite to the lady, Barney,” said Haffermaid.

“Because you’re one, fair maid?” said Barnstone.

“Boys, boys!” the lady said archly, as if she were being fought over.

“Abender,” Haffermaid began. “Do you write every day?”

“Like a good young poet?” Barnstone said.

Abender perked up. “I write five poems every day, even if they aren’t any good,” he said. “And I am a good poet. I am The Good Poet Abender.”

“Backward,” Barnstone whispered to the lady librarian.

“In what?” she whispered back, looking at him sideways. “Not in poetry, surely.”

“Hmm,” Barnstone said.

“So what have you written today?” Haffermaid asked. It was Abender’s fantasy, with somewhat less heartiness and scones.

Abender paused. “This foul place!” Abender stood, and found his legs were a little shaky. “I can’t write a single real word here. I don’t know how you fellows do it, but it smells and it’s hard and it’s gray and smoky and everyone seems to think they have to pretend not to like people!”

“Pretend?” Barnstone muttered. The lady watched him, eyes wide, while Haffermaid’s eyes narrowed. Other people, whom Abender’s brain had refused to take specific notice of in his bewilderment, suddenly stared at him in hard detail from around the table.

“Here’s what I wrote when I got into town and saw the tall buildings.”

“Just like a movie,” the lady whispered to Haffermaid. “Oh, the drama!”

Abender recited in a shaky voice.

Spirit of the wild hare
shying of a fickle mare
pointed grin from shadows over there
mellow tang of pear
yellow fang of bear
bellow, clang, and blare
Tell, O Chang, mon frère,
fellow hangman rare,
Hast thou a rooted fear of flair?
Or canst thou work but in thy bare?
It isn’t that I really care
but some seem itching for a dare.

Oh, let us call upon the fair
and scare them in our underwear!

“Good lord!” Haffermaid burst out. “What has that got to do with tall buildings? I realize there are any number of questions I could ask, but that springs to mind.”

Abender was silent. No one had ever wanted to know what one of his poems meant before.

“Well, it’s obvious” the lady said suddenly. “He got to town, thought everyone was acting crazy, and it made him jumpy. He noticed a crazy bum in an alley, and went past a fruit market and a tobacco shop with a carved bear outside. Then he realized all the noise was getting to him. After that he saw a Chinese butcher making deliveries in his shirtsleeves and flirting with maids and housewives. Am I right, Abender?”

Abender nodded and sat down slowly. “I have to butcher things on my mother’s farm,” he added suddenly, and then was quiet.

Barnstone turned to the lady with a show of deliberation. “An unlooked for triumph of criticism, my lady. Are you an interpreter of adolescent literature?”

“Oh, nonsense,” the lady said, “I simply understand boys and their feelings.”

“Well, I guess so!” Barnstone said.

“Tsk, tsk, Barney,” Haffermaid said. “Your language. So puerile. So unnecessarily emphatic.”

“I don’t know why it’s so surprising,” Abender said. “Why shouldn’ a librarian understand poetry?”

Now they really were all staring at him.

Barnstone burst out laughing quite suddenly and loudly.

A moment later the lady chuckled a bit as well.   “My most popular film last year,” she murmured. “I played a librarian. So flattering of you to remember, Abender.”

It took Abender a full minute to fully digest this new information, during which people made amused comments which are not recorded in the journal.

The lady caught Abender looking at her after a minute or so and nudged their mutual neighbor, the third place contest winner. “Switch seats with me,” she whispered. “No, don’t worry about the plates and things. We’ll manage.”

And a moment later, Abender was sitting next to the lady.

“Gloria… Haines,” he whispered.

“Hello!” she whispered back with animation and a direct smile. She chuckled. Abender did too. And that’s just a sampling of the details Abender includes in the journal. Five minutes later he was going on to her as if he were talking to his mother or Olive, largely about his mother and Olive.

This continued for a bit. And then suddenly the lady transferred her interest to a dessert, switched back to her own place, and seemed to forget all about Abender. He was left with no one to talked to, and slumped glumly for a few minutes, and then drew himself up in dignity because of the things that were passing in his mind.

The live music stopped and Gloria Haines made her way to the stage where she was introduced by the orchestra leader and then took the microphone.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, while you have been enjoying this very special music from our esteemed orchestra, I have been getting to know two very special young men. For tonight this club has been hosting the annual Young Poet’s Dinner. The two young men I mentioned won the famous Young Poet’s contest. Our first place winner was not able to attend but I am pleased to introduce our third and second place winners.”

Miss Haines went on to introduce the third place winner first. He was a 29 year old college graduate, and read a finely-tuned poem which Abender had already familiarized himself with. Abender was not paying attention. He was watching Gloria Haines, noting the elegance of her dress and movements, the perfection of her demeanor and her seeming unawareness of the attention which was being directed toward her even while the other poet spoke.

And her quickness! Everyone, it seemed, was quicker than Abender here. They seemed to operate at a different speed, to be tuned up for it, as if they were race cars and he were a combine. But Gloria’s quickness had something natural about it, not like the way you were after drinking coffee, but like the way you might be if you great-great-grandmother had taken coffee with a fairy while she was pregnant with your great grandmother.

Then, too, she was tall. As tall as Olive, stretching a number of inches above the orchestra conductor. Of course she was not as well-muscled as Olive. Couldn’t be; didn’t need to be.

The other poet finished. Gloria Haines gave the microphone back to the conductor after explaining that they would hear from their second-place poet following the next dance number.

Abender resolutely decided that he would not ask Miss Haines to dance. He had never really considered doing so, but upon the thought occurring to him he wished to punish himself for it so as not to be in any danger of making a fool of himself in a weak moment.

The music started. Abender started, in a different sense. He knew this song. It was old, old, dance music, the kind of stuff his ancestors had brought with them and county fiddlers had passed down at barn dances and wakes for generations. It was gaiety and sadness entwined.

A man with slick hair stepped up to the microphone and sang.

Good night, good night, my beauty,
we shall not meet this month.
Your mother and my duty,
your garden and my hunt,
they do not lie between us now;
we have this moment shining
to dance beneath the cherry bough,
our future love divining.

Abender turned and looked at Gloria Haines. She had forgotten herself for a moment and was pressing her temples and arching her back slightly, exactly the way Olive did when she was taking a break from weeding her garden. Abender looked around. The sparkle and shimmer of evening dress and highly polished cutlery and overabundant lighting spread and joined into a flat sheen, through his sympathetic tears. It was a screen – if he could take it a way for a moment, what would he see beneath? For one huge moment, Abender felt that he was seeing a deeper root of humanity, being touched by a sympathy that transcended – well, that transcended.

This gathering feeling, this stupor at the height of sense, this was why he was a poet. Not, he realized, because he was really very good with syntax and simile and turn of phrase.

But then, because he was a poet, and would never be anything else, Abender descended from his mountain of feeling, and, whipping out his notebook, applied a frenzied pencil thereto.

Abender was deep in the throes of a third stanza when Barnstone shook him by the shoulder, rousing him to awareness of his surroundings. “Your turn,” the older poet said. “This is it, Abender. Go make a name for yourself. Half of New York City is here.”

“I have a name,” Abender said dazedly. “I’m the Good Poet Abender.”

Barnstone’s eyebrows went up. He took Abender’s elbow and steered him to the stage, which drew chuckles; Gloria Haines had already explained about Asp Hollow and Barleycorn High.

Abender ascended the stage and, turning at the microphone, looked into the expectant audience. The shimmer which had seemed only a screen a few moments ago was a mile thick now. Every eye was a telescope. It was hot up there. Abender looked at his notebook, and then at Gloria Haines. She was smiling at him encouragingly, not leaving the stage.

Abender bent his head compulsively and scribbled at his notebook. After a moment of silence, Gloria Haines made some comment which drew more laughter. Abender, finishing his third stanza, lifted his head and leaned into the microphone.

“I wrote this just now,” he said. “It’s for Miss Haines.” More laughter, understanding and amused. Abender, nervous enough, could not spare the mental energy to figure out why. He read, aloud.

How strange are the things that we think that we see
when Mars comes for you and Diana for me.
Linger at table some longer degree,
at last you shall see, at last you shall see.

How troubling the things that we think that we need
When angels are touching the water and meade
Washing you, bidding me wish you godspeed –
Oh which shall I heed, Oh which shall I heed?

People were nodding; he heard approving murmurs. He glanced at Gloria Haines. She was smiling. Her hands were clasped. The top of her head was even with his, just like Olive’s. He continued to read.

What stings like the past in the grip of the now?
When a ballroom is full of a ghostly haymow,
When amongst glittering dancers an udder-full cow
sings, Haloo to the house! Oh, halloo mine hausfrau!

The audience had gone dead. Abender felt hot. He glanced at Gloria Haines again. Oddly enough, she had tears in her eyes. “Boys and their feelings,” she whispered. Abender decided he was satisfied with that response. He turned and stumbled off the stage and walked back toward his table.

“Tapping into the grotesque,” Barnstone said as he reached it, leaning out and touching Abender’s arm.

Abender paused.

“Good for you,” Barnstone continued. “They’ll never appreciate you for it but good for you.”

Abender looked around and was suddenly furious with the entire place, all at once. He knew he was about to begin understanding everything that had bewildered him that night. He didn’t want to awaken to that understanding in the restaurant. He wanted to drive, out out out of the city.

Nothing of this awakening is recorded in the journal. He wrote the night as it happened and didn’t touch on his later interpretations. I suppose he thought he would never forget, and perhaps that anyone other than himself would understand all that had passed immediately, without his need for explanation.

Abender reached home around 4 in the morning and went right to Olive’s house. He tapped at her bedroom window, and she came to the door in a white nightgown, wrapped in a bed sheet with large red roses on it. Abender could just make out their color in the predawn light. The glittering sounds of birds surrounded them. He took her hand and they walked a while in silence.

“How did they like your poem?” she asked.

“They liked the bull poem a lot. I read another one at the dinner.”

“Oh. Don’t you like the bull poem?”

“I love the bull poem. It’s kind, like you.” He nudged her. “Olive, I know I didn’t completely write that poem by myself. I remembered that when a feller was singing “Good night, good night my beauty.”

“Oh.”

“Thank you, Olive.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m not going to give you a diamond ring.”

“You aren’t?”

“No. A man said my other poem, the one I read aloud at the dinner, was grotesque. They – I’ll always be the Good Poet Abender and people are always going to think of me as the Mad Poet Abender. I’m never going to be rich and a diamond ring is a promise of a man giving a girl riches. I won’t ever be able to give you that because I can’t stand to be anything other than the Good Poet Abender.”

“We have the farm,” she said, sighing.

“You aren’t arguing.”

“I never figured I rated a diamond ring anyway, Abender.”

He stopped and pulled out his wallet.

“Olive,” he said. His hands shook, holding the money he’d won. “Is your mother giving you a dowry?”

“Of course not. She’s giving me an inheritance. A farm inheritance.”

“Well, I’m giving you a dowry. A cash dowry. So you’ll know, the whole time we’re married – whatever I had, I gave it to you.”

Abender handed Olive the money and she took it solemnly.

“Diamonds – I saw a lot of diamonds tonight,” Abender went on. “Diamonds are such cold little bits and – they need a setting. They depend on being in the right setting. I think a lot of things are like that.”

“I’m not much of a setting.”

“You aren’t understanding me. You can get a diamond ring still, if you want one, but honestly, Olive, you can afford to decorate yourself with something that gives you a lot more competition than a little scratchy diamond. You could lie in a bed of roses and still be the loveliest thing in the whole outdoors. I couldn’t stand to see you trapped or cooped up. That’s why – I think you’d better have the money. You’ll know what to do with it. I’ll fashion you a wooden ring, carve it and cure it. It’ll suit you.”

Olive sat down suddenly and cried very hard for short burst of time, and then hastily dried her face and counted the money.

“I met Gloria Haines,” Abender said after a while.

She stopped counting. “What?”

“She’s exactly as tall as you are.”

Olive was speechless.

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