They peruse the seating arrangements, their Dodge Poetry pamphlets and chapbooks tucked into their complimentary NPR tote bags that they received in exchange for their generous contributions to public radio. Many of these women are married to men with confused-looking blazers and uneven corduroy pants, shirttails untucked and dangling over their embossed leather belts that they bought while vacationing with their wives in Uruguay. The men have gray or white hair, sometimes tied back in unfortunate ponytails, and sit beside their wives, both halves of the couple jotting ideas into little notebooks.
I am young, wearing eyeliner and my jeans from Banana Republic and my hair still brown and shiny and blown dry this morning, but you can see that it is only a matter of time. I am wearing a cute shirt from a trendy store in a mall, but the cardigan I have chosen to wear over this shirt would not look out of place on an eighteenth century widow in an oil painting. I am not wearing a flowing floral skirt purchased from artisan weavers in Panama, but if you look more closely at my jeans you will notice that they are almost four years old and rather than buying a new pair of jeans in whatever style is currently fashionable, I have chosen to mend the inevitable threadbare patches in the crotch area by sewing fresh patches of denim into the inside of the pants with blue thread. I am only a few steps away from wanting to build my own house in the middle of the forest, living simply with my composting toilet and my Annie Dillard novel. I am not yet one of these women, but part of me, the part that has always admired the clothing in Eileen Fischer catalogs, wishes I were. I am seven, maybe eight years from donating money to either NPR or the Helena Rubenstein foundation. I am beginning to like cats.
This particular talk we have come to hear is called “The Riches of Daily Life,” and the speakers are Rachel Hadas, Sharon Olds, Marie Ponsot and a gentleman named Jerry Williams who, from a distance reminds me of Jeffrey Jones, the actor who played the Principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who was later arrested for possession of child pornography.
The three women on the panel mirror their audience in appearance and temperament. They are impossibly quaint, speaking (I assume) about the riches of daily life and how they utilize these riches in their poetry, but I am not listening for the first few minutes of the lecture because I have opened a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and am eating them in a manner befitting a five year-old. I have proceeded to stick my tongue through the middle of each cup, pushing out the center, which is the softest part, and leaving me with the hard chocolate peanutbutter-less ring of the outside. I hold two of these up to my eyes like opera glasses but immediately realize this is immature and quickly eat them. And when I say, of course, “I immediately realize this is immature,” I realize that the whole business of eating them like this is immature—not just the holding them up to my eyes part.
Rachel Hadas has a gray, shoulder length bob and, I am almost certain, a predilection for herbal teas, and she reads a few poems by other poets and a few that she herself has written. They are ok. This is the part where I am not paying attention maybe as much as I should be, so I don’t know what it is that she reads exactly. She is saying something about how the world gives us so much to work with—how everyday experience is littered with blessings and I am looking at my hands which are covered in chocolate and thinking what an idiot I am that I did not think to ask for napkins. I begin licking the chocolate off each of my fingers, much to the dismay of the people sitting behind us who came to see poetry but are instead subjected to a girl licking chocolate off her hands like Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I get most of the chocolate off my fingers and then wipe my hands on the very bottom of my jeans, promising myself that I will wash them when I get home.
Sharon Olds reads next and when you first glance at her she seems old because her hair is long and completely gray, and because she has a cane and because the word “Old” is right there in her last name, but I listen to her speak and read the poems she has selected and she seems, more than anything else, like an enormous little girl who has been turned old through some sort of spell. Her voice is constantly filled with wonder, which is probably why they asked her to do this particular reading—The Riches of Daily Life—as she comes across as someone who still marvels at butterflies and little green worms and if you went up to her and said, “Hey, did you know the word gullible’s not in the dictionary?” she’d say, “It’s not?” with genuine surprise. If Sharon Olds had seen me staring at her through my Reese’s Peanut butter cup eyeglasses she would have thought it was endearing—she would have gone, “Oh neat, look at that!” which appears to be her reaction to everything she has ever encountered in the world.
Marie Ponsot, the third reader, is ninety-one years old and before the reading begins she says into her mic, “It’s too bright. Can we turn the lights down, do you think? Does anyone have a hat?” And several balding men in their sixties lift the caps from their heads and shake them, going, “Here, we have hats!” and Marie Ponsot goes, “Oh, just any hat to shade my eyes from the lights,” and one gentleman tosses his hat up on stage and she puts it on and smiles. That is probably one of the riches of daily life, I think to myself. When you are a ninety one year-old woman and your eyes have been worn out by time and cataracts and almost a hundred years of trying to read the fine print on whatever the hell it is the IRS is mailing you, it must be nice to say, “Does anyone have a hat?” and have all the men excitedly wave their caps as if you are the prettiest girl in the room. Marie Ponsot reads a poem about herself as a young girl, running around in her Sunday clothes which, she stresses, was considered highly inappropriate at the time. Girls in that era did not run. The poem ends with the line, “This is the day the lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” and Marie Ponsot smiles defiantly and for whatever reason I get a little teary-eyed. I remember that line being read aloud in church when I was a child but had never taken it to heart, as something they were actually telling me I should do. It was something that I remember hearing over and over, read aloud in a dull, lifeless voice like the words, “Amen,” and “The lord is my Shepard, I shall not want,” which always made me think, “I shall not want what? What is it I’m not supposed to want?” It was read in the same voice which, prior to coming to this festival, was the one which came to mind when reading poetry.
“This is the day the lord has made,” she says. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it." She emphasizes the word "glad," when she reads. Not effusive or perfectly contented or maniacally happy.
"Glad," she says. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
“Ok,” I say. “I will try my best.”
After Marie Ponsot the Jeffrey Jones doppleganger reads. I am jolted to attention during this reading— not by his poetry, but by the fact that he is on this panel at all, as he reads his poems like a disillusioned seventeen year-old skateboarder. He is full of irony and skepticism and self-loathing, while the women look on politely, smiling and full of encouragement. He is like a forty-something year-old version of every ennui-filled twenty-something on the L train to Williamsburg, sitting on a panel with three good-natured grandmothers. He is like Keanu Reeve’s character from “Parenthood” who has somehow wound up on the set of Little Women.
“I have no idea why they put me on this panel,” the Jeffrey Jones poet says out loud, to the audience. “Not that I don’t want to be up here, but really—I have no idea what they were thinking.” He looks to the other women and Sharon Olds smiles at him lovingly, the way she smiles at everyone.
I both like and dislike the Jeffrey Jones poet. I like him because he is funny and thoughtful but I dislike him because he too self-effacing, hoping his cynicism will mask his insecurity. I tend to like and dislike people for the same reasons I like and dislike myself.
He reads a touching poem about his family but reads it with the voice of a sixteen year-old who is trying to distance himself from his consistently embarrassing mother. He is a teenager, both in awe of and mortified by his three loving mothers who are sitting with him on the stage, watching him at his first big reading, wanting both to impress them and to somehow be better than they are—much better. And he finishes the poem and says something along the lines of, “Well yeah—that’s it,” and the women look on, encouraging, and tell him it was very good. He looks down at his feet, unsure of how to think of himself and I look down at my own feet, focusing intently on the worn leather of my boots. I do not want to be an old woman covered in doilies someday, but I do not want to be a teenager forever either. I do not want to have long gray hair and loose fitting sweaters but I do, actually. I want to have that and be ok with it—to like it, even—but I am not there yet. I am still blow drying my hair and buying cute tops from stores in the mall and making fun of people who wear orthopedic shoes, even though I myself both receive and excitedly look through the FootSmart catalog when it mysteriously arrives at my house.
Someone in the audience asks a question about what sort of riches of everyday life move the poets and Rachel Haddas says that only two days ago at the college where she is a professor she came across a small yellow bird that had died by flying into a plate glass window. “It was so yellow,” she says, “that at first I thought it was a post it note. And then I got closer and I could tell it wasn’t a post it note but I thought maybe it was a banana or a banana peel.” She pauses and you can see her becoming a little sad, the way all of the women must get when then encounter tiny dead birds on the sidewalks of their towns. “It was perfectly intact,” she said. “Just lying on the sidewalk. And I felt like I should report it to someone, so I picked it up and brought it in to the library. And I showed it to the librarian on duty, who said, ‘Yes, that sometimes happens.’”
The reading ends shortly after that, and that evening, as we walk through Newark on our way back to the PATH station I notice a small gray bird lying perfectly intact on the sidewalk. It is tiny—only the size of a sparrow, and I want to pick it up the way Rachel Haddas picked up her dead bird, but I have eighteen years of my mother running through my head, going, “Never touch a dead bird. You don’t know what it died of.” And by the time I realize that wait a minute, I do so know what it died of, it died of flying into the plate glass windows of the skyscraper that is directly in front of me—I have already begun thinking, “Well, don’t pick up a dead bird anyway because it’s gross.” And then I think, “What the hell would I do with it anyway? Carry it onto the PATH train? Take it home?” I leave the bird silent and unmoving on the sidewalk but think about it the entire ride home.
The next day we arrive at the festival early for a reading on Women’s viewpoints in poetry. It is, for the most part, the same panelists, except that the Jeffrey Jones look alike has been replaced by a woman in a trench coat who looks a great deal like Diane Keaton, and Marie Ponsot has not yet shown up. Her chair sits empty on the right hand side of the stage. Rachel Haddas sits to the left in a neon green shirt with a pink dragonfly on it and Sharon Olds sits beside her in a flowing black skirt and black sleeveless blouse—exactly the same outfit she was wearing yesterday. The woman who looks like Diane Keaton is wearing rimless eyeglasses and has brown hair with bangs and is dressed the same way I would imagine Diane Keaton would be dressed had she been invited to speak at a poetry festival, exuding a frumpy elegance.
The man in charge of the festival walks out and says that Marie Ponsot has been detained for some reason but that we should begin without her. And Rachel Haddas begins to speak but all I can think about now is Marie Ponsot’s empty chair and what it is that’s detained her. She is, after all, ninety-one years old. Just as I am resigning myself to the fact that I will someday grow old, owning unflattering sweaters and no longer remembering to shave my legs on a regular basis, Marie Ponsot is resigning herself to the fact that she will not be around for much longer. To be ninety-one is to realize that in the not-so-distant future you will be pushing up daisies and your relatives will look down at your gravestone, crying over the loss, and you will not be around to explain to them that, “Yes, this sometimes happens.”
Sharon Olds reads next and everything she reads is wonderful. I once listened to hear read something called “Ode to a Composting Toilet” and fell in love with it and with her to the point that I wanted her to be either my mother or my best friend or my congressional representative. Today she is reading her poem about being a woman—one of the thirty thousand that she has written on this topic—and Marie Ponsot walks out suddenly, with an enormous grin, as if she is someone finishing a marathon. She walks out onto the stage wearing white orthopedic shoes and black velour pants and a black shirt with some green writing across the front. She apologizes that she is late but says that she slept in, and no one is angry that she is late. You can’t be angry that a 91 year-old woman is late to anything. Anyone who routinely gets angry at 91 year-old women should probably be thrown off a building. Of course this is just my personal opinion.
Marie Ponsot sits down and tells us that bodies are metaphors and begins reading a poem about modeling nude in her youth. I want to remember the poem to write some lines of it here but I neglected to write it down at the time so just now I tried to find it by googling the phrase, “Marie Ponsot posing nude” but wound up with little more than an awkward mental picture and an uncomfortable-looking search history on my computer. I do not know what sort of a metaphor my body is currently but it is probably something young and invigorating and exciting in the process of realizing that it will not be young or invigorating or exciting for much longer. My body is a little bird that will someday fly into a plate glass window. My body is a tree where only one leaf has turned yellow. If when you are young your body is a beautiful beach with palm trees and crystal blue water, my body is that place next to the beach with the showerheads for getting sand off your feet—the place where someone’s mother is holding a cooler and has two beach umbrellas worn over her back like quivers of arrows and she is going, “Wash all of it off, please. Nobody track sand into the car.”
We leave the festival and lie on the grass outside the NJPAC center in Newark in the bright sunlight. Jon squints at my face and then says to me, “You have a hair.”
“Right here,” he says, taking my hand and placing it on the underside of my own chin. “Do you feel it?”
“I feel it,” I said. “I’ll pull it out.”
“You won’t be able to,” he says. I try regardless and he leans in, squinting at my neck.
“You curled it,” he says.
“Can you get it for me?” I ask and he sighs softly because he gets uncomfortable when asked to pull hairs out of somebody’s neck in broad daylight at a performing arts center in Newark, whereas I am unaffected by these actions. He reaches over gently, grasping the hair between his fingernails. It comes out on the third try and he places it in my palm.
“It looks like a cockroach leg,” he says.
“Gross,” I say, while noting that this description is accurate. "It's so long. It does look like a cockroach leg."
“I even debated whether or not I should say that,” he says. “I thought, ‘It looks like a cockroach leg’ and then I thought, ‘I wonder if I should say that out loud?’”
“I’m glad you told me,” I say.
“Ok,” he says. "Good."
I hold the hair in my hand before letting the wind blow it somewhere into the lawn, mingling with the inevitable discarded hairs of poets and security guards and women in their early fifties who support arts education. Jonathan and I walk hand in hand through Newark. He is smiling and talking about the festival, making elaborate gestures with his hands. His hair is dark dark brown with a little bit of gray in it. In twenty years maybe it will be all gray, and he will have more wrinkles around his eyes and wear ill fitting plaid blazers and pleated pants. In twenty years he will have circulation-enhancing socks and a neoprene eyeglass strap, but that is fine. I am ok with all of that, or I will be by the time we get there. But that is a long way away and right now it is a beautiful Sunday in Newark and we are walking hand in hand to the train station and the grass of the NJPAC center is a brilliant, surreal green. There are crowds of sparrows sitting in the holes of a chain link fence and a butterfly circles above the highway. As we walk I take a second pack of peanut butter cups and open them, taking one and pushing my tongue through the middle, forming a perfect hole. I hold it up to my eye, glancing through it at my surroundings.
“This is the day the lord has made,” I think, as I realize the chocolate is touching my skin and slowly melting onto my forehead. I look at Jonathan and then at the clouds and then at the garbage along the highway. I peer through my slowly-melting eyepiece at the horizon and the tiny dead birds on the sidewalk. I look at the people walking in and out of the train station and the sad-looking woman on the bench by Dunkin Donuts and at my own hands, young and energetic, with chocolate smeared along the fingertips. I look at the arriving and departing trains and the schedules and track numbers frantically posted and I watch a man eating popcorn.
“This is the day the lord has made,” I think. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”