Have you ever met someone who had the gifts you most long for? It fills your heart with conflict. You don’t know whether to be grateful that yes, such things exist in the world, or full of hate and rage, that you are not the chosen one. That you must feel the grinding jealousy of someone else’s light. When he first came among us we didn’t know whether to love him or hate him. We thought we had to choose.
This is not the way to tell the story. I am old now. The others are gone, all dead and buried, mostly forgotten, a few celebrated but truly their hearts are unknown. I am the only one left, the only one to tell the story, the only one who knows what really happened. Sometimes I think my whole life was meant for this moment. That this was my role. To witness. To remember. And finally to tell.
I won’t tell this to you in my voice. I don’t want you to know what my hand did, what my voice said. My shame and fear and sorrow are still too deep. And I want my death to end this story, to ensure that these actions are not repeated. I would rather be forgotten and leave only a warning. So please, indulge an old man. Listen.
We had never seen Seigfried so excited. It was written! He had done it! The world can finally rest! He went on and on and on about his marvelous words. Frankly we were sick of his talk about marvelous words, he was extraordinary but only every once in a while, though truly, the poem was written and it was fine.
We lived in our words. Through our words. Our words were our swords, our limbs, our every sense. We were the best of our generation in the best of times. We listened to each other, read each other’s poems and criticized with the sharpest of phrases, a surgeon's scalpel had nothing on our tongues. We spoke to one another as only poets could.
We talked about meaning and greater meaning. We gathered to talk of everything that mattered in the world; of beauty, of truth, of love, of language and mostly of poetry. We were drunk on language, it sustained us, fed us and inebriated us more thoroughly than the finest foods, the sweetest wines. We were in love with language, with our youth, with what we thought we could become.
Me and Seigfried and Willy and Robert and Bertie and all of them. We wrote our poems, drank and wenched and then compared notes. But it was always the words that we came back to, the words that drove us, each of us trying to write a better poem than last time, capture that peculiar essence of what it was to be alive, how our lovely mother tongue could mother us all. Some nights we were undoubtedly insufferable, singing and arguing and boasting beyond compare, but when we wrote and listened to one another - ah! Then we lived.
It was Bertie who told us about him first, interrupting Seigfried's pleasure in himself. Bertie was too eager, so we didn’t believe him of course. He said, “I have met the perfect poet. I have found the poet whose words will change world and he doesn’t even know it yet. I will bring him to you, you will listen to him and you will believe.” His face was radiant. How could we believe him? I thought he’d simply found a better absinthe.
Robert laughed. “He’s not better than any of us. Bertie, you’ve just fallen in love with another pretty face, you’re confusing fine words with a fine -”
“Oh no, John Davies is the best there is, maybe the best there ever will be.”
Bertie’s face took on a stubborness I had never seen. There was something different in his voice and I wondered if maybe he was telling the truth. Then I laughed with the rest and went on teasing him about his fine boy of a poet.
It took Bertie weeks to convince John Davies to come to us. I don’t know where he met him, he never would say which perhaps confirms my suspicions that Bertie first thought of him as a toy and nothing else, but he wouldn’t stop talking about the words that flew from John Davies' pen. He said he begged him to join us, but he didn’t want to. That he would say over and over again, “Oh no, I can’t come, can’t read with them, I am just not good enough. I am only a simple man who likes to write.”
The awful thing was, that it wasn’t false modesty, he was a simple, kind man who by happenstance had the greatest gift for poetry I have ever encountered. He didn’t think of himself as anything other than someone who wrote what he believed. Nothing more or less.
Bertie begged and pleaded. Finally John Davies came among us and nothing would ever be the same. We didn't know that at first.
Seigfried walked around him and said, “So you’re Bertie’s prodigy. Very nice We’ll see if your words are as good as he says. Frankly I think he’s been dancing with the green fairies too much. But it’s not your fault that he falls in love so easily.”
John Davies look chagrined and twisted his hat in his hands. He sat at a table in the corner and sipped a beer. He remained quiet while Sig declared in a voice that brooked no challenge, “Poetry isn’t the voice of God. The fools who decry us as as blasphemers for writing poems of men and mens’ lives haven’t lived themselves, they are too afraid of their own blood and passion to know what poetry really is. Poetry is man's voice. Poetry is the song of man’s experiences. It is how we proclaim ourselves beyond God because God doesn’t waste time with us. God no longer bellows from the mountains, no longer gives us tablets writ with rules. God has left us alone to babble to ourselves, so we have given ourselves poems to take over the voice of God. Poetry fills in where God lacks.”
John Davies leaned forward then and spoke into the silence that always followed Sigfried's challenges.
“No. Poetry is the voice of man for God. It’s how God understands man. Since the fall of the tower, we no longer speak with divine tongues. God gave us poetry so we could explain ourselves to him. He longs to know us in our own words.”
It was the first time he’d spoken since Bertie introduced him. It was as if he noticed his voice in the silence and pulled back, embarrassed. Sigfried looked at him from arched brows. The argument went on around the room - did Adam and Eve chatter in verse and so all cultures have poems? - was the tower of Babel really a kind of poetic meter? but the words lacked the passion that rang in John Davies’ voice.
Finally the arguments turned into little more than biblical puns. Sig announced that it was time to read. He asked if anyone had a poem they would like to share, that we could then discuss. No one stepped forward. The discussions, as all but John Davies knew, were brutal. Poets snipe like no one else and utter the most elegant insults you will ever hear.
And of course, because he didn’t know, John Davies was the first to step up; in spite of his modesty, he had come to be heard.. He cleared his throat and, clutching a sheaf of papers, said, “If no one minds, I did come here to read my little poems to poets. Perhaps I could try.” I could hear the fear in his voice and almost told him to sit down, almost wanted to protect him, but didn’t for fear of the lashing I would then endure. With barely a glance beyond his drink, Sigfried waved him into the center of the room.
Paper trembling in his hand, John Davies read us a poem. It wasn’t so many lines, it didn’t rhyme, in truth I don’t remember what it was about, but it was the best we’d ever heard. The room was silent.
Continued in Part 2.
(c)2011 Laura S. Packer