Dionne Irving has been published in Big Muddy and Teacher as Writer. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train's 2008 Family Matters contest and placed third in College Language Association's Creative Writing short story competition in 2007. Irving is a graduate of Florida State University and Rhode Island College, and is currently earning her doctorate in creative writing at Georgia State University.
Free lesson plan for this story available in the Carve Classroom.
In high school, get pissed off at everyone and everything. Stay pissed off. This is what makes you a poet. Know that good poetry, the best poetry, comes from being angry. Write poems about violence, sex, and death. Read lots of Nietzsche. God is dead. Cut your hair short and spiky in the front, keep it long in the back, and keep it stiff with a combination of Dippity-Do and toothpaste. Ignore your parents when they ask you what you’re trying to prove.
One weekend, take the train into the city and go slam dancing in a room painted black. Chug Jack Daniels out of a bottle behind the club with your best friend. Minor Threat plays on the main stage. Pump your fist in the air, and enjoy the way your head swims. Someone slams into you hard and your teeth rattle. Take a few steps backward. Hear your friend yell, “Are you okay?” Say you’re fine.
The guy who hits you is apologetic. He pantomimes smoking a cigarette. Nod and let him take your hand and lead you toward the back of the room. Notice the tattoo on his wrist. Love it.
He’ll take you into the alley where he’ll light a cigarette and then pass it, bending his head forward to protect the ember from the rain. Make small talk about the bands, the music. Think about how he’ll make good poetry.
Take a second to enjoy the feeling of the brick wall against your back, his hands around your waist and the heat of his breath on your neck. Kiss him with the same intensity he kisses you. Take his number, don’t give him yours.
At closing time, run through the empty city streets, ears ringing, bass reverberating all the way into the back of your throat, eyes stinging as carefully crafted hair sags and drips down your face.
Jump over puddles, and clatter down the stairs of the train station where you jam money into the turnstile. Before the train comes, throw up on the subway platform feeling the sting of whiskey and cigarette smoke burn your throat.
Become obsessed with the city. Go there every chance you get. Write poems about yourself and the backdrop of men. Write poems about what and who you find in the gutters, begging for change in front of the Port Authority. Make believe that everyone in the city is intricately connected to you and your life. Write about that, too.
Pick a college near your house. Major in English. Do enough to get by. Mostly just write poems.
Spend all your extra money on train fare to and from the city. Go to poetry readings and read confessional poetry in a voice that is singsong-y. Make sure all your poems have the word fuck in them. Wear combat boots, smoke clove cigarettes, and become militantly sexual. Attend pieces of performance art where people douse themselves in tomato sauce or set family portraits aflame. Listen to people wax philosophical about poems on capitalism and marvel at sculptures salvaged from trash on the East Side. Every piece is about man’s inhumanity against man. You don’t really care that much about man’s inhumanity. Instead write poems that one of your college professors will call “navel gazing to the point of tedium.”
Start growing out your hair. Transfer to a school in the city. Find a professor who appreciates navel gazing; write poems about him, too.
In your twenties, find inspiration in poverty. Feel that inspiration drain from you when you have to start soaking your feet. Wait tables for extra money and by the time you’re 25, you’ll be exhausted. But all your poet friends will tell you how amazing the poetry is. “You are so raw,” they’ll say. “So honest.”
Go to work, to school, and back to work. Do this for years. At a poetry reading one night, look into the eyes of the most beautiful man you’ve seen in your life. An actor, of course, but a fan of poetry. A bigger fan of sleeping with poets. He’ll obsess over you in a way that makes for good poetry. He’ll make the coffee each morning, pay your bills, get you to finish school and tolerate everything about you, even the toenail clippings on the bathroom floor.
He’ll find some success; shoot a pilot that goes nowhere. Then he will be in L.A. and then on the road. Let this go on for years. Write poems while you wait. Try to have them published. Fail miserably.
Know he is sleeping with other women. His agent, his best friend, and your boss will have all warned you about this. But love him anyway. Start writing trite poetry about missing him and mail it to him each week. He’ll call daily to check in, to say “I love you,” but he won’t ever say anything about the poems. Realize everyone is right about him. Sleep with other men. Then other women. Do it guiltily at first and then brazenly.
When he finally comes back, he’ll ask you to move in with him. Do it. Because even though you don’t love him anymore, his apartment on Avenue A doesn’t have mousetraps or a junkie next door like at your place. You won’t be sure how to leave him anyway. Especially after he puts a ring on your finger.
Finally, he’ll be the one who leaves you, for another woman, a succession of other women. Stop writing “real” poetry for a while. Take a corporate job, write poems in greeting cards. Copy verses from the poems you wrote in high school. Your boss will call your cards inspired. When she does, smile winningly and spend the rest of the day buying things you don’t need from catalogs: a step stool, a towel warmer, a wall-sized map.
Meet another poet at the greeting card company. Show him some of your poems.
“Are all these about sex?” he will ask.
Sleep with him until he starts thinking you’re a fantastic poet. Meet his writer friends. Then meet his famous writer friends. Like the famous ones better. Try to start sleeping with one of them. Go to grad school. Start doing readings again and sending poems out. Publish one book and then a second one. End up in debt.
Have too many drunken nights and too much casual sex. Feel sad when lovers only want you as a poet. They all assure you that you are going to be very famous, very successful, make lots of money. Take this as fact. Forget the fact that there aren’t many famous poets. Forget the fact that poets never make any money. Forget the fact that poets rarely wind up happy.
In your thirties, become practical. Practical in a way that makes you realize that you can make poetry a career. Start teaching composition at a community college. Don’t sleep with your students. Even 24-year-old Haleuk from Turkey. Try to have relationships instead of sex. Find this doesn’t seem to work out that well for you. Choose celibacy. Buy sensible shoes. Don’t wear shirts that show your cleavage. Cut your hair very short.
Write poetry that editors call quixotic, safe, and self-aware. In other words, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and boring. Plan to write an epic poem, one with sex, death, and remorse. One that will move people to tears. Write one verse. Save it as epic.doc on your computer. Don’t open that file again anytime soon.
One afternoon take a stack of papers to a bar on the West Side. Order a glass of wine and then another. When you start to feel like you’re floating, turn to the stack of student papers you have to grade. Grade compositions about teenage pregnancies, grandparents with terminal illnesses, fathers who have abandoned their children, the day of the big game. They are the same semester after semester.
Finish grading the essays, when your knees get wobbly. It will take you a while to hail a cab in the rain. When you do, ask the cab driver to take you to a bookstore on the Upper West Side. Put the papers on the floor of the cab. Feel like you can’t warm up, like you will never warm up. Lie across the back seat.
“No sleeping, okay?” the cab driver will say worriedly. He will laugh in a nervous way you will find charming.
Feel the cab inching through traffic. Close your eyes, try to guess what landmarks you are passing, and then give up. This is what it will come to: celibacy, drinking in the afternoon, community college students. The shock of your failures will frighten you. They will startle you enough to open your eyes. When you sit up you will realize how drunk you are. The blood will rush to your head; your eyes will feel dry and distended.
The bookstore will be closer than you think and cab driver will reach it in only a few minutes. Give him a big tip and get out quickly. The bell over the door will jingle when you go in, your feet will be wet. Smile apologetically at the proprietress.
You will have done a reading here. The man you were seeing then sat in the back of the room and listened as you read the poems that he thought were inspired by him but were really mostly about yourself. There were only ten people there, and when you got to the last poem, they clapped politely, but not for a long time.
In the poetry section, find your book. The slim volume will be tucked between two larger books, nearly invisible. Open it. Skip the dedication on the first page. Try hard to remember how it was that you wrote these poems. Try to remember where you were and how you did it. Realize the passion in the poetry seems pretentious to you now. Realize you’ve left your students’ papers in the taxi.
Spend an hour or so wandering up and down the street trying to figure out what to do about the papers. Decide to grade them based on how much you like certain students and tell them the papers were lost in an act of God. Start to feel like you will be lost the same way.
In your forties, get frustrated. Stay perpetually frustrated. Wake up early, stretch, open your book, use the same pen. Try. To. Write. Spend too much money on makeup. Buy a strapless dress and let it hang your closet. Sleep around to try to recapture the creativity. Sleep with mostly inappropriate men.
Meet one who is both inappropriate and off limits. The second thing he will tell you is that he loves his wife. The first thing he will tell you is how incredibly beautiful you are. Like his smile.
He will be artless. You will notice that in the way he laughs out loud at television shows, and repeats the punch line of certain jokes. He won’t be the first married man. But it will surprise you that there is no poetry in this adultery. But let it continue, because you won’t be sure there is much poetry left in you, either.
Let him take you to Washington, D.C. Don’t ask a lot of questions, just go.
When you check into the room, he will look at the beds almost apologetically and be secretly glad that there is one for each of you. Know that there is nothing torrid about two double beds in a mid-sized chain hotel.
“I’m sorry,” he will say, looking flustered. He will put down his bag first on one bed and then on the other. “I asked for a king sized bed.”
Set your bag down purposefully on the bed on the right.
Say, “It’s fine; I’ve stayed in worse.”
Which will be true. You will have stayed in places where the sheets are balled up at the base of the bed when you check in, where the soap in the bathroom is a minefield of assorted pubic hair, places where you imagine strippers go to die. Remember these places fondly. You’ve written some great poetry there.
Sit on the bed, cross your legs, and lean back on your hands.
Say, “This’ll be fine. Better than fine, even.”
He will smile. He will like that you are the kind of woman who won’t complain, who won’t make him take all the bags downstairs, go to the front desk with his tail between his legs and ask for a different room. Understand that his wife is this kind of woman.
Spend days cloistered inside tiny spaces, eating together, sightseeing, like an eighth-grade field trip to D.C. You will sense him wanting to pretend it feels romantic. Realize there is no romance in D.C. There isn’t any poetry to be found in the city. Everything about its dark oaken restaurants, and its loud and crowded museums, speaks to a kind of death and deception that confuses you, even at 45.
On the morning of the third day, his wife will call. Go out on the shitty little balcony wearing a jacket, smoke a cigarette, and pretend to write a poem. He will put his fingers to his lips, even though you are outside, behind inches of thick glass.
Believe in inspiration, because hard work rarely seems to produce results lately. Watch him in the room through the sliding glass doors. Watch him pace back and forth from the double beds, to the mini bar, to the bathroom, never coming near the balcony.
Tap on the glass lightly with a finger nail. He will turn suddenly as though you’ve grabbed him by the shoulder. He’ll hold up his finger and indicate it will be another minute. Shiver in the coat that isn’t nearly warm enough, but fashionable in a way that you are probably too old for. He’ll start moving toward the door; roll his eyes, give you a half smile, and hang up the phone.
Shiver. Marvel at the fact that he’s left you out here this long. Swallow your anger. Don’t start a fight.
“I’m sorry,” he will say, pulling open the door. “I just didn’t want her to hear anything suspicious.”
Smile like you’re sorry. Remember how you used to get mad, used to be the kind of woman who called and hung up, used to say things like, “Well, let her hear. I’m not ashamed of anything and you shouldn’t be, either.”
“It’s okay,” you will say.
Don’t talk about it, because at this point, you would both have to admit why this is wrong, and stop pretending that it’s about anything other than fucking. It isn’t, and awkward conversation won’t change that.
He will ask what you are writing.
“A poem.” You will say with a touch of haughtiness. Act surprised when he doesn’t know that you are a poet, and then feel stupid for being surprised.
“I never liked poetry much, or reading, for that matter,” he will say drying his wet hair, avoiding the area toward the front where he is balding.
Say: “People who say that usually just haven’t read anything good.”
Substitute ‘good’ for ‘intelligent’ in your head.
He will come up behind you, wrap his arms around your waist and put his nose in your hair. “Show me some of your poetry,” he’ll say. “Maybe I’ll like it.”
Feel tired, like you’ve been here a million times. Some man asking to see your poetry, the disappointment that comes when the poetry isn’t about them.
“Maybe another time.”
He will kiss the back of your neck, your face. Keep telling yourself that you wanted to come here, or at least you will think you wanted to come here.
At breakfast in a diner near your hotel, watch the way his eyes shift toward the waitress as she approaches. Watch him smile beneficently. She’ll be young, pretty, and slim. She isn’t that special, but understand that this is the kind of woman he’d want to be with if he could. Understand that you are the best he can hope for in an extramarital affair.
Watch her stiffen when he stares at her chest. She will look in your direction, give you a look that wants to offer her solidarity. You’ll offer her a sorry smile, because what else can you do? You aren’t his wife.
Once you’ve ordered, he will open a magazine and ignore you. Don’t stand for that. Ask him about plans for the day.
He will have a meeting. You’ll be on your own. He’ll go back to reading his magazine. Ask about dinner plans. Start to feel pathetic.
“You choose,” he will say. “I’m not sure how hungry I’ll be. If I’m not back by six just go ahead and eat without me.”
Don’t give up quite so easily.
“That’s my ex-husband,” you’ll say, pointing to a picture in the magazine. When he looks at you, his face will be a mixture of something like shock and something like disgust.
“Him?” he’ll say, pointing at the slick page, your ex’s crotch vivisected with a staple. “You were married to him?”
Nod. Feel smug in the way you’ve captured his attention. Unfold your napkin in your lap.
“Wow,” he will say.
“And where did you meet him?”
Pause a moment before answering. “Reading poetry in the village. He wasn’t famous yet.”
Feel irritated by his tone. “Yes, I used to do poetry readings.”
“Oh,” he’ll say. “I thought that was more of a hobby.”
“No,” you’ll say, “It’s not.”
Go your separate ways once you’ve finished breakfast with a cursory goodbye. Spend your day in the hotel bar grading student papers but don’t drink. In the margins of narrative essays write, “What greater truth does this reveal?” and “How does this support your thesis?” Questions that will make it seem like you’ve read the essays much closer than you actually have.
When you’re done, try to write a poem. Try to write a narrative essay. Try to write anything. Give up. Cry a little. Order a drink. Cry a little harder. When people start to stare, go back to the room and run a bath.
You will still be in the bath wearing your glasses, smoking a cigarette when he comes back.
“You know this is a non-smoking room right?” He’ll say standing at the door of the bathroom.
He will look like he wants to say something more. He will stand dumbly in the doorway. You’ll notice the way his gut hangs over his belt, the way his pants are wet around the cuffs, the way he looks out of place in the bathroom: wet towels piled on the floor, a trashcan overflowing with the tissues you have used to take off your makeup.
He’ll nod gravely and go into the bedroom. You’ll hear the television flicker on. Light another cigarette, run some more hot water in the tub to warm up the water. Think about what you want to do next. Think about why you write; think about what you want to say about sex, about sadness, about life.
He will come back into the bathroom suddenly.
“Fuck it,” he will say. “We’re going to the Washington Monument.”
Maybe it’s because he never swears or maybe it’s just because the monument looks like a giant phallus, but it will sound like a good idea.
It will be misty at the base of the monument and you’ll realize that it’s the kind of thing that only takes a minute or two to appreciate before it’s time to move on. Together you’ll walk up to the reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial, and at the very end, the Vietnam Memorial on the right, looking small and waterlogged.
He’ll suddenly become authoritative, explaining facts about the pool and the memorials and he’ll look at you in a way that is so clearly platonic. Realize that you look at him the same way. Understand that his attraction is to the guilt. Get a little sad. Feel sad for him and for you. Understand that you’re both lonely.
“I think we shouldn’t see each other anymore,” you’ll say.
He will stop his narrative.
“It’s isn’t you,” you’ll say. “It’s the poetry.”
You’ll take his hand, meaty and red, in your own.
“I think you were right about your wife. I think you do love her.”
You will want to tell him that in the narrative composition of his life, you won’t be his lesson learned even though he’ll be yours. The memorable fourth stanza in your poem, the one that makes you forget the sex and the idealism, the one that makes it all about the art. Really this time.
Instead just say, “I’m sorry. You’re a good guy.”
Even if this isn’t true, say it anyway.
He’ll sleep in one double bed that night, and you’ll sleep in the other. In the morning you will take the hottest shower you can stand. The water will feel like it bubbles and sizzles the second it hits your skin, and you’ll compose your poem right there, about your burning skin, about the hearts you’ve broken.