by Inez Tan
Dear famous poet,
You are giving a reading tonight at 7 p.m. in Room 101 of Wembley Hall at an important university. Please do not forget it. You have less than two hours left of not forgetting it, which someone of your stature ought to be able to manage. Ideally, you would be punctual and sober and ON FIRE (metaphorically), and you would give such a reading that a spell would come over the room, that your voice and words would haul the stars above Wembley Hall into alignment, that everyone inside would weep and smile and sigh and gaze at one another with a new, sort of candlelit tenderness, and so that the girl who has agreed to meet me at your reading, assuming she has not been detained by foot traffic or inclement weather or a sudden and perhaps rightful epiphany of revulsion for my person, will look upon me with favor instead of mistrust or disgust as could be the case if I had set her up to attend a reading that was boring, off-putting, inaudible, or otherwise really, really bad.
Dear famous poet, please don’t take this the wrong way. I love your work. In response to how people have been claiming forever that poetry is dying, I think it was Eavan Boland who said that almost every person carries in their heart one poem, one poem they really love their whole lives, and that means more than they can say. My heart poem is one of yours, and if there is anybody on the planet who could take this the right way, it is you. And hopefully also the girl I am meeting! Her name is Sarah. She is a junior, like me. I’d seen her around campus before but we officially met last fall in ENGL 321, Romantic Poets. The class was actually pretty awful – it was just after lunch in a hot classroom, it contained a large number of 17th century snobs stuck in the class to fulfill their 18th century period requirement, and the professor had no apparent interest in his subject. He wrote his stuff about a hundred years ago and has just been trotting out his old typewritten notes since: basically, flogging a very dead horse (as I hope you are not going to do tonight at 7 p.m. in Wembley Hall).
During the first class as he droned through the syllabus, I noticed a weird thing he was doing. The best way I can describe it was that he was rolling his l’s, just spending way too much time on them. His name was Professor Lionel Elroy, but he said Lllionelll Ellllroy. We would be studying Llllord Byron and Samuelllll Tayllllor Colllllleridge. I started thinking that if the professor were my age, which is twenty, I wouldn’t take him seriously for a second. I thought, someone ought to tell him to stop doing that, it’s so amazingly pretentious, but it’s not going to be his equally pretentious friends, and it’s not going to be me either. Suddenly I worried that that was our common destiny: strangers ignore you, and your friends stop telling you the truth. Then I happened to look over at the person next to me, and she was making this funny face, sticking the tip of her tongue against the back of her front teeth: Lllll. Of course, this person was Sarah.
Dear famous poet, as a professor yourself, you are probably not as amused by this as we were, but at the time in class I could barely keep from laughing. And that’s when Sarah and I locked eyes, and that’s when I first saw her smile. I thought of her smile all through this really dull section of the syllabus about posting responses to the online forum by 9 p.m. on Sunday for class on Monday, but 9 p.m. on Tuesday for class on Wednesday, blah blah blah. I was probably even smiling myself. Dear famous poet, maybe you do get it. After all, you have had to endure a great deal more classes than we have, and didn’t you choose your profession out of a love of language, with all its absurdity? Do you lie awake at night rhyming words instead of counting sheep? Did you hop around as a child saying one word over and over until it seemed to lose its meaning? (Pineapple pineapple pineapple pineapple pineapple pineapple pineapple…)
Anyway, I was telling you about Sarah and me, forcibly hemmed in by the uncomfortable right-handed folding desk sections of our chairs (we are both lefties), gazing not at each other but, in accordance with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s definition of friendship, looking outward together in the same direction, if only at a chalkboard upon which nothing of consequence was ever written. From that day on, I always took care to casually sit next to Sarah. Our professor never bothered to switch up our seating arrangements, and unfortunately that’s the best thing I can say about him. I came into that class with excitement and I got most of it squashed out of me. Among us, only Sarah fought the squashing. It was as though, when she signed up to take that class, she also signed up to take it personally. Every day she put up her hand and asked angry analytical questions. The answers were long and boring, but dear famous poet, she was enthralling.
After about a month of this, as we were leaving the classroom one day, Sarah turned to me (to me!) and said, “Why did we have to write those 500-word responses to the readings and post them online if we weren’t going to talk about them in class?”
I said, “Yeah, I know, it’s too bad because I really liked your point about how Blake differentiates the poems and plates in Songs of Innocence and Experience as a way of evoking distinct levels on which to view the world: the former being literal, and the latter more figurative and abstract.”
She said, “I had been thinking about your point that innocence and experience seem like fundamentally incompatible states, yet Blake insists on holding on to both of them. I think you had the right idea before you veered off erroneously trying to reconcile them. Okay, I’ve gotta run or I’ll be late to Chaos and Fractals, see you Wednesday.”
Dear famous poet, even if Sarah had noticed me just that once, it was all worth it: the weeks of waiting until her forum post went up so I could respond to it in my own (“I strongly agree with Sarah’s point…”), combing her posts for personal information and trying to reciprocate (“Comparing my favorite book as a child, The Silmarillion, to Sarah’s excellent observations on “Kubla Kahn”…”). I don’t mean that I flattered her; on the contrary, I worked really hard to put up an argument (cp. “Sarah, I agree with your point, however…”). That was when I realized how much I enjoyed writing those responses, and that got me thinking about how good things can come out of bad things. Someone more metaphysically inclined might say redemption emerges from evil, but I’m freaking out about your reading at 7 and I can’t keep metaphysics on the brain right now. It’s the same reason why they don’t serve hot drinks on an airplane during turbulence. But back to good from evil: my brother crashed our car a year and a half ago. He’s okay; it’s not that kind of story. What I’m getting at is, two years ago, after he got into college about an hour from where I am, he and I came up with this great plan to pass the car between us and drive home together during breaks. So we put the car down in both our names and split the payments and took turns filling up the tank, and everything was fine until Doug parked on a slope one day without pulling the handbrake, and as he was blissfully stuffing his face with wontons across the street, our car slid all the way down the hill and slammed into a telephone pole. Thankfully no one was hurt, but that, I felt, meant that I could really rip into my brother, since my rage at his carelessness did not have to compete with some other more important cause, e.g. the loss of human life. All year, I had to go back to bumming rides off other people to get to the grocery store or the high school where I was volunteering, and I just hated it. The next summer, I stocked produce at Trader Joe’s every morning at 4 and saved up enough to take out a first payment on an older, junkier car, and that’s when I thought, people were good to me last year and I need to pay this forward, and just then, seriously almost to the second, there was this Facebook post from Sarah, whom I hadn’t seen since Romantic Poets ended, saying she hated to ask for a favor but she urgently needed to go to the post office in the next town to get her passport renewed, and would someone be willing to drive her?
I responded so fast that I almost dropped my phone and believe me, dear famous poet, it was a real struggle to play it cool when I went to pick her up. She looked so pretty that day. Her brown hair had gotten longer and curlier since the fall, and she was wearing a white wool coat with bright gold buttons down the front. Something about her shampoo or perfume reminded me of Christmas. She thanked me repeatedly as she got into the car, but was otherwise a bit standoffish. She seemed deeply embarrassed to have to ask for a ride, like she as a normal human being should have sprouted four tires and a steering wheel by now and been able to drive herself about. The whole way there she didn’t say much, but on the ride back she blurted out that she didn’t have a license and took her hat off to anyone who did. I told her it wasn’t exactly bravery on my part: (for all the good it did Doug) everyone in my high school had taken the driving class for an easy A.
Dear famous poet, I realized too late that that could have come across as pretty insensitive, but Sarah didn’t seem to take offense. She started telling me about how terrified she was of cars (dear famous poet, she doesn’t even like Mario Kart!). Her mother is a diplomat, and their family has lived in over twelve different countries. Sarah attended the American school everywhere she went and described her experience as “consistent,” but she always found herself disoriented by the different rules of the road. She learned to bring a book to read in the four-hour traffic jams in Jakarta, to check her seatbelt in Prague, and to close her eyes and pray to the traffic gods that they would not collide with cyclists in Beijing or overloaded buses in New Delhi. They never did, but the underlying anxiety she had about moving vehicles never went away.
Her parents tried to give her and her little sister an “American” childhood, or at least as much of one as they could manage with her mom flying out to summits every few days and her dad always off working on screenplays about young aspiring pastry chefs that he never quite thought were good enough to send out. The thing they fixated on was that Sarah should learn to drive. That summer her dad started taking her around her grandparents’ farmhouse in North Carolina, rolling over late crabapples on dirt roads. But a few weeks later they relocated to Singapore, where the driver sits on the right side of the car and drives on the left side of the road, because Singapore was a British colony and British people and Americans can’t do anything the same way. So in her mind Sarah was already having to flip the left/right everything, including the windshield wipers and turn signals, and all the rest of that stuff you only really have to concentrate on when you’re learning. (Dear famous poet, stay with me here.)
Sarah said Singapore was a city and a state, as in, the whole country was one big city, so there wasn’t a lot of space to practice driving. But her dad realized that their house wasn’t far from an old, sprawling Chinese cemetery, which was sort of like a park. The graves were pretty spread out, and the whole cemetery was connected by a series of looping roads and roundabouts: plenty of good routes for a learning driver. I asked Sarah if it was scary driving in a cemetery and she said no, it wasn’t, not in broad daylight. Bukit Brown Cemetery was leafy and cooler than the rest of Singapore because there weren’t big concrete buildings around absorbing heat. It was a little wild. You’d see feral monkeys – hundreds of them, large and small – dropping out of the trees like spiders. Twice she caught sight of this old shirtless Chinese man with a belly like a drum, standing outside a shack surrounded by dogs on heavy chains. They never found out exactly who he was. The other weird thing was that at the time, graves were being cleared to make room for a highway. There was always construction going on in Singapore. Sarah said it was like living on the Internet, the landscape changing as quickly as a trick of the light. There were big blue banners everywhere that read EXHUMATION EXERCISE, with instructions on how to get a special numbered stake which you’d plant by the grave of your relative followed by the paperwork you’d fill out to have the remains returned to you. I asked Sarah if that wasn’t all kind of harrowing, but she said no, she was a lot more terrified of messing up U-turns and forgetting to put on her lights.
Actually, she said, the lessons became almost funny, which meant they were almost fun. There were rarely other cars or people, so she wasn’t stressed out about hitting anyone. From time to time she did have to maneuver around small piles of oranges and red incense, offerings for the dead. “Just pretend they’re potholes,” her dad said. He hummed songs by the Beach Boys and stopped mashing his foot against a brake pedal he didn’t have on the passenger side of the car. Sarah said the place was as calm as it could be – “Not something you get to say often in Singapore.”
The incident happened after two months of those lessons. It was a Sunday, and the family had driven to a mall. Her dad did the difficult ramp down to Basement 4, and then, seeing as there was no one behind them, got out of the car and asked Sarah to park it: a narrow but straightforward head-in.
Sarah climbed into the driver’s seat, but her heart was hammering in her chest and her hands shook on the wheel. She’d slept badly the night before (a premonition?) and woken up groggy that morning, and what with trying to remember to flip the left/right sides of things, just after she’d nudged the car perfectly into the lot, she pressed the accelerator instead of the brake and revved the car forward over a concrete divider into a wall, cracking the license plate and blunting the nose of the car. What followed was an ugly scene with Sarah crying because she’d damaged an embassy BMW and her dad crying because he felt guilty about making her drive and Sarah’s younger sister crying and screaming that she was pregnant and Sarah could have killed them all. (Later they confirmed that she wasn’t, but both Sarah and her sister were so traumatized afterwards that they still don’t talk about it. In fact, Sarah hadn’t told anyone that story, before me.)
Sarah said, “You know, my family’s been really lucky in that we’ve gotten to live in lots of different places – I know how lucky we’ve been. But there have definitely been times when I wished we didn’t have to move.”
I said, “It must be hard to not have one place to call home.”
She said, “Yeah, well, I don’t miss it much.”
Then she changed the subject back to cars, which I was beginning to see was a dangerous yet familiar subject to her and in that way, safe.
“My number one recurring dream is that I’m in some vehicle that’s moving really fast and we crash. But I don’t wake up, so I still don’t know that I’m dreaming. I fly up out and out of the car, and then there’s just this long slow gray pause of floating, and I’m not scared anymore and I’m not sure if I should be.” She pressed her knuckles to the dashboard, where they turned pale. “I don’t know what that means.”
“I don’t either,” I said, after a moment. “Um, but Freud –”
“I don’t want to die in a car. Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult your driving or anything.”
“It’s okay, I’m not insulted.”
“It just seems like a stupid, terrible way to go. Trapped in a metal box. I guess that would mean that you were on your way somewhere, which is better than not being on your way anywhere. But every time I get into a car I think, please not here, not now. Not like this. I don’t know, is that crazy? Do you ever think that?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “There was this one time when I was in tenth grade, and I’d just figured out how to make the perfect lunch with what we got in the cafeteria. What you do is you take apart the sandwich, microwave the lettuce and put salad dressing on it, cut up the meat and mix it in, then toast the bread and eat it with chocolate milk. But you have to time everything just right so the bread’s hot but the milk is still really cold. One day it took ages waiting in line for the microwave and toaster and everything, and I was starving. I was carrying my tray over to a table when I felt my hands get shaky and all of a sudden my vision started going dark and I felt my legs flop out from under me and as I collapsed to the floor I just remember thinking, I can’t die now, I’ve just made this really great lunch.”
“That does sound pretty good,” she said. “The lunch, I mean, not the collapsing. Oh my God, were you okay?”
“Turns out I’m diabetic. I just have to monitor my blood sugar now. It’s ironic or something, I guess, that I passed out just when I had what I needed.”
“I can relate to that, having something you really want that keeps you going, even if it’s a small thing. Sometimes I’m crossing the street and I think, that car could hit me or that tree could fall – but no, I can’t die until I’ve at least watched the next episode of – you know.”
“I’m only twenty,” she said. “There’s still so many things I want to do in my life, like finish The Brothers Karamazov and go to a concert at Madison Square Garden and attend my grandkids’ college graduation. I’m in this ancient history class and the other day we were looking at the archaeological remains of Vesuvius, all those people who were just buying pots or something when boiling lava swept in and killed them on the spot. You think, did they really want those pots? I’d want to die knowing I’m doing something I love.”
Right at that moment, a Ford Explorer jerked into my lane and I had to slam on the brakes and swerve and blast my horn at him all at once, because I am from outside of Boston and we are the angriest drivers in America! It was pure instinct, and kind of exhilarating, but then I remembered Sarah and felt like a jerk. “Sorry,” I said, slowing down.
I was almost afraid to look over at her. She was pale and a little faint-looking, but when she gave me this wry smile I knew that she was back. She said, “You know, I don’t want to die.”
“Me neither,” I said, maybe a little too strongly, because I think she got worried that I was mad at her. Which is stupid, her being worried, I mean, because she had every right to be mad at me and instead maybe we both just sat there being worried instead. The awkward silence lengthened, with both of us just looking straight ahead, and my heart was pounding and I was afraid that I’d made it all stupid and awful, but then I parked the car and Sarah said, “Thanks for driving. And thanks for being careful,” although I recognized that could mean a lot of different things. I thought of texting her afterwards, but what was I going to say?
Dear famous poet, I’ve been thinking about how plot works. I am so ill-equipped to take on a subject like that, but I think maybe it has something to do with asking what comes after what you already know. In my film class, we read about the Kuleshov effect. The exact same footage of a man’s face was shown after a bowl of soup, a coffin, and a woman on a couch. When three separate test audiences looked at that same, neutral face, they concluded that he was feeling hunger, sorrow and desire respectively. In my music class we talked about how anticipation, heightened expectation, might be the thing that distinguishes what we consider to be music from unrelated, meaningless noise. We live our lives like strobe light flashes, hoping that the next burst will make sense after the next. Is that reverence or fear? Is that a series of excuses, or is it all there is?
Last year, I took a poetry writing class (I’ve got nothing on you, dear famous poet, so don’t fret) with a professor who made us do tons of drafts. This guy loved drafts. He used to say to us, don’t try to make sense of things too early, to impose a false sense of order, not yet. He said, and I quote, “To write a poem is to submit to how your materials choose to reveal themselves to you.” I know, I know: this is poetry that I’m talking about! But we are young and we have so little. We have so little to lose. I know how that can feel like a challenge in itself, a live current that made me drink ten cans of beer and roll in the snow naked and afterwards standing in my kitchen with icicle hair and still not a stitch on, text Sarah and ask her if she wanted to meet me at your poetry reading tonight. It was still a month off then. I don’t think I have ever thought so far ahead in my life. What was I talking about? Being young. We are young and I know you were young once, like in the 60’s or something. I learned in my theory class that if I’d been studying you in the 60’s I would have been trained to read your life into your work. The critical movement at the time thought that if you just found out enough biographical information about the writer and applied it to their work, even the most difficult and obtuse of poems would snap open like a string bean. You make this easy by using the real names of your real wife and children in your glorious verse.
But we are way out of the 60’s now, and that brings me to my next point, which is that you are quite old. The year of your birth is not listed on Wikipedia, and your author photo on the back of your books has stayed static for several reprints. My point is, I don’t know if you still love poetry. I’ve gone to readings by old writers and come out pretty disappointed. You can tell when someone’s heart isn’t in it. I don’t mean to blame old age in particular. Plenty of people my age are already weary and bitter and cynical, and that blows too.
But dear famous poet, I think you loved and still love writing. That sense of a first love – I have always found that in your work. Please don’t let me down. Please give a good reading tonight because I have maybe a date with Sarah afterwards and maybe the rest of my life riding on it.
I told you that I texted her to ask her to your reading. That is true. But she didn’t say yes at first. This was her reply: Hey, that sounds fun, but (but!) that week is looking really busy, can I look at my schedule and get back to you? Now, dear famous poet, I did not discount the literal meaning of her words. It is near the end of the semester, most of us are taking finals or turning in papers worth approximately 30% of our grade, and Sarah volunteers three days a week with the special needs program at the elementary school. Bearing all that in mind, I understood that what she was trying to tell me was not no, but: make this worth my while. So I texted her various lines from poems of yours, everything from the sad one about your best friend discovering he was not really an orphan to the even sadder one about the sea cucumber and the leek. Forty-one texts later, she said yes, she’d be happy to meet me at your reading, and maybe we could grab pizza afterwards if we didn’t get out too late. (Dear famous poet, please take note.)
I get what she was asking of me – and what I am asking of you. It’s not about playing hard to get. It’s about setting the bar high, because anything less isn’t really worth it. If you follow that line of reasoning, literature isn’t worth it unless we somehow really need it, like food or water or air. It isn’t worth it unless we need it so much we think of it all the time, memorize it, repeat the words to ourselves last thing at night and first thing in the morning. (Sarah. Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.) Some people behave like as though literature comes under the law of diminishing returns – critical when you’re a kid so you can learn to read and stuff, less important the longer you live. But you, dear famous poet, are hale and hearty proof to the contrary. At least I hope you are, and that when you kick things off in Wembley Hall, just minutes away now, you don’t mess this one up.
Dear famous poet, okay, whatever happens, I want you to know that I have enough mental resilience to not be a train wreck if any of this goes badly. I never wanted to be one of those people who lives or dies entirely by poetry (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, John Berryman, et al). All the same, I would much rather we went with the ideal scenario that I outlined at the beginning – weeping and smiling and sighing, candlelit tenderness, etc. etc. Something tells me that would be easier on me and Sarah – on all of us – though I recognize this is a lot to pin on you. Maybe I am ready to live or die by poetry because I am pinning a lot on you. I mean that if Sarah decides to never go out with me and it is somehow your fault, just remember that I am a very angry driver.
I’m kidding! Really! But please give a good reading. I mean, good. In my psychology class, we discussed how any emotionally charged situation creates strong feelings that can easily get transferred from one state to another. For example, dangerous situations can make people find one another more attractive. That’s why we think firemen and flight attendants are sexy, and that’s why people bring their dates to scary movies and rollercoasters. But that seems to me, I don’t know, unfair? It seems like there would be a power imbalance, and I guess power imbalances are unjust, especially if you’re the one pressing on the scales. Which was why I was glad you were coming all the way to Wembley Hall, which is just a seven minute walk from Higgins, Sarah’s dorm, and a twelve minute walk from Baker, which is where she usually eats on Fridays when they do the cream of mushroom soup. I was very glad I didn’t have to ask Sarah to get in a car with me again to go to something fun. And I realize that maybe there was a price paid on your part. Are you ever afraid of driving, flying, traveling? Are you ever afraid of where you’re going? Are you ever afraid that your destination won’t make sense of your journey?
But you are apparently on your way to us, regardless of any of that, and so here’s one last request, dear famous poet, dear wonderful beloved generous vital famous poet. Tonight, give us the reading of your old young life. Pummel our hearts, make us laugh and cry and feel more than we ever thought we could feel. Sarah will be in the audience, and if I can confess it, through most of your reading I’ll really be thinking of her, because I am in love, in love, in love, in love, and I need to know what comes next.
Inez Tan is a fiction writer and poet based in Singapore and California. Her writing has appeared in The Collagist, Rattle, Fairy Tale Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and others. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Learn more about her work at https://ineztan.com/.