from Five Points, Vol. 15, No. 3
When I called Stanley Kunitz to thank him for recommending me to Yaddo, he warned me about the ghosts that had driven him away after a single night. A tapping noise on his bedroom window had kept him awake. When he switched on the lamp, it stopped. When he turned the light off, the ticking began again, and with such intensity he thought the glass would break. He was sure he was being haunted by one of the two Trask children who had contracted diphtheria from their mother whose family founded the art colony and who died in the room in which he now slept. He left the next morning.
In late August, I drove through Yaddo's tall iron gates and into the four hundred acre estate. I was without a job, and glad for the residency. I arrived at the granite stable that housed the office. A staff member showed me to West House, former servant quarters, where I was given a bedroom with two desks, and a study with two more desks. We then walked to the mansion where dinner was being served.
I took a tall backed chair between the composer, Ned Rorem, and Tobias Schneebaum, a writer. Three visual artists joined us. We were served roast chicken, new potatoes, and string beans while Rorem directed the conversation as if it were a salon. He asked me what I wrote about, as he passed me a bowl of grooved yellow globes. Puzzled by the question and the little balls which I handed to the artist next to me, I remained silent. Rorem was annoyed and said I should learn to answer.
Turning to a sculptor, he asked, "What are your subjects?"
"Love and death," he said, biting a drumstick. He had learned to answer. Schneebaum said, "I hope everyone will come to my slide show tonight. It's about both." He dabbed his knife into the mysterious bowl and spread one of the balls of butter across a piece of bread.
When melon was served for dessert, Rorem stared at the pale slice and said, ''I'm going to lodge a complaint. Fruit every night. I need a dark pleasure like chocolate. I have no lover. I don't use foul language. I don't drink or smoke. I wait all day for dessert and then it's melon."
After dinner, the composers took turns at the piano in the chapel, while Rorem walked the hallway on his hands. He was a trim fifty year old, his full head of dark hair gave him the look of a much younger man.
That night I went to Schneebaum's presentation. His thick eyebrows pointed down like two deep diacritical marks accentuating a big twisted nose, large eyes and ears. He had made a name for himself as an unconventional anthropologist for his book about living with cannibals, Keep the River on Your Right. He showed slides of the headhunters in the Amazon who accepted him because they first met him as he walked naked through the jungle. He hinted he had sex with several of the men, and also ate human flesh, including heart which he said tasted like pork.
As I lay in bed that night, I read Rorem's The Later Diaries, borrowed from the mansion library. To my horror, I found he had rated his Yaddo dinner companions, giving "silver stars" to Donald Justice and Mark Strand, and a "gold star" to David Del Tredici, one of the composers who played after dinner.
THE NEXT MORNING I learned the breakfast routine: walk through the dining room, open the door to the kitchen, and give your order.
"Two poached, Beverly," the woman in front of me said. Beverly, dressed in white, sat at a little table. She placed a spoonful of butter into a bowl of ice water, then rolled it between two grooved paddles, making the "butterballs" which had confounded me the night before.
I joined a table but when I introduced myself, everyone burrowed deeper into their books and papers. I learned later this was the "silent table" and, because no one spoke, no one told me.
On my way out, I passed a guest and said good morning. "I don't talk before breakfast," he said.
There were readings and slide shows every week, and one night an eighty-three year old poet with a long gray beard, Henry Chapin, read with Spear, a poet from San Francisco. She performed her poems, flinging her arms, snorting, growling, and inhaling gruffly between phrases. She introduced her final piece saying, "This summer, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams." She paused. "I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant and tried something from everyone's plate."
The crowd laughed.
"It's not funny," she said. ''I'll tell you when it's funny."
Her poem began as an homage to the delicacies and their origins and then veered into a litany of the injustices endured by those who brought them to our tables. With the final line, "the fiery rashes of those who peel shrimp," she stormed off the stage and rickety Henry ascended, using a cane and wearing a heavy tweed jacket despite the heat.
"Spear," he said, "I feel you've thrown a lot of confetti into the air, and it's still coming down."
"Those are serious issues, Henry," Spear yelled back. Henry said he was sure they were, and introduced himself. He had gone to Princeton with Edmund Wilson, whom he called "Bunny," and said Bunny hated his poetry. Years later he wrote Wilson, saying that he had to admit he was a bad poet in college, but now he was a good poet, and wanted to send his books. Henry read the response, the postcard Wilson used to turn away hopeful correspondents: "Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, take part in writers' conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or 'panels' of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph works for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, or supply opinions on literary or other subjects."
Henry showed the card. Scrawled over it in big black letters were the words, "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!"
He read from his book, A Countdown at Eighty, and then a long poem, "A Narrative of the Norse Discoveries of America." Rorem stopped me on the way out and said, "You look like a man who's been waiting a long time for a bus." I could feel he was getting ready to give me a bad grade.
Lewis Abolia, known for his sonnets, invited everyone to his room at the top of the mansion to toast the readers. An elderly woman poet whirled around, commending the sherry at the top of her lungs. After one glass, Henry fell asleep in a rocking chair, his chin lost in his beard, looking like one of the Norseman he described. I talked with a woman in her late twenties, a fiction writer, who told me she had published stories in The New Yorker. Her name was Kim, and I thought we were hitting it off when she excused herself, saying she had to make a call. And yet she stayed. And mentioned again that she had to make a call. There was only one phone in the mansion, and a line formed to use it. I said she had better go. Finally I realized she wanted me to ask who she was calling.
"No," she whispered, "M'editor."
She said it again, a breathy word I couldn't understand.
"M'editor." She closed her eyes when she spoke it. "M'editor at The New Yorker. We have to discuss changes. He thinks it's the best thing I've done."
We were interrupted by Abolia yelling at two poets, ''I'm not bitter! I am not bitter!" Henry opened his eyes and asked if I would escort him to West House. I said I would, and waited while he lectured the young poets for five minutes on the neglect of the amulet as a fecund image. When I thought Henry had run out of steam, he pulled a piece of paper from his overstuffed wallet and read a poem printed on the take-out menu from Hattie's Chicken Shack in downtown Saratoga. The room quieted. "It's called 'Woman,'" he said, and read:
She's an angel in truth, a demon in fiction.
A woman's the greatest of all contradiction.
She'll scream at a cockroach and faint at a mouse,
then tackle a husband as big as a house.
She'll take him for better, she'll take him for worse.
She'll split his head open, and then be his nurse.
In the evenings she will, in the mornings she won't
and you're always expecting that she does when she don't.
SOME WOMEN IN the room began to hiss at the third line, but Henry persisted until the end.
"Let's go, Henry," I said, and we went down the staircase arm in arm. Kim was waiting for the phone, stamping her red shoes. She said, "You're not supposed to stay on that long. Everyone knows that!"
I leaned Henry against the wall, and tapped the solid oak door of the booth.
"Maybe it's empty," I said, listening.
"No, someone's in there," Kim said. "I heard a woman's voice."
"Let me take a look," I said, and when I turned the knob, the elderly poet from the party had fallen asleep against the door and now tumbled to the floor yelling, "This isn't my stop!"
Kim and I picked her up, and Kim guided her upstairs. "She has nice legs," Henry said.
As we crossed the grounds, Henry said he didn't want to be boastful in public, but two well-known poets had written him about A Countdown at Eighty. He stopped, fidgeting torn paper strips from his wallet and handing them to me, along with a tiny flashlight. "Read the underlined parts."
I focused the beam. "These poems could only have been written by you, Henry."
"Nice, isn't it?"
"Very nice," I said.
"Someday I'll tell you who he is. Read the other."
I found a sentence circled in blue ink. "Just three lines, and I knew it was Henry Chapin!"
"I didn't want to brag," he said.
TWO POETS, SANDRO Brezini and James Dorwin, invited me for a drink downtown. Dorwin was a gaunt Midwesterner whose grandfather invented puffed rice which, he said, changed the way Americans ate breakfast in the morning. Brezini was powerfully built, but dainty. After Del Tredici played the piano after dinner, he called, "Oh David, how I love to watch your fingers fly!" He had begun a series of poems, a dialogue between the black and white keys on the piano.
The bar, The Neutral Corner, was outside Saratoga proper, in the woods behind the Grand Union, and different from the touristy Triple Crown and Winner's Circle. Dorwin said that famous boxers used to hang out there, and that the place was filled with autographed photos. Brezini asked what the name meant and Dorwin explained that when you floored an opponent, you have to retreat to the farthest neutral corner before the ref can start his count.
As we were getting into the car, the English critic Malcolm Bradbury leapt from behind a hydrangea. Since he didn't have transportation, he hung around the parking lot, hitching rides. Bradbury had founded a renowned graduate creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He smoked a pipe and his wiry long hair sprung from his head in all directions. We drove through the main streets of Saratoga, past the supermarket and up a hill thick with pines. A mile in, a dirt road led to the front of the bar.
"How'd you find this place?" I asked.
"The bartender at the Winner's Circle said his brother owned it," Dorwin said.
"I also got the feeling his brother was a loser," Brezini added.
The Neutral Corner was a two story house with a bar on the first floor. A sign on the back porch read "Chinese Food" in neon letters. The front door opened onto a room packed with tradesmen in work clothes who looked us over. Suddenly self-conscious, I realized each of us wore the same khaki pants and white button downs. We sat in an adjoining room, which had a pool table, but was also the Chinese restaurant. I walked to the bar to see the photos. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali—all signed to Jake. I guessed Saratoga Springs drew them in its prime. And then I noticed each name was scrawled in the same handwriting. I told Dorwin about the fake autographs and he marched from the room with his cue. In his hands, the cue became a pointer used to tap a blackboard, and that's what Dorwin did, he darted the cue toward several photos.
"You got a problem?" the bartender said.
"These are all signed in the same hand."
"Asshole!" the bartender said, pumping glasses into the soapy sink.
At our table, we explained the ruse to Bradbury and Brezini when a young woman entered through a back door. She wore a tight blouse, short skirt, and high heels and approached a three-foot square platform. A table of her friends cheered and one played "Midnight at the Oasis" on the jukebox.
This was a bar, a Chinese restaurant, and a strip club. The girl danced very awkwardly and removed her blouse, all elbows and forearms. Then she swiveled out of her skirt and fought it off, as if she were undressing in her own room, solitary and sorrowful. A minute into the song, she put her hands to her face, stepped from the little square, and ran out the door. Two women from her table followed with her clothes.
"I feel sorry for her," Dorwin said, "but it was erotic."
"You call a little girl from the sticks standing on a palette in a cheap bar-cum-Chinese restaurant erotic?" Bradbury said, puffing hard on his pipe.
The bartender had left his station and stood by our table, looking down at Dorwin.
"You think you know something about boxing, wise guy? I'll tell you something, and you can bet on this." He pointed his finger at Dorwin who listened with his mouth open.
"Next heavyweight champion of the world," and he paused so we could grasp the enormity of the information. "Beau Williford!"
We had another pitcher, and Brezini asked the waitress what happened to the dancer.
"She's new," the waitress said. "She didn't do too bad."
We were agreeing enthusiastically when the dancer returned and joined her friends.
Brezini said, "We should tell her she was good."
Darwin added, "Should we tell her we're poets?" When no one answered, he asked again, "Shall we tell her we're poets?" He was grinning uncontrollably at the thought that the dancer would be impressed by the quality of her audience. We managed to curb his notion, but when we left, Darwin couldn't help himself from approaching her table as a professional dancer gyrated. Outside, he said, "I told her to keep at it, that it was an art, like ours. Like poetry."
KIM WAS IN a good mood. Her agent sold her book of stories to a major publisher. She had fallen in love with Bill, a conceptual artist who said there were enough beautiful objects in the world, and he didn't want to add to them. They walked the grounds hand in hand, drove around Saratoga, and ate meals together. By now, many guests had bonded, and when the doors for dinner opened, friends claimed tables by setting their drinks next to their plates and then retrieving their napkins and tea from the sideboard. I sat mostly with the poets, Jean Valentine, my favorite. She had a quiet demeanor, whispery voice, and a smoky laugh that filled the room.
Kim and the artist told our table they had decided to live together, but there was a stumbling block—he had a dog and she a cat, and they wondered how the pets would get along. At the same time, Kim approached each new guest, introducing herself and saying, "You'll do great work here. I have. My book is coming out next year." Then she paused, bowing her head as she whispered, Simon and Schuster. Her words were perfectly timed to the bowing of her head, just as the nuns in my grammar school had taught us to do at the name of Jesus. At the name of her publisher, all the muscles in Kim's neck went limp.
They decided to drive to Brooklyn to introduce their pets. Kim said she'd forego her stay at Millay to be with Bill. "I've already had a long year of colony-hopping," she said.
THE COMPOSER GIORGIO Visconti tapped his glass with a spoon at dinner and announced that everyone was invited to his composer's tower for a bash on Thursday. It was a celebration for an upcoming performance of his latest piano concerto which he was leaving to attend the next day.
Henry asked me to escort him to the party. His back was hurting him and he had a hard time getting in and out of his chair. I said I would, as the tower was a long walk from his room. Dorwin said he'd seen Giorgio earlier that afternoon being picked up by a woman driving a silver Jaguar, the girlfriend taking him to the concert.
"She was beautiful, dark hair, black dress, very New York," he said.
"Big boobs?" Henry asked.
"She was pretty, Henry. I really didn't check her out that much," Dorwin said.
"Well, it doesn't matter. I'm a rump man myself," Henry grinned.
''I'm a cock lady myself" screamed the feminist artist at our table who was planning a sculpture of Emma Goldman made of tampon applicators she found on Jones Beach.
Henry blushed and said, "What a lovely girl."
Dorwin tried to change the subject, but it was time for dessert, and everyone rose to the sideboard. As I got up, Henry gave me a pained look and asked, "John, would you bring me a black coffee and a piece of cake? My spine feels like broken glass."
The tampon artist stared when I placed the plate and cup in front of Henry. He thanked me, saying, "Serving those who cannot serve themselves is humanity at its best," looking at everyone so we formed a brotherhood, a bond, it seemed, between two rump men.
THE NIGHT OF the party I found Henry in his room reading Death Starts in the Colon. We made our way slowly down the pine-needle path. A little moat surrounded the tower, and we crossed a rickety plank bridge, about ten feet long, with rope handrails. I held Henry tightly as the bridge swayed. We were talking about Giorgio's music, which we had heard in the chapel after dinner.
"It sounds like God having a nervous breakdown," Henry said.
The cock woman was leaning against the tower entrance, smoking, with another woman, and she smirked when we approached. We did seem a strange pair. Henry, out of another time, with his beard, long gray hair and woolen coat, and me holding him up, in khakis and blue shirt, his preppie nephew. We continued talking about Visconti's music, but just as we got in front of the two women, Henry said loudly, "I like his chamber music, but I'm particularly fond of his SYMPHONY IN G-SPOT!" And then he laughed, twisting away from me and prancing into the tower, balletic and youthful.
The artist glared at me and said, "You're such an asshole!"
"What did I do?" I said. I could see Henry in the tower, waving his cane at the wine, asking someone to get him a glass of red. He was flushed and exuberant with his joke.
The round tower was three stories tall and made of brick. A boom box played and everyone drank from the full bar. Giorgio wore a Hawaiian shirt and introduced his girlfriend. She was as pretty as Dorwin had reported, all in black. Most of the guests brought guests of their own, so it was crowded and noisy. I got in the spirit and drank shots of Old Grand-Dad with beer chasers. Henry joined us, his gray beard stained with burgundy, his round cheeks red. Dorwin brought the bottle of bourbon from the bar and filled my glass again. When I told him I had already had enough, Henry held out his wine glass for a taste and said, "When you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing!" He began a discourse on varieties of zinfandel, and Dorwin sneaked off.
I excused myself from Henry to talk to Jean Valentine. I tried to tell her how much I liked her poems, but my sincere feelings seemed like drunken flattery so Jean asked how my own work went. I meant to say I felt fortunate to be here, even though I might be poor, but the word portunate came out which evoked her long hearty laugh before she quit me for a cigarette. I had another bourbon, leaned against the wall and watched Dorwin dancing with the cock woman. She was a great dancer, and I suddenly noticed how attractive she was. I couldn't stop myself from watching her lithe body zip around the floor. My drunken scrutiny led me to observe a yellow stain, a smudge, but heavier, something three-dimensional on the back pocket of her jeans. I kept staring as she spun this way and that.
Jean returned and said, "She's quite a dancer," raising her eyebrows.
"Yes, she is," I whispered, "but she has a stain or something on the seat of her pants."
"You've been paying close attention."
"Look!" I said, pointing.
The song ended and as the artist walked away from Dorwin, I followed.
I saw it close up. The blotch was sticky and familiar—I was certain it was, yes, it was a butterball!
I tapped her shoulder, and she turned, surprised.
I decided it would be gentlemanly to whisper for the sake of discretion, but when I began to speak, I found myself yelling above the music.
"I think you sat on a butterball."
"What?" she said.
I repeated it, but she shook her head.
I turned her by the shoulder and pointed to the smudge. She twisted her neck, saw it, and said, "You are one fucking jerk."
I walked back to Jean. "I thought she should know," I said. "I would like to know if I sat on one of those butterballs!" Jean just stroked my elbow.
Dorwin pointed to the ceiling where a bat dipped and soared.
Henry said, "They'll go right for your hair!" and several women ran out to the bridge, covering their heads. Giorgio took off his Hawaiian shirt and flailed at the diving bat, circling the circumference of the room, jumping and flinging it against the wall. We all huddled in the middle of the floor as Giorgio and the bat went round and round.
When the bat landed on a protruding brick, Giorgio sneaked up and swatted it. The bat and the shirt landed together and the guests moved into a tighter circle. Dorwin and I tried to help Giorgio who bent over the pile of color and felt around. Instead of grabbing the bat through the shirt, he put his hand under it and grabbed its neck between his thumb and forefinger. When he carried it through the crowd, all we could see were two big ears when it went by, squeaking.
Giorgio screamed at the doorway. The bat had bitten him just before he threw it into the night sky. Bradbury ran over and staunched the blood's flow with his handkerchief. The women returned from the bridge and Giorgio walked around with his girlfriend on his arm, holding a beer in his wrapped hand, telling everyone he was fine.
Henry called Brezini's favorite poet, James Merrill, "a toe-dancer." Brezini replied, "Your bits of knowledge came to you like change dropped through a boardwalk. You picked up a dime here, a nickel there .... "
Henry pointed his cane at Brezini, and said, "You haven't the stamina to undertake an epic."
People started to leave. It was dark, and difficult to see on the bridge, so Giorgio grabbed a lantern and escorted his guests across the moat. Someone took Henry back to the mansion because I was too drunk. Giorgio asked me to keep music playing on the boom box, and I fumbled with the tapes, inserting the wrong side and pressing all the wrong buttons. A song came out, "New York, New York," just as there was a big fuss because Giorgio had fallen off the bridge.
Dorwin, Bradbury, and I pulled Giorgio from the moat. He had hurt his ankle and lost the lantern.
I helped clean up the tower while Giorgio sat next to his girlfriend, both of them devastated. He had told Dorwin that he was looking forward to a big romantic time at the Adolphus Hotel since he had been without sex for the past month, but now his swollen foot rested in an ice bucket and his bloody hand was wrapped in Bradbury's handkerchief.
The next night at dinner everyone dressed in white, at the command of the conceptual artist who wanted to document it. I had forgotten, and walked toward the balcony in my blue shirt and jeans. The crowd looked more like a cloud, a gathering of souls, wash on the clothesline, figures from the heavens, and I felt like a figure from the underworld hobnobbing with angels. When we were seated, Kim announced to the room that Giorgio had broken his ankle and was in the hospital.
"He missed his nuit d' amour and he'll also miss the performance," Kim said.
DURING MY LAST week, my nervousness about facing unemployment exacerbated my self-consciousness. Vitreous floaters danced on the white wall above my desk and my throat clicked when I swallowed. I considered making an appointment with an eye doctor and throat doctor as paisley and paramecia-shaped figures slid across my updated resume. One image particularly troubled me. It looked like a question mark, and I kept following it across the page, trying to get a better look, and as I did, I swallowed, and my throat clicked.
New guests arrived, Dorwin and Brezini left, and Kim and Bill returned from Brooklyn. At dinner, Bill explained that his cat, Purr-Mew, was terrified of Kim's rat terrier, Pal, and he feared they wouldn't get along. He devised a test: they would put the animals in the car and drive around the block. Kim's dog was in the back, and she drove while Bill held Purr-Mew, but Pal kept barking and climbing over the seat, and the cat scratched Bill badly. He rolled up his sleeves to show the marks.
"We've decided to let them know each other a little better before we make a move," he said.
Kim rose from the table and said, "It goes deeper than that!" She threw down her napkin ring and ran from the dining room.
MY STAY AND Henry's ended on the same Saturday. We said good-bye to the other guests at breakfast, and I decided to take a last walk through the rose garden, a section of Yaddo open to the public. I passed a young woman holding a baby in her arms, and she stepped in front of me.
"Are you a guest?" she asked. I said I was.
"I grew up in Saratoga," she said, "and my husband used to bring me here. He wanted to be a writer. He dreamed of staying in the mansion. That was his goal, but he was killed last year in a car crash."
I said I was sorry.
"We have a tradition in my family," she said. "We walk here when someone dies and remember them in this rose garden, but I never thought I'd be remembering my husband." She rocked the child in her arms and said she hoped he'd be able to be a guest one day.
"I hope he will too," I said, and I left her on that path shouldered with roses.
I LOADED MY car and drove by the mansion for the last time. I saw Henry and Kim talking, so I pulled over. Henry stood in front of his ancient Volvo. As I approached, I could hear Kim ticking off the places she was giving readings over the winter.
"How do you manage to arrange such things?" Henry asked. Kim whispered her answer. "M'agent," she said.
She told us that she was leaving early, a week ahead of time, because she and Bill had broken up for good and she couldn't bear being around him.
"Anyway, I just got into MacDowell!" She clapped her hands and lifted herself on her toes. "I guess I'll go on living grant-to-mouth!"
We said good-bye, and Henry put on leather driving gloves and settled behind the wooden steering wheel. I got in my car and waited for him, but his Volvo sputtered. He tried again and again, but the straining engine refused to start. I walked over.
"It does this once in a while," he said. "Just give me a shove."
The mansion was at the top of a hill, and I pushed hard on the Volvo's trunk. After twenty feet, Henry rolled down the road, furiously turning the key, and finally the motor caught. He waved his arm out the window in thanks and a few moments later I followed him through the stately gates.
* * *
John Skoyles teaches at Emerson College and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares. His seventh book, A Moveable Famine, will be published by The Permanent Press in 2014.
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms & Megan Sexton