I’m posting the first chapter…because, why not?
…and then he asked, “Why do you want to be a poet, Georgia Sullivan?” After he said it, everything changed, something inside of me flashed—light to dark—as if a light switch had been flicked off, but his office is flooded with early spring sunshine that had just broke through the clouds—we had just been marveling over the sight because it’s been such a long gray winter; the beveled glass in the windows spilled rainbows on the floor at our feet. His question caught me off guard, my mind that is normally full of words suddenly went silent. Nothing. There’s nothing. I didn’t know what to say. I closed my eyes, trying to relax. Guh, I hate when this happens—someone asks me a question, and the answer skitters off, ducking around a dark corner to hide. Come out, come out, wherever you are! I opened my eyes when I heard the creak of his chair. The sun has gone behind the clouds again—that’s the way of it, the transition from Winter to Spring, the sun plays hide ‘n seek. Come out, come out, wherever you are!
Without looking at me, Mortensen Boyd leaned forward, shifting his manner from the old family friend that I know so well to take on a professorial posture behind the desk; he frowned slightly, his hands gingerly holding his pipe, waiting for my answer. I’ve known Boyd since I was a child, so our conversation in his office at the university has been a casual banter consisting of inquiries and replies about my parents, siblings, and my home life—the farm—he loves our farm. His familiar, easygoing manner has allowed me to be myself during our interview, and my homegrown brogue accented my words a wee bit more than usual because of the poet’s strong Dublin burr. Mama always said he looks every bit of an Irish poet; a tall, gangly fellow, his pale brow garnished with a tousled forelock of dark chestnut hair, and a distinguished profile that is reminiscent of Yeats. We have teased him that he should wear a pince-nez to go along with his natty tweed jackets and distinctive slouching fedora—I laughed inside my head as the vision presented himself. He cleared his throat, and I twitched back to reality because the man sat waiting for my reply, his eyebrow twitched, his mouth became firm, and he gave me a prodding look.
“I just do—it’s a part of being alive, like breathing,” I blurted out with a light-hearted giggle, feeling a wee bit self-conscious. “It’s been my dream to write poetry—it’s what I love…” my words trailed off, I shrugged and sighed.
He said nothing, but his demeanor became contemplative as he relit his sweetly smoldering pipe with a match. I gaped at him, flustered—is he messing with me? I wondered, as an inexplicable apprehensive feeling turned my stomach into a butterfly colony. His question is straightforward, but my answer is too simple. Writing poetry and needing to breathe feel like a perfectly natural comparison to make because I would feel smothered without the daily written release—but now that I have given this clichéd answer, I feel silly—insincere—how can he possibly take me seriously after saying something so superficial? There is more to the why than that. Although his steady gray eyes that peered at me through tortoise-shell glasses did not betray what he thought of my answer, it occurred to me that he has heard my heartfelt explanation before—more than before, too many times before. I looked away from his expectant gaze and stared at the small hardbound portfolio full of words that I held in my lap; my fingers nervously tugged on the black satin ribbon that kept it secure. What I said made me no different from the rest; hundreds of fresh-faced poets have sat in this seat, each one declaring that forging words into poems is their life’s breath. How can he choose—how can he say ‘no’ to their dreams? Taking a deep breath, I raised my gaze to look at Boyd—he is a poet whose work I have admired for many years, and now I feared that he would think I’m foolish for saying something so trite. He’s waiting for a better answer because he expects more from me—especially me.
“It’s hard to explain why I do it because I’ve always done it—you probably know what I mean,” I said, hoping to smooth over my naïve awkwardness, but I internally cringed—nothing is coming out right. His meditative puffing on his pipe continued, but he still said nothing, patiently waiting to hear more. Of course, this should be simple—but it isn’t simple. It shocked me that I haven’t given the “why” much thought—I’ve only focused on the “this is what I want to do,” and “this is what I’ve done.” Now his question has created a big hole in the middle of the well-trodden path that I have made for years. Of course, you know why, silly-boo!
“The act of writing is beautiful, I even love the sound of it—I sometimes lay my head on the desk to listen to the scratch of the pencil on paper.” I began again after an unsteady gulp for a deep breath and with my mind racing to formulate what I needed to tell him. “Growing up on a self-sufficient farm has taught me an appreciation for the simple ideals of life—being home-schooled allowed me to explore knowledge with a free rein, yet with a firm hand of discipline. My introduction to poetry came in the disguise of lessons in penmanship. I remember how Mama had me practice printing my letters by copying from my favorite book about the Brownies by Palmer Cox, so it wasn’t like a lesson at all—I would draw the little Brownies tumbling with the words on the page.”
“Augie was always a clever lady—she knew that she couldn’t plop down Shakespeare in front of a five-year-old and expect her to find joy in copying a sonnet,” Boyd laughed.
“The transition from copying, to writing my own poetry was a natural progression. My life changed on the day I decided to collect words into rhyming themes of my own. I was twelve when ‘it happened,’ it was like falling in love—it made my heart race, I’d be nigh dizzy from it. My vision became sharper because it changed how I saw the world, the aesthetics of the sublime—the intense sensation of the ‘beautiful terror’ overwhelmed me—it’s what I feel while immersed in thought or writing—I feel alive—being aware of what it means to be alive. When I surrendered to the waking dream, my soul seemed to expand beyond the shelter of the earthbound body—I thought I might burst…” I became excited as I recalled those early sensations. Although my initial efforts were far from perfect; I shared them with a coy bravery and accepted any comments and suggestions to improve upon them. I learned right away that criticism is not personal. Boyd was one of my first critics and he spent time guiding me in the process of fine-tuning my words. One summer night, my great-grandfather, August Devin, listened with rapt interest during the recitation of my juvenile practices; then after a quiet contemplation, he said without being patronizing: “This is lovely—she must be reading Tennyson.” I noted Mama’s lopsided smirk as she nodded—I have been reading Tennyson. It felt weird being found out so easily. Not that there’s anything wrong with the emulation of another poet, but having it delicately exposed encouraged me to find my own voice.
Throughout my education, I faithfully studied all poetry; I adored the epic poetry of Briton chivalry and the lush mythology of the Ancient Greeks. The Romantics inspired my love of nature and my interest in the aesthetics of the sublime. More recently, I have explored the contemporary free verse angst of the latest literary rising star, Sinēad Gibbons, her work filled in the blanks when I became more self-aware and began to look within, trying to find my footing in the world.
Faithful to my aspiration to master the craft of poetry, I documented my thoughts and observations every day in journals. Years of inspired annotations have accumulated inside dozens of dime-store salt n’ pepper notebooks. A blank page is more precious than gold as I horded paper like a miser with an impulsive greed. When I change my clothes before supper, I have retrieved several crumpled pieces of paper from the pockets, carefully laying them out on my desk to contemplate later. On occasion, to my dismay, the passion to write often caused my penmanship to stray toward illegibility, so when it came time to decipher my musings later, I have cursed my sloppiness, forcing myself to grapple with recalling the event that caused me to stop to write it down. Soon enough, my irritated cussing turned into joyful mutterings as the messy scrawl started to make sense, and I went on to compose a poem from the initial inspiration. Each note conveyed the weather through the shapes of clouds, the color of the sky at dawn and at dusk, the density of atmosphere, and the scents on the breeze. I have taken note of the shifting seasons by remarking on the arrival of the first male robin tut-tutting from the budding treetops. I have deciphered the difference between his robust territorial heraldry, and the joyful proclamation that rain is coming, the urgent warning of a stalking cat, and the operatic evensong that lulls the setting sun to the horizon. Then I report the day when the familiar laughter-filled song ceased with his migratory departure.
Even after transcribing everything from these scraps, I keep them tucked inside the notebook with the intention to preserve the moment of creation; this additional compilation puts an inordinate strain on the binding, each notebook is overflowing with the daily citations of time and place. Whenever the words I needed didn’t come to mind, I have sketched the image in the ruled journal margins, sometimes making a watercolor wash of an unusual nuance I saw in the morning sky above the verdant curve of the ridge behind our house. In a sense, I have preserved the world that I love; each fragment became a hopeful fount for future inspiration. As my writing matured, I diligently transcribed the final drafts of finished work onto onionskin paper rolled into an ancient Underwood and bound them into homemade folios. The delicate crinkle of these accomplishments thrilled me as the volumes became fat with my prolific efforts.
Along with my naturalist work, epic poems grew from my interest in mythology; some are faithful reiterations of fabled dramas, while others are playful allegories in which the immortals and heroes partake in fantasies of my creation. At the age of sixteen, my ambitious poem Persephone won a poetry prize at the literary magazine Taliesin. As part of the prize, Taliesin published a slim, limited edition volume entitled Mythopoeic featuring twenty of my poems; 1500 copies out of the 2000 printed sold so far. When the editor, Peter Michael Hurst, realized that I was so young, he expressed his surprise in his kind letter of congratulations. I thought the editor’s praise in the follow-up feature article made too much fuss; humbleness and pride collided in a sickening brew of emotional turmoil that caused my moods to swing into extremes, which then made my pen stumble because I feared that I would never meet his predicted expectations. Time soon took the edge off this dread once the regular appearance of rejection letters in the mailbox forced me to focus on my discipline and restored the flow from my pen.
My obsession to write is so seductive that it is hard for me to concentrate on my daily chores. I stay awake too late to rise early, and often greeted my family in the morning with a sheepish shrug when they questioned me about how well I slept. I have always felt guilty that my literary ambition was a wish based on vanity and made the conscious effort to balance my dreams with reality. When Mama and Da expressed their concern for my well-being, it was a relief to know that they did not try to discourage me. Once they articulated their consensus that I needed to gain experiences beyond the borders of home, we began the search for the place where the study of poetry will be my concentration, which has brought me to Mortensen Boyd’s question of why I want to be a poet. I do know why.
“We never had a television in our house, so my entertainment was self-made—self-initiated—I am unlike other students who have been inundated by materialistic advertising in the media from the day of their first awareness. Whenever I meet my contemporaries, I come away thinking that we’re becoming a lazy species—if you take away the instant gratification of electronic gadgets, people might actually notice the world around them and care about it. I don’t think the majority of them appreciate anything beyond their small sphere of influence—they are so oblivious of the astonishing beauty that exists around them. Some people call it ‘progress,’ I believe it is a regression—if everyone in our society becomes like everybody else, then there will be no more originality, no more art, no more poetry, no more music—there will not be enough people to carry the torch of our culture. It scares me sometimes—how our country is becoming over-populated and over-developed to compensate. It’s becoming common to see small family farms being bought by the highest bidder with a bulldozer; they raze the land to build sprawling shopping malls or invasive subdivisions full of houses that look alike. I write my poems because I want to document the beauty of our world—to preserve a memory—it’s sad when I think about the possibility that all of this could be gone someday if people don’t take the stewardship of the planet seriously—” I paused, stunned by my impulsive rant. All of this is what I write about in my journal, never spoken aloud, but alluded to by metaphors in my poetry. Boyd’s pipe had gone out again, he paid it no mind; a spark in his eyes indicated his appreciation for my enthusiasm. This is what he was looking for from me. “Can you imagine our farm gone? That beautiful land devastated and pockmarked with houses on treeless lots of golf-course green lawns?”
“That would be a sad day if it ever happened—and your old farmhouse in the midst of it all, still standing—the last of its kind—or worse yet, torn down,” he exclaimed with unaffected delight. “Painful as it is—this is where we go when we are working things out, as you called it, ‘the beautiful terror,’ I like that.”
“Taking it that one step more,” I added, feeling a chill after his mention of our beautiful old farmhouse being torn down. “Going to where it hurts.”
“Yes, right in the heart,” he sighed. “When the committee members and I reviewed the poems in your portfolio, we admired them for their clarity of vision and profound emotion—your poems are timeless because of their roots in tradition, yet timely with contemporary verve that distills your ideals with precision. You grew up in an extraordinary atmosphere—not everyone has a home-life that nurtures talent—every budding creative artist would give anything to have your focus and the support that you receive at home, you are lucky,” he paused, looked at me for a moment, and then smiled.
“As you know, I was in school with your parents at Oxford—and believe me, I thought they were crazy passing up lucrative academic positions to come to America to live on the farm—but I admired them for trying. They are incredibly disciplined. I have been impressed with how they never let their daily labors stop them from writing articles and books, and opening their home to scholars for the retreats—they are wonderful. I cannot speak of them and not include your great-grandfather, August Devin—a brilliant man—I still cannot believe he has gone.”
Biting my lower lip, I struggled with the noose of emotion tightening around my throat; I knew that my literary pedigree could not be avoided because of Boyd’s longtime connection with our family. August Devin was an indelible personality in the academic world. He was a knowledgeable scholar with an encyclopedic memory of mythology, a lively lecturer of aesthetics, a brilliant poet, a dedicated translator fluent in many languages, and a beloved teacher of literature who will be sorely missed. There was a venerable, old world sensibility set by the way he dressed in classic tweed with the accent glimmer of a gold watch chain loosely drawn across a colorful silk vest. He always walked with an Irish blackthorn cane that was nothing more than a knotty stick with a twisted burl handle that appeared specially made to fit his hand. He didn’t seem to need it because of lameness, but it was part of him nevertheless, like a spare limb, both ends of it scarred by hand and earth. His research of ancient literature and myths led him all over Europe, the America’s, to the Holy Land, Africa, and deep into the Far East where he once lived amongst Taoist monks in a mountain monastery for almost a year.
His wife, Kathleen, passed away when Mama was a little girl, but a few years later, he fell in love with Gillian Findanus, a beautiful Jamaican woman that he had met at a poetry reading he held in his Cheyne Walk drawing room. After a formal courtship, the widow and widower agreed that it was not necessary for them to marry, he said: “Marriage is for the young who are raising families, we’ve done that already—we see ourselves as life companions, we don’t need a piece of paper to bind us.” For over thirty years, Aunt Gilly traveled with him, editing his manuscripts in progress, collaborating on books and articles, and seeing to his every need. In conjunction with her tasks, she maintained a prolific writing pace of her own, her musical, inimitable language has filled many published tomes with dream-like poetry basted by sun-warmed ocean breezes, white sand, and turquoise lagoons of the Caribbean.
Summer always brought them to us, by August, our farm gained a special quality because of the two elders strolling arm in arm through the landscape. They made an exotic pair with Victorian manners; the rich accents of their soft conversations were akin to the songs of rare migrating birds that I may chance upon in the woods during my daily rambling for inspiration.
Thankfully, August Devin didn’t linger from a long illness; he died three days after his ninety-first birthday from an aortic aneurysm. We all knew it was there, he had explained how his doctor discovered the small time-bomb during an annual physical; initially, he recommended surgery to rectify the problem, but great-grandfather balked.
“I asked him, ‘What will be my quality of life after surgery?’” The doctor explained the risks, the possibility of complications because of his age and the long recovery. “If we leave it alone, when will this thing burst?” My great-grandfather asked him this pointed question, and the doctor solemnly told him it could happen at any time, tonight, tomorrow, next week, next year, these things are hard to predict, but he could live with it if he takes good care of himself by lowering his blood pressure, and to quit smoking. August Devin then told us, “I decided to leave it alone, I feel fine—I’d rather die tonight walking around feeling as I do now than lying in a hospital bed dying from pneumonia or a stroke while recovering from surgery.”
When it burst almost two years after the diagnosis, Aunt Gilly told us: “He said, ‘I feel tired, I think I’ll go take a nap,’—he peacefully slipped away in his sleep.”
“…Gilly described his death as serene, no struggle at all,” I told him, feeling distracted.
“The way all of us hope for when we come to the end,” he said soberly. “Do you expect Gilly to come in this summer?” he asked, gently prompting me out of my drifting thoughts.
“She will come—she wouldn’t miss it for anything,” I said, smiling. “Life goes on—.”
“Yes, it does do that—whether we like it or not,” he said, making an amiable chuckle. “Why don’t you carry on the family tradition and go study at Oxford?”
“I want to study with Sinēad Gibbons.” I blurted out with a little too much force; his eyebrows arched with surprise well above the top of his glasses.
“Ms. Gibbons only comes once a year in the summer for her seminar; it’s an exclusive group—she’s rather particular about who she lets into the class. I’m afraid that it’s a rare occasion that she takes on undergraduates—she’s even turned down my best seniors in the undergraduate program.”
“I know—that’s why I wrote to her—I received this letter yesterday—she has given me permission to enter the class next year—she included a sealed letter of recommendation for you.” As I passed the documents to him, I cringed a little when I thought about letting him see the letter she wrote in reply to my plea, in it, she said: “Boyd is a good egg most of the time—he’d be a fool to overlook you.”
“This letter has come from far away—Key West—she always finds such lovely places to spend the winter—she can’t abide the cold and snow,” he hummed thoughtfully while examining the letter from my idol. “It’s funny, you know—Asa, Augie, and I were joking not too long ago about our ‘getting old.’ It seems to us that you were just a wee baby, swaddled in a pink blanket, then a tomboy in pigtails, and now here you are—time flies,” he said as he opened the envelope containing the letter of recommendation. While he read the letter, he smiled with a sense of satisfaction as he set it aside. “You do realize what you’re getting into, don’t you? There’s no guarantee that after all of this effort you may never realize your dream?”
“Dreams and realities—you can’t have one without the other—it’s like a dog chasing its tail, I guess,” I said with a laugh. Boyd chuckled, leaning back in his chair, he watched me with amusement. “I am living the dream just being here, sitting in this chair, talking to you. If I never publish a poem again, I don’t think I’ll ever stop—I will always write poetry for the joy of it—I do believe that it’s possible to live a full life and still enjoy creative endeavors—being famous or making lots of money is not my concern. I’ve lived on a self-sufficient farm all of my life, I’m certain that I’ll keep my sensible feet firmly planted on the earth no matter where my head may wander on any given day. I could do anything and still be a poet, I could be an editor, I could be a professor—I could be a waitress at a diner on Route 20—or I could sell Christmas trees from out of a barn—it doesn’t matter. I don’t need someone to tap me on the head with a magic wand and tell me ‘Georgia Sullivan, you are a poet!’ I’ll always be a poet.”
“Well—as always, you impress me with your wit and it seems you have made an impression on some of the most important people in the literary world—Sinēad Gibbons is a nice feather to receive in your cap. Peter Michael Hurst at Taliesin cannot say enough good things about you—and I—well, Ms. Gibbons is right, I would be a fool to overlook you. After the conversation that we’ve enjoyed today, I must say that I am glad to have you join our freshman class this coming fall semester, and I’d like to offer you a full scholarship.”
When Boyd shook my hand, a gust of relief blew away the stormy doubts that had clustered inside my brain about this day. Although I do fully believe in myself with pen in hand, it is always difficult when reality confronts the dream, causing uncertainty to displace confidence. Sometimes talent and dedication to write poetry isn’t enough to gain recognition—I see this acceptance as one step toward making my dream a reality. When I tried to speak, a surge of happiness overwhelmed me with an unexpected force so that I couldn’t say “thank you,” but his smile expressed that he understood my speechlessness—no words were necessary.
After leaving Boyd’s office, I strolled back to where I parked Da’s Morrie, taking the time to examine the landscape of the campus. Today it is drenched in the warm gray afternoon light of a thawing day in March, the damp air clinging to everything in gleaming beads; disintegrating snow banks stained the sidewalk with shimmering rivulets. The urban geometry of the academic architecture, graceful historic buildings mixed with rigid modern brick and concrete structures, is very unlike the casual blend of the agricultural patchwork and organic forms that I love about home. I immediately envisioned how my life would be—the dorm room with a roommate, classes, lively discussions about writing, poetry, homework, studying, and driving home for the weekends to reconnect with the things that I love most of all—the things that inspire me to write poetry. The anticipations that fill me with joy are mixed with a peculiar dose of fear; fear of the unknown and fear of failure whispered their insidious secrets inside my head.
What is there to be afraid of?
Nothing—nothing at all, but I’d be a fool not to be.