A number of weeks ago a little nine-line poem appeared in my mailbox
on half a sheet of inkjet printer paper. It had no signature.
In the course of my editorial work for a small college literary magazine, I
have offered my campus mailing address for submissions of poems, short stories and essays. I am not therefore unaccustomed to finding amateur literature in my mailbox. It is unusual, however, for such literature to arrive unsigned. Most aspiring college writers aspire to skip the aspiring stage altogether and arrive with a flurry of press releases on the New York Times bestseller list. Thus they are eager to attach their names to the pieces
they assume I will place in the magazine.
But this poem was different. It began with the word "I," which immediately made me skeptical. Everyone who works in publishing (at whatever lowly level) has certain quick and dirty rules by which to judge the likely quality of incoming work before actually reading it. This poem's first word violated mine. The mailroom is a bad place for poetry, and since I was so far unimpressed, I stuffed it in my backpack with my newspaper and my textbooks and went home.
Sometime early that (or possibly the following) evening I found the
unsigned poem stuck to a lint-covered cough drop at the bottom of my bag.
I threw the cough drop away and tried to read the poem all the way through.
Much of it was abstract, or at least obscure, and I was not at all sure I
had the gist of it. The state of contemporary poetry being what it is,
however, this uncertainty was grimly familiar, and I continued to read. By
the time I reached the third line from the end I decided that the poem was
addressing me personally. This was disorienting, especially since I still
didn't know what it was saying, so I stopped reading. Cover letters
address me personally; angry responses to rejection slips address me
personally. Poems and submissions usually pretend to more general
My bedroom is my "office," and piles of items requiring
attention cover practically all of its surfaces. Some people have "in" and
"out" boxes. Instead of boxes, I have heaps, and instead of "in" or "out" I
have "here" or "someplace" or "huh?" So the poem went in the "huh?"
heap, and I went downstairs to dinner.
Later that (or the next) evening, I found this poem for the third time. It
had fallen off the "huh?" pile and was now mixed in with the
best-untitled agglomeration of dirty socks and underwear on my
floor. I read it determinedly all the way through, and became (although no
more sure of its meaning) completely convinced that it was not a submission
at all, but rather an urgent personal message from someone who believed
that only the formlessness and loose logical requirements of modern poetry
would serve their purposes. Modern poetry has existed for almost 100 years without anyone feeling this sense of utility about it, so I
was pretty impressed, and I read the poem again, with even greater
attention. Unfortunately, if I had had to paraphrase the poem at this
point I would still have been constrained to say it was some variation on
the "I ... something ... you ... you ... something" theme. I restored it to its
rightful place on some pile or other and went to sleep.
The very next (or possibly some other) day I found another unsigned poem in
my campus mailbox, written evidently by the same person and printed on an
almost identical half-sheet of paper. It went directly into my backpack
together with some junk mail and a request from His Holiness the Dalai
Lama that I join his effort to kick the Chinese out of Tibet. Certainly
the Chinese have no business in Tibet, but I confess that upon returning
home I immediately turned my attention to the new poem. This one began
with "Imagine," rather than "I," so my instinctive
incomprehensible angst-ridden confessional poetry alarm did not go off. I
was now able to definitively paraphrase the poem in the following terms:
"I ... something ... look at you all the time ... something ... something."
I was flattered to realize what the anonymous poet was writing about. More than
flattered, I was astonished and excited and attentive. Flabbergasted and amazed. Dumbfounded, staggered, astounded. I had never been wooed in verse. I had scarcely been wooed at all in recent memory, and what could be more arousing than a brave poet who understood the erotics of concealment, of anonymity? This could be my brilliant poststructuralist lover for the new millennium. This could be the one whose mind would be the shimmer off an article by Geoffery Hartman, whose body would be the vanishing glory of autumn in a mirror. I took this fantasy seriously long enough to act. I wrote a nine-line poem without structure in which I endeavored to be as obscure as possible. I have been a practicing poet for nearly six years, and with that training I succeeded at opacity so far as to be unable even now to recall the meaning I intended in the poem I tacked up on a bulletin board where the mysterious person would be sure to see it.
My correspondent had managed to expose and to remain hidden, a simultaneity
of revelation and privacy that I found fascinating. Isn't this the essence
of seduction? The bathing suit that covers but does not cover, the "sweet
nothings" that are uttered but do not communicate? And this person
was revealing him- or herself with the most intimate language, all the
while concealing her- or himself behind the curtain of obscurity. I
responded far less cleverly but with a kind of bravado by placing both of
our poems on a public bulletin board where they could be both a real
private (albeit partially anonymous) dialogue and a public work of art. I
have never had sex in the library -- an informal requirement for graduation
at my school -- but I imagine the rush is similar to what I felt with my torn
pieces of paper and my Scotch tape and my thumbtacks, looking over my
shoulder and rummaging in my bag in order to pretend that I was looking for
a pen to write down the name of the Amnesty International contact person.
Soon the mysterious lover-by-text responded. Nine-line poems were
appearing on the bulletin board, in my mailbox, in my e-mail account. I was
overwhelmed and inundated, and gradually I began to be frightened. It was a
delicious fear at first, but for a moment it became a nightmarish fear and
I wrote a poem of many lines and even less coherence than the rest,
protesting in the strongest language against all that was unfair about my
lopsided ignorance of the situation.
All of my new friend's poems began with the letter I. I did not know the
reason for this, and had I known I might have been more frightened still.
The story is reaching its end, so I can explain the "I," the "Imagine," the "Intrigue," the "Inferno": The messages I had been receiving were all acrostics built upon the letters of my name. I felt and still feel foolish for failing to realize that each of these poems I had been reading and occasionally feverishly re-reading for a period of over a week spelled out my name along the left-hand margin, and I can only say in my defense that nothing in my undergraduate major in English literature prepared me for it.
The reaction to my angry poem was subdued. It was clear to me by now that
I was probably not in correspondence with the fantastical goddess-lover-poet of my dreams, but rather some real person whom I probably already knew in some way. This was probably someone who saw me (from what distance I couldn't know) every day. He or she knew my face, my name, my specific vulnerability to this seduction. My anger was gone, but my sense of exposure increased literally by the hour. So I sent a brief
demand by e-mail (the person had set up an anonymous e-mail account) that we meet.
She replied, acceding to my request and dissolving the mystery with a
poem in the letters of her own name. Because her identity was no longer
secret, our meeting in a remote corner of an empty cafe lacked some of the
high-stakes psychodrama and practically all the eroticism of the preceding
days. The poet was a woman I knew, who had once asked me out to dinner.
She was attractive, smart, but very real, and under the circumstances that
reality could hardly fail to disappoint. She renewed her
invitation, and I again declined. We spoke carefully and quietly about the
episode. We told each other that it had been interesting, and that we
would see each other around.