My first poetry reading: Stanley Kunitz, 1996
It always boils down to memory. I heard a scientist on TV explain that our brains can’t actually distinguish between what they’ve imagined and what is real. Those pictures in our minds require the circumstances surrounding them to decipher truth. The time I stuck my pinky finger in a manual pencil sharpener and sharpened is imagined, but I remember it as though it were a real event. I was a child. I was naked. The bath was running. I only know it wasn’t real because I’m told it wasn’t real; there’s no scar to prove it; there was no pencil sharpener in my parents’ bathroom on Elm Street.
I remember my first real poetry reading (as opposed to the ones I participated in as a high school lit mag geek) only because I know my Aunt Aly took me there. I remember the gesture. I can see us on a picnic blanket at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, but I only remember this after doing some research. Stanley Kunitz read in Farmington, Connecticut, at the Hill-Stead Museum in the summer of 1996.
I was nineteen. It was the year of the shaved head. In this memory, I’ve given myself a black and orange, sleeveless flowered dress and black combat boots; this is an outfit I wore in college; there’s proof in a real photograph of me with a friend, but there’s no proof I wore it this day.
I remember watching an old man teeter to the outdoor podium. Was he always old? I remember many other people on picnic blankets. Our blanket, I imagine, was one of those hospital issue blankets that Aunt Aly brought home from one of her nursing gigs.
Memory tells me it was a bright, sunny day, but it may have been early evening.
Memory takes me to the basement of my house, where Aunt Aly lived for a time, when I was two or three or four. She lived in half-light amidst boxes of records—I remember Carol King and the Sesame Street In Harmony album—and nursing books with the pictures of fetuses I doted on. In part of the basement, I remember a make-up mirror like the ones you see in a movie star’s dressing room, where Aunt Aly would brush my hair and make me up like a putana, though it sounded like boo-tawn when she said it.
Aunt Aly who always made me laugh, who reminded me of her mother.
My first reading sits in that memory bank, affixed to the flowers of a garden I can’t quite picture in real life. I picture a terraced plantscape, but I’m not sure that’s right. I don’t know what Kunitz read, though I think his voice was the voice of an old man. I think I could feel the vibrations of age. I was likely wanting to be drown in his poems, because he was a “real” poet, that mysterious beached whale I wanted so desperately to be.
But I was also rebelling against my past. A man behind a podium reminded me of two-or-three hour church services, still does if I’m not careful with my muscle memory. Reminded me that in the world of the Church, I would never be allowed behind that podium, that I’d never seen a woman behind any podium at any church service I’d ever attended. I was learning the art of refusing, and that meant that I wouldn’t read Mister Kunitz again until graduate school. Instead I’d focus on rebellion, writing my undergraduate thesis about Nikki Giovanni, who could preach.
I was grateful to Aunt Aly for caring about my dreams. Or maybe I’m only grateful now, fifteen years later.
Today, I can sit at my desk typing and hope that Kunitz read “The Wellfleet Whale,” with its whale sounds and whale language and incarnate energy of dimly remember worlds, “where flying reptiles / lumbered over the steaming marshes / and trumpeting thunder lizards / wallowed in the reeds.” An imagined-real world.
And in those last lines, an elegy for the beached whale: “Master of the whale-roads, / let the white wings of the gulls / spread out their cover. / You have become like us, / disgraced and mortal,” the imagined memory, the memory outside of oneself, looking into all selves at once. In the eyes of a dying whale, Kunitz saw our common condition.
I wonder if I would have even heard those words back then, disgraced and mortal as I was, too, but without understanding, embarrassed of my lineage, my oceanic belief system, myself. I couldn’t imagine being the one on that podium any more than I could imagine being allowed to speak at church. I imagine my first poetry reading the way I envision my own birth—it’s something I feel happened, something real and not real, a glint on the horizon.
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