The poetry reading Saturday night at the bookstore went well. However much I grumbled over being there on a Saturday night, the reading felt good and the poems were well received. The room was full of seniors, myself included; all men and women frosted by time. Their eyes I appreciated, especially the two older women in the center of the room whom I didn’t know yet adored and read almost exclusively to them.
But what I mostly want to talk about is the man who was the first to arrive at the bookstore and remained there the entire night. He sat in a folding chair near one of the bookshelves and held two small terriers, a whitened grandmother and her small brown grandchild. The man, an older Filipino gentleman whose black hair was just yielding grey and white strands, wore black aviator shades and kept the dogs hugged together in his lap. I greeted him when I arrived and he said as if apologizing, I’ve never been to a poetry reading. He remained quiet and attentive, the dogs too.
Until the co-feature, this older man brought in his old border collie with its whitened muzzle and the other man’s terriers became agitated and curious, tossing barks across the room until the man whispered them down. The co-feature’s wife petted her border collie to the floor though the dog was impatient and uncomfortable and kept standing, looking around and changing positions.
There was less than 20 people in the bookstore, including dude behind the counter. Outside though, I kept seeing the shadow of someone walking back and forth, staring in at us.
I think there’s another poet outside wanting to get in, Someone said.
He’s no poet. The host said, dismissive, stopping everything with her raised palm. He’s been here before, trust me. He’s better outside.
The co-feature was gently flaking with pretention, reading formal poems, sonnets and sestinas as a habitually condescending professor. At one point, he turned the book he read out of towards us in the audience, pointing out which lines rhymed. But the work was fine enough and I bought one of his books though he didn’t look cross-eyed at mine nor offered a trade, as other writers with class might.
The reading I honored and I told the host she did something I’d never seen another host do. She actually read the poetry collections of the features beforehand and wrote an original introduction about how she received their work. I mean, really. NOBODY does that.
The features read first; with no audience applause between poems, everyone saves it for last. Reading first was cool because it relaxed me and allowed me to listen more attentively.
And the open mic went on and was mostly forgettable if for two things. First, was the man who’s introduction to his poem was better than the poem itself. He spoke about losing his youngest brother to a accident many years ago and how during the funeral his older brother announced to the others: We need to make better reasons to come together. I’ve heard so many people in so many families say this, but this man’s brother meant it and followed through. He rented a house in Florida and got the entire family to meet there and be together for a holiday. The oldest relative was begged into baking a Mother’s biscuit recipe. The poem he read was nearly anticlimactic to the build-up in his introduction yet he was quite moving.
And then, the host said the name of the man holding the terriers in his arms. He quietly rose and walked to the front of the room, no mic since the store was so small. The wife of the co-feature with the border collie, leaned over to her husband and whispered: He has 9 dogs.
I’m no poet, the man said quietly. But I’ve been moved by some of the things I’ve heard here tonight. And I’m going to try to speak from my heart and this is what I want to tell you…
We sat there, I did at least, cringing. The night had already heard substandard or at least dusty poems from people who regularly wrote. But this man, not a poet, and quiet, and diligent over his dogs, didn’t promise anything good. But eventually, the man spoke gently and slowly. His words emerging one at a time as if forged. I played his story in my mind while he talked.
I want to tell you, the man said, of the time I lost one of my dogs in the river. We camped in a canyon near the river and while I was setting up, she got away from me. She went into the water and disappeared. I lost her to the water. This was near dark. I walk down into the river and follow it as it turned this way and that. I come out on sand looking for her, calling for her, to nothing. And I go back into the water and then come back out as it got darker and darker. But finally I found her on one of the banks and I went over to her and scooped her up in my arms. I carried her back through the water until we came back to the camp. And that’s the story I wanted to tell you.
And he walked off.
And somehow that non-poem poem, was the most beautiful thing I’d heard. Not because of word choice or poetics, but because of heart. Because of its honesty. Because somehow .. perhaps in how delicately he spoke, his words struck me vividly and I was with him at that camp, amongst the canyon walls and its river. I felt suspense. I felt relief. I felt grateful he was mercifully short. But mostly: the truth and heart of his voice surprised me. The more he spoke, the more I wanted him to speak. Was I the only one who heard him?
As the night finished and people wandered off, I touched the man’s arm. He was thoughtful and kind with his words about my poems. When I told him how much I liked what he said, he easily shrugged it off. I’m no poet, I was just speaking from the heart.
There was no way to tell him, that’s the whole point. Beauty and the heart within it is what I keep searching for. Of all those who spoke that night, it was from him I learned the most. While I spoke with another poet, he turned with his drowsy dogs in his arms and walked out.