My Life as a Poet

 Poeta nascitur, nor fit

           Samuel Taylor Coleridge    

 

     Now, don’t get any ideas. I was neither a born poet, nor one who was made, if that’s what the quote means.

     Then why talk about the subject?  Well, though I was neither of the above, I thought I was. And that counts for something, for, as far as I am concerned, the majority of poets belong to that latter category. Robert Frost said that in America there are more poets than in any other occupation. Of course at his time this may have been true. Today the ranks of poets have been thinned by the prevalence other types of celebrities–singers, athletes, performers, politicians, perhaps for the betterment of humankind. In any case, whether Frost’s statement is true or not (I have no way of knowing), poets, real or imaginary, have an easy task, easier than that of painters, who have to buy brushes and a canvas; or of musicians, who have to spend eons practicing their instruments and learning to read notes. The poet only needs a blank sheet of paper and a pen and ink, or, today, just his laptop, which, I imagine, he uses for other purposes mainly.

     But I started telling you my story. Why did I ever think I was a poet? To tell you the truth, I never really thought I was one; I just embarked on small foolish ventures in writing some verses at an undermined time in the past–I could have been fifteen or nineteen (don’t remember which)–for reasons as vague as those small fluffy white clouds that sail out of my window as I am writing these lines. But since I forgot the reasons, I must invent one or two–the most probable being that I was eyeing a young female in the neighborhood. In those days, the lanes were narrow in my home town and the windows only a few feet above your head as you walked the streets. And to be certain, I remember one of those occasions. Not the writing of my first poem but the girl that must have been the culprit for its existence. For though one forgets lines he wrote, he never forgets the image of an enticing girl’s face he met in youth. Now, my memory gets a bit blurred in that instance too, but some details survive. The girl was one of several daughters belonging to a man who had migrated from Patras, or other big city during the war, for at that time refugees came in search of food from bigger towns, whose populations starved because of blockades. The war came and went, but the man and his family consisting of five daughters stayed. I don’t really remember him at all, except that he existed, that there was also a mother, and that the two elder girls had reached late adolescence, and that both were pretty.

     Of course I forgot their names, but I will make them up, as this practice (which poets take advantage of) is quite harmless. The older girl was called Magda, the second Elisa. Magda was a brunette, and she had large brown eyes; Elisa blond and prettier.

     I did not see (or know) much of them, for they never went out of the house and I only caught a glimpse of their faces leaning against their window as I was passing underneath and stole a glance in their direction. They were not school girls, and the task of doing errands for their mothers fell on the younger ones who were between nine and twelve (or something), for, as we said, there was no brother in the family to perform such domestic chores. Their father worked in the harbor and I almost never saw him; their mother usually washed clothes and was ordinary and invisible behind a thick wall fence, and a swarm of other little girls from the neighborhood played in the yard, and I had no interest in them whatsoever.

     The older ones had both noticed my glancing in their direction, and occasionally looked back from behind the half-closed shutters when I passed. Elisa soon became the object of interest of a friend of mine, Panos, a famous skirt-chaser in our school, son of a leather merchant who lived next door. During the war this half-deaf man sold leather in the black market and prospered and now, a few years later, when the story I’m telling you was taking place, all in the family wore new clothes, purchased a gramophone (a sign of affluence), and gave themselves airs. Panos took full advantage of his father’s prosperity, and he walked around in a new leather windbreaker, and posing as Don Giovanni. To be truthful, he also had better looks than mine, being taller and broad-shouldered, and wore long pants at school to show off. He was also a braggart, and constantly told me how many “hits” he had scored with girls in the schoolyard in the course of last week. I paid little attention to his bragging, pretending indifference, but I was secretly envious of this showoff that easily left me in the dust when it came to girls. I had my pride too but pretended to be friends because he let me borrow books from h is father’s library. But I couldn’t stomach his selfish ways and when he told me he had noticed a pair of pretty eyes looking out at him from behind the shutters across the street, I felt the stabbings of jealousy.

     “Which of the two do you like best?” he asked me one day, after seeing me stealing a glance at that window.

     “I’m not sure,” I said, uncertain. “Which one do you like?”

       “Both!” he said with a snigger of conceit. “To tell you the truth, though, the blond one strikes me as prettier. The older is a little chubby.”

     “Have you seen them outside the house?”

     “Oh yes.”

     “When?”

     “Sundays, when their mummy takes them to church. The only time they get out of the house.”

     “Don’t they go to school?”

     “No, their dad is poor, or something, and they can’t afford school uniforms … they live in the middle ages. Not very bright, you know.”

     “And you still like them? Girls who are uneducated?”

     “Who the hell cares if they’re educated? The young one, I tell you, I could give anything to get her out of the house one day. I’m sure she could let me give her a kiss.”

     I was appalled by his cynicism and said nothing else and walked away. But he wouldn’t let the matter drop. One afternoon, after school, he approached me as I was going home–they lived next door–and reminded me of the promise I had given him to help him get in touch with the blond girl.

     “Promise? Me?” I said amazed. “When did I do that?”

     “Oh, well, you actually didn’t, but I thought you looked like you were going too. Besides, I know you like the other girl, and, if you help me get in touch with the younger, I promise to help you get in touch with the older.”

     He never mentioned their names, out of caution, or probably out of indifference, for he wouldn’t care less what the girls were called, he just wanted some action. But his idea of me helping me if I helped him to make contact had a certain appeal.

     “How could I help you?” I said. “I’m just as helpless as you are. Actually I have never seen them in the street. Just in their yard a couple of times–and I couldn’t see much because there’s a distance.”

     “Listen. I saw you scribble something during algebra. I know you have no interest in math, so you must have scribbled something interesting. May be a love letter?”

     I paid no attention in the flaw of his logic, but I had caught his meaning.

     “I was writing a … poem,” I said blushing. Poets in our school–I mean student poets–were subjects of derision by the others. Poems abounded in our textbooks, and we had to memorize and even recite them on days of national celebrations–like the 25th of March. But that was an official function, and part of the school curriculum. A student writing a poem was held in low esteem, being looked upon as someone who had failed math or other tougher subjects. But Panos, who had a sharp mind, understood my hesitancy, and even smiled encouragingly.

     “Not a bad thing to do, writing a poem,” he said. “Shit like math everybody can do. But writing a poem? You got to be a genius!”

     He flattered me like that a couple of times (actually he kept doing this for a whole week), and, seeing my embarrassment wear off under his flattery, he managed to elicit from me a promise that I would actually write a poem for Elisa … or “a nameless girl,” as he put it.

     “What are you going to do with it?” I asked, finally having promised to satisfy his wish. He wasn’t, after all, asking me to flatten a mountain for him–just scribble a few lines on a paper.

     “I’m going to climb over their fence at night, scramble up to the window, and place it under the shutter. I know only the two older girls sleep in that room, so one of them is bound to find it. Then I’ll see. You will, of course, put no name on it.”

     This wasn’t wisdom coming from Solomon, but his scheme had a certain daring to it, and I had just finished The Three Musketeers and knew that reckless adventure was the food of love.

     So I set about writing a poem. That proved harder than I thought.  Scribbling verses just out of idleness during reveries that came to me when in the classroom was one thing. Writing something with a purpose was another. Poems don’t come from the heart–that belabored human organ that has enough trouble keeping us alive. They must come from the brain, for that was the part of me I tried to set into motion, but the brain has its own idiosyncrasies when you give it a task to perform. People today talk about the right and left side of the brain, saying one side inspires, the other counts. I was never sure which does what, but, at that moment of my life I had no idea that I had to put one side into motion. All I knew was I couldn’t find any words to put on paper, though a few disconnected lines came and went at will, leaving me with practically nothing that made sense. Panos kept asking me what happened to the poem I was going to write, and I told him I couldn’t get one going. He even promised to steal a pair of shoes from his father’s shop and give those to me, but I told him my father would ask me where I got the shoes, and that would ruin everything, for I would have to invent a story–something I had done more than once before, but he always caught me because my father was no fool.

     Well, weeks passed, and no poem came, but one afternoon a wrestling match in the schoolyard sandlot had left me with a pain in my spine, and I could hardly move sitting on my desk, the pain getting sharper all the time. Then an idea came to me: why not write about the pain in my spine? That was something I could hang on to, and beside the poem could help me forget it.

     So a poem was germinated. It was short enough, about nine or ten lines, and I was wise enough not to mention the spine–just the pain.

     I finished it up, and returned home to tell my mother about the pain, and she right away took me to a doctor whose office was nearby, and he put a plaster on my back and gave me some painkillers. But as we were coming back home, my mother noticed a piece of paper that was sticking out my coat pocket (I didn’t have time to hide it) and asked me what it was. But before I had time to say anything, she grabbed it and quickly read it.

     “Hm,” she said, and a wrinkle appeared on her forehead. “What is this? A love poem?”

     “No, mother,” I said, protesting. “I was sitting in my desk during class and I wrote something to easy my mind off the pain.”

     She didn’t buy that. “This is a poem written to a girl. Love poems…. And you are not sixteen yet!”

     And she tore up the page into tiny bits and threw them away to a place I won’t mention.

     When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t the pain in my back that bothered me so much, for the painkillers worked, but the poem I had so much labored to write and lost. That was the first time I really had accomplished something.

     So I got up in the middle of the night, turned on a tiny bulb on my desk, and started writing the poem again. I had memorized every word–but as I was about to finish it, I remembered my mother’s word: “Love poem.” Love was a word I hadn’t used in the poem, and that gave me an idea of what was missing. So I stuck it in the right place. Now my poem was a full and complete love poem.

     Next morning I triumphantly gave it to Panos, who grabbed and walked away without even thanking me.

     I went home after class, and as I was climbing the stairs, an earthquake came and shook the house. It wasn’t a major earthquake–but tremors were frequent in the island. There had been a horrendous one that flattened the town a year or two before, and people were so scared of an aftershock that they rushed out of the houses, some screaming and stood in the middle of the street, fearing the roofs in their homes would cave in.

     I rushed into the street along with the others, and in a few minutes it was full of people, looking alarmed or crying, for the tremor came back. It wasn’t anything major, just a wavy kind that moved the walls, scary enough but nothing like the one of a year ago.

     Well, when people get into the street facing danger, all discrimination vanishes, for all ages, genders and class distinctions are abolished. People just talk to people next to them, men to women, boys to girls, old folks to young ones, and so on. Fear brings people together and distinctions are abolished. Nobody minds–only fear of what’s coming next matters.

     To my surprise I saw Panos talking to the two girls, saying something to Elisa, who was out with her mother and sisters, mixing in the crowd, and then to Magda. I didn’t get too close, being shy by nature, but I took a good look at my object of interest, for, though fear of the earthquake was there, my curiosity was also at a peak.

     And what do you know. The girl I loved–or thought I loved–was a short, chubby one, in an ordinary dress on an ordinary person. Only her face had some charm, and of course her eyes were what I saw through the window shutters: large brown, with long eyelashes, really beautiful. But they were the only feature in her that was attractive, and it failed to stir any feeling inside me.

     Well, in a short while I walked back to the house, as everybody else was doing, for there were no more tremors, and people understood for the moment that the earthquake was just a minor one, and they were used to those.

     A few days later I asked Panos what happened to my poem.

     “Oh,” he said, “I sent it out to a magazine.”

     “What?” I said, astounded, for I never thought that I was worthy of such distinction.

     “You write powerfully,” he said flashing one of his sniggering smiles, and I couldn’t tell whether this was admiration or envy. “And that thing shouldn’t be wasted.”

     “And what about the girl?”

     “You mean Elisa, what’s her name?”

     “That one,” I said.

     “She told me she gets out on Sundays to visit a friend, at the other end of town. We agreed to meet there. Nice chick,” he said and walked away.

     I forgot the whole matter soon enough and, naturally, I never looked at the direction of those shutters again. I was cured of my folly, at least temporarily.

     But one afternoon, as I was taking my customary nap, a trashy magazine called “Bouketo,”[1] one of those my father read before taking his midday nap, fell from his bed–for I was sleeping next to him on the floor, for lack of space. I started leafing through it, and, surprise! I saw my poem there. Yes, with my name on it and all. I was relieved my father hadn’t noticed it. For if he did, he would ask how it got there, and I would probably get a smacking from him–not to mention my mother. So I took a pair of scissors from one of my mother’s drawers nearby and cut the thing out, hiding it in a place no one would ever think of looking.

     That was my first publication.

 

[1] A bouquet of flowers

by Constantine Santas

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