Summer 2016 — THE POTOMAC


  Nitin Jagdish

     Hey there.
     People always ask me if my poems are autobiographical. They are, but sometimes they are someone else's autobiography. Not today. The poems I'll read shortly, "The Rabbit" and "Ready for My Close–Up," aren't ripped from my life's headlines, but do lyricize my feelings towards two of them. This is the only class of autobiography that matters. Any true memoirist should agree, or at least find no offense in my remarks.
     These poems appear in the latest issue of In Verse/Re Verse. Because I have only fifteen minutes to read them, I had to strip some dramatically crucial lines from the poems. There are copies of In Verse/Re Verse for sale in the back. If you buy one, you can read the poems in their entirety. There's a lot of great stuff from other poets and critics, too. Wendy Dennis, who's here today, wrote the poem "Oh the Places You'll Never Go." I have to be honest; when Wendy told me she was casting her suicide attempt as a Dr. Seuss parody, I foresaw a terrible poem. There's a reason I'm a poet, not a psychic; Wendy's poem is fabulous, near sublime. Maybe she can read it at the next event.
     I thought I had twenty minutes but, silly me, I misread Gus and Angie's email. Gus and Angie, you run a wonderful program and I thank you for inviting me, but why do you give only fifteen minutes to read? It's not like you're renting this gallery by the hour or paying any rent at all. Since I have only fifteen minutes, I had to strip some dramatically crucial lines from the poems. Before reading them, I'll share a few details that will fill in the gaps.
     There's a long story behind "The Rabbit." In college, I dated a Midwesterner named Lane. We met in the second semester of freshman year. At the time, I was dating my high school boyfriend. We had vowed to be true to each other, graduate, start our careers, and get married. When Lane sat next to me in Introduction to International Politics, a girlfriend teased me for pulling my hair over my ears. I have very cute ears. Later, when Lane and I fought over the merits of the East Lansing falafel compared to its New York counterpart, I knew my vow would crumble.      Raise your hand if you're married to your high school sweetheart. Nobody. Exactly what I guessed. Maybe I'm psychic after all.
     What can I say about Lane? He was a vegan before being one was cool, which meant we never fought over the relative merits of New York and Chicago–style pizza. He could never play chords or finger pick cleanly on his guitar, but I loved spending weekend afternoons listening to him play folk songs. Somewhere is my parents' attic is a cassette of songs he wrote for me. We saw ourselves getting married after we graduated. I'm a nesting type. When I love someone, taking it slow is never an option.
     The script changed. On New Year's Eve, 1990, Lane was killed in a car crash. You can guess how I reacted, but I'll tell you anyway. I ate scraps on a good day, crumbs otherwise. I tossed and turned more than I slept. I engaged in random acts of obnoxiousness.
     Against common sense, I returned to school. I spent the first month of the Spring 1991 semester counting dust particles in my dorm room. My parents suggested it wasn't necessary to pay thousands of dollars to avoid classes. I could do it for free at home, and they could look after me. This made sense to my grief–soaked soul, and I went home.
     A few months into my grieving period, a white rabbit started showing up in our backyard. I consoled myself by imagining Lane had come back as a rabbit to check on me. I spoke to the rabbit. I yelled at him for not staying home on New Year's Eve. I warned him that if he rubbed in my face the Bulls' playoff sweep of the Knicks, I would throw a rock at him. There were other chats, too. Mom and Dad overheard these chats, and finally suggested that if the rabbit were Lane, he was trying to tell me he was okay and that I should move on. I didn't believe a word they said, but the fact they didn't treat me as a lunatic gave me the lift I needed to heal. I wish I could thank them.
     The other thread in "The Rabbit" is karma. You probably already know Hinduism teaches that we do in this life affects what happens in our next one. This is karma. Karma also determines our next incarnation. A bank robber could come back as a roach that some brat covers in peanut butter before flushing it.
     Assuming Hinduism's right, my parents were wrong; coming back as a white rabbit would have been terrible karma for Lane. What transgressions could he have committed to merit such an incarnation? Did he assault a homeless person? Did he swindle a naïve widow out of her savings? Did he burn down someone's home? Or, was there a transgression so terrible in one of his earlier incarnations that his unfair death could not cleanse his soul? The first poem I'm reading imagines what Lane did to end up as a rabbit.
     Some of you might think the poem's rhyme scheme and playful attitude create a jauntiness that borders on disrespectful. I understand. I disagree. For many years, I could not talk about Lane without crying. The jauntiness expresses my acceptance his death.
     The reason I could even think of writing a poem like "The Rabbit" is the strength my husband gives me. They say there is someone for everyone. It's been my blessing that this has been true for me twice. I dedicate this poem to him and my late parents.
     There's a long story behind "Ready for My Close-Up." I have two sons and a daughter. I'm the luckiest mom on the planet. There are some lucky moms here today, but I'm the luckiest. Maybe I'll call it a tie and say we're all the luckiest. I have only fifteen minutes to read my poems and don't have time to argue the point. Even though I'm the luckiest mom, and even though I already had a daughter, my circuitry badly scrambled itself after I gave birth to my first son.
     I vowed our home would be SIDS–free. We made the mistake of using a video monitor, and I capitalized on that mistake by looking at it every thirty minutes while he slept. Somebody had to be in the room with him at all times; otherwise, I wouldn't talk about anything else. Yes, that means at certain times there were two people watching a perfectly healthy baby sleep. Sometimes I would nudge him awake to make sure he was still alive.
     I vowed if he fell or hurt himself, it wouldn't be because of us. I climbed steps by planting both feet on a step before planting a foot on the next one. I wore extra padding on my shoulders just so my son wouldn't concuss himself if he laid his head on my shoulder abruptly. Everyone humored me, even if they didn't follow my lead.
     I vowed my son would not grow into a high–strung man. I strove to minimize jarring sounds and wouldn't let anyone play music other than lullabies. I strove to minimize conflict, and wouldn't let anyone debate politics in the house. This was during the 2008 election, and we are friends with some passionate Republicans and Democrats. You can imagine the popularity of that restriction.
     It seemed I would never write again. I would start playing with rhyme schemes or imagery, but my mind would itemize everything that could and probably would go wrong once I put my son in daycare. I would sit down to write a poem, and an hour later I was looking at another list of questions to ask the pediatrician.
     Mom and Dad treated me to a massage, hoping it would lighten me up. The whole time the masseuse worked out my knots, I replayed an argument with a friend over the superiority of cloth diapers to disposable ones. Even though it ended with both of us smiling, we silently crossed each other off our respective Christmas card lists. I cursed myself for arguing in the house. By the end of the massage, I was convinced my son would have PTSD.
     Never take for granted the luxury of free–range thoughts.
     Nursing provided some relief. Like many mothers before me, I fantasized about the grown–up version of my baby boy. He would be the sweetest, smartest, handsomest, wittiest, kindest, and most imaginative man in history. He would cure the world's ills without giving it much more thought than he would to breathing. Even if the weight of human history had its say and my son turned out to be just another person no different from anyone else, he would still be my baby.
     One night while nursing my son, cuddling him and listening to his cute feeding noises, it occurred to me that no mom ever imagines her baby will become a serial killer. How would I feel if my son were a serial killer? Mortified, until I died. Easy enough. But what if I weren't a decent human being? What if I weren't a poet, but instead a frustrated woman who wanted to live through my son's accomplishments, regardless of their morality? What if I weren't a low–key woman, but instead an attention–seeker who would use my son's notoriety as the quickest way to get a little fame for myself? What if my crisis came not from questioning the role my mistakes played in making him a killer, but instead my crisis came from knowing the next mass shooting or serial killer would vaporize whatever fame I had worked to build? I thought of Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie star from Sunset Boulevard, to whom the title "Ready for My Close–Up" refers. My writer's block was over. After nursing my son, I sat down to write this poem. Shortly afterwards, my circuits unscrambled themselves.
     A few people have pointed out that Facebook would never allow The Facebook Killer to become a reality, that it would be impossible for him to hack his victims' Facebook pages and post pictures of their corpses. That may true, but my poem explores the feelings of a stage mother lamenting the inevitable fading of her reflected glory. Details are just details.
     Any echoes of "Intimations of Immortality" that you hear are not coincidental. My poem is a crisis lyric. For me at least, Wordsworth's immortality ode is the greatest crisis poem in English. He's written other great crisis poems, but this one is his greatest. I certainly wouldn't say that my poem is in the same league, but I do see myself as engaging in a dialogue with Wordsworth.
     My husband, Mom, and Dad made every effort to shield my daughter from the effects of my episode. They were awesome, and I think she did not experience any major disruptions in her routine. Still, our daughter had to grow up a little more quickly than we would have liked. I dedicate this poem to her.
     And with that, I will begin my reading. Fifteen minutes. Good grief.

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