It began with an invitation from JGenius on Monday,
May 14 to join him at the big poetry festival happening
in the county south of here. “Let's scheme of a way to
do that poetry reading and soak up some poetic beauty
next weekend.” And later on, he repeated:
“Can you do the Saturday reading? We'd each read 2
or 3 poems. 10:45-12:00 in a brilliant old giant haunted
mansion. I even have 2 poems, maybe a 3rd. Then
maybe some time to frolic La Conner or see a poet?
What say you?”
On Friday, when I said I would, he returned:
“Let's plan tomorrow, eh? Are you bringing the
family or flying solo? And what time would you
like to meet? The open mic thing is at 10:45 so we
should get there no later than 10:30 -- but I'm up
for meeting at any time you feel ready -- we could
meet for biscuits and gravy at the diner in MV at 9.
What are you thinking, logistician?”
So I agreed:
“Yeah the diner at 9! I’ll bring my ‘Northern Exposure’
script and we can practice.”
“Excellent. I'll start practicing my Maurice
Minnifield-isms. That guy was pitch-perfect.
Of course, I had him in class…If the class were
marooned on an island, he'd be the first to secretly
bring up the topic of cannibalism with me.”
“Can you give me the directions to that diner
again? Exits and whatnot coming south on I-5.
I think I remember but I could also end up like
“Right-o. Take the Kincaid Street exit, and
turn right at the end of the off ramp. Go
straight for three blocks (I think there are
two sets of traffic lights) and take a right on
1st street (it's kind of screwy, because if you
go right, it's 1st, but if you go left it's Cleveland).
Then you just stay on first street a few blocks
until you see the good old Skagit Valley Co-op
on your right -- the Mount Vernon Cafe
(the diner) is across the street from the Co-op
-- so it will be on your left. You can park in
the Co-op parking lot, but there should be
spaces around. Call in case you get Amelia'ed.
I will be there in my derby and short pants
at 8:57, grousing about like an expatriate.”
That morning, I left Bellingham at 8:30,
first stopping to get gas. I couldn’t find
anything good on the radio, even on A.M.
where I hoped to find a 1950s oldies station.
Finally I tuned to Spanish music just as I
pulled off the highway. Driving down 1st
Street, I happened upon JGenius daydreaming
along the sidewalk. I rolled down the window
and bellowed, “Hey Dummy!” startling him
out of his thoughts. Once I parked and met up
with him, he told me he was thinking of a
poem. We went into the diner, found a booth
and caught up for it’s actually rare that I sit
with friends and palaver. When it was time to
move on to the poetry town, we took his
truck, through the farms.
Up on the hill, the ancient mansion loomed
like a pair of wooden crooked praying hands
gnarled together. We parked around the
corner. There were clucks of people fluttering
about on the tipped sidewalks. The houses
all have gardens that lean out over. Up the
creaking stairs, we entered the mansion.
A waxwork woman at the desk in the
doorway pointed our way to the reading
room. But before it started, JGenius took
me upstairs to look for the ghost. We
found a room with a spinning wheel and
clouds painted on the ceiling. Outside,
below, the town bent in the windows.
JGenius tried to trick me by starting a
rocking chair and pointing out the ghost.
There was a door with a Staff Only sign
on it. A peek inside revealed boxes,
shadows and sun motes and a mannequin
draped in a sheet. It was 10:45, so we
went back downstairs on those splintery
steps and found our chairs.
JGenius appraised the room and immediately
said, “Everyone who’s here is going to read.”
It was true. There was no audience, only
I read ‘The Shepherd from Iran’ ‘Fox Subway’
and ‘Bellingham Coal Train.’ I have to say,
I’m not much a fan of poetry readings.
The 1891 room creaked with heavy time.
I watched the tapestry rug with its dramatic
rendering of a leopard ripping into a deer.
JGenius read a ray of sunshine, a truck ride
with his son and The Beatles on the radio.
Because it was so uncomfortable in that
old house, it reminded me of the castles
I visited long ago, where you could feel
the ghosts watching you. It wasn’t hard
to imagine a muse for every person,
wandering the festival streets with them,
some joyfully and skipping or floating,
others dragging along this mortal plane
like the ones in this room, harbingers of
death. At the end, we both stared at each
other after the podium crashed over and
books flew. There really was a ghost!
Once it was over, I needed the doorway
outside. The street was very quiet.
We were both wiped out. Across the
channel I could see three shelters shaped
like cedar hats on the Swinomish
reservation shore. We needed to be
near the water. “Is there any way of
getting over there?” I asked. I followed
JGenius, stumbling the town, half thinking
we’d run into Tom Robbins in his Spam
tshirt. He wasn’t around. You can’t even
get to the water in this place, the dock
has a No Trespassing sign. In not too long,
we found the little white pickup truck,
got in and crossed the red rainbow bridge
to the other side. Past the cemetery with
fresh cared for flowered graves, we
parked in the asphalt lot. We went under
the wide rim hat of the closest shelter
and there were some plastic chairs.
Maybe, we thought, we could borrow
a couple and set them out on the sand?
But all the chairs had been broken.
So we walked to the beach and found
a log to sit on. A crow watched us,
made a sound then was gone.
What is it about poetry readings?
We couldn’t figure it out. (Still thinking
about it later, here’s my idea: poems are
a sort of spell, and when you use poetry
for pain, like those flowers of Baudelaire,
that’s what appears.) I wished I had read
my short story ‘Bucket Head’ instead.
I even brought it along just in case.
Oh well. After a while, sitting on the log
watching the riverlike flow, we felt better,
it was time to go. Leaving Swinomish,
a yellow dog tied by a rope, Jughead’s
Fire Works, old trucks and boats buried
in vines, a totem pole on top the hill.
It was fun to drive around the farmland
outside of town. The tulips have dropped
their petals, there’s a purple crop of iris
still, but I like the big farm trees, the
poplars and those wide rhododendrons.
JGenius pulled into a narrow road that
took us to a field he wants to buy.
It’s all filled in with tall green weeds.
He wants to sell his house and move
here and I can’t blame him.
There’s Mt. Baker and all the hills
of Skagit Valley. We crawled over the
barbed wire fence and waded through
the grass. There’s even a pond. It’s got
a silver metal bridge connected to a
rocky island. Taking steps out on it,
a big frog hopped off into the thick
water. JGenius wants to plant a stand
of douglas fir and cedar, have his house
facing south for the sunlight. It’s a
good dream, a big open field and you
can just picture the vast array of stars
turning on at night.
While he drove me back to Mt. Vernon
where my car was waiting, he told me
a joke about a man who ate a lot of
dogfood. I sort of did a terrible thing
and ruined the punchline. Actually,
his punchline was ruder than what I
predicted. We got out and strolled over
to the bookstore. There was nobody else
in the place, we were all alone.
Somehow we were drawn, ending up
at the back wall, looking at the poetry
shelf. We both agreed those old Laurel
pocket editions are great, but honestly
by now I’m a bit poetry’ed out.
today, I received this card with
the frog that jumped into that pond