Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. ~ Kipling
So call me a word junkie, but the most curious kind of junkie.
Question: In a post-fact world, when we read words telling us that Barry Manilow is gay - by the way, something we've known since the 70s - are we to presume this is but another example of alternative truth and he really isn't gay? Has it come to that?
Or are they merely distractionary words meant to keep us from noticing something far more dire? Because Barry deserves better, if only for his chutzpah.
I clearly remember hearing a Casey Kasem Top 40 show where he told a story about Barry, Springsteen and Billy Joel having a conversation at a dive venue when they were just starting out and Barry insisted he'd be bigger than either one of them.
I'm inclined to think he was mistaken, but that's just me. Still, looks like he made it.
And speaking of words, I got a slew of them from my Dad yesterday when I showed up to help Mom with a few things only to discover she'd broken a temporary crown and was headed off to the dentist, leaving Dad and I to take care of her "honey-do" list. As if.
I mean, we moved a desk and rearranged the computer's wiring, but along the way he told me about why he'd given up cigarettes in 1991, a story I'd never heard. Hell, I don't recall he was still smoking as late as the '90s.
I should have known there'd been competition involved given my Dad's athletic nature. He told me how we were at the engagement party for Sister #6 when Sister #3 threw down the gauntlet, saying she could go longer without a beer than he could without a cig.
Three weeks later, she was drinking again while 26 years later, he still doesn't smoke. How had I never heard this chestnut before?
While we were planting moonflowers on the screened porch, apropos of nothing, he said, "You know, it's an extraordinary string of circumstances that led to me even meeting your mother. I was in the army and the first time I was supposed to ship out to Europe, I was sick. The second time I was supposed to go to the South Seas, but I had a sports injury. Finally, they gave me a choice of Fort Lee or Fort McNair and I sure wasn't southern enough to want to go to Petersburg." So he went to D.C. and somehow met Mom.
Those words would never have come out of him if Mom had been there.
But that was yesterday. Today's words came courtesy of Poetry Month and a reading at University of Richmond, where I arrived a tad late (that labyrinthine campus) and while there were no multiple seats together, singletons can almost always find a lone chair.
Reading first was lanky and bespectacled Peter LaBerge coming across more like a theater student than a burgeoning poet with his animated reading and ease in talking to the room, looking up between each line of verse as if to re-engage us or perhaps check who was looking at their screens.
His elegiac poetry concerned the difficulties of growing up gay in suburban Ohio and several pieces were devoted to gay people who'd been senselessly attacked outside Target or in Texas simply because of their sexuality (too soon to make a crack about that being a factor in Barry's decision to hold off...discuss?).
Admitting he wrote a lot of dark poems, he went for lighter, reading one inspired by a man who wore high heels on "America's Next Top Model" and took guff from another contestant who had a problem with it. Peter could not only relate, but, said, "There was a poem there."
And there was but honestly, it was very dark, too.
"Thank you all for using your time to come here on a Wednesday night," he said earnestly from the lectern. "It is a good use of your time, though."
Chen Chen read next and his book was for sale tonight even though it doesn't technically come out until next Tuesday, so we were told to keep our mouths shut about that. He used humor and personal experience to write poetry about leaving China as a 3-year old and now not knowing whether his memories are real or imagined.
In "First Light" he wondered, "What is it to not remember your life?" He recalled his Mom telling him he'd have to be three times better than the white kids to be taken seriously, a surefire way to make a kid wish he wasn't Chinese. That and the frustration of being interchangeable in the eyes of white people.
He spoke of Paris and how it's impossible to be angry in Paris. Mad? Yes. Sad? Sure, but angry? Not in Paris, he asserted. I don't recall feeling angry in Paris last summer, so I think he's right on this one.
But mainly it was the underpinnings of a humorous observer of the universe that set his poetry apart.
Tarfia Faizullah, whom I'd heard read her challenging poems (about the lives of Bangladeshi women, about coming up in an Anglican school) as far back as 2010, was third and had a bit more gravitas then her predecessors.
Interestingly, she began by telling us that her dark focus had softened over the past few years, to the point that she added the word "illuminated" to her new book title in hopes of alerting readers to a shift in outlook. Some of her work dealt with being a brown-skinned woman and the assumptions that go along with that.
Eventually she pointed out her grad school professor, the poet David Wojahn, sitting in the second row, a fact that was making her nervous despite now living in Michigan, hanging around with fiction writers and long out of grad school. I can't imagine why when he was practically beaming with pride as she read a poem about water that had been inspired by signs pointing toward the city of Flint.
And while I wasn't beaming, my soul was most definitely feeling bathed in a calm I hadn't possessed when I walked in. It had been too long since I closed my eyes and let someone read poetry to me.
Coming back through the Fan, I stopped at Garnett's for a farmer's salad enjoyed at the counter directly in front of the open Dutch door, and every now and then, I could feel or smell a hint of Spring flowery breeze wafting in.
Since the soundtrack was right up my alley - guitar-driven indie rock, so New Pornographers, Wild Nothing, Real Estate - I didn't much need other amusements, so the two guys on a first date behind me were icing on the cake as they politely asked each other questions, each one proving a little more just how little they had in common.
Let me put it this way: the got separate checks.
Doing far better at connecting was the blond couple at the end of the counter - his stool swiveled toward hers, her hand on his arm to make a point - except that I found it a little weird that they both had on light blue and white gingham shirts.
When I asked the server who cut my slice of Almond Joy cake if she thought their matching attire was intentional, she said no. Seems that one day three Garnett's employees, including herself, had come to work in burgundy pants and blue denim shirts with no coordination whatsoever.
Randomness apparently happens. Hello, my life.
The two older woman at a table at the other end gabbed non-stop as if sharing state secrets, the only one of which I heard in its entirety was, "That's because the restaurant owner's mother was into horses." I only wish I understood whatever point that answer addressed.
Chances are there's a poem in it.