Thursday, October 18, 2012

To Live This Life

Almost back in the saddle again, with only an occasional reach back.

Things got rolling at the Library of Virginia for Poetic Principles, a reading by Joshua Poteat and Henry Hart.

Arriving in the Library of Virginia garage, it was just me and one other woman and the parking attendant knew nothing of a poetry reading.

In the elevator going upstairs, we wondered if we'd both gotten the wrong date.

It seemed unlikely.

She introduced herself ("Hi, I'm Carol") as we took the elevator up.

Fortunately, there was a poetry reading when we got there, but we were the only attendees.

I've been an audience of one before, so I have no problem being an audience of two.

Eventually others arrived, meaning Carol and I had not been mistaken.

Best line overheard as I sat waiting for the reading to begin?

"Ever hear of the singer Elliot Smith?" a 20-something guy asks of a girl entranced by her phone. "He sang really sad songs."

Nope, she replied, going back to her phone.

Silly me, I'd have thought Elliot Smith would have been a terrific conversation-starter at a poetry reading.

Eventually Josh Poteat began the reading by thanking us for coming rather than going to the Byrd Theater for author Tom Robbins and a screening of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."

I've heard him read before (in fact, I have one of his lines of poetry etched into a piece of collaged wood hanging over a doorway), but he was reading new stuff tonight.

He dedicated "Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature" about the strange names given Puritan children by their crazed parents (favorite line: "Make sweet what's given") to his wife.

From there, he spoke of a project where his inspiration came from the city of Richmond and the 1900 Sears & Roebuck catalog.

Wonderful imagery arose from poems with departmental names.

"Department of Telescopes" provided, "There in the night orchard of the clumsy city."

Oh, but we can be such a clumsy city sometimes.

In "Department of Taxidermy" came, "When there is another darkness, I'll admit it."

Between poems, it occurred to him that this was not a feel-good kind of reading.

"These are kind of bummer poems," he confessed. "Richmond isn't as bad as these poems make it sound."

Actually, Richmond is pretty cool if you ask me. Not perfect, but better all the time.

He introduced "Department of Masonry" by saying, "This poem begins with death metal bands and ends with me pouting in the backyard."

If that isn't the defining range of a whole generation of men, I don't know what is.

Best line: "It isn't enough, but I'll take what I can get."

About an unfinished poem concerning his obsession, the slave Gabriel Prosser, Poteat admitted, "This poem could be 120 pages long and that's a bad sign."

What was good were lines like, "The houses didn't know enough to be afraid" and "Help me, moonlight."

In "Department of Hymnals," we heard, "The night has used itself up" and "There's nothing I won't do to live this life."

I am particularly taken with the passion of the latter line.

Just before starting "Lighting Department," he said, "Thanks for coming and I hope I will see all of you again someday."

My guess would be at the next poetry reading.

Next up was Henry Hart who referred to Carol, the woman I had met in the garage, as "the guardian angel of poets."

Turns out Carol was Carol Weinstein, she who funds the series Poetic Principles and supports residencies for poets to work.

You know, that Carol.

Hart began with what he called an old poem, "A Gift of Warblers" about the art project he'd made for his grandfather who was always supportive of his poetic leanings.

"Janet Morgan and the Moon Shot" was about the moon landing in 1969 and had the line, "Discovering grace still depended on shifting weight."

"Mystery Play: November 22, 1963" was about his performance anxiety at being in the school musical when he couldn't sing.

"You know how some teachers like to torture students?" he said as if it were fact.

I didn't but he's a teacher, so I took his word for it.

Best line: "His face had hardened to a ridgeless nickle."

I've seen the ridgeless nickel look and it's not one I want directed my way.

A poem about his mother's occasional need to escape her three sons was called "Independence Day" with the line, "All summer she dreamed of storms."

"I doubted everything but luck" came from "Crossing the Gobi Desert Summer 1900," a poem about days lost crossing the desert.

When he finished reading, he offered to take questions, but none were forthcoming, so we scattered like crows.

I decided to go east to the Roosevelt for dinner, arriving to find I was one of scads of people who had made the same decision.

Every table was full, every bar stool was taken and there was a six-top ahead of me waiting for a table.

Even so, Sam Cook's "Chain Gang" was rising above the level of the chattering masses, so I wasn't going anywhere.

Since I had just come from hearing lines like, "Wind droned like bees," I took the drone of chatter for something more appealing and sat down on the waiting bench.

I was perfectly content crowd watching when a server offered to bring me a libation, swearing he had nothing else to do at the moment.

Not long after, a girl at the bar spotted me and reminded me she'd waited on me at Bistro Bobette.

She especially remembered a man I'd come in with, according to her, someone with a very dry British sense of humor, and I had no idea who she meant.

Still, it's always nice to be remembered.

White Hall Cabernet Franc was delivered and sipped until, as if an alarm went off, suddenly tables and bar stools were emptied.

Starving by then, I looked at the menu for new dishes to try, eventually deciding on rice grits, risotto, ham, crab and purple cape beans.

When I placed my order, bartender T. looked at me like I was crazy.

"Really, Karen? Risotto? Didn't you just get back from Italy?"

As I tried to sputter a justification, he went into full placating mode.

"No, no, that's good. You've got to wean yourself off slowly. You're doing the right thing."

I laughed out loud at that, but didn't have the heart to tell him I'd almost ordered the gnocchi as well.

Just as I was finishing the lovely combination of flavors, Chef Lee came out to chide me.

"You went to Italy for two weeks and you come here and order that shit?" he teased, pointing at my empty risotto bowl. "It's not going to be any good."

Of course, it was very good, but I understood his point.

To make peace in the kitchen, I promptly ordered Lee's chicken skin slider with kimchee mayo and pickles, hoping to use southern to knock Italian out of my head.

Kind of like rebound dating after a bad breakup.

As Neko Case's "Favorite" played, I ate fried chicken skin with my fingers, the better to reprogram my brain and taste buds.

That, my friends, is how I replace the pleasures of Italy with those of Richmond.

Poetically speaking, that's the way to make sweet what's been given to me.

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