The Famous Poet

Fiction
Jim Ray Daniels


Photo Credit: Julie Jablonski/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellen was married to the famous poet.

“Famous poet—that’s an oxymoron,” he’d say, while signing books after readings, chatting up his readers, ignoring the length of the line, “the poetic line,” he’d joke, which sometimes extended to ten or twenty—long, in poetry terms. Poetry is full of oxymorons. Or just plain morons. Ha, ha. Poetry joke. Ah shucks. He’s a poet and he knows it. He liked keeping the line long to give the illusion of popularity. He was an illusionist.

She attended most of his readings once he got into his seventies. A deadhead for Dan. Dan was her man. They flew together, then slept in single beds in poetry-budget hotel rooms. It didn’t seem like a lot of people wanted to sleep with him anymore, but while he held a book in his hand—his book—and they waited, he held a brief power, however diminishing. His signature, more precious the closer he got to dying.

You might think her presence was a deterrent to those who might still want to sleep with the famous poet, but that’s not why Ellen was his roadie—not anymore. He was starting to get confused. With or without the book in his hand, he sometimes forgot where he was. He now liked the idea of sex better than sex itself. For years, he liked the idea of being married better than marriage itself.

Why do people get books signed? Ellen was never interested. Dan got so many books sent to him by younger poets that he often sold them to the used bookstore in town. Their signatures irritated him. He didn’t want people in the bookstore thinking he was callous and mercenary, selling books signed to him personally. “Shit,” he’d say, ripping open the padded envelopes, “another signed one.” He kept them those together on a separate shelf. ‘Sell them when I die,’ he’d tell her. “Maybe some of them will be famous someday.”

Always about fame. Dan loved the scheming and feuds. They animated him in ways that Ellen never understood. She never met a person who took greater pleasure in ire.

 

She met Dan when they worked together in a French restaurant in Cleveland as high school kids. His uncle owned the joint. He always seemed to find a way into The Club, whatever club that might be, then passing judgment on nonmembers. He claimed not to be in any club, like all poets, but he’d won the big prize, so that made him a universal card-carrying member, a blood donor for all victims.

Three people on the awards committee, and two of them they’d had dinner with on multiple occasions. Casual acquaintances, he called them, but they did each other favors. Once you win the big prize, they hyphenate it in front of your name forever.

“Hey, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet,” she used to tell him, “take out the trash.” Funny at first. But he wouldn’t take out the trash. At school, they hired an assistant to open those padded envelopes, screen his email. He had a booking agent, Marge, who mothered him, despite him being thirty years her senior. He was shrinking into an elfin wiry hanger of an old man. On bad days, he looked like Munch’s The Scream, skeletal with inscrutable suffering. On good days, it rained, and they sat drinking tea together, and he forgot the tiny world of poetry in which he was a minor god. He’d read the newspaper comics aloud, particularly the odd, serious ones like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan, M.D., giving the characters absurdly dramatic voices. He would be hers again as they watched rain rattle windows, and they’d be happy to be together, inside, and dry, while the world out there got wet.

 

Ellen never really understood his poems, though she was afraid to tell him. He dutifully signed one of his free copies to her “with love” each time he published a new book, and she stacked them in their son’s old room on the shelves below the favorite children’s books they used to read him aloud and couldn’t bear to part with. She sometimes sat on his old bed and reread them—Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Dinosaur Bob, Goodnight Moon, a sweet, endless row of colorful titles—while the poetry books at eye level gathered dust. Their son Pablo (yes, Pablo—Pablo Mitchell) had done well enough to afford to live in San Francisco, far enough away from them in Pittsburgh to exhaust the prize winner on the cross-country flight, though when a school flew him out to get another prize or to give out another prize—once he won the big prize, he was called upon to hand out many prizes himself—he was happy enough to go, and then spend an extra day with Pablo and his partner Walt. He didn’t like Walt much. “Does he have to be so gay?” he asked without irony.

“Our son loves Walter,” Ellen always said. He stopped responding to that, except to harrumph and leave the room or rattle the pages of a manuscript he was working on. His assistant printed out everything for him. Ellen used to do that.

 

Yes, she used to. They entered the past-tense mode, and the rest of Ellen’s dreams took a tumble, so that’s how this little story ends. So predictable—may as well get it out on the table, let you know this is going where you think it is. Not like one of his poems: “a master of mystery and self-interruption, of opacity and misdirection, he gives whole new meaning to the word ‘meaning’.”

Ellen got hit with some moral outrage from the poetry world when she introduced his poems as evidence in the divorce trial. Online diatribes that Pablo read to her over the phone while giggling and drinking some high-priced wine. He was fond of expensive wines and mocking his father.

Evidence of what? Mental instability. Her lawyer thought the judge would find them a hoot, and he was right. He didn’t understand them either. Yet the poets wanted to protect him and his poetic license—no one wanted to take that away, leave him stranded with his fancy certificates and trophies. Ellen had protected him for thirty-seven years, yet she was vilified on social media by a pack of poets who were desperate to write online screeds in lieu of poetry. Yet it made no difference in her daily life. Dan himself once called them a bunch of circle-jerk backstabbers—if you were outside the circle, there were no consequences.

 

“I don’t care about the poems,” Ellen told Dan, “but you have to make sense to me.” They sat in the large, modern kitchen of their sleek house in Upper St. Clair, further from the university, closer to the airport. They’d moved out there for the schools for Pablo and stayed so Dan could use traffic as an excuse to be late for everything on campus.

“That’s always been the problem—you don’t care about the poems. I’m glad you’re finally admitting it,” he said. He took the wallet out of his back pocket and set it on the table between them.

“Does this make sense, Ellen?” he asked, as if she was a stupid student who had dared to challenge him. He only had to teach one course a semester now, and even that, he was mailing in, winging it, having his assistant screen the student poems like she screened his mail.

“You don’t get the joke of my poems,” he once explained. “They deal with the absurdity of the world. Do you think the world makes sense, Ellen?”

“It’s our job to try to make sense of it,” she said, “Not to reproduce incoherence.”

“Who is this ‘we’?”

“Humanity.”

He laughed. What’s the source of this newfound idealism?” he asked. “No, that just won’t do, not at all.”

“Fuck you,” Ellen shouted.

“Fuck me, indeed,” he said, and took his coffee into his study. The next week, he left for a week-long residency at Princeton, and when he came back, he moved out. Even his movers were a bunch of sycophantic grad students.

 

He had given Ellen the opportunity to be cruel, at long last, and she took it. Perhaps he was at fault for taking so long to grab It himself. She was ashamed of playing the martyr, the anchor to his ship straining to pull away.

Since she’d retired early from my job as a paralegal for Hoefner and Reid, a big downtown law firm, she’d been intent on helping his career, but he won the prize, just when you think he’d need her more, and the university, the foundations, the Poetry National Honor Society, all started fluffing up his pillows. Excuse the sarcasm. Or not. She is still working on not giving a fuck.

When she retired, she made the obvious mistake of making the poetry world her world, so when they got divorced, she lost a lot of friends she could no longer call for help with crossword puzzles.

 

She loved him after long shifts together in the restaurant, walking home on the muted streets of Cleveland, hands held, the faint smell of wine and garlic and sweat in their white shirts and black pants, passing only the occasional random drunk, the buzzing lights of the all-night donut shop they sometimes stopped into for coffee. She loved the way he set them apart from the others, quelling her loneliness, squelching the persistent urge to fit in that she always fought against, the behaver in her, the follower. Ultimately, their love became a small club of two. He was always president.

 

“You should have been a lawyer,” they’d tell her at the firm. “You’d be a real ball buster,” Jake Hoefner himself told her. But once Pablo was away at Stanford, it was too late. Ellen knew she could never go back to school and take notes from some little shitheads when she knew as much or more about the law—about practicing law—than most of the lawyers she worked for.

 

When you get older, it’s easy to get hurt. Physically hurt. Ellen had both knees scoped, and a torn rotator cuff—from shoveling the snow while the famous poet was at a conference. Dan had a “heart episode” a few years ago, which led to her snow shoveling, though to be honest, it’d always been, when the flakes were falling, Dan was stalling. Pablo shoveled for years—one of his chores—but not Dan.

 

“Not bad for a poor white kid from Jersey,” was Dan’s favorite line. It had a hint of humility to it and also celebrated the relative poverty of his family (his father had come from money and lost it). Dan had remade himself over the years, telling lies about his family in interviews his family would never read—he never read them himself. He trusted Ellen to read them. “Just make sure they don’t make me sound like an asshole,” he said, which was never a problem, since the interviews were conducted by younger poets currying favor.

Ellen thought lawyers were sleazy, but once she started keeping score in poetry, she understood that the lawyers had nothing on poets except more money. The poets added an extreme level of pettiness in lieu of financial compensation. They were always putting in the fix on the prizes and contests. She was going to bring that up at the divorce proceedings as well, but that’s when he caved. He was correct that introducing his poems would make him a martyr in some circles, but he also knew details of some of the backroom deals might get him the kind of publicity he didn’t need.

 

“After a certain point, shouldn’t you just stick it out till the end, till death do you part?” Pablo asked. He’d never been a big fan of his father’s poetry, or sometimes of his father himself, but he’d embraced his name, and Neruda, and it became part of his image—the silicon valley guy who read poetry. A techie with a deep side.

His mother was calling him to make the announcement. Even before she told Dan. In a way, perhaps she was steeling herself for Dan—to see if Pablo could/would talk her out of it.

“What do you have to lose by staying with him?”

“There’s no hyphens in front of my name,” Ellen said. “Maybe there’s still time for one. I’m thinking ‘ball-buster Ellen.”

“Mom, you don’t mean that,” he said.

 

Ellen could have gone the easier route with “infidelity,” but that was too easy. “Infidelity for $200!” She wanted the upper hand somehow, to not be a victim, despite being victimized for years.

 

“I’m getting a medal next week from the Academy,” he told her as soon as she sat down at his booth at Two Brothers, the one he was sitting at on the cover of his New and Selected Poems. It was a home game for him, she thought idly as she set her satchel down beside her, but then again, it always was.

The satchel was for what her future might hold. She was sixty—not much time. It held her new laptop and nothing else. She didn’t ask what academy. “You look good for an old man.”

He was drinking a martini as if he posing for another author photo, proud of himself forever. He always wanted to be interviewed at the Two Brothers, for it to get mentioned as his place. He was delighted whenever one of the brothers told him someone had come in looking for him. He wanted to be looked for.

Ellen ordered a draft and a bag of pretzels and looked around.

“Are you happy now?” he asked.

She smiled at him. “You know me, I’m never happy.”

“That’s why you should be a poet!” he shouted and laughed.

“You know, Danny, sometimes I think this poetry thing is all these little toy soldiers on a board moving around while above them the rest of the world goes on, not caring who kills who, who takes what territory, because we all know they’re toys. The only ones who don’t know are the poets.”

“This poetry thing you talk about—it’s my life.”

“Come on, it’s me, Ellen. See, I’m not taking notes.”

“You loved me for it back when we worked at Le Petite.”

“I liked you better as a waiter pretending to speak French. You knew you were pretending then. “

Dan pounded on the table. “Pretend? Pretend? I’ve been saving my own life with poetry.”

“What about my life? Have you been saving my life?” she shouted.

“Oh, good,” he said, “you’re making a scene. Everybody loves a good scene.”

“They do,” she replied. “You need more scenes in your poems and less…”

“And less what? Less poetry?” he snorted. He was fingering one of the cigars he’d taken up, chewing them soggy without lighting. Another form of pretending.

“You’re always talking about the image, but I think you mean image in a different kind of way.”

 

Pablo and Walt were having a baby. Or somebody was having the baby for them with somebody’s sperm. Ellen was too excited to ask. She didn’t care.

They were both on the line, talking over each other from different rooms in their San Francisco apartment. “We didn’t want to tell anyone until the baby was born,” Pablo said.

“But we couldn’t wait. Just family, we said,” Walt added.

“Get Dad. Put him on the other line,” Pablo said.

Ellen pulled the phone away and shouted, “Dan, pick up, it’s Pablo and Walt!”

He was reclining in his La-Z-Boy scanning through a stack of literary journals looking for familiar names.

“Both of them?” he said before picking up. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

“Hey Grandpa,” Pablo shouted. “Now you’re going to have something to write about—we’re having a baby!”

“Who? What? Who’s having a baby?” he unreclined his chair and stood up, bending down to shout into the phone.

“We—“

“We’re using a surrogate!” Walt shouted. “It’s when—“

“I know what a surrogate is,” Dan shouted. “Who’s the father?”

Across the room, Ellen made mad hand gestures to indicate happiness, as if it were a game of charades.

“Oh, never mind,” he said, “Congratulations to you two,” he said, then hung up.

“What’s that all about?” Walt asked.

“My Dad doesn’t like talking to more than one person unless he’s performing,” Pablo said. “Was he writing?” he asked Ellen.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter what he was doing,” she said. “I’m excited and proud of you both. So is your father.”

“Will he write the baby a poem?” Walt asked.

“No,” Pablo and Ellen said simultaneously.

 

“It’s not just me and you,” he said, “it’s about saving everybody.”

“Oh, don’t start quoting William Carlos Williams again. You’re going to make me puke.” Ellen was sorry as soon as she said it, and, in fact, liked Williams. She understood some of what he had to say—the plums poem, but not the wheelbarrow poem.

They had been happy and reckless—then they were less reckless, then less happy. Unhappiness was subtle and blurry, almost unrecognizable, something disguised as happiness—as if someone had gently nudged them into a dark room and their eyes failed to adjust.

“When’s the last time you puked, by the way? It might be good for you. A nice purging.”

 

Dan had written poems about Pablo. One of them was anthologized everywhere: Pablo crawling into bed with them during a thunderstorm. Dan recited it from memory. Pablo recited it from memory. Even Ellen could recite it from memory. She sat in the back at readings, then slipped out when she knew the poem was coming, their intimacy turned into a parlor trick, the audience making murmuring noises of approval and wonder.

He rarely wrote about Ellen, at least in any recognizable way. The Pablo poem had been an uncharacteristic dip into sentiment, but it went over so well that Dan had to keep reading it, even after Pablo was a grown man. He would have preferred to leave the room himself and have someone else read it. He didn’t consider it one of his better poems.

 

“You don’t need a beginning and ending if the middle’s good enough,” Dan was fond of saying.

But I need an ending, Ellen caught herself thinking whenever he said it. It was a mistake to follow him around the country and sit at long tables in noisy restaurants and listen to Dan hold forth. He turned it on and off like a faucet, so when they were alone back in the hotel room, it was off for Ellen, or only running cold.

 

The poetry scuttlebutt was that they were getting divorced because of his affairs—small change in the dramatic currency of poets’ lives. “A few peccadillos,” he would raise his shoulders and shrug. “Don’t you love the sound of that word, peccadillos?”

Clearly, she’d hurt him, and that kind of clarity was what she was looking for, without apology. The pain of the needle, not the blunt instrument.

They were both tired of apology.

 

One of the Two Brothers was heading over to check on them. Ellen reached across the table and took Dan’s hand. She squeezed. In the lack of words, they each found their own meaning.

 

She edited their high school yearbook, and he edited the literary magazine. He rarely mentioned this, because what hardscrabble high school had a literary magazine? And in his version, he was busing tables at the restaurant, not waiting tables, not speaking French with only the slightest of accents, as he recited the memorized menu each night.

What was not to love? He stood thick through the chest with a deep resonant voice. His hair was thinning, but he had a beautiful forehead and a sincere smile.

Sincere. Dan, the owner’s nephew who always got more than his fair share of tables, tips. But he could handle it. He was good at handling, his deceptively delicate hands easing plates onto the white tablecloth with a bow.

Ellen had to talk him out of the beret back then, but now he wore one without irony or affectation. He could wear anything because he’d won the prize. He was a noted raconteur, and didn’t a raconteur need a good chapeau?

 

“Ellen, if you go out with me, I’ll explain poetry to you.”

“What makes you think I want it explained?”

They were driving to a writer’s conference at Hawking, a fancy prep school in the suburbs of Cleveland.

“How about you explain yearbook to me then? A collection of vanity mug shots for the cliques to prove they were important once?”

He had the wit of someone who took nothing seriously, but he took everything seriously.

 

They were the two finalists for the English Department award their senior year, and he had won, backed by the passionate endorsement of the gay literary magazine advisor who had a crush on him. The yearbook advisor, on the other hand, was an alcoholic stumbling toward retirement, cynical and defeated.

 

She loved that his French sounded authentic, that he also made jewelry and played the piano. He went to Kenyon College and she went to Denison for a year, then transferred to join him at Kenyon. He wrote her letters full of wild madness that often showed up later as parts of poems. She didn’t wonder then, but later asked him what came first, the letters, or the poems.

“It’s all a process,” he said. “I wrote them all out of love for you.”

They went to Paris once, a rainy week a year before Pablo came along. Dan was unhappy being a tourist and taken advantage of. Ellen did most of the French-speaking. He was uncharacteristically hesitant, fumbling. Ellen loved his reliance on her, how he turned to her for confirmation or assistance. He never wanted to go back.

 

The yearbook did a feature on the literary magazine, Prism, which was then only in its second year. Dan was in three of the four photos, bent over, pretending to edit, pretending to lay out a poem, pretending to have a staff meeting. The only other picture of Dan in the yearbook showed him sitting in the library, holding a book with his middle finger extended. No one noticed until after it came out, and Ellen had been furious. Even the old, drunken advisor had gotten out of his chair to raise a protest, but the photo was just uncertain enough that Dan could plead innocence. He was an escape artist, even then, hiding his meaning with wit. He’s a clever one, they all said, and he was Ellen’s, and she lovingly put up with him, like in the teen movies she couldn’t help liking—the good girl, the wise-cracking guy. They were a unit in school, in the restaurant, on the street. Because you couldn’t understand his poems, they were good. He was smart enough to be clear, and too smart to be clear—selling mystery and wonder. He had the magic fire stick, and what he did with it was his business.

 

Ellen remembered the phone call, and Dan, of course, remembered it too. A caller from New York who wanted to talk to Daniel Ronson, the poet. She handed him the phone, and they exchanged a look.

“Is this it?” he whispered to her, pointing to the phone.

Ellen giggled. They knew he was a finalist. and that the announcement was coming. He winked at her and crossed his fingers.

“Yes, this is Dan Ronson. Yes, the poet.”

 

When he hung up, he clapped his hands and whooped a series of celebratory shouts, then shimmied a victory dance. Ellen wanted to dance with him, but he didn’t reach for her until he was tired of dancing.

“Ha!” he said, panting, and she took him in her arms. He lifted her up. “How does it feel to be married to a Pulitzer-Prize winner?”

 

He was the first to ask her that question. She soon lost track of how often she was asked. Many of the questions were not rhetorical, like Daniel’s. People wanted an answer, as if there was one. Something witty and crisp, not heartfelt.

“I’m proud of him,” she always said.

“Well, of course,” they said, “but…”

“It’s only poetry,” she said, and laughed, but no one laughed with her.

 

He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got some calls to make,” he said, and pulled away. He’d prepared a list. First, he called Two Brothers.

“I won,” he shouted. “Open up the back room and be ready, we’re coming down!”

It wasn’t as festive as Daniel or Ellen imagined it would be, since winning the prize meant, of course, that his friends had not won. He should’ve just invited their neighbors and the plumber and electrician—anyone who had nothing to do with poetry and could sincerely be thrilled for him.

Back home, he was glum, restless, and couldn’t sleep. “Fuck them,” he said. “Why even show up if they can’t be happy for me?”

Ellen wanted to remind him of the years he’d spent railing about other prizes and winners, but she just took him in her arms and patted his head. They were on the same team. She was happy for him, he needed to know.

The next day, he remembered to call Pablo.

 

Dan had an opinion on everything. He should have been a critic, Ellen used to think sometimes, listening to him evaluate every meal, every movie, every other driver on the road—but she worried that he’d be too harsh. He excelled at finding weak spots.

For many years, Pablo had adopted his father’s beliefs about everything, but when he became a teenager, he stopped and went into reverse, and Dan didn’t have the time or disposition to win Pablo over with reason. He was dismissive and patronizing, as he could be with everyone, but his own son, confused about his sexuality, got no help from his father, who, oblivious for years, offered comments on which girls were cute, and why didn’t he ask them out?

“Dan,” Ellen told him, “Pablo is figuring things out. Don’t pressure him.” She worried about him being gay. At their high school back in Cleveland, they shunned anyone who was different, and different often meant gay—like the Prism advisor, Mr. Hancock, who Dan mocked behind his back. Dan himself had to fend off taunts due to his poetry writing, and Mr. Hancock’s fawning, which lead him to take a more macho stance, denigrating the true gay students, who, in fact, were often interested in poetry and finer things—at least some of the more open ones. Ellen was no expert on who was gay and who wasn’t. Somebody like Walt, it seemed easy to tell. But Pablo didn’t wear the spangly affectations of being gay like Walt. He didn’t fight for gay rights. He just was. Gentle, kind, Pablo, their son, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t stay married and keep whole and simple one part of his life. He never tired of hearing that one poem.

 

Dan didn’t reserve the backroom at Two Brothers when Pablo and Walt made their announcement. He seemed embarrassed, hesitant to share the news.

Ellen couldn’t figure it out. Between academia and poetry, Dan had many friends who were gay. But maybe it wasn’t about being gay at all. It was either about being oblivious, or about how poets count years compared to the rest of us. You can still be a “younger” poet until age forty, when most athletes are already retired. Even at his age, Dan seemed to still have a generation older than him of poets still alive and gently kicking. Dan denied her chiding—being labeled “grandpa” wasn’t going to bother him, he said.

Ellen couldn’t help but compare the two big announcements—they came within months of each other, and led to the third, since all big things come in three.

 

That night after he hung up on Pablo and Walt (not named after Whitman, which would have been too perfect, though Dan, in his softer moments, joked about “those two poets out in San Francisco”), Ellen missed out on sharing the genuine joy she felt, knowing how life gives so little of it—he could go back to scanning his literary magazines for familiar names without it. There’s a reason they only had one child.

Perhaps Ellen’s meanness was a work-in-progress, like a painting class at the senior center. But Dan did not appreciate the competition a child provided. Ellen knew poetry was “a kind of lying,” as Dan always quoted somebody. Williams? But that sweet poem he wrote about Pablo seemed like another kind of lie.

No, not Williams. It was that sweet poet with the long white hair who looked a little like Whitman. Once he was in town for a reading and came to look for Dan, to thank him for something. Dan should have been home. He was probably holding forth at the Two Brothers. Ellen offered to have him paged there, but the man said not to bother—he’d just dropped in—though she’d never seen him before, and he must have looked up their address.

Ellen was holding Pablo in her arms. He asked, “But if it isn’t too much trouble, can I hold your baby for a minute?”

How could she refuse such a request? She gently handed him over.

“And what is this fine baby’s name,” he asked, brushing aside his long beard and holding him to his chest.

“Pablo,” she said.

“Ah, Pablo,” he said, and stroked the fur on the baby’s head. The man handed him back to Ellen and thanked her again. He bowed and slipped out the door.

 

Dan is sitting alone at his booth in the Two Brothers. His assistant sits across from him. Together, they go through a box of mail. She is a poet herself and hopes this might lead to something.

 

Ellen is sitting in Pablo’s room, the stack of old children’s books in front of her on the floor. She will ship them to the boys for when the baby comes. She grabs one of Dan’s books from the lower shelf and opens it to with love. She keeps turning the pages. She begins to read.

 

When Dan finally came home, it took them nearly half an hour to determine who that visiting poet was. Ellen was sure he’d said his name at the door, but she had forgotten it.

“Wow,” Dan said. He was flattered that the frail old poet had come to see him, though not enough to attend his reading that night. “Hand me my son,” he said. “Can’t let the poetry world get their grubby hands on him,” he winked at her.

Ellen thought about making a crack about naming him Pablo in the first place, but she’d agreed to the name herself. She handed him back his award.

pencil

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include a Michigan Notable Book prize, finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jd6s[at]andrew.cmu.edu

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