Saturday, June 14, 2008
Because of the delay at the Colby College Museum, everything was hours behind, and we had only about 4 minutes to get over to Minsky Hall and start listening to more festive keynote speakers. For that reason “Four Minutes to Save the World,” Madonna’s recent comeback single, kept running through my head, Madonna + Justin + Timbaland, and it wasn’t happening for me . . . I don’t know, what did you do this summer? Jennifer stopped and calculated that the last thing any of of us had had to eat was at the lobster banquet which must have been a good 24 hours ago, so she and Dodie disappeared for a bit in search of some take out food. Now that I see the photos of the people living the high life in the Doris Twitchell Allen hall or wherever they were making those giant smorgasbords, I can barely credit my eyes. Oh well, I’m not too good at cooking anyhow I doubt I could have achieved anything like the beef Wellington and shrimp cocktail spreads those photos betray were happening all around us.
The first plenary reading was by Tom Raworth, who first read a few brief poems from a new booklet called Let Baby Fall—brief poems, published by Critical Documents. The cover shows an image by Raphael, one of those pictures where the Renaissance artist shows Mary displaying for the world to see the male genitals of her baby, and here he is seeming to slip out of her grasp entirely. Leo Steinberg wrote that famous article in October 25 years ago about “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,” in which he offered an explanation for a crude fact about Renaissance painting that had baffled so many for centuries, why it is that, in painting after painting, the genitals of Christ on the cross, as well as baby Christ in the manger, are often bizarrely showcased and foregrounded—so much so that later generations would sometimes paint a discreet cache-sexe over the offending items. Tom read these with the abandon of a boy skipping stones at the beach, but then he got serious by offering to read his massive 70s piece Writing.
At the end of Writing, I ran up to him with my camera to capture this remarkable moment. Tom’s face was bright red like the skin of a pumpkin, and his eyes were shining with a great glee. Sweat soaked his mustache, that little mustache we have all come to love.
He was huffing and panting like a teen with a fistful of glue, and the stimulation was palpable. We congratulated him on his great performance and he announced that he was 70 now, that was the last time he’d ever read the piece, the breakneck pace was for younger men. It was a little startling because, of course, one has always thought of him as a contemporary rather younger than oneself. Afterwards I asked him if this was true or was it just in the heat of the moment, the way I might announce, after a long day at work, that I quit and wasn’t going to come back on Tuesday. Or the way Cher keeps retiring and retiring and retiring. I certainly hope that, if Tom is retiring, he does it Cher-style, with a huge battleship set and fetching chorus boys dressed as cadets.
There was much sneaking in and out of an abandoned dressing room in the Class of 44 Building, a dressing room that I imagined had seen many college drama school crises and triumphs—a dressing room very like the one Calvero has at the beginning of Chaplin’s Limelight, with telegrams stuck in the corners of the great mirror and those big round bulbs illuminating everything, particularly the ageless weariness of the aging star. Here was a big pizza pie smuggled in between events, and Steve and I hurried in for a bite to relieve Jennifer and Dodie who went out to hear some poetry. Back and forth, switching on and off in sensible maneuvers—like the relief of Mafeking. Mmmmm, people say the pizza in Maine isn’t very good but I am here to tell you that it’s true what Granddad used to say, hunger is the best tomato sauce. And of course scarfing it down in front of a highly lit makeup mirror just makes it seem all the more tasty not to mention theatrical. We would stop yakking whenever we heard anybody’s footsteps come by—ssssshhh! Out in the hallway Steve Motika introduced me to Lytton Smith, who must still remember me as the man whose face was completely covered in pizza remnants—hurriedly swallowed pizza.
Lytton Smith had already started blogging about the Orono conference, and I looked at him as I looked at Peter O’Leary (who was also blogging about these events for the Poetry Foundation website in Chicago)—in awe at their command of the situation. As I thought back on everything I wanted to tell you, I knew I would be in for the long haul. Smith has written a boom which sounds very compelling, The All-Purpose Magical Tent. I think I was embarrassed and so wasn’t paying enough attention to this name, which I mis-heard several ways, chiefly as The Magical Porpoise Tank which I knew was wrong but you know how the wrong thing stays in your head far longer than the right.
I was saved from further abasement by the arrival of Rae Armantrout, the last of our principal speakers, who swept through the hall in a beautiful outfit just in time to win my fashion award. I hadn’t seen her in some months, and I can only assume that the plenary became her, a whole category of beauty. Her hair was streaked with golden glowing tendrils like a Rossetti painting, and her earrings flew back as she advanced towards us. “Come on Rae,” I said, camera at my eye, like David Hemmings in Blow Up instructing Veruschka and Jane Birkin how to roll around on colored paper, “don’t even pause, keep rushing this way.” click, click, click.
Behind her the elevator door rolled shut, quietly. In a minute she was onstage and telling us that Veil (her 2001 collection of new and selected poems) has two poems from the 1970s in it and she was going to read them both. Briskly she moved right through Veil, The Pretext, Up to Speed, Next Life, and Versed and then came out with some final flourishes unlike anything else she has ever written. In her shimmering white blouse she looked for all the world like William Blake’s famous watercolor of The Angel of Revelation from 1805, as perhaps she had been in another life.
And that night, because it was our last night, and I was full, the cash bar remained open late late late, and that night we were not divided.