Sunday night in Boston. The city’s winding down at the end of the weekend, or at least some of us—like me—are. Others are pursuing the hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you strategy that caused a woman I rode with in an elevator on a Monday morning many years ago to admit that she wasn’t quite ready for work yet.
“How was your weekend?” I had asked, quite innocently.
“I guess it was pretty good,” she said.
“Yeah. Sunday night I woke up on the floor of the Cask ‘n Flagon”—a bar strategically located outside Fenway Park to serve all of your pre, during and post-game drinking needs.
Me? I’m pacing myself, just having a sparkling water and lime—and a glass of malbec—while I wait for Sappho, the lesbian poet from the isle of Lesbos, to arrive for a rendezvous.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a happily married man approaching my fourth decade of connubial bliss, but I’m also a professional poet—I have a copy of the check for $40 from The Christian Science Monitor to prove it. Sappho is a far better poet than me, but her star has been eclipsed by other, more recent poetessas, to the point where she’s known only to poetry professionals; the kind of dweebs (I do not exclude myself) who write angry letters to The New York Times Book Review if you confuse an anapest with an anacrusis in a review of a some M.F.A.’s first chapbook. I’ve offered her my Poetry Promotion Package (call now, operators are standing by, only $199.95!) to try and goose up her ratings as compared to overrated suicidal mortals such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who come from my neck of the woods—the western suburbs of Boston. I like to think of our little collection of affluent zip codes as the Bermuda Triangle of female poets.
I’m a happily married man approaching my fourth decade of connubial bliss, but I’m also a professional poet—I have a copy of the check for $40 from The Christian Science Monitor to prove it.
Whenever I arrange an imaginary consult with a female poet I always get my wife’s imaginary permission first, so after we’d finished the Sunday papers this colloquy ensued:
ME: Say, do you mind if meet a lesbian poet for drinks this afternoon?
HER: Are you sure she’s a lesbian?
ME: Well, she did have a daughter—Kleis—by a guy she called “The Prick from the Isle of Man.”
HER: So she’s bi? Not sure if I like that.
ME: Does it help if she’s been dead for 2,585 years?
HER: I suppose. Are you buying, or is she?
ME: I’m buying, but it’s business development—I’m trying to sign her up for a poetry re-branding seminar. I can expense it.
HER: Because our credit cards are getting kind of high. Can you pick up some milk on the way home?
ME: What kind?
HER: Two percent—for my coffee in the morning.
ME: One percent, two percent—I love you percent.
HER: Must you?
ME: When poetry happens to strike my ear/I recite it aloud, for all to hear.
HER: Don’t be late.
The place I’ve chosen is The Saint, a dual-purpose bar that I unwittingly stumbled into back in the 80’s with my friend “Rich,” an ur-male of the type you may recall from that frenzied decade; white button-down shirt, yellow power tie loosened at the neck, a heavy layer of “chin goo” at the knot that turns it a darker shade than the rest of the cravat.
Rich and I went to The Saint for burgers and a beer one lunchtime, and Rich—a salesman who made it his business to learn the name of everyone he met, especially waitresses and bartenders—started to chat up the woman who was serving us.
“This is a fun place,” he said with innocent bonhomie. “What’s it like at night?”
Our server—a woman in a sleeveless black t-shirt, her hair cut in a mullet—gave him the once-over and then said drily “You wouldn’t be welcome here.”
Since then the bar and its habitués have emerged from darkness, both literally and figuratively. The elevated highway known as the Central Artery has been torn down, allowing some sunlight to hit the front windows for the first time since a wonderful future was envisioned on the drawing boards of urban planning goobers in the 1950s. And the love that dare not speak its name—in the memorable words of Lord Alfred Douglas—has received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court of the United States. Everything’s copacetic!
I’m looking around, noticing the improvements in the place, when I see a short, dark and not—in a conventional sense—very attractive woman walk in the front door. It’s got to be Sappho, even though her image has been romanticized over two and a half-millenia by those who admire her poetry. She strikes me as a precursor of Dorothy Parker, the acerbic twentieth century poet who wrote so deeply of love because she’d been so disappointed by it. The kind of woman I used to fall for like a ton of anthologies across a crowded college classroom.
“Yoo-hoo! Sappho! Over here!” I call, drawing looks from those who, shall we say, detect in me an alien presence.
She saunters over, looking “darting-eyed” as she once said of a woman from Thebe, at the others in the joint. I put on my best marketing manner—I’d like to close a sale since Edna St. Vincent Millay cancelled her platinum membership last month, leaving me without an income coming in.
We exchange pleasantries and she orders a retsina, which stumps the bartender.
“A Greek wine my brother used to pour for the Mytileneans at their town hall,” she says, with a bit of an attitude. She’s got a chip on her shoulder because the culture of Lesbos has been largely forgotten, surpassed in the canon by Athens. When you hear some professor with elbow patches bloviating about “The Grandeur of Greece,” he ain’t talking about her little island off the coast of Turkey.
“Try a malbec,” I say, offering her my glass. “It’s my favorite since the wine snobs abandoned merlot after it got dissed in the movie Sideways.”
She takes a whiff and signals that it’s okay, the waitress leaves to get her a glass, and then we get down to the more serious subject that’s brought us together: monetizing her poetry in the manner of Rod McKuen so she can make some serious moolah.
“So, since you’re one of the immortals now—why exactly do you need money?” I ask.
“You’re a nobody among the gods unless you’ve got ready cash,” she says. “Zeus, Apollo—all they have to do is say the word and things happen. Humans are turned into animals, people are struck with curses, all sorts of cool stuff. Me? I have to pay non-divinity prices in the cafeteria for a freaking grape leaf.”
“Well, you’ve got a lot of great stuff to work with,” I say, exaggerating a bit as I open up the slim 28-page volume that contains every word of hers that’s ever been found.
“Like what?” she asks skeptically.
“Well, there’s ‘Wealth without virtue is no harmless neighbor.’”
“Are you kidding? You live in 21st century America.”
“Maybe we could put it on t-shirts, sell it in natural food stores.”
“You’re going for the capillary, not the jugular,” she says as her wine arrives.
“How about ‘Honestly, I would like to die.’”
She gives me a look that could flash-freeze a bowl of peas. “You’re kidding—right?”
“I’m thinking maybe we put on a throw rug for Valley Girls to put outside their bedroom doors.”
I can tell she’s not interested in that kind of down-market approach, so I shift gears. “How about we try trolling?”
“You sue people for infringing your stuff.”
“Well, that line of yours about the children of Kleanax.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Kleenex? The soft facial tissue that comes in all varieties to match your lifestyle?”
She gives me a heavy-lidded look. “That’s the best you’ve got?”
“That’s just a teaser. How about we go after J.D. Salinger?”
“The greatest writer ever to stay in prep school?” she says with a laugh, repeating Norman Mailer’s put-down.
“That’s him. You wrote ‘Lift high the roofbeam, lift high, you carpenters.’”
“He wrote Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.”
She shows a little more interest in this more obvious case of literary larceny. “Has he got any money?”
“Are you kidding? The Catcher in the Rye is one of the top-selling books of all time, right after the Bible, Gone With the Wind and the Chilton Auto Repair Manual for the 1973 Chevrolet Vega.”
“Ok, good catch. Anything else?”
“I like ‘And One for His Mistress.’”
“Really?” She perks up a bit. Apparently the bitter diatribe she wrote against the Egyptian courtesan who was her eldest brother’s lover is a work she’s particularly fond of.
“I’m thinking maybe turn it into a screenplay for one of those divorcée movies Dianne Keaton’s always cast in.”
“Anything to keep her from making another record album.”
We pause for a moment to take sips, and she grows reflective. “So—on the whole—how am I holding up?” I can tell she’s feeling insecure; her Aeolic dialect has been ground into the dust by Attic Greek, and Hollywood’s never made a biopic of her.
“Are you kidding—you’re the top!” I’m s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g it a bit to make her feel better about herself—to give her hope so she’ll hire me—but there’s more than a modicum of truth in my claim. “Did you know that the world is so hungry for your verse that they cherish a scrap of papyrus torn from the wrapping of a mummified crocodile?”
She looks at me, as Keats said of Cortez’s men in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, with a wild surmise. “You can’t be serious,” she says, and now I know where John McEnroe got the phrase he used to belabor tennis linesmen with. “What kind of nut makes a crocodile mummy?”
“I don’t know, but it’s true. Scholars swoon when they find a syllable you wrote—you get them tenured.”
She allows herself just a wisp of a smile of self-satisfaction. “That’s—gratifying to hear,” she says with a becoming modesty. “What are your favorite lines of mine?”
“That’s easy,” I say.
The moon has set
and the Pleiades; it is the middle
of the night and the hours go by
and I lie here alone.
“Reminds me of nights in my backyard, looking up at the sky to the west, after my wife has gone to bed.“
“You’re married?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “A lesbian married me.”
Suddenly the crowd in The Saint is all ears. I sense their bemusement, which doesn’t mean they think I’m funny—they’re confused.
The bartender comes over and squints at me, as if trying to recall where she’s seen me before. “Did you come in here back in the 80’s?” she asks suspiciously.
“That I did.”
“With a guy named Rich? Yellow power tie, greasy at the knot—correct?”
“On the nosey.”
She’s silent for a moment. “I thought I made it clear your kind weren’t welcome here,” she says with an air of menace. “And now you come in cracking jokes at the expense of my clientele.”
“It’s not a joke,” I say. “My wife and I were married by a lesbian. She was the only minister who would perform the ceremony for us since we didn’t belong to any church.”
“Oh yeah? Where was it?”
“Down on Newbury Street. Real crunchy granola kind of place. Homeless shelter in the basement, Tuesday night vegetarian suppers to benefit the Sandanistas.”
The bartender softens a bit, but she’s still not convinced. “Sounds fishy to me. I need to think of a shibboleth…”
“What’s that?” Sappho asks.
“A word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from outgroups,” I say. I have the definition at my fingertips, since I can check Wikipedia on my phone.
“I got it,” the bartender says. “What would a lefty lesbian minister of the 80’s wear to the ceremony that would horrify your Presbyterian mother-in-law?”
I hoff ta loff as we say here in Boston. “I would say that’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” I begin, “except shooting fish in a barrel is hard by comparison.”
“Okay, smart guy,” the publican says. “What was she wearing?”
“E-Z, peasy,” I reply. “Frye boots.”