Rhyme Nor Reason by Sally Clay
Out of the blue, someone says to you, "Worms are the words but joy's the voice." *
"Huh?" you might respond. "That's nonsense!" That is what most of us would say if a stranger walked up to us and spoke the message of a poem in prose. Imagine the scenario.
You are sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper and minding your own business. An old woman sits down next to you, mumbling to herself through tobacco-stained lips. She takes some Reeses Pieces out of her shopping cart and starts crunching them between her teeth, one by one.
You quickly glance at her, noticing that her gray hair is matted and tinged with yellow. She is wearing an attractive silk blouse of red with gold emblems, but her bluejeans are stiff with soil. Her fingers move like claws.
She lights a cigarette and slides up to you. "I gave my coat away," she confides. Your nose stings from the cigarette smoke and the sour odor of her skin.
"It was the coat my mother gave me," she continues. Her voice is whining and shrill. "It was a quilt coat, and it had squares made of every color under the sun. There was a square for every girl that was ever born to every mother in my family back to William the Conqueror. My square was white."
You cough politely and search for a response that will be sympathetic and yet not encourage her to continue. She slides still closer.
"My coat was full length," she whispers loudly. Her breath reeks of stale tobacco and bad teeth. "It reached all the way to my heels. I gave it to the Governor's wife, because I heard that she likes quilts. I saw her wearing it the other day for the state visit of the Prince of Denmark!"
"Is that so?" you croak.
"But she had it altered!" The woman snarls. "She ruined my coat! She took off all the bone buttons that my mother sewed on it, and she put on plastic buttons. Can you imagine! Plastic! Those buttons were made from my grandmother's bones!"
You are speechless. As you stare at her she starts weeping, then stops in mid-tear and laughs. "I don't care," she giggles. "Tomorrow I'm going to give away all of my clothes to the First Lady. Then she will look like me, and she will be a fool! And I will be as naked as the day I was born! How do you like that!"
She laughs uncontrollably, and drops her cigarette on your leg, burning a large hole in your slacks, for they are made of polyester. You leap up in pain and revulsion, using this as an excuse to escape. As you hurry away, the woman stops laughing and curls on the bench in fetal position.
Perhaps later that night, in the safety of your bed, you remember the old woman, and you reflect on her outrageous narrative. It certainly was not factual-that much is obvious. But something about the story rings a bell, and you get up to look for a poem that you read a long time ago for a college course. It is a poem about the essence of art:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked. **
Was it coincidence that the old woman's story was nearly identical to the poem? Perhaps she, like Yeats, was speaking in metaphor. Perhaps she was trying to communicate something about herself, something essential, the reality underneath her appearance.
Her words were not a fabrication at all, for she herself believed her own tale. Somewhere between her metaphor and her message, she was trapped in her own creation.
You go back to bed, wondering where she is sleeping that night. You remember her jumbled possessions in the shopping cart, and you wonder where she found the beautiful blouse that she wore. You wonder how anyone can make a poem of all the words in their head.
The story is in the telling.
* from as freedom is a breakfast food by e.e. cummings
** Yeats, W.B., A Coat
- Published in Counterpoint Magazine 1990
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