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From Morning Songs: Sitting Here With Immortal Poets

Sitting with Keats, Whitman and Shakespeare chatting about their poetry and lives

Sitting here this morning with my second cup of coffee,

looking at the empty chair across from me, wondering

what I’d say if suddenly John Keats was there

or Whitman with his broad rimmed hat or Shakespeare

(would I call him Will?) and so somehow

in the world behind my eyes when I looked up

there was Keats across from me,

his elbows on the table, looking at the painting

on the wall and glancing at the fire in my stove--

a small, thin man with curly hair, pale skin

who nodded yes when I offered him a cup of French roast.

He seemed a little shy at first, wondering where he was,

but shook his head from side to side when I said,

“So John, I read that your first book was blasted

as ridiculous by critics who thought it should be

thrown into a furnace and the second book you dared

to print, the one with all the famous poems—the Odes--

was blasted too and hardly read

and then you went to Rome with your blood filled lungs

suffocating you, and died, unknown,

your poems sitting on the shelves of friends.

“That’s true,” he said, his pale skin getting pink,

the curls around his face moved when he shook his head,

“The bastards wrote me off as a buffoon

and said my name would not be known, but even as I coughed

and felt despair, I could not stop the words

that filled my fevered brain and sang in me

and so I wrote until I could not lift my pen

and then I heard the nightingale calling,

“Fly away with me into the dark forest. Say Adieu. Adieu.”

And then he disappeared and left me there

looking at his empty chair,

wondering about the songs he left unsung.

That’s when I heard a grunt and Walt sat down

across from me and stretched his legs out

towards the stove, his scuffed boots near the fire.

I poured him a cup of coffee and noticed his thick fingers

hold the cup up to his lips then wipe his mouth

with the back of his hand and say, “So son,

you heard my songs about myself and about this land,

and how all of us are brothers, sisters, lovers

but you didn’t hear the sadness of a lonely man

wanting what he could not have even though my name

was known.” “No,” I said. “You covered up too much

with your loud voice and never took away the mask you wore.”

Walt nodded, tugging at his beard and said, “Well at least

I tried to be a happy man.” Then he was gone—

just like that—his empty cup right where he left it

and I didn’t get the chance to say, “how brave he was.”

It wasn’t long before Shakespeare strolled in,

glanced around then sat down across from me.

He was shorter than I thought and a little stout.

I imagined he’d be taller. He watched me

as I filled his cup, his keen eyes taking in the scene

as if he’d use it in a play and then I asked him

how he felt being so revered, his plays immortal.

He pondered, looking at the ceiling, pulling

gently on his little beard then said, “Somehow,

I had a lucky pen placed in my hand and can’t explain

how the words I put into the actors’ mouths

spoke the stories I had borrowed,

transforming them with what I hoped

would make the crowds who stood

looking at the stage laugh and cry

and go home satisfied that they were entertained.

That’s what I hoped as each play opened

up my heart and let the universe come in

to tell me what I didn’t know

until I saw the words coming from my pen

onto the page. If that sounds strange,

I can’t say more and can’t explain how

the plays I wrote in such a hurry came out like that.

I guess the stars and moon and golden sun

were kind to me.”

I looked at him and thought I saw a tear

in the corner of his eye and then he smiled

and shrugged his shoulders, his palms held up,

“What can I say?”

We both sat still and then he stood

and said, “Do not seek fame, my friend,

for she’s a whore who will break your heart.”

And then he disappeared, leaving me alone,

looking at the empty chair.


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