John Keats & Pablo Neruda: Day One

“POETRY READING

22.30 p.m. Wednesdays

Compare yourself with characters of calibre.

Let your strength shine through. Join us.”

“Hmm, interesting,” she mused to herself as she read the notice. Taking a step backward, she glanced critically at the tall, red-brick building with green moss growing on its walls. Some parts of the building, like that little ledge just below the window on the first floor, were almost crumbling. She imagined that even if a little sparrow were to nestle on it, it would come crashing down most indefinitely.  

“Not really the most inspiring place to read poetry, is it?” she said to herself quietly. But nevertheless, she threw her head up proudly and walked into the building. At least she would have something to do that night. She never was one to share many things, least of all poetry. Tonight, this would change and she would experience something new. Yes, something new. That gave her fairly new jolts of excitement as she twisted through the narrow hallways, the sound of her booted footsteps echoing around her. Then she came to the little room. 

How sad it looked. How pathetic. She counted the people there. There were eight altogether; a quick eye showed her an equal number of ladies and men. They looked up quizzically as she stood in the doorway hesitantly. A lady in a long skirt and a thin purple blouse, with strange beads wound around her neck and rhinestone ear-rings dangling from her ears, stood up and came towards her with a becoming smile. 

“Good evening, my dear….you are going to join us, no?” Her smile was infectious. Her feet were bare. Goodness, they looked almost blue with the cold, too! 

“Of course,” she replied and allowed the lady to lead her to one of the empty chairs set out to form a little semi-circle. She was seated beside an old man, whose constant puffing on his cigar quite irritated her. She squirmed uncomfortably in the chair- it was unbelievably cold and hard. 

The lady with the beads began the session and said she was going to read something by Keats. Then, as if she suddenly remembered about the newcomer, she said, “Oh, dear, our new friend….Ezra, won’t you share your book with her?” She turned to the person beside her.  He was tall and not quite shaven, but it made him look more appealing somehow. His hair was dark, slightly wavy and long; it reached his chin and as he sat slouched over, it partially covered his face so she could not really see what he looked like. He was dressed in a grey tee-shirt and faded jeans with a huge tear gaping at the knees. He wore Converse sneakers.  

“Sure, Lily,” he replied gruffly and stood up, ambling clumsily towards her. She wanted to laugh but she thought it wouldn’t be polite, so she looked down and folded her hands tidily and stifled the laughter. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him place himself on the empty chair beside hers and he shoved the book ungraciously under her nose. “Here,” he said. 

She mumbled “Thank you” but did not dare look at him. Lily, the lady with the beads, began reading part of Hyperion. But she did not pay much attention and Lily’s voice became a mere drone in her ears. Instead, she cautiously focused her eyes on Ezra. God, he intrigued her. He looked like a skank; she never would have imagined he would attend a poetry reading session. Which goes to show you really that looks can be deceiving.  He had pretty nice eyes and a nice nose, she observed. The little stubbles that were beginning to grow on his chin made him look somehow lonely and vulnerable. In many ways, he reminded her of a lost little boy. Or maybe she thought that way because he seemed lost, anyway; seemed to be placed in a poetry reading group when he could have been out having a good time with skanky-looking friends. Or maybe it was because he was close to her age. Here, she paused and lifted her eyes enough to observe that most of the people in the group were in their forties or fifties. Even Lily. Ezra could have only been a few years older than her, maybe. 

Suddenly, “What’s your name?” It was a small whisper, yet it seemed to her as if it was booming into her ears like a loud-speaker. She realised that it was Ezra. 

“Me?”

“Yeah…..” 

“Don’t laugh,” she cautioned. 

“Why would I?” he quizzed. This time, his dark eyes met hers and she inhaled sharply. 

“Because it’s funny. Or rather, it’d be funny to you”. 

“You don’t even know me. How’d you do I’d find it funny?” 

“Anka”, she said her name at last, with a resigned sigh. 

“That’s a pretty name”.                  

They both shut up when they realised Lily was giving them a funny kind of look, and she tried to stifle her laughter again. When she turned to look at Ezra again, she found him looking at her, too. He gave her a little smile, a funny, half-crooked smile, which didn’t make him look too much like a skank. Skanks don’t really have nice smiles, which is what she couldn’t say for Ezra, since he looked really nice when he smiled. So she smiled back. Lily’s voice droned on, not because Anka didn’t enjoy poetry, but so much because she didn’t really appreciate Keats.  She was relieved when the lengthy poem came to an end and someone suggested a break because he had to go pee. She leapt from her chair like a cat released from its basket. The others were milling around each other, chattering nineteen to the dozen about Hyperion and Keat’s poetic progress depicted quite clearly there, and how philosophic it was speaking of the human mind power in the acceptance of suffering, about how Keats identified himself with Apollo and created that strong sense of self and how he was releasing his own misery by writing Hyperion, for it was written at a time of great grief, when his brother Tom died in 1818 and Keats’ own isolation made him specially susceptible to women. They commented on other such views, like the deposition of the old Order of Gods and how it was frighteningly despairing and futile; and how, being Gods, this sense of suffering was alien to their nature because they had always been superior.

Anka was intrigued at the same time, yet bored. She didn’t quite want to understand it, so she decided to stride out for a smoke. It was getting cold now and she shivered as she pulled out a half-crumpled pack of Marlboro’s from her tote bag. Stuffing a cigarette into her mouth, she struck a match. Three times she tried, and three times it went off because of the wind. Then someone flicked a lighter in front of her- it was a pretty lighter; it was transparent and it had little red lights flickering inside. She noticed the little circuit wires that ran inside it.

Looking up, she saw Ezra holding it out and bent down to light her cigarette.  “Thanks.” Taking a puff, she offered him a cigarette and he took it. “That’s a pretty neat lighter,” she commented. “Where did you get it?” 

“I picked it up on the street.” 

“Oh, right. Very funny.” 

“I’m serious.” 

“OK, whatever.” She gave him a really bland look and he smiled. She marvelled at that smile. Gosh. How could someone look so good when they were smiling? 

“So how did you find it?” He jerked his head backward in the direction of the building. 

She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not much of a Keats admirer. I’m passionate about people with passion. Keats has no passion. Sure, he’s pretty insightful and he went through a lot of things, but….there’s just no connection, you know…with me, I mean. You want someone with passion? I’ll tell you who has passion.” Leaning over to Ezra, she whispered in mock secrecy, “Pablo Neruda.” 

She waited to see his reaction, to see if he was really a skank in disguise. He had to know Keats because he was there at the reading. He surprised her by saying, “Neruda? The Chilean guy?”  Her shock betrayed her. “Why, didn’t think I knew who Pablo Neruda was?” He smirked at her proudly, then inhaled deeply on his cigarette. 

“I didn’t say that,” she stammered. 

“You didn’t have to.”  In reply, she took three deep drags of her cigarette in rapid succession.  He looked at her for a long while, then said, “Why don’t you tell me something?” 

“Tell you what?” 

“Tell me why you’re so passionate about Neruda.” 

“Why?” 

“Why not?” 

“Okay….” She plunked herself down on the little steps in front of the building and he joined her. Smoke spiralled above them like little clouds. It was pretty. “Listen….have you sometimes ever felt like, when you’re reading something, you can tell that the person who wrote it REALLY felt that way, and just wasn’t saying something for the sake of saying something? Have you ever come across that?” 

“Sure.” 

“Now, look….the deal with Neruda is that he’s there. He’s alive. I mean, he makes the poetry come alive and really, that’s the most important thing of all, if you ask me. His poetry is so privately associated that you can almost feel the pain and anguish that he does. It’s a brilliant technique, I must admit. He’s such a sensuous observer of things around us, metaphorically natural and beautiful; it’s hard not to find yourself relating to the things he speaks of; the symbolism is rich and vivid- he uses stuff like the sea, grapes, fruits- things we can all sense through our five senses….it’s like magic when you put yourself in that poem and see yourself through your own eyes.” Here, she paused and finished her cigarette, throwing it onto the pavement and crushing it with the toe of her boot.  “I know Neruda received the Nobel Prize in 1971. I read it all. He said something I’ll always remember.” There was a beautiful smile on her face, a smile as beautiful as the one on Ezra’s. “And I quote `The poet must achieve a balance between solitude and solidarity, between feeling and action, between the intimacy of one’s self, the intimacy of mankind, and the revelation of nature’.”  

“How do you know he said that? Where you there when he received the Nobel Prize? That was 1971. You were probably just a kid then. Maybe you weren’t even born yet.” 

She turned away. “I read a lot, you know. I know a lot about Neruda’s history.” 

“How can you believe it? How do you know it’s true?” 

She looked at him squarely in the eye and opened her mouth, as if to say something rude, then mumbled instead, “Do you know, you’re right?” and gave a heavy sigh. “Maybe it’s because I learn to trust what I read,” she said at last. “I’m sure most people do.” 

“I know what you mean. Actually, I’m that way, too.” He gave a little laugh. Now, she looked sideways at him and saw that he wore a little silver ear-ring. 

“Now tell me why you like Keats,” she said with a grin, hugging her knees closer to her chest. 

“I never said I liked him. I don’t have much to say, anyway.” 

“Why not?” 

“I like the guy, but I don’t like love him or something. He’s a poet and poets are all the same.” 

“Why do you say that?” 

“I think they just write, that’s all. Basically, we like one poet better than another because we try to relate ourselves to them. And relation is not something easy because we’re all different people. And different people react to things in different ways. That’s all.” 

“You still didn’t answer my question.” 

“What question?” 

“Why you like Keats.” 

“I don’t particularly like him, you know. Like I said, he’s just a poet. They’re all out for the same thing. To leave behind a rich legacy of meaningful poetry. But then again, poetry and its meanings are without doubt, the most subjective things on the face of the earth. Sometimes we have to take a wider look at the world to discover the closed meanings, and I find that really hard to do. I can’t relate myself to poetry, really….I’m just here because I like to criticise.” He gave her a smile. 

“Hmm….so that’s it.” 

“That’s what?” 

“Why you’re here.” 

He shrugged. “It’s good to stimulate your mind sometimes. It’s hard to try and be intellectual with people who can’t appreciate your mind for it. They think you’re a nerd and that’s a bad misconception. Nobody really knows you and I think that’s sad.” He paused. “So…..this is your first time here?” 

“Yeah…..and you?” 

“Lily’s my aunt, what do you think? I’m here every week when I’m not out boozing or getting laid.” 

“No work? So you’re a bum?” 

“Oh, I work. When I want to. Right now, I don’t want to. And what gives you the conception that anyone who doesn’t work is a bum?” 

“Oh, I was just making a comment.” 

“No, you weren’t. You directly asked me if I was a bum.” 

“Okay, maybe I did. I’m sorry.” She gave him a look and slapped his thigh playfully. “Touché.” 

“Anka sure is a different name….” he began after a long pause, then catching the expression on her face, he added quickly, “of course, different in the good sense….you’re not from around here, are you?” 

“I’m half-Bhutanese, my mother’s side. But I spent the growing years of my life in Thailand because my dad, he’s Australian, was posted there on assignment. They’re divorced now, my parents. I used to live with my Mum in Australia, until I came to the US to study music.” 

“That’s mixed!” he chortled. 

“Sure is.” She smiled. “Half the time, I don’t even know who I am,” she muttered under her breath. A slight silence followed as he pretended not to hear her last comment. 

“So what the hell are you doing here in Salem?” 

“Vacation. Doing the American tour thing. Seeing the places no one else really wants to see.” 

He laughed. “You’ll be surprised how many visitors we get at Salem”. 

“I’ll bet. Yeah. Anyway, I leave in four days.” 

“For where?” 

“Back home to my mum. And then I have to figure out what I want to do with my life.”                  

He gave a low whistle. “You always travel alone?” 

“Sometimes.” 

“Where are you putting up?” 

She gave him a suspicious look. Should she tell him where she was putting up? Finally, she breathed, “That tacky hotel down on Magus Street. I’m on a tight budget.” 

“You doing anything tonight?” 

“Not particularly. Why?” 

“Let me take you someplace.” 

“Where?” 

“You’ll see.” 

“And the poetry-reading?” 

“We’ll skip it.” 

“Why should I come along with you?” she said suspiciously. “How do I know if I can trust you?” 

“Lady, do I look like some homicidal rapist? Come on, it’ll be fun.” 

“You just want to get laid.” 

“No, I don’t. I want to have an intellectually-stimulating talk with you. I’m serious.” 

“You don’t look serious.” 

“Why? Because I’m smiling?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Oh, come on!” He stood up and pulled her to her feet. “You won’t regret this, I promise.” Here, he stood tall, straight-pine and looked deeply into her green eyes. A stray lock of her dark brown hair whisked over her cheek and he tucked it back behind her ear. “No regrets,” he said, more softly this time.

“One reason. Give me one good reason.” 

“Because if we don’t do this…..you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life when you get back to boring ol’ AUustralia. Do you live in the outbacks?” 

For a long time, she paused. He was standing so close to her that she could smell the musky odour of his after-shave. Not that he had shaved or anything. Or maybe it was his cologne. He smelt good. So very good. She was almost heady with his scent. Maybe she wouldn’t mind getting laid by him after all. No, she wouldn’t. What was she thinking? She had to be out of her mind if she said `yes’ to him. 

“Okay,” she said at last. “And no, I don’t live in the outbacks.” 

It was that simple.