I scheduled a date with Paul Chowder on Friday. We were supposed to hang out and talk about Sara Teasdale. He’d been going on about how some poets spend too much time thinking about death, like going to a movie and just waiting for the credits, which my dad taught me are very interesting if you know what to look for.
No, we needed love poems too, he said, and I wanted to ask him if he didn’t think it was ironic that he brought up Teasdale to illustrate his point, since she would no sooner talk about love than she’d be talking about death. I don’t think she could wrestle the two apart, and I suppose one could even argue that her love for Vachel Lindsay may have been the death of them both. I thought she might have known that when she wrote We two will pass through death and ages lengthen / Before you hear that sound again with me.
I threw a folding lawn chair in the back of my Dodge Journey and figured I’d meet him down by the water behind his barn where his white plastic chair was sinking into the mud. But at the last minute I got a call from a client. A homeowner had reported some sort of mysterious contamination that was making her deathly ill and could I please rush over and check it out? I hoped she hadn’t been reading any Teasdale poems.
Sort of a toss-up, I suppose. I could sit with a quirky blocked writer in mud up to my ankles while he poked at his leftover Meals on Wheels food tray. I’d have to ignore the multiple flesh wounds on his hands. Or I could suit up and inhale the intrigue of invisible, unknown contaminants attaching to my skin and nasal passages.
The Meals on Wheels thing, orange chicken and mis-shapen corn shifting from their sterile partitions into one cold globby mass, triggered my gag reflex. His neighbor, Nan, gave it to him. What kind of neighbor does this? I opted for the Contamination Behind Door Number Two. I couldn’t bring myself to watch Chowder eat, unless his flying spoons promised an appearance, whooshing in to nab the wrong-colored chicken and disappear.
I talked to him on the phone instead while I drove to the infestation site. He was a little put out at me for not coming down meet him, and what’s a little gagging anyway? You do that every time you brush your teeth, he said. But I told him that in my line of work, you take it when it comes, even when you don’t know what’s going to get all over you. “Carpe diem, Paul, ” I said. “Seize the day.”
He corrected me. “Horace didn’t say that. Carpe diem doesn’t mean seize the day.”
It means pluck the day, he said. “What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things — so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand.”
I had to look that up. I’m a little like Maureen Doallas that way, and never quite know when Chowder is talking out his back hatch like he accused Whitman of doing. But it turns out it’s true. So there you go. Pluck, don’t seize.
I asked him if Horace knew that sometimes you have to pluck blueberries before they fully ripen, to keep them away from the birds. But was it right before they blush, or right after, and did he even know how to make them blush? I couldn’t remember which, even though I’d just read this somewhere. I seem to get these details wrong a lot. I wonder if I’ll be remembered better for my errors than the things I got right, like Horace and his day-seizing.
Chowder wondered the same, and said he said that he was often attacked by his own embarrassments “like those flying antibodies in Fantastic Voyage that glue themselves to the bad man’s face when he swims out of the arterial spaceship.”
“Listen, Paul, ” I told him, “I’m at the house. I’ll have to take a rain check. I still want to ask you about those books you sleep with and how the sharp corners of an anthology don’t wake you when you roll over looking for Roz. But for now I’ve got my own fantastic voyage. I can only hope these are merely antibodies I’ll be swimming through.”
We’re reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist together. Are you with us for this fun summer read? Share your thoughts and add a link to your own blog if you posted about it there. How did you enjoy the chapters this week? Perhaps you could share a poem with four-beat lines in the comment box, or your own rhyming poem. Was there anything Chowder claimed that you just had to look up to see if it was really true?
For next week, we’ll wrap up this short discussion with chapters 13-17. But don’t worry — a week is still plenty time to pick up the book and jump in with us!
(In the interest of proper attribution, portions of the above, most notably those quotes attributed to Chowder in dialogue, are taken from the book.)
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