On a chilly Saturday morning in October, Donald Shieffer found a mysterious postcard in the mailbox at his townhouse in Cincinnati. It pictured a swan in flight, white wings a blur, taking off from the surface of a gray pond edged with snow. The message read, “Poetry is made in the mouth.” The card had been sent four days earlier and was postmarked New York. His name, address and the message were written in careful block letters in blue ballpoint pen.
He read it out loud, tasting the words. Pondered the message. He couldn’t think of anyone he knew in New York.
As the week wore on, he found himself unaccountably irritated, sure the postcard was a comment on his reduced productivity as a poet. Lapsed productivity, to be honest. There had been a recent conference at NYU, hadn’t there, something to do with meta-poetry and alternative expression. He’d seen a short spoof about it in The New Yorker. Maybe this was someone’s alternative poem, an enigmatic message for him to decipher. Some rival from the past was snickering at his incomprehension.
The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?Mona perhaps, the tall girl with the stringy red hair in his MFA program at Cornell. “Poetry is made in the mouth” sounded like her. He thought he half-remembered it from some poem of hers. “In the mouth/thought is/made in the south as the birds/fly/nought is/a cumulus cloud, whispered aloud.” Skeins of words tangled and knotted as he searched his memory. He hadn’t thought of Mona in years and it was unlikely she’d thought of him either. Surely she had published even less than he had. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her name in print.
He’d asked her out once. The night had been clear and cold, millions of stars twinkling overhead, more than he’d ever seen back home. They’d left the workshop and were walking down the broad steps of Goldwin Smith Hall when he said impulsively, “So are you busy Saturday night, Mona?” She looked him up and down and said, “Sorry, Donny. It just wouldn’t work.”
He’d completely forgotten the incident, and how he’d smarted at her reply. It still stung. She wasn’t his type: too tall, too theatrical. He’d asked her out on a whim. He was sure she thought he had a crush on her, and he went out of his way to appear neutral and indifferent after that. He was after all indifferent, but also incensed by her pitying glances. Bitch. A memory tugged at him. Yeats. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, read aloud in class by Mona in a breathy quaver. “For poetry makes nothing happen … it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.”
The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?
He thought about the postcard as he went through his daily routine after work—picked up his dry cleaning, worked out at 24/7 Fitness around the corner, showered off his sweat, stopped for takeout at Chef Lau’s to eat in the kitchen at home, drank a beer as he watched the ten o’clock news before bed. He thought about it when the alarm went off in the morning. Soaping himself under the hot shower, he looked at the water running down the gold-flecked brown and yellow glass tiles and brooded, “Who even knows that I’m a poet? Who would send an anonymous postcard? Am I still a poet?”
He knew at this point in his life, in his mid-30s, he should have found other sources of meaning. Divorced, with no children, and a mid-level job at a mid-sized bank in a mid-sized Midwestern city selling mortgages, he hadn’t. His job was dull. He’d returned to Cincinnati for lack of something better to do, and his life in Cincinnati was dull. His parents had retired to Florida. His college friends had scattered. He’d bought a condo—a new two-story townhouse with a patio and small yard—but didn’t feel settled. He dated, but didn’t connect. He blamed it on the MFA experience, the expectations that came with the degree, without being clear about who or what was at fault. It was ten years since he’d dreamed of being a famous poet. Now he knew that even famous poets weren’t famous. “Yeats?” one of his blind dates had said. “Isn’t he a mystery writer or something?” She was perfectly nice, college educated, with a good job at a software company. She didn’t read. Most people didn’t read. Not even fiction, much less poetry. He didn’t read much himself any more. He read The New Yorker, but some weeks he just looked at the cartoons and skimmed the poems. The New York Times, mostly for political news. Novels on the bestseller list if they won awards. He streamed Netflix more often than he read books.
A few weeks after receiving the postcard, he opened the Times at the breakfast table and read that Philip Roth, aged 79, author of thirty-one books, had announced the end of his writing career. He’d stuck a Post-it note to his computer screen, he said, on which he’d written, “The struggle with writing is over.” Each time he saw it he felt reinforced in his decision.
Donald spread jam on his toast and gulped down his coffee. He wished he had made a decision five years ago, instead of drifting into this state of paralysis. A Post-it announcing the end of his struggle might have brought him some peace. He thought about posting a note on his computer now, but the gesture felt false. He whispered it to himself, though, as if testing a new mantra, “The struggle with writing is over.” He rinsed his dishes and left them in the sink as he hurried off to work.
The second postcard arrived in late November. Also postmarked New York, written in the same block letters. The glossy picture was of a toad, spotted and brown, blending into a background of dry grass. The message on the other side read, “Poetry is the real toad in the imaginary garden.” This time Donald was sure of the literary reference, to Marianne Moore’s poem on poetry, but just as baffled by the postcard’s meaning. Was the grass another dig at his dried-up creativity? Or were his surroundings the sterile, imaginary garden that had killed his art? He wondered if he was being asked to re-evaluate the choices he’d made, consider what was real, what was imaginary, and what he’d given up along the way. But who would be interested enough in his fate to send two postcards? If not Mona, then another MFA student?
If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive.He hadn’t kept up with any of them. Only one poet in the program had made a name for himself, an egotistical suck-up who always trailed after visiting poets, praising their work and asking them questions. Peter LeBlanc. No one had liked him. They should have known he’d be the one to make it, with all the ambitious networking he’d done. After graduation, Peter’s poems kept popping up in little magazines with editors he’d cultivated, and then bigger magazines. Some were dedicated to well-known poets. Then he started showing up in the back pages of Poets & Writers as a judge for contests. His adjunct position became tenure-track. Where was that? Somewhere in the Northwest where it rained a lot. Peter had never shown any interest in Donald, not even when his poems were praised in workshop. His sights were always set on bigger game. No, it wouldn’t be Peter.
The question of the mystery sender gnawed at Donald as he filled out forms and checked credit reports and thick mortgage packets and met with clients at the bank. The phone rang and he fleetingly wondered if it might be her. A name on an e-mail in his in-box looked unfamiliar and he wondered if it might be him. He sorted and stapled, put tiny blue stickers with arrows where clients had to sign documents, ran his index finger down checklists to verify that everything was complete. If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive. London would have helped, and a circle of famous writers and artists that he saw daily. Even just one friend like Ezra Pound, ready to transform the heap of poetic fragments Eliot handed over to him into a masterpiece.
Rifling through a box of old papers at home, Donald pulled out a folder of poems he’d accumulated in the first few years after the MFA. The file, marked MISC., contained a jumble of rejection letters for poems from his thesis, drafts of new poems he’d never revised, beginnings of new poems he’d never completed, ideas jotted on scraps of paper he’d never followed up on. He sat down on his heels in front of the hall closet, absent-mindedly waving away the dust motes in the air. There was no incipient masterpiece here that he could see, waste but no “Waste Land.” The MFA thesis was better, an assemblage of some thirty narrative poems, divided into thematic sections and bound in red hardcover, but he’d been dissatisfied with it at the time, sure he could do better. He hadn’t. He returned the thesis and folder to the box and stowed it on the closet shelf again, pushing over a carton of old yearbooks and a pile of winter gloves and scarves.
He’d been checking his mailbox with growing anxiety each day, not sure whether he was relieved or sorry to find no postcard, when the third arrived in January. This one was postmarked in Austin, Texas. Was the sender traveling? Who?
Donald thought about frozen beginnings and his own blighted growth as he studied the picture of green grass glittering with frost crystals, but this time the image was clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the author of the quotation: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Donald had always liked Frost’s dictum, which seemed to express the effortless grace of the great poem. How its unfolding felt inevitable and carried the reader along with it, leaving him changed. The quotation sent him to his crowded bookcase and spurred him to leaf through Frost’s Collected Poems for a few hours. He read some of the poems aloud in the impersonal privacy of his townhouse. He savored the closing lines of “Directive,” and recited them twice. “Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Uplifted, he paced the carpeted living room, looking out the picture window from time to time at the lights in the complex across the street. So many lives. Surely they weren’t all as barren as his. He wished he had someone to talk to.
On Saturday morning he ran into the mailman on the snow-dusted sidewalk outside and asked him if there was any way to trace the sender of a postcard.
The mailman was polite. “No sir, not really. Has someone been harassing you?”
“Kind of,” Donald mumbled. “Not really.”
“There’s a USPS form you can fill out. You can also refuse mail.” The mailman brushed snow off his gray coat with gloved fingers.
“Thanks. I was just asking.”
In fact Donald was beginning to think that the postcards were intended as inspiration rather than indictment. He’d started to read poetry again, and was browsing literary magazines online and considering subscriptions to one or two. For a long time the prospect of running across Peter LeBlanc’s name, or another fellow MFAer’s, had soured him on contemporary literary magazines. He saw he’d been needlessly depriving himself of something that nourished him.
He waited eagerly for the next postcard, afraid that January’s might be the last.
His boredom at work increased. How many more years could he do this? He was good at his job—friendly, orderly, precise. He’d once taken pride in that. But he was beginning to think that a competent sixth-grader could do as well. What was it all about, these contracts for colossal sums, insurance policies against catastrophe, title insurance underwriting claims to plots of land? Why commit to thirty years of monthly payments for the privilege of residing in a fragile structure that a tornado could reduce to rubble in a matter of minutes? He began to pity the bright-faced young couples that sat across from him at his desk, so eager to own their first homes. And the middle-aged couples refinancing their mortgages, ready to spend thousands to remodel kitchens and bathrooms that were perfectly serviceable the way they were. “We’ve been just dying to do this so long,” one suburban matron confided. Her double chin quivered as she nodded. “I’ve been looking at colors and tiles for years.” Donald bit his tongue, tempted to answer, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Didn’t they all, himself included, have something better to do?
It was shortly after Easter when the fourth postcard arrived, a pale pink sunrise over gray waves and a sandy beach strewn with seaweed and glittering shells. There was no indication of the location of the beach on the reverse side of the card, which was postmarked Atlanta.
“Ridiculous the waste sad time/stretching before and after.” He recognized the lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets, about mystical moments that transcended ordinary reality. He’d found them in poetic creation, and in the poems he loved best. Moments, as Emily Dickinson said, when the reader felt like the top of his head was coming off. There was nothing like it, at least nothing so far in his life. Some people might say sex, he supposed, but he’d never had sex that mind blowing. Maybe he’d never actually loved his wife Dorothy, who was beautiful but critical, impatient with his literary aspirations. “It’s just great that you got the MFA and all,” she said after a couple of years of financial struggle. “But don’t you think it’s time to grow up? Write poems if you want, but it’s not really a job, is it?”
So he’d tried grown-up life. He’d probably taken it out on her, the boredom of grown-up life and his sense of failure. It was just as well that they’d postponed kids. But if his life went on like this, the most he could hope for was a series of promotions at the bank, a heavily mortgaged house to replace the condo, and marriage to another Dorothy—blonde, beautiful, athletic, boring. He couldn’t recall what he’d thought they had in common. He’d written poems about the curve of her neck, her rosy knees, her enigmatic smile, and she seemed to enjoy them. He liked to look at her and write about her but couldn’t summon a single memorable conversation they’d had.
Dating since his divorce had been more of the same. Nice women. Pretty women. Competent women. Interchangeable women. He’d offended some of them with his inattention, but he found it hard to keep track of their names and the particulars of their lives—where this one worked and that one had gone to college. Who had the brother who was divorced, or the friend who was having trouble with her husband, or the mother getting chemotherapy. Who was allergic to shellfish.
A married colleague had fixed him up with the latest, an outgoing paralegal named Judy. She was cute, with an upturned nose and freckles. She liked to play tennis. She was a lot more interested in his job than he was. “I would just love working with people taking that wonderful big step, buying a house. Half of our firm’s work is with divorces, so I see couples falling apart, not building their lives.” Judy had a lot to say about local real estate, and her inability to find a townhouse in a complex with the right kind of tenants. “Rentals just don’t attract the sort of people you’d want as your neighbors.”
They were in bed when it came to him. The dark blue sheets were tangled; light from the street lamps outside filtered in through the partially closed vertical blinds. The slats looked like bars.
Judy had been impressed by the stack of poetry books by his bed. “Isn’t that just wonderful! I really admire someone who reads like that. I mean, how do you find the time?”
It was clear she’d never read a poem in her life.
“And all those bookcases. If only I could find a nice place, I’d like to get bookcases and books too, and settle down and read more. Maybe I’d do up a cozy reading nook, in chintz, with a standing lamp. I just love your condo, Donald. It’s one of the nicest I’ve seen. So spacious. Great for entertaining.”
“Do you want to rent it?” He was idly stroking the soft skin inside her arm, wondering if she’d go to sleep soon so he could go downstairs and read. He hadn’t planned on saying it. The words formed in his mouth as if his unconscious had suggested them.
“Do you mean it?” Judy almost squealed with glee, then seemed to remember she was supposed to be unhappy about his departure. “I’ll miss you of course. Are you being transferred?”
“I’m thinking of going away. I’ll give you a good deal.”
“Done! I’m so excited! How soon are you leaving? I’ll need to take some measurements. Get some curtains if you don’t mind, maybe with a swag for the picture window in the living room. Nothing you couldn’t take down if you came back. Do you know whether you’re coming back, by the way?”
“Probably not. We could write up a lease for a year, and then see. Maybe a rent-to-own lease, if you’re interested. You’d get the money accumulating toward your down payment back if I return, but I doubt I will.”
The next day Donald quit his job. A colleague was just back from maternity leave, so the bank was satisfied with two weeks’ notice. “We’re sorry to see you go, son,” his boss Stan said. “I guess you’ll be earning more in a bigger city, though.”
Donald wanted to quote Wordsworth, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” but instead he shook Stan’s hand and said, “Something unexpected came up,” leaving Stan to surmise whatever he wanted to.
Judy took over the sale of his car and furniture on Craigslist, and had a real estate friend draw up the lease-option documents. He put the rest of his belongings in storage, including his business suits. Less than a month had passed when he arrived in Manhattan with a laptop and a suitcase full of old poems and weekend clothes. He had some money in the bank. He’d calculated his rent and living expenses, and if he was careful, it could last six months. The housing market, still not great, was picking up. There might be as much as another year in the profit from the condo when Judy was ready to buy. He didn’t know how he was going to make a living when his money ran out, but he didn’t plan to wear a coat and tie again, whatever he ended up doing.
The room Donald rented in a single-room occupancy hotel in Brooklyn was dingy and small, not much bigger than his kitchen in Cincinnati, but it was cheap, and he liked it. Divested of the weight of unnecessary obligations and possessions, he felt buoyant, ready to begin a new life. He bought a set of sheets, a warm blanket, one plate, one bowl, cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and two glasses, in case he had company. He was in no hurry to find other poets and artists. Just knowing they were there was enough. He planned to scout out some readings, though, on the off chance he’d spot the mystery sender. The first two postcards had come from New York.
Donald’s neighbors in Brooklyn Manor struck him as battered survivors—rheumy-eyed alcoholics, ex-addicts, gamblers down on their luck, hopeful refugees from far-off countries. The walls were thin and he could hear them coughing, swearing, fighting, making love, singing in different languages to music on the radio. At night when he lay in bed, light from the streetlamp seeped in through the crooked venetian blinds, and he heard glass breaking in the street, revelers leaving the bar down the block, snatches of conversation. He didn’t have an alarm clock. Every morning he rose to the sound of garbage cans banging on the sidewalk below his window and the whoosh of traffic. He made coffee and ate a bowl of cereal, listening to NPR on his laptop. Taxis honked. Fire engines wailed. He began a sequence of poems he called “City Music.”
He was rusty. At first he just made lists of sounds, and transcribed overheard dialogue. He gazed intently at the computer screen, willing himself into a trance, and finally the music began. His fingers flew over the keys, lines shaped themselves and flowed. Stopped. Started again. Stopped. The poems entered his dreams, and often he switched on his bedside lamp in the middle of the night to jot something down, or to spend time at his computer, sometimes until gray light and the stir outside signaled the dawning day. He’d forgotten what it felt like. There was nothing comparable to the sheer exhilaration of this struggle.
Being alone in his room felt completely different than being alone in the hushed sterility of his white-carpeted condo. Alive to the sounds and smells of the city, he tasted them in his mouth as he translated them into words. He began to take long walks into unfamiliar neighborhoods, invigorated by the contact of his feet on the pavement, the stream of humanity around him. Lines of poetry unrolled as he strode the sidewalks. He kept a small notebook in his pocket and wrote them down. One day he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, reveling in the sun and wind on his face, the infinite blue sky above, the choppy gray water below, the cries of the circling gulls, the faces in the cars that sped by. He thought of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried …
In July an oversized postcard arrived, buried in a batch of mail forwarded from his old address. The picture was a collection of thumbnail-sized photos of well-known poets. Donald’s address was handwritten, but this time the message was pre-printed in small italics.
“We hope you have been enjoying the Postcard Project, created by poets Lynn Bollinger and Alex Nightingale. We are two recent MFA graduates from Cornell and Columbia, living in the Big Apple, trying to get a new poetry zine up and running online. As a former MFA graduate of one of those programs, you were selected, along with over two hundred poets like you, to receive our postcards. We are proud to announce that the first issue of Posted Poetry is now ready to be unveiled! Check us out at www.postedpoetry.com. We urge you to read us online, submit your work, and join our nationwide crew of volunteers posting poetry postcards. Keep poetry alive!”
Donald stared in disbelief.
He lowered himself onto the stool at the kitchenette counter and read the message again. He looked at the pictures of poets, noting the faces he could identify. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Bishop, Lowell. Sharon Olds? W.S. Merwin? The poets on the bottom row, probably newer, didn’t look familiar at all.
His face had become hot. For a moment he felt queasy.
There was no mystery sender. It had never been about him. He’d been a fool, duped by a marketing ploy.
He watched a cockroach crawl across the counter in search of crumbs and shook his head. He sat for a while until his stomach settled and then stood up and washed his coffee cup and cereal dish, annoyed by the lukewarm trickle of water in the sink. Another cockroach climbed up the wall behind the faucet. Donald dried the dishes carefully and returned them to the small cupboard, taking out a roach motel. He tore off the cellophane packaging and set it on the counter. He could call Judy and try to persuade her to break off the sublet. He could reapply to Wachovia, even take a job somewhere else if there was no opening in Cincinnati. But he knew he wouldn’t.
Instead he sat down at his laptop in front of the window and looked at the buildings across the street. A middle-aged man in an undershirt was smoking on his fire escape. A housewife watered a red geranium. A couple at a kitchen table gestured, miming an animated conversation he couldn’t hear. He tried to guess what they were saying. A slender girl opened her curtains and leaned out the open window, greeting the day with a joyous smile. Donald began to type. After an hour he stopped and stretched, a good long stretch, and decided to go out for a cup of coffee, maybe stop by the library to borrow a copy of Leaves of Grass. It almost felt like old Walt was right in the room with him (“Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”), about to accompany him on his walk through the neighborhood. Donald locked the door behind them and put the key in his pocket.