Sunday, June 6, 2010

Used Poems for Sale


Saturday, June 5, 2010
10 AM to 4 PM
Corner of Lafayette & Grisham

I had gone out for a newspaper and was driving home when I saw it.  The sign intrigued me.  It didn't say "Used Poetry Books" -- it said "Used Poems."  What's a used poem?  Used how?  Hmmm.  Perhaps it is the seller's own private collection.  He's used up the words and now wants to get rid of them.  There's a poet who lives in my neighborhood?  At any rate, it piqued my curiosity enough to make me veer off and follow the sign pointing the way to Lafayette and Grisham.

A small brown cottage with a mossy green lawn badly in need of a trim.  A row of identical cardboard boxes set up alongside the driveway.  A man in an emerald green shirt rearranging the contents of one of the boxes.  He must be the seller.  I pull to a stop and park in front of the house.  The man in the green shirt frowns and meets my gaze.  "The sign said no early birds," he shouts from the driveway.  I glance at my watch.  It's only twenty minutes past nine.

I was just curious as to your--er--books," I say.  "What kind of poetry ..."  but before I have a chance to finish, he comes over to the car window, puts his hands on the roof, and leans in to address me.  "They're not books," he says.  "They're manuscripts."  And indeed, on closer look, I can see no books in any of the ten or so boxes--only what looks like piles and piles of sheets of paper.

"Whose are they?" I ask.  "Who wrote them?"

"You can't look at them now," Green Shirt replies.  You're too early.  You have to come back at ten, like the sign says."   He turns around and goes back to arranging the boxes.

Not much arouses my curiosity these days.  Truth be told, I've been in a rut, but this man and his boxes of "used poems" got me wondering.  I used to write poetry, way back "when".  Nowadays I barely have time to read the newspaper, and the only writing I do is work-related.  The curse of middle age:  you start reflecting on resuscitating the best part of yourself while observing the rest of you start declining, one year at a time.  For some reason, I'm wanting to read poetry today.  Maybe try writing some again. It was that sign that did it.

And so after lunch I head over again to Lafayette and Grisham to check out this most mysterious yard sale.  A woman with a child in a stroller is bending over examining a manuscript in one of the boxes.  She flips a few pages, laughs, then tosses it back into the box.  "You got any toys for sale?" she asks the man in the green shirt.

"Nope.  Just poems."

The woman shrugs and walks away.  A few cars slow down in front of the house but no one stops.

"Hi again," I say to Green Shirt, as I turn off the ignition and get out of my car.  He's sitting on the porch steps smoking a cigarette.   He stares straight back at me, doesn't respond. 

I stoop to look inside the first box and pick up the manuscript the woman had been thumbing through.  At first glance it appears to be a group of untitled poems having to do with nature.  Strings of words such as "black trees in mist", "shadowy midnight moon" and "undulating waves that grab at hollow shores", etc. sail off the page in neatly typed lines seemingly unconnected to one another.  Although formatted as poems they are not poems at all, just line after line of random phrases, puzzling metaphors and ...  rambling nonsense.  This particular manuscript has 37 pages.

I put it down and pick up the paper directly underneath it.  This one is short--only four pages, neatly stapled in the upper left-hand corner.  As with its predecessor, it is undated, untitled, and the author's name is nowhere to be found.  The first poem begins:

Ephemerality transgressed
each crack in the stark formican table remembered
the distant bloat of wasted tears
cat food, toil paper he at the turn
turn off the light

"Turn off the light?"  I must have raised an eyebrow.  The man in the green shirt is watching me.

"Whose, uh, poems are these?" I ask.   "Did you write them?" 

He makes a grimace, the kind that announces you are sick to your stomach, and turns to look at a passing car.  I take that as a No.

"Let me take a wild guess," I smile.  "You're the former editor of a now defunct literary journal and these are rejected submissions that ..."

Green Shirt abruptly cuts me off.  "Nope."   He strikes me as someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly, or pompous pretenders either, and for some reason I'm suddenly embarrassed.  His demeanor quickly changes, as if he can read my thoughts.  "They're actually my brother's stuff," he says, stubbing out his cigarette on the concrete step.  He gets up from the stoop and walks over toward me.

"Your brother's a ... poet?" I ask, not quite daring to ask what has happened to him and why are you selling his papers?

Green Shirt the mind reader slowly explains:  "My brother's ill, you see.  It became necessary to ..."  He does not finish his sentence.

"I'm sorry," I say.

"These are his writings," he explains.  "They're all drafts, works in progress.  He's never finished them.  Just sits in front of his typewriter and whatever comes into his mind, he types it out, puts it in a drawer and never looks at it again.  It just got to be too much, is all."

I nod, as if that makes perfect sense, though it doesn't.  Shouldn't the disposal of one's entire life's work be up to the person who owns it?  Perhaps the brother's too far gone, as they say.  I wonder if he knows—that all his stuff is sitting out here in the driveway, up for sale.

I pick up another manuscript, a hefty tome of over a hundred pages.  Green Shirt recognizes it immediately and says, "That's his poem about the garden."  Poem, singular.  The whole hundred-plus pages are a single poem.  Green Shirt points to a small patch of dessicated flowers in a bed of weeds at a corner of the house, hardly what one would call a "garden"--certainly not enough to warrant writing a hundred-sheet declaration in verse about.  I open the manuscript at a random page:

vestiges of flotsam unrealized
shaded by benign neglect the roses
bloom crowding out the
don't forget to turn off the
light mud-clogged bird rot

"Turn off the light" again?  This makes absolutely no sense to me.  I begin to suspect this brother of Green Shirt suffers from some mental disease.  "But why are you selling them?" I ask, thinking if you wanted to get rid of so much paper, why not just drop it in the recycle bin?  I can't imagine voluminous drafts of non-poems from an anonymous writer would generate much interest at a yard sale--in this neighborhood, anyhow--and I say so (more kindly stated and in less detail, of course) to Green Shirt.

"Because I'm tired of keeping them,” he says.  "He keeps writing and writing and writing and there's nowhere to put them anymore.  The basement is full.  The attic is full.  There are boxes and boxes of them in the garage.  He won't let me destroy them."

"Your brother is certainly prolific," I say, envious, trying to remember the last time the poetic muse deigned to visit me.  "Does he know you're, uh, selling them?"

"It was his idea,"says Green Shirt.  "It's the only way he'd let me move them out of the house.  He seems to think no one will realize their true value and at the end of the day they'll remain unsold.  Then he can bring them all back in.  I'm afraid it's starting to look like he's right.  You're the only one to show even the remotest interest."

Green Shirt suddenly blurts out:  "Look, I'll sell the lot of them to you for $15.00."

I am stunned.  What would I possibly do with a dozen boxes of someone's old personal draft manuscripts?

On second thought, there might be interesting material to be found in this collosal collection of poetic gibberish.  I begin recalling my increasing stuckness, hours facing a blank sheet of paper trying to write even the most mundane thing.  I can't even find words for habitual business reports.  And this fellow's brother simply explodes with words.   Where has all my creativity gone?  I stare at the reams of paper overflowing from the boxes.  I'm thinking I might borrow a metaphor here and there, re-use some of the words maybe, to inject into my own now-stalled writing.  But no sooner has the thought arrived than it is summarily dismissed.  What was I thinking?  Have I become so desperate for inspiration as to stoop to using someone else's words?

And yet ...  the prospect of acquiring this avalanche of newfound creativity no longer seems so preposterous.  Not at all.  It's all in how you look at a thing. 

"Okay," I say, surveying the line of boxes again, mentally calculating the space it would require to transport and relocate them.  I wonder what my wife would say.

"There's only one conditon," says Green Shirt.  Oh oh.  Here it comes.  There's always a catch.

"Once these boxes have been removed, I don't ever want to see them again.  Do you understand?" he says.  "Under no circumstances can they be returned here."  Which seems fine with me.  I mean, if this crazy project turns out to be a waste of time, I can just recycle them, right?.   I begin thinking about the process of going through each and every manuscript, one by one by one.  Maybe it's the look on my face that hints to Green Shirt that perhaps I may be reconsidering my impulsive decision because he suddenly becomes more friendly.

"Look. If you agree to take all of them, I won't charge you a dime,"  he says.  "In fact, I'll even PAY you to take them ALL."

"All?" I say, confused.  "You mean ...."

"Yes," he says.  "All.  These twelve, and all the boxes in the attic, in the basement and in the garage.  The complete collection.  I’ll give you $200 to remove them."

Whoa, wait a minute, that's a whole different ballpark, mister.  Not that I can't use a couple hundred bucks.  I'm already spending  the money in my mind. But wait.  "Er ... how many boxes are we talking about here?" I say, reluctantly coming to my senses.  By his count, 12 in the driveway, 17 in the attic, 26 in the basement and 14 in the garage--69 boxes in total.  Think about it.  That's thousands and thousands of pages, billions of words.  My head reels.

Now, there is no way I can bring 69 boxes of anything onto our premises without my wife's knowledge or approval.  Green Shirt stands, his arms folded, an expectant, hopeful look on his face.  I imagine poring over the manuscripts page by page by page, looking for extractable items to fuel my dried up poetic wasteland. Be realistic, I tell myself. You can never hope to read them all. This will clearly take decades.  I would be dead before I got to even the fifth box.  Nevertheless ...

"Agreed," I find myself saying to Green Shirt, somewhat appalled at this newest bout of recklessness on my part.  And yet I haven't stopped myself.   He isn't smiling though.  Maybe he already knows it wouldn't work, that I'll suddenly realize what I'm getting myself into and change my mind, and he'll have to lug all dozen boxes back inside at the end of the afternoon, that the growing mountain of manuscripts will never end. But as it turns out, that doesn’t happen.  I may be compulsive but I've never renegged on a verbal agreement.

The rest of the day is somewhat of a blur.  I ask our next-door neighbor's son Chad to borrow his pick-up truck and help with the loading and unloading of the boxes.  It takes us, in all, three hours.  My wife is furious, isn’t speaking to me.  I don't know why she's so upset, we haven’t brought them here, to the house.  I’ve taken Green Shirt's suggestion and rented a storage bin at the edge of town--a whole large room actually--and put all the boxes there.

Well, as these things go, one does things on a whim and then regrets it.  A month has passed--my God, has it been that long?--and I've only gone through half of one box.  It is taking far longer than I'd anticipated.  There's so much there.   Some manuscripts are more incoherent than others.  Overall, I would say it's doing more harm than good, though, because now everytime I attempt to write anything, only his words come to mind.  Green Shirt's brother's words.   That was the whole point, though, wasn't it?  To find inspiration? But it's backfired, it's like catching a virus, now I can't rid myself of them, they crop up everywhere.

For example, last week at the supermarket when I consulted my grocery list I found some of Green Shirt's brother's words had infiltrated my pencilled notes:  "Bread, milk, bananas, urgency of malfaction, celery, neglect, coffeebeans, incommunicable with respite ...."    My wife has forbidden me to visit the storage bin but the words, alas, have taken root.

Then I'm out mowing the lawn today and all of a sudden who shows up, out of the blue, but Green Shirt.  Except now he has on a beige shirt with a soccer team emblem on the pocket.  He looks tired.  The man must have a difficult time of it, looking after his sick brother and all. I wonder if the brother ever noticed that all his drafted poems went missing and that they now belong to me.  I do not dare to ask.

"Hi Raymond," Beige Shirt says. Wow, he remembered my name.  And where I live. For the life of me I can't remember his name, though.  What's he doing here?

"You broke our agreement," he says.

"What agreement?" I ask, trying to remember what that might be.

"You left a box of manuscripts on the kitchen table yesterday," he says.

But that's impossible.  Why would I have done that?  I don't even go to the storage bin anymore.  Wife's orders.    How would I even have gotten a key to this guy's house?  This doesn't make any sense.  Beige Shirt looks at me, waiting for a reply.

"Perhaps it was my wife," I say, not sure why I've just implicated my wife as breaking into someone's house.

"Your wife is dead, remember?  Come on, we had a DEAL, Raymond."  Beige Shirt sounds miffed.

My wife is dead?!!  What is he talking about? I just talked to her.  And why is he calling me Raymond?  Who's Raymond?  Beige Shirt is clearly delusional.  I start to go inside the house, to get away from this man.  He's beginning to frighten me.  But he follows me!  I try to close the door so he can't get in but he's too quick and strong and pushes right in.  Then he gently closes the door.

"Go back to your room, Raymond," Beige Shirt says, turning and going into the kitchen.  MY kitchen.  The gall of the man, who does he think he is?!  Now he's lifting a cardboard box full of loose papers from the table, places it on the floor near the back door, muttering under his breath.

"Please.  You're not going to throw them OUT!!" I find myself begging.  "They're not ... finished."

A small panic overtakes me as I suddenly remember something.  I race upstairs, two steps at a time, to the attic.  Gone.  They're all gone!  I turn around and run down to the basement, sweating and out of breath.  They're all gone there as well.  "They're not in the garage, either," says Beige Shirt, waiting for me in the kitchen when I return.  "Don't you remember?  We put them all in storage."

"We?!!!??" I stammer, becoming wobbly in the knees.

"You and I, Raymond, don't you remember?  We drove them to the storage together."

"I can't drive!" I shout back, agitated that I remember no such thing.  "You know I can't drive.  And there is no way I would have removed my poems from this house.  No WAY!"  Beige Shirt ignores me.  "Who put you up to this?"  I demand.

I stagger back and lean against the refrigerator, trying to make sense of it all.  A face comes to mind.  It was that guy--the one who claimed he saw a sign for a yard sale and came looking to buy my used poems--he was the one who took them!  There was no yard sale.  Why would I SELL my poems?  We must go and find him. 

Beige Shirt sighs.  He's never understood poetry, he admits it, what people see in it, only that they go on and on about it, like Raymond does.   He's read Raymond's poems and finds them unintelligible, words without meaning.  He's shown Raymond's poems to other poets at the local Arts Center who tell him don't destroy them, you have no right.  But Raymond, he just keeps writing and writing and writing, vomiting words out of his brain into his fingers and tap tap tapping away all hours of the day and night on his keyboard and he never even looks at them again, like once they're out of his head, they're on their own.  Won't let anyone look at them either. He won't even show them to ME.  

I have to warn Raymond that Beige Shirt may not have his best interests at heart.  What kind of a person would sell his own brother's life's work?!!

  ~ ~ ~

It was the space, you see.  Beige Shirt looks out the window at the little non-garden.  It used to be a real garden but that was when he had time for such things.  Caretakers don't get a lot of time to themselves and anyway, Raymond would simply mow right over it, no flower was safe; it is only the imaginary ones, in his manuscripts, that get to live.

One more box, and so it starts again.  But he would deal with it. Hadn't he always?

Beige Shirt makes a mental note to take the box near the door off to the garage in the morning, before Raymond's awake.  

They just take up so much space, he says, to no one in particular.


-- Draft of a short story by Annie Wyndham


The inspiration for this strange little tale came from the words of a blogger friend, written in an entirely different context, namely:  "The already-used is exemplary” and “Poets take note."   I don't know why but it began writing itself immediately after my seeing those words.  That, and all the vente de garage signs I've been seeing in the neighborhood recently, and a film I watched last week called "Shutter's Island" combined to weave the tale, urging my fingers to Write it down, Hurry up and write it down Write it down Write it down, ha ha. 

And so I did.

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