Yesterday, June 30, 2016, was an anniversary: it marked the passing of forty-seven years since I married my first love.
Forty-seven years ago, the only people I knew who could measure such a span were my grandparents, who married in 1913.
My marriage, unlike theirs, did not last. I was married before I was eighteen–to a boy six months younger even than I–and divorced before either of us had turned twenty-one. That is a story for another post, though. What I want to write about today is poetry.
One gray morning in early Spring, then, when I was eighteen and still married to that first love, I went for a walk in a neighborhood I didn’t know well. I was alone–my young husband was headed off to pay a Sunday visit to his mother (she lived nearby). So I was by myself, and thoroughly enjoying my solitude.
One of the realities of marriage is that though we love our partners, sometimes we need to be by ourselves. It can be difficult to arrange for periods of being alone, left to one’s own devices, disconnected for the moment, unfettered. I actually like being by myself; in fact, I rather pine when deprived of my own lone company, so this gray drizzly March morning was a gift.
I remember that my husband urged me to wear a hat when I left our tiny studio apartment for my solitary jaunt. It was raining, a chilly, penetrating rain. I remember the hat, a crocheted beret in light taupe; I wore a khaki gabardine coat from the 1940s that I’d picked up in a thrift shop, and a denim workshirt and bellbottom jeans from I. Goldberg’s Army-Navy Store, and boots, brown ones with brass buckles.
My hair was growing out from the Mia Farrow-esque crop I’d gotten after my father had died, two years before. Wavy and fine, it escaped the confines of the beret; I remember that it clung damply to my cheeks as I strolled happily along, umbrella-less, holding my hands out periodically to catch the raindrops. My denim bellbottoms swished and my bootsoles tapped out a happy rhythm.
I turned a corner and found myself in a street of small shops. It was Sunday, remember, and still early; most places were shut tight. Halfway down the street, I paused by a bookstore. The window display held only a shelf of paperbacks, their titles obscured by dust and faded by sunlight, and a fatigued palm tree in a terracotta pot. Behind the display the rest of the shop lay in black dark. The door bore a handmade sign with the hours of operation in faded brown letters.
I was about to turn and continue my peregrinations when the door opened.
A man stood there. He greeted me.
“You are fond of poetry,” he said.
It was not a question.
“You write poetry,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
I was a poetry junkie, in fact; I’d just come off a serious Sylvia Plath jag, preceded by a period of frenzied immersion in Keats and Shelley, with occasional side trips into Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Emily Dickinson and William Blake, so I was pretty much primed for what followed.
“Have you read the poems of Li Po?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted. “I have never heard of Li Po.”
“Come,” the man said, and reaching out he took hold of my coat sleeve and drew me into the shop.
Okay. I know what you must be thinking. Only a nitwit goes into a dark room with some guy she doesn’t know. Well, call me a nitwit, but I knew that this man posed no danger.
He was not elderly but he was old enough to make me think of fathers and uncles. He had graying hair and a small beard, like a goatee, but wispy. He was not exactly Asian or Latino or Black but not precisely White either. He made me think of the ink-drawings on old scrolls in the Art Museum, but at the same time he seemed perfectly ordinary, speaking unaccented English, wearing tan corduroy slacks and an old yellow sweater with frayed cuffs, and on his feet a pair of scuffed brown slippers over gray wool socks. He was slender and not tall–I am six feet, and topped him by some inches, but he gave the impression of height. Maybe it was his voice, which was resonant and musical, but when he spoke of poetry, I knew that he must be a poet too.
We sat across from one another in two wooden kitchen chairs. Between us was a low table; my new acquaintance disappeared briefly into the rear of the shop and returned with a pot of jasmine tea and two handleless cups in plain white porcelain. He poured tea for us and as I sipped mine he read from a small book with Chinese characters on the yellow cover and a line drawing of a man in Chinese robes looking at the reflection of the full moon in a river or lake.
The poems washed over me like moonlight or maybe summer rain, warm but penetrating and somehow nourishing. I listened to his voice and the room fell away. I stood under the moon and breathed with the trees and the earth, and the words tumbled over and through me like a new music, something I had never heard before but that felt somehow as familiar as my own face, and as alien.
He read to me for perhaps an hour, then closed the book.
I rose and thanked him formally for the poems and for the tea. He walked me to the door and I stepped out into the street.
The rain was still falling, but lightly, more like a heavy mist than an actual drizzle. I turned to say goodbye to my new friend, but the shop door was shut and all was dark again within. Somehow this was not surprising, and I walked home, feeling cozy and relaxed despite the March chill.
I did not tell my young husband that I had met Li Po on Armat Street in Germantown, Philadelphia on that March morning. I have told only a few people–those who I think would understand.
My brief youthful marriage ended two years later. I felt the first searing grief, then, of my newly-adult life, grief born of loss and failure and selfishness and simple immaturity, but nonetheless real. I mourn the girl I was, and the boy he was, and I mourn and celebrate, yes, the love we shared–doomed and futile, it was still real and pure as only that first love is–and I thank whatever gods there may be, or muses, or ghosts of bygone poets, because I have never lost those memories, as painful as they are, and because Li Po opened a door for me that has never shut since that time.
This really happened, nearly half a century ago, on a rainy morning in March, when I was still young and in love forever, and all the world was waiting behind doors that might at any moment open.
And they did. They do.