Monday, September 3, 2012


Reading books that your older brother and sister leave strewn around the house is the inalienable right of any younger sibling. On a summer day when I was in my teens and I found this book of poetry sitting on the wobbly hall bookshelf, I didn't think twice. I remember leaning up against the wall and flipping through the pages. When I got to page 96, I stopped.
In the top left hand corner were the words:



when the squall hit. 

There was nothing more. 
The rest of the page was white space.
I looked at the cover and for the first time noticed the author's name. I wondered who John Ashbery was and how he got to write a book where thirteen words were called a poem. This wasn't poetry. It was nothing like what I'd studied in school. Where was the rhyme? The meter? The rest of the words? Clearly this guy pulled one over on a bunch of people
I read the poem again and again.  Then I closed my eyes.
Soon I began to imagine myself, a little older, sitting on that terrace surrounded by fabulously witty people, all of them with drinks in their hands. I could smell the sharp scent of gin and the heaviness of chlorine from the nearby pool. Floating toys drift on the water.
There's a sound of ice clinking on glasses.
And laughter.
The storm moves in fast. Rain comes in from all sides.
My fabulously witty friends scatter.
Someone grabs the drinks,
another reaches for the tray of limes
and a third brave soul runs to get the towels hanging over a fence.
We head into the house but the mood is different. Not as carefree.
Everyone is wet.
The drinks don't clink.
The chlorine smell is replaced by stuffy inside air.
We watch through the windows. The floating toys are still out there banging up against the sides of the pool. There is a conversation about who should go back out into the rain to get them.
Soon the people with drinks have personalities and problems. An entire story comes to light.
When I finally opened my eyes, I'd decided that maybe John Ashbery knew what he was doing after all. It wasn't only about the words. It was about the spaces between them. The spaces between those thirteen words were filled with images.
All that happened a long time ago. In the years that followed I'd lost track of the book. I'd assumed it was reclaimed by an older sibling. This summer, when I was cleaning out my parents' house, I found it again. For many reasons, emptying out your childhood home is an arduous task. Despite my mother's pleading, I didn't want any of the china or the crystal bowls or the fancy tea sets, but when I saw the book in my brother's old bedroom, I grabbed it.
It's sitting on my desk now and every so often, I turn to page 96. There's something magical about those thirteen words. They can scrape away the decades and make me feel seventeen again. I remember everything: That summer day. That hallway bookshelf. The feeling of confusion. That moment of understanding. It all feels so close.
When I read that poem for the first time, I learned something important about the spaces between words.
But this summer it taught me a different lesson
about the spaces between years.


Mirka Breen said...

Ah the spaces.

Writers must not suffer from Horror Vacui, that fear of empty spaces that characterizes some traditional art. A lot of great stuff happens in those spaces.
Thanks for the reminder.

Alison Ashley Formento said...

Gorgeous post, Nan. This is the time of year that I always feel the crunch time and space, too, and wish for more with my kids before the chaos of the school year begins. That poem is a perfect read for me today. What a lovely re-discovery for you to keep near. Thanks for sharing thirteen words and those empty spaces.

nanmarino said...

Mirka, I never really thought about fear of empty spaces before. That's an interesting thought.
Alison, Over the years, I've discussed this poem with friends. I was so happy to find this book.

Irene Latham said...

I love where this poem takes you, and now me. Thank you so much for sharing!

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Great post. I guess it's another one of those balancing acts we've got to learn to get right - between what the words say and what the spaces say. Thanks for getting me thinking.

nanmarino said...

Irene, You're a poet so you're probably not surprised at the power of a single poem. I don't read poetry often enough and am always surprised at how it speaks to me.
Ruth, Balancing act is a good term for it. Hard to do, isn't it? Thanks for your comment.

Kate said...

How have I not come across that poem before? It certainly resonates with me. And your reflections are also speaking across state lines...

Really nice, Nan.