Reviewing a poetry reading is like writing about water, with water. You’re not sure what to say, where to put your verbs and adjectives. Are you judging the poems or the performance, such as it is? All apologies to Allen Ginsberg and the “slam” poets I used to watch and poorly emulate, but the spectacle is nil; there is just the man or woman up there with a microphone, a speaker, and a book, using their mouth to make words. Sometimes pretty words, sometimes not-so-pretty. I guess astride that line stands the reviewer, but isn’t this a one-time thing? Do poets get “runs” anymore? It’s also difficult to get a gauge on structure. I’m sure there are raging, pitched battles in poetry circles as to whether a performance of a poem adds or detracts from the work itself. The temptation in the review, then, is to go big. But how big can you go, really, before your argument dissolves, and you find yourself under the metaphorical dunce cap, asking dunce-y questions like, “Do you enjoy poetry?” Well, then you might enjoy this poetry reading.
Whatever the case may be, alcohol is necessarily involved, or should be, in a poetically perfect world. For the audience, of course, but sometimes for the poet, too. Dock Street Theater has an impressive array of beer and wine for sale in their gorgeous courtyard for their Piccolo Sundown Poetry Series, going on in its 40th year. On a recent Tuesday, I took my seat, a sweating Miller Lite in my hand and the sun in my eyes. True to the name of the series, though, once that old sun dipped behind a house, and everything was made quite comfy, the poet got introduced.
The poet in question, on this day, was Nick Lindsay, 89, the so-called “bard of Edisto." I’d read up on Mr. Lindsay. He’s the kind of old school rugged carpenter poet who tend to make word-addled shrimps like me feel particularly soft. The guy built his own house on Edisto, knows French and Russian, and has had knives pulled on him for his art. Studs Turkel once interviewed him. In his day he’d have obliterated the pithy little snark in my intro about there being no spectacle at a poetry reading: his readings often had music, choral refrains, interpretive dancers. In my researches, he seemed groovy and tough, red-blooded and nigh-shamanistic.
On this day, though, in the courtyard of Dock Street, he looked his years. In suspenders and with a crutch favoring his left side he went to the mic to read from his new collection, Esau Lanier: A Sea Island Prince. But he began by telling the audience about life on the island, and the characters there. He went on like that for a while, as storytellers tend to do. I lost the plot a few times. Honestly, listening to him ramble about swampy island life was a bit like reading Faulkner: you knew something interesting was being said about these working men and scoundrels, even if you weren’t sure what it was. When he got to the Pushkin-like sonnets in his book, however, you saw the strong bones of the poet underneath the hunched exterior. His voice rose and fell. He punched forward his fist when emphasizing a one-syllable, consonant heavy masculine word and curved along a slide of air for a feminine one (present participles, -tion suffixes).
And then he stunned me. In his soft, conversational way, couched between his workaday anecdotes, he mentioned that Frances Dubose, his wife of 70 years, had passed away just that morning. He paused for a moment, and then reminded us, almost casually, of a Robert Frost poem that asks what purpose Eve had had in this world. He recited the final couplet, from memory: “Never again would birds’ song be the same / And to do that to birds was why she came.”
Lindsay then went on with his stories and sonnets and ramblings, leaving me devastated. I couldn’t go on, but he could. I couldn’t imagine the feeling, until he encapsulated it for me. The words hadn’t been his, but they were the perfect words. In my mind and heart, in that moment, they were the only words. He laid me out.