Poems of the Kornbluths
By Cary Fagan
When Noah told me that his relationship with his mother was straight out of The Seagull, I said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. And it’s another reason we shouldn’t be going out.”
“It’s not another reason,” he said. “It’s the same reason.” And then he gave me that boyish, radiant smile of his.
This was the summer of 2008. Noah Kornbluth was twenty-one and I was already twenty-six. Given our life experience, the difference was not a hill but a ski slope. For one thing, I was already gainfully employed, although I wouldn’t have said being a dental assistant was a “calling” in the way Noah used the word. It paid well and I didn’t have to worry about unemployment. The thing that people always asked me about—having to stick my hands into strangers’ mouths—had been easy enough to get used to. It was the way some arrogant male dentist would call me a bimbo to another dentist because I had handed him a Woodson #1 instead of a Ladmore #3. Pricks.
The dentist I settled on, Richard Gladman, was a little paternalistic, sure, but at least he was nice. Work was how I met Noah, who was a patient. Actually, Noah had very good teeth, straight and even, the clear result of regular childhood visits and teenage braces. He had a narrow, pale face, large eyes and the slender body of a dancer, although he wasn’t very coordinated. Really, in every way imaginable he wasn’t my type.
I’m sure that I’m not telling this in the right way, but then I didn’t go to the schools Noah went to, or those artsy camps and afterschool programs. My name is Lauren Swang. When Noah heard it he said, “Swang? That’s the ugliest surname I’ve ever heard. It sounds like a German swear word.”
To which I replied with an English one: “Fuck you.” But Noah had zero tact, as if his “do not offend” switch was broken. Normally the two of us would never have met—our circles didn’t overlap an inch. Noah had never even been to Scarborough, except to visit the zoo when he was a kid, and he certainly didn’t frequent Dave’s Sports Bar or get high at dance clubs or work out at Gold’s Gym.
One lunch hour I came out of work, corner of Bay and Yorkville, intending to eat my Tupperware lunch at the Starbucks across the street.
“Hey,” Noah said, appearing out of nowhere. He must have been waiting by the building after his appointment.
“Oh, hi. Is your tooth okay?”
“It’s terrific. Excellent job all around. My name’s Noah.”
“I know. I took your X-rays, remember?”
“Right. But I’ve never heard your name.”
This is where the ugliest surname comment came in. But then he gave me the smile that seemed innocent and knowing at the same time and that made a person feel blessed to receive it.
I swore at him anyway and he laughed. “Okay, then,” I said and started to cross over, wanting to get a table before they were all gone. Noah followed, skipping sideways in his desert boots.
“I was wondering what you’re doing, ah, tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow? Let me think. I’m watching Dancing with the Stars.”
“Would you come out with me?”
I get asked out by clients pretty regularly. I mean who wouldn’t want to sleep with a dental hygienist, but the guys are usually in their forties with business suits and short haircuts. Sometimes a wedding band. I didn’t need a policy of no dating patients because just the idea made me want to puke. But when we reached the other side of the street I stopped to look at Noah, eager as a puppy. It was impossible not to compare him to my last boyfriend, who was a trainer at the gym and massive, although with a tendency to cry at movies, so you never know about men.
“I live in Scarborough,” I said. “You’re really going to pick me up?”
“I’d love to, but I don’t drive.”
“Don’t have a car or actually can’t drive?”
“Both. How about you Uber it to College Street. There’s a bar called the Box. Nine o’clock?”
Nine meant he wasn’t going to buy me dinner. “Sure, why not?”
“Great. I suppose I should warn you there’s going to be a little entertainment.”
“What kind? Please don’t tell me you’re a ventriloquist.”
He smiled again, pivoted on his heel, and began sprinting back across Bay Street. A car almost killed him.
Hipster snobs think you have to be downtown to enjoy a social life but we had bars, dance clubs, restaurants, Cineplexes. I hadn’t been in the city at night for a while and I Googled the bar to see exactly where it was, so that I could time myself to arrive twenty minutes late. Then I walked past it twice, missing the business-card-sized brass sign by the door. Inside was a narrow black space, with a bar along one side and a noisy crowd pressed against it. It was all skinny jeans and t-shirts with band names and I felt old and overdressed in a shimmery top, tight skirt, heels. Really, I should have known better than to come at all.
“Hey, Swang,” Noah called, making his way towards me.
“I don’t like the way you say my name.”
“Swaaang. Is that better? You’re just in time. Come on.”
He pulled me through the crowd to the back, where the room opened up into a barely wider space. A thinner crowd. There was a narrow riser with a mic on a stand, like the stage of a comedy club. The people here held beers and chatted, obviously waiting for whatever was about to happen. Please God, I thought, don’t ask me to endure Noah with a guitar and a harmonica around his neck singing A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
A large woman with dreads and Mardi-Gras beads went up to the mic. “Is this on? Welcome everybody to the Box Reading Series. We’re here the first Thursday of every month and we’ve got a Facebook page so please ‘like’ us, okay? You all have a drink. You’re all feeling good. Because tonight we’ve got three poets that are going to rock your world. First up is Annie Chong. Annie has already won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. She has published poems in The New Quarterly, This Magazine and a bunch of other places. She’s going to be reading from a manuscript of poems about being Chinese, being lesbian, but most of all being a human being on a fucked-up planet. Please give it up for Annie!”
Are you kidding me? I almost wished it had been ventriloquism. I’d gone on some sad first dates but this was another league. Maybe Noah was testing me, seeing how uncool I was willing to be. A lot of noise in my head as Annie Chong got up on the riser and gave the host a hug. She was wearing a push-up bra and had pink hair and a lot of face jewelry.
Noah leaned into me and whispered, “She’s spectacularly overrated.”
As if that mattered. At the mic, she made a remark about being “the only Chinese Canadian girl crushing on Anne Carson,” which made people laugh, probably just to show they got the joke which I didn’t. Her poems sounded more like lists than poems—weird foods, mythical animals, childhood fantasies, shoplifted lingerie, untried sexual positions. They were pretty entertaining and I found myself waiting for the next line.
Applause and hoots. Noah leaned again. “Those were better than the last ones I heard. But she really panders to the audience.”
I couldn’t see what was wrong with that. The audience shouldn’t like you? The rest of the bar completely ignored what was going on down here, as if we existed in another dimension. The host got up again, beads jangling. “I’m still recovering from that. Be still, my heart. We’re going to bring up our second reader and after that there will be a break when you can refresh your beverage of choice and support Gerry who’s good enough to let us use this space. Our next reader has a famous last name. He may have inherited the family talent, but believe me this young man is his own poet. Difficult, troubling, exquisite as the sharp edge of a knife. Please welcome, for the first time in our series, Noah Kornbluth.”
I could tell by the reaction that some people did recognize Noah’s last name. His shoulders hunched and his head went down as he walked to the riser, stumbled as he got up, and formally shook the M.C.’s hand.
Noah squinted at the audience and took a rolled-up manuscript from his back pocket. He frowned down at it and then, with no introduction, began to read. His voice was quiet but sort of musical and then sometimes he enunciated with exaggerated precision. I couldn’t have described his poem, or maybe poems, except to say they were complicated and had long lines with parentheses and digressions and they were packed with images and references—words in Greek or maybe Latin and also cellphones and balconies and Don’t Look Now and some bombing in Paris--plus they seemed to be written in different voices overlapping one another. As he went on he got more worked up, bobbing his head and sometimes even slapping one hand on his thigh, until finally he just stopped.
Noah stared at the pages for a moment and then came down, hesitating this time to make sure he didn’t trip. Not surprisingly, the applause wasn’t as loud as for Annie Chong, but to give him the benefit of the doubt I figured that some readers were naturally crowd pleasers and some weren’t.
He came up beside me. “I knew they wouldn’t be into it. Let’s get out of here.”
Clearly he was in a sour mood but I had no intention of stroking him. “I’m trying to figure out,” I said, “what kind of guy takes a girl to a poetry reading—his own poetry reading—on a first date. I mean, is it egomania or something else, like the way a dog will expose its neck to another dog.”
“They do that?” he asked with interest.
“For the record, I thought your poems were peculiar but provocative.” I’d practiced the phrase in my head before saying it.
“Thanks, I guess. I wanted to show you who I am. Because I plan to devote my life to doing this. It’s not some hobby.”
I thought: he couldn’t have chosen carpentry? Something that people actually needed? But I wasn’t quite mean enough to say it and, besides, some guy in his fifties was sidling up to us. Expensive suit, swelling belly, receding hair worn long in the back.
“Hey there, Noah. I enjoyed your reading. Kind of New York School meets Wallace Stevens.”
“Haven’t read them. James, this is my friend, Swang.”
“Lauren,” I said.
“I’m surprised to see you here, James. I thought you never went to these things.”
“Got to check out the new blood once in a while. Listen, say hello to your mother for me, will you?”
The guy winked at me—I mean, actually winked—and then headed towards the bar.
“That guy looks like a shady tax lawyer,” I said.
“He is a lawyer. Real estate, I think. If there’s one thing I swear that I’ll never be, it’s one of those lawyers who write.”
“You going to read those New York whatever poets?”
A snort. “I read them when I was twelve.”
“And how does he know your mother?”
“They were up for the same award a few years ago.”
“You’re mom’s a poet, then?”
“So who won the award?”
Noah rubbed his nose on his sleeve. “My mom. My mom always wins.”
Two years earlier I’d been engaged. We had a wedding date, a church, and were choosing invitations and debating the chances of my mother showing and did his idiot brother really have to be best man. The groom was someone from high school I’d lost touch with until we ran into each other at a Raptors game. I knew he’d had a crush on me and now he had grown into a calm and confident man, vice-president of his dad’s cardboard box factory in Aurora. He was into long-distance bike trips. My girlfriends thought he looked a bit like Mark Wahlberg. I didn’t have any reason for breaking it off, other than the panic attacks, but that was good enough for me.
And here was Noah, who didn’t match up with anything that I wanted or felt ought to belong to me. He was still basically a kid, a third-year undergraduate in comparative literature, leading to a degree in Fuck-All. I grew up with a father in and out of work until he had a heart attack and fell under a forklift, and a mother who’d been pouring coffee at the same diner for twenty-seven years. I didn’t think the world was going to give up anything I didn’t take for myself.
Still, I agreed to go out with Noah again. Not because I believed he was the answer but because I’d started to think that maybe there was no answer. He was obviously smart, he was a mystery to me, and he was pretty. Also, he seemed to genuinely like me, and that counted for something. We started to do normal things together, like go to movies. Noah, big surprise, chose films in French or Polish, set in prison camps or faceless apartment blocks. But he seemed relieved when it was my turn to choose and we went to see Taken.
On weekends I had a reason to come into the city. We explored neighbourhoods I’d never thought to go near, like the Junction and Leslieville. In Kensington Market we sat on a bench listening to a busker play banjo while eating burritos and drinking beer. Then we went along a cross street to Noah’s favourite bookstore, for some reason named This Ain’t the Rosedale Library. It had a big poetry section and glancing along a shelf, I saw a book by someone named Rhonda Kornbluth. Of course I already knew that Noah’s mother was a poet, but I guess it hadn’t really registered until that moment. I started to draw the book out but then looked over at Noah and put it back.
Of course I Googled her. And found out that she was part of a second, or was it a third wave of poets that followed Dorothy Livesay and Gwendolyn McEwan and Margaret Atwood, publishing her first book in the early eighties and winning a Governor General’s Award. She had also won the Trillium Prize and a National Magazine Award but she hadn’t, it turned out, won all of them like Noah said because she’d only been a finalist for the Griffin Prize and that one was worth a shitload of money. But one of her poems had been set to music, another had appeared on a subway poster in Japan and there were books—well, one book and one special issue of a journal—devoted to her work.
I also found out, surprise surprise, that even well-known poets couldn’t earn a living. Rhonda had long worked as an administrator in a department at the university. Noah told me, when I finally asked about her, that none of the professors ever said a word to her about her books. She claimed to prefer it that way, which I thought showed an impressive restraint I wouldn’t have had.
He told me this while we were lying in my bed in my apartment on a Sunday morning, the murmur of traffic from the highway seventeen floors below. He said, “She was always a good mom, putting me first. She gave up a lot of opportunities to travel. My father only stuck around for the first three years and then he moved to some hippy commune on a gulf island. She should have made him pay support but she didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I went out when I was sixteen, against her wishes. It felt like a big deal to me. And you know what? He was a bore. An easygoing, weed-smoking guy who ran a hemp shop. He was happy to meet me but really he couldn’t have cared less. It was the biggest anti-climax of my life.”
Noah told me something else while we lay in bed that morning. He told me, as if it was a moment of high drama, that his mother didn’t want him to be a poet.
Well, of course she didn’t.
My own mother lived in Edmonton with her second husband, a trucker who gave up driving in order to stay home and now worked as a short order cook in the same diner as her. I thought we had a pretty normal relationship, which meant that every so often she would say something to piss me off enough not to speak to her for a few weeks. She called me the difficult one because my sisters would stop speaking to her only for a few days.
Noah wasn’t especially interested in my background, par for the course for guys generally in my experience. But I went back on my own to that weird bookshop and bought Rhonda Kornbluth’s book. It was called Slow Burn and had on the cover a candle dripping wax onto an apple. Turns out that poetry books are short but not cheap. All the poems were named after ordinary things like “Glove” and “Refrigerator” and “Salt,” and each poem was slim, like the shape of a knife. I started reading them as I walked back to work and I finished later that night in bed. They were so much simpler than Noah’s, more pared down. They seemed easy to understand but there was always something a little odd or unsettling about them that was hard to pin down, like it wasn’t in the lines but between them.
I thought they were pretty great.
“Don’t you think it’s going to be difficult, having a mother who’s already kind of a famous poet?”
This was a different night in my bed. Noah lived in the basement apartment of his mother’s house and I’d yet to see it. Somehow my apartment felt different with him there, like we were swaying in a treehouse.
Noah scratched his nose. “There aren’t any famous poets anymore. Not even after dying.”
“Thanks for the mini-lecture, but you know what I mean.”
He sat up, the sheet sliding down his near-hairless chest. “Okay, sure. But let’s face it, would I even want to be a poet without her example? When I was growing up there were poetry books stacked on the toilet, the kitchen counter, there were poems stuck to the fridge. At my seventh birthday party I insisted on reciting “Tyger, Tyger burning bright.” Michael Ondaatje drank beer in our backyard and threw a football with me. Poetry was always the most special thing. It wasn’t about awards or publishers. It was enough to say about someone that he was a poet to make him worth knowing.”
“If I followed in my mother’s footsteps I’d be working at Jay’s Diner. It’s considered healthy to break away.”
“I have. My poetry is nothing like Rhonda’s.”
“Yeah, that’s a giant leap.”
“You don’t get it, Swang. My mother doesn’t want me to be a poet. She wants me to go to law school, which I got accepted to, by the way. So being a poet is rebelling.”
“Most poets have other jobs, don’t they? Like your mother. You could go to law school.”
“I’m not interested in being something else. I’m making a conscious choice to be a poet. Everything else will just have to follow from that.”
“Are you really that young?” I said with a sigh.
“Now you’re being condescending. Anyway, I don’t know why you’re getting so heated about it. It’s not like we’re getting married or anything.”
I felt myself go still. No, we weren’t getting married or anything. But a rule I had was never to stay in a relationship that didn’t at least have the possibility of a future. If I could see that it didn’t—then it was time for me to get out.
“This is not a normal conversation for two people to have in bed,” he said, possibly sensing the tension in me.
“I have a question for you, Noah”
“Please, let’s not. I hate the word ‘love.’ It’s so—”
“The question is about your mother.”
“Does she disapprove of me?”
“Like the way she disapproves of your career choice. It could be my background. Or my age. Or my job. And I am a shiksa.”
“That’s the last thing she’d cared about. Besides, even if she did disapprove of you, she’d never come out and say it.”
“Is she interested in meeting me?”
“It hasn’t come up.”
“Was she interested in meeting your last girlfriend? Little Hannah or Rachel or Sarah or whatever her name was?”
“I think you just made an anti-Semitic remark. Your true colours are coming out.”
“I want to meet your mother. You have dinner with her all the time. So when can I come?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Noah.”
“Okay, okay. I’m supposed to be there Friday.”
“Good. Tell her I’m coming. And not to worry, I’ll eat anything”
He slumped back in bed. “Remember, you asked for it. Don’t blame me for anything that happens.”
The Kornbluth house was more like a cottage. It was on one of those old working-class streets near Chinatown in a row of tiny, well-kept places with tiny front gardens and wooden porches. But theirs looked tired. The garden was neglected rather than wild. The house itself listed to one side as if the big bad wolf had tried to blow it over. Then he’d ripped one of the rain gutters half-off for good measure.
Noah sat on the front porch waiting for me, his narrow shoulders all hunched. He got up and tentatively kissed my cheek, like I was a cousin he’d once met at a wedding, then turned around and headed inside.
“Rhonda?” he called. “It’s us.”
“In the kitchen.”
My stomach was in a knot. I wanted Noah to take my hand but he just charged forward through the shotgun living and dining rooms to the postage-stamp kitchen at the back. Every small room was made smaller by the stuffed and leaning bookshelves. The kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been renovated since the fifties, with a worn linoleum floor and Formica countertop with burn rings. Rhonda was leaning over a large steaming pot.
“Hi, Lauren. Sorry I can’t turn around. I know how to make two decent dishes. You’re getting the bouillabaisse.”
“Sounds great. I should have brought white wine instead of red.”
“If it’s wet, we’ll drink it.” She turned now, wiping her hands on her jeans and I instantly saw Noah in her narrow face and pointed chin. “I’m glad you’ve come, I’ve been asking Noah for weeks. All right, this is ready. Why don’t you open that bottle of yours.”
“I’ll cut up the baguette,” Noah said, avoiding my gaze. The dining room was already set, nice china and linen napkins. Rhonda carried in the pot and ladled us bowls filled with mussels and crab legs and pieces of fish and it was hot and spicy and amazingly delicious. Nobody made a toast, we just started drinking and it wasn’t long before Noah was called on to open a second bottle. Rhonda acted as if we were old acquaintances who just needed to catch up. Poetry never came up.
Noah slowly gave up his embarrassment and alternated between laughing with Rhonda and complaining about her mothering skills. He remembered how much he’d wanted a dog when he was a kid. “I cried myself to sleep every night for a week. Any other mother would have given in. But not mine.”
“We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” Rhonda said. “I was barely getting food on the table. I was still temping in offices. You can’t believe, Lauren, the kind of sexual bullshit we tolerated back then. The point is, if we’d had a dog I probably would have had to cook it.”
“You’re grown up now,” I said. “Why don’t you get one? Or maybe after you graduate.”
“And be responsible for it? I don’t think so.”
“There you are,” Rhonda said, holding up her hands.
“Besides, it’s a permanent pain. Unreachable.”
“My poor Hamlet.”
And on it went. I wanted to tell Rhonda that I’d read her poems but felt too shy. Finally when we were cleaning it up, I blurted it out.
“I read one of your books.”
“Really?” Rhonda smiled at me. “Which one?”
“A Slow Burn.”
“You didn’t say anything to me,” Noah grumped.
“It’s not like I understood everything but I liked them. Loved them, actually.”
“Loved them?” Noah repeated.
“Thank you for telling me. To be honest, I like them better myself when I don’t quite understand them.”
Noah brought the second bottle in from the dining room and tipped the last of it into his mouth. “I’m having a book published,” he said.
“You are?” I said.
“A chapbook. It’s a new press called Rag and Bone but they’re pretty ambitious.”
It seemed so unlikely that Noah wouldn’t have told me that for a moment I thought he was making it up. “That’s really wonderful, Noah,” she said. “I know how much you want it.” She put her arms out and hugged him. Even though he was several inches taller, he still looked about twelve years old.
Of all the neighbourhoods we walked in, the one I fell in love with was the Beach. It was just a ride on the Queen streetcar from downtown but it felt like another place entirely, like Cape Cod maybe, a small resort town with an endless beach and wooden boardwalk and, just up from the water, quaint cafes and shops. People played Frisbee and volleyball and walked their dogs. I started dreaming about living in one of the old, low-rise apartments that ran up from the boardwalk.
Noah didn’t have anything in common with my friends, but I had to give him credit for making an effort. We first met up with them late on a Saturday night at a dance club. I was sure Noah would refuse to dance but he grabbed my hand and dragged me onto the floor. He was crazy out there, all his inhibitions suddenly abandoned. Stephanie, one of my girlfriends, gave me a look that meant: Is he like this in bed? I just raised an eyebrow, real cool.
Still, I was thinking this couldn’t go on forever. There were too many differences between us and I wasn’t one of those romantics who thought that love conquered all. I wanted a dependable income, nice holidays, a house. And kids, two of them, not three like me and my sisters because somebody always got left out. But I couldn’t talk about these things to Noah. He would have looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues.
One Thursday afternoon Doctor Gladman had to leave early for a family emergency. He had an anorexic daughter who’d been hospitalized more than once and I felt bad for getting the benefit of an afternoon off. I texted Noah, who was going to see the editors of Rag and Bone, and we arranged to meet at the Moonbean Café in Kensington Market. I knew they were having a disagreement about the title; Noah wanted to call it The Excavators but the press preferred Blue Heart, which even I knew was a bad choice. It made Noah swear that he’d never use the word “heart” in a poem again. All this fuss was over a booklet that was going to be printed in an edition of sixty.
I decided to get to the café early and sit over a coffee while listening to my music. It was a ramshackle place and most people at the rickety tables worked on their computers or wrote in journals. I got a coffee at the counter and went to see if the back room was crowded. There sat Rhonda at a table. She had a pile of printed pages in front of her and was chewing on the end of a pencil. Her dense hair, streaked grey, was pulled back into a bun. The lumberjack shirt she wore might have been Noah’s.
I turned away but then turned back again and went up to the table.
She gazed at me as if we’d never met. Then slow recognition.
“Oh, Lauren. I’m sorry, my mind was far away. How are you?”
“Good. I got the afternoon off work.”
“Isn’t it great to have free time in the day? I’m only working four days a week now, just started this month. Do you want to sit down?”
“You’re busy. I’m meeting Noah but I think he’s going to be late.”
“Well, I could use a break. Please, sit. I’m afraid he got his lack of punctuality from me. It’s a very selfish trait.”
“He’s usually pretty good, actually,” I said as I sat, even though it wasn’t really true. “Actually he’s meeting with those editors at Rag and Bone.”
“Ah. He keeps his poetry life a secret from me. Probably a healthy impulse.”
“I think he’s pretty wary of saying anything to you.”
“Yes?” There was a slight drop in her voice. “Why is that?”
“He says you’re critical of him. It must be hard having a big-shot mother when you want to do the same thing. I don’t know much about poetry but even I can see that.”
I wasn’t sure where all this came from. Rhonda said quietly, “I’m sure Noah complains about me, every kid blames his mother. Which is fine. For me this isn’t about poetry. I care about Noah. And I worry about him. How cut off he can be from other people. How self-romanticizing. How he sees himself as a victim. He wasn’t a child like other kids, he was always hurt more by slights, affected more by friendships. Always difficult, needy, unaccommodating, stubborn. I see all that in him still. Yes, he’s an adult, but barely. He needs to smarten up so he can function in this world. So I worry.”
I felt my face go hot. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Oh, Lauren. I don’t really know you. You’ve taken an interest in Noah. And you’re smart and interesting, I can see that. But are you good for him? Is he good for you? I’m well aware that’s none of my business. We all have to make our own mistakes, have our own joys and sorrows and whatever. But in my experience, people become more themselves as they get older, the troubled part of them, too, and that also worries me about Noah. Jesus, I’ve probably said too much. I just don’t—oh, there’s Noah now. I’ll just say hi and leave you guys alone. It was good to see you, Lauren.”
I don’t think that Rhonda ever talked to Noah this way about me. So she had nothing to do with him dumping me about two months later. He didn’t send me a text or email but took me to an old-fashioned restaurant called Bumpkins, bought me dinner, and then explained that he couldn’t see us going forward. In other words, he did what I myself ought to have. Every relationship that I’d been in before had been ended by me and the fact that Noah was right didn’t make me feel any less pissed off. But I didn’t argue with him. In fact, I didn’t say a word. I just got up and walked away. And that was it.
I might have sent him a message when his chapbook came out (I found it at the bookstore), but Noah had unfriended me on Facebook. I kept going to the Moonbeam Café, though, and every so often I would see Rhonda there and she would ask me to sit down. We’d talk, never about Noah, and I found myself liking her more and more. It was maybe six months later when I admitted to her that I had started to write my own poems. “It’s not that I think I have talent or anything, or that anybody can write poetry. I just want to try it.”
“That’s great,” she said. “Of course anybody can write poetry,” she said. “Just like anybody can learn to ski or play the violin or paint sunflowers. So, can I read one?”
I said absolutely not, at least that time because eventually I did give her a few that I had printed neatly in my journal. (I had a journal, too, now.) Rhonda read them and said, “Nice. Really nice.” I was pleased, of course, but I held out a pencil to her.
“Go on,” I said, “mark them up. Do your worst.”
And so a routine started. Rhonda would hold out her hand, wiggling her fingers, and I would hand over my journal. And eventually I felt the right to ask for her poems. She would slide a few pages across the table and, believe it or not, I would take the pencil and scribble on them here or there, things like, “What the hell does that mean?” and “Is this awkward?” The following spring she gave me an inscribed copy of her new book and I blushed to see my name among the thank-yous in the back.
Eventually, we did speak about Noah. I wanted to know how he was doing. It turned out that he was doing law school. When she told me I gave out a little barking laugh. She said, “Did he give you that I-don’t-want-to-be-a-lawyer-who-writes speech, too?”
It took me a long time but I finally found an apartment in the Beaches. In a five story 1940s building, with a balcony from which I could see the lake. I had to pay higher rent but my salary took a jump when Dr. Gladman decided that most other assistants weren’t nearly as competent.
In a second-hand store I bought a small wooden bookcase, not some Ikea junk but nice dark walnut, with ornate touches carved at the corners. I reserved it for books of poetry and slowly but surely the slim volumes lined its shelves, books by Yeats and Eliot and Emily Dickinson and also Lorna Crozier and Don McKay and Lee Maracle and Jane Munro. And, in time, Noah Kornbluth, who published his first real book and then a new one about every two years. For a long time I kept his books on a separate shelf from Rhonda Kornbluth’s but somehow, over time, they migrated beside each other and I left them there.
Cary Fagan is the author of seven novels and four story collections. His latest novel, The Student (Freehand Books), is longlisted for the Toronto Book Award. Cary has also written many picture books and novels for kids. He is a co-editor of the chapbook publisher espresso. Cary lives in Toronto.