I will very rarely write about My Poet.
Being a personal assistant involves learning a new language, only there aren’t any dictionaries or Rosetta Stone tapes. It’s like a high school total immersion nightmare: there you are in French 5, and everyone around you is flawlessly asking the porter for cheese in the simple future tense when you don’t even know the word for help.
But only a week into the job, I am compiling my own quick reference. When My Poet asks me to “please go to the store that sells everything,” I have come to understand that she means the deli. The chocolate “like raised tile” is Ritter Sport. “Make eloquent” translates: photocopy a document with clean edges, dark toner, but not necessary type it.
I love My Poet. I love the floral living room armchair that smells of Eau de Toilette, the floor carpeted in Pavarotti newspaper clippings, her certainty that identity theft is just a trash can away. I love that my responsibilities are both big and small. Big is proofing her manuscript. Small is calling The Vermont Country Store and removing her from their mailing list. One minute we’re breaking organic 7-grain bread in her kitchen, chewing the sweet meat of olives and discussing love’s probabilities; the next, puzzling over TiVo. Considering I used to time celebrities on the theater toilet and post passive aggressive notes from Boss, I love her implicit trust. Today she forgot I was even there. She was writing. She remembered me an hour later: “Becca, you have a good spirit. It’s nice to work in the house with another poet.” It can be a blessing to be forgotten.
Of course I am faced with the occasional ethical quandary. Do I pocket Garrison Keillor’s home address? What about Michael Ondaatje’s phone number? I have always wanted to drunk dial Michael Ondaatje.
My Poet receives inmate fan mail from Georgia, collaboration requests, reading requests, right-wing vitriol, bad poetry with titles like “Breasts of Eternity,” signed books, unsigned books, oil portraits of children, The Vermont Country Store catalog.
She acquaints me with new words like “Rowel,” which looks like a show on The WB but is really a small wheel with radiating points forming the extremity of a spur.
She decorates in driftwood and roses, and I circumnavigate geyser-piles of papers.
She hums Jefferson Starship for me in hopes that I can “name that tune” and put it on CD.
She casually paraphrases Pinsky while TiVo-ing “Six Feet Under”: The state most desired is having just written.
She refuses to buy Nestle products because they discourage women from nursing.
She attends parties in castles but receives me in purple socks over stockings, folding laundry on linoleum, limber as a ballerina.
I tell her I have made the difficult decision to distance myself from Dan, that we want different things. That I miss him more each day. She let’s me talk. I am reminded that she has poems about this very thing, that loving is physical, and she nods and smiles when my eyes well up. We listen to Maria Callas and no matter what we are doing, when she soars into the thermosphere, we collect our breath together —it’s a kind of sisterly suspension. Sometimes I want to lay my head in her lap and have her run her fingers through my hair the way my own mother did, or the sister I never had, only I’d ask her to tell me stories about William Matthews and Elizabeth Bishop. Sometimes it feels less like going to work than entering history, a table of contents, and I can almost visualize a shimmering scrim that I have to pass through when she buzzes me up, me, carrying a ream of paper or a white slice or restoration photos of a cane chair.
Typing her poems, I am learning more about rhythm and lineation than I did in my three years in an MFA Program. I spent last weekend trying on her words and admiring myself. But I have enough of my own voice to counter. She is teaching me to trust my instincts. (I don’t think a fighter pilot would say “womb,” for example. ) I am writing my own Letters to a Young Poet, who, it turns out, is also myself.
Most days are like a scavenger hunt. Neither one of us is sure where anything is hidden, or who hid it in the first place, but we enjoy the scraps with chicken-scratch, the clues. Look! A plastic stingray! A calendar with Stanley Kunitz!
Above all else, she makes me want to write. I remember when I first started my MFA and had another fabulous female poet as a workshop teacher. I was managing a travel agency at Columbia University where she was also teaching, and one afternoon, the afternoon of her 53rd birthday, I brought her chamomile tea and half an orange. We were meeting during my lunch break to discuss a poem I had written called “The Cellist.” I remember how she leaned in leonine with untamed hair, holding the orange like an unfinished world, and said: “You should do this if you want this.” The this was poetry. The way she spoke, so matter-of-factly, astounded me. It astounded me and now, working with My Poet years later, this other strong female poet, I am finally ready, at age 30, to begin assisting myself.