When the poet arrived, I did believe that a great and true beginning came with her. Certainly, it had to be so. I opened the door and there she stood, with a cluster of hazy jellyfish clouds floating in the jewel-bright sky behind her.
This is the beginning of the story, I thought. It could be published in some serious-minded magazine with monochrome photos of rusted bicycles.
“It’s really you,” I said.
“The very woman who penned the Tendril Sonnets,” I said.
“It seems unlikely, I know. Even to me,” she said.
We said these things over the barking of a neighborhood dog. A truck was backing up somewhere, signaling its movement with a persistent, rhythmic alarm. Such apt atmospherics.
But all the background was foreground too because of this: the poet had a hideous face, a cherry-pigmented discoloration curved across her concave cheeks and half of her pimpled forehead.
Aha. A type of generative physical flaw, a fount of art. This is something to pursue, I thought. We can see her whole artistic life outlined in the markings of her face, the curve of self-loathing across her upper lip and the creative edge of despair drawing up from her left cheek across the bridge of her nose. Her disappointed childhood with the cruel classmates, with the mocking rhymes. An adolescence on the cusp of something tragic, the sudden crushing recognition that no man would look into her eyes, press himself into her, thread his dreams through the fabric of her body. The discovery, then, of something altogether new, something like the bend of a birch, something like Rilke, of the defiant love of solitude, the singing poetry that can only be accessed through a life disassembled.
So this explains it, I thought. It must be that everywhere she goes she makes the world new.
I admit, I stared. I let her stand in the doorway for far too long while the story of her journey to eminence and, hence, my doorway, wrote itself across her repulsive face.
She looked around awkwardly.
“A beautiful home you have here,” she said.
I shook off the jellyfish clouds and the dog, the distant truck and the ruined skin. Time for the plot to move along. “Ah, yes, please come in,” I said. “It’s so good of you to come.”
“This really is unusual,” she said, but she followed me as I led her across the plush burgundy carpets to the study, poured myself a drink, and gestured toward the couch with my glass.
“Would you like something?” I said.
She sat and shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as this . . . is it done?”
“Only Shakespeare and Donne and Dante, Bach and Handel and Wagner, Rodin and Rembrandt, and a thousand others. They all had patrons,” I said.
I paced my speech to the rhythm of the antique wall clock. I ran one finger along the grain of the rich redwood wall paneling. Such telling details. “It’s how art gets made. Real art. You can’t concern yourself with marketability. It’s just this, the process, the artifice.” I wasn’t sure if this was true, if it meant anything, thought of it on the spot, but a man in my position knows when he can say things, if he says them with conviction, and make the statements true.
She nodded. She had a yellow notepad and a pencil, sharp and poised over the pad, like some schoolgirl ready to copy down the quadratic formula.
I sat on the chair across from the couch and sipped my drink.
“So, the story is, we’re writing a poem,” she said.
“I want it to say something about existence.”
Dread flashed across the surface of her eyes. The discoloration in her face flared bright. She was polite, though. She asked, “What can be said?”
Three hours, and it felt like a game of Othello, each of us flipping the other’s ideas, changing the other’s black into white and then back again. In my defense, she’d begun to use words like ‘phenomenology’ and ‘zeitgeist’, which seemed duplicitous at best.
Eventually, the poet threw her arms in the air and flopped back into the depth of the couch. “This is going nowhere,” she said.
“The poem?” I said.
“The story, this one, the one in which I’m sitting in your study writing a collaborative poem about, what, existence? Talk about a stretch. There’s no plot.” She’d gone too far.
“But what about the poem?” I asked. “It has value in itself, does it not? There’s conflict there, and conflict is plot.”
She sighed. “What conflict? Will we finish the poem, is that it? Please. And what are you supposed to be in this story, anyway? Some vaguely aristocratic father figure? Are you planning some sort of Elektra-complex twist?”
“No, nothing like that. Remember, you’re supposed to be hideously ugly. I mentioned it at the beginning.”
“All the more reason for us to fuck. If you say I’m ugly at the beginning, I have to seduce you, that’s some kind of rule. It’s like the gun in the first act.
“That’s a screenwriting reference. One too many genres to juggle, in my opinion.
“A poet can be anything. That’s what makes her a poet.”
Speaking thus, she tore the veil.
Although I could not see it happening, I knew that the jellyfish clouds were dissipating. The room began to unravel around us. The wall clock stopped ticking, the redwood paneling peeled back, the burgundy carpet unthreaded itself, floating nappy curls of fabric in the air around us on their way up to some plane of post-existence.
Soon, it was just the poet and I, alone in a field of white, listening to a dog and a backing-up truck.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” I said.
She nodded. “I’d like to be beautiful. Maybe a Greek goddess. Can we give that a shot?”
KC Kirkley is a teacher, writer, and editor from Mendocino, California. His publications include short stories in The Los Angeles Review, Upstreet, and SIxfold, a Finalist for New Ohio Review’s Fiction Prize and Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest. He is a contributor for Curbside Splendor Blog and the editor of Curbside Splendor eMagazine. He holds an MFA degree from Spalding University.