Poetry in Motion

While moving, I found a book of poetry by Rupert Brooke that didn't look familiar to me. I was about to donate it to the local library when a letter fell out from between its pages, originally tucked inside by my grandmother Grumma, who had intended it for my high school self.  I had no recollection of ever having received it from her, much less bothering to even look past its pale, assuming cover. In fact I was surprised it had somehow stuck with me all these years and moves. And even though we mostly saw each other only at Christmas, she did write me letters and yet she never followed through to ask what I thought of the gift. Equally to blame, I doubt I ever wrote her a thank you note for it. It was as though our exchange happened in the ether

Her letter to me, in her perfectly flowing script (which my eyes could only slowly grasp, now so versed they were with  computer fonts) that this had been her most beloved possession, so much so that she had rebound its pages at the age of fourteen because she had "almost read it to pieces." She went on to explain how she had fallen in love with some of Brooke's poems and with him, and that while she didn't have his picture to share, she wanted me to know that "he was as handsome as a young God and his life was as romantic as he looked."

This slight hint of sexuality dumbfounded me. My father’s mother and I had always been so very different, our mismatched energies rarely connecting like a bucking horse (me) sharing a stall with a wise owl (her.) Her old fashioned, mid western self had always made my growing self impatient. She was a respected children’s book author and always took charge at the holiday table with long tales we were all expected to as listen as raptly as her television audience when she hosted puppet shows on a local channel back in Pittsburgh.  When I was younger, her plummy, pitch perfect voice kept me spellbound around the camp fire glow of her tellings. As I grew older however, I began to long to wriggle out and away from the isolated snowy hills of our Massachusetts dining room to places I had never seen, where people smoked and danced and wore impractical shoes.The way Grumma slowly turned the spoon to cook gravy or recite The Iliad upon request made me long to run upstairs and pour over my Seventeen magazines or listen to disco. Grumma seemed to like the world in terms of heroes and heroines. There was a hierarchy to things and her retelling of Greek myths reinforced her belief in systems that rewarded those who were brave and also those who did what was expected of them without bitterness. And definitely not impractical shoes. One Christmas as she helped my mother stir the giblets into the worn pot on our stove, I thought of the high heeled white pumps I had just bought with all my babysitting money, that awaited for me up in my bedroom closet like an impatient lover.

My current self immediately Googled Brooke and his dashing picture confirmed justification for my grandmother's infatuation. Further investigation told me he was considered Britain’s best known poet of the first World War who never saw action and in fact it was rumored he died of sunstroke. Certainly she could have recited his rapturous poem “The Soldier” in her sleep (she and my grandfather used to relay Shakespeare sonnets aloud to one another by memory while still in their late nineties) but had she known about his written confessions to a male admirer of a sexual encounter with another male student at their public school in England? How his tempestuously complicated love life with both women and men ultimately triggered an emotional breakdown? Even if the Internet had been available at the time of Grumma’s adoration of Brooke, she would’ve had refused to believe any of the shadowed areas in between his elegant, patriotic stanzas.

How much my sixteen year old self would have enjoyed a conversation Brooke’s messy life with her. It seemed so deliciously human and romantic. What should have become of him had his survived his own golden age of being termed a young Apollo and the handsomest man in England? Grumma’s Greek god ironically was so much more appealing to me now that I looked beneath his fair-haired shell, its vulnerable underbelly making me think of my own teenage tender imperfections and how hard I tried to shield them from Grumma so her perception of me as her dutiful blond grandchild would not waver.

One of the few commonalities that we shared was that we both attended Vassar College. When Grumma was there, it was an all female student body, full of slim-waisted women who wore white gloves and drank tea in the Shakespeare gardens.

When I attended, there were co-ed bathrooms and cocaine-fueled gay dance parties where straight women kissed lesbians with unabashed enthusiasm and the male student body started a rugby team. When Grumma visited me one weekend, I knocked on the doors of all the men who lived on my hallway telling them not to come out for the thirty minutes while she came to see my room. As she strolled down the hallway (initially made extra wide to accommodate hoop skirts) I could see her blissfully transported. I myself recalled how the night before I had deliciously skid down their worn surfaces in socks to hasten an encounter in my boyfriend's room nearby.

After I was selected to write a creative honors thesis my senior year, I sent the finished novel to my parents. My father in turn, without telling me, forwarded  a copy to my grandmother. The setting of the story was loosely based on a college summer I previously had cooking for a quirky but lovable man in his forties in Martha’s Vineyard. In real life, I had watched with bemusement as he played out his lovable lothario days with a variety of women, all while desperately trying to teach myself how to cook while drinking with the onslaught of party goers who sailed in to park at his dock at all hours. He was my friend and boss who at the end of each night, drunkenly gave me wads of cash to make sure I had enough to shop for lobsters and champagne in time for the next day’s debauchery. In the novel, I romantically paired a more scattered version of myself with a younger and more charismatic version of him. I did what writers were supposed to do: I borrowed bits of reality and wove them into fictions strands until a fabric of a story was created.

But Grumma only read what must be truth and the sin of what she thought I had done by sleeping with a man before marriage. I couldn’t believe that a fellow-writer wouldn’t understand the necessity of invention.

When I arrived at a family reunion in Bermuda she was already sitting in an armchair with the pages of my book in her lap. Seeing me she did not rise to greet me, rather she placed her finger down firmly on my text to hold her place and watched me carry my suitcase upstairs with a frozen face.

We never recovered after that: our respectful worship of the other was taken down, like years old scaffolding suddenly removed one day to reveal a building's scrubbed facade. When she wrote this letter she knew nothing of what my imagination could ultimately conceive on paper: silly sonnets or a silly novel about a summer affair with an older man. I can’t imagine what she would have thought of the real me or the real Rupert Brooke.

But her letter to me remains. Her intent on sharing with me her adulation of a seemingly ideal man remains a mystery but that she did so, is a now fact.