When Benford Ferguson's wife told him she was leaving their marriage, he thought at the time that she had said it was because of his lack of sensitivity. That was distinctly the word he heard. Sensitivity. The two of them were sitting at opposite ends of the sofa in what natives of Baltimore call the clubroom of their row house on Calvert Street, though it was just a den, watching a documentary on the poetry of Robert Lowell. Benford was giving closer attention to the screen and the voice-over than he ordinarily would have accorded a PBS cultural offering because Robert Lowell, like he and Karen, had been a graduate of Kenyon College.
"How can you say that, Karen?" he asked. "I am too sensitive. Sensitive to a fault. Here I am with a lump in my throat right now, thinking about Robert Lowell walking down Middle Path. You know, I'm remembering Kenyon stuff. Gambier. Cornfields. Sunsets. Poets reading their poems out loud to people sitting on the floor. The wine afterwards. Those little chunks of cheese."
"I said sensibility," Karen said. "Not sensitivity. That's your problem, Benford. Sensibility. You lack sensibility, not tear ducts."
"Sensibility," Benford had said back to her, several times, more loudly each repetition since Karen was moving steadily up the stairs toward another floor of the rowhouse as he spoke, further and further out of range of his voice.
He had not been able to finish seeing all of the documentary on Lowell, of course, having to follow his wife upstairs to beg and plead and weep for her to stay with him and their marriage until they both fell asleep on the same bed together for the last time, and months later with property divided and decrees signed and conditions agreed to and the rowhouse on Calvert Street sold and emptied, Benford still felt the lack of not having experienced the last twenty minutes of the PBS show, "Robert Lowell: A Poet's Poet."
What had been the last visual, he wondered. What had the documentary maker used as a final image to capture and sum things up? Probably a superimposition of Lowell's face on the Kenyon College seal, while one of the old college songs sung by an all male group welled up. That would work, Benford thought for about a minute, and then changed his mind. No, not that. Too conventional, too trite, too expected. Maybe instead a grainy shot of Ascension Hall where Lowell had taken all those classes from John Crowe Ransom, or an old photo of Lowell among his fellows, wearing a badly fitting suit with pants too short for his height, his eyes behind his glasses as staring and ancient as Rome. Benford felt himself beginning to tear up at the thought and forced his attention back to the set of figures before him on the monitor of his computer at work. I have got to get a date, he said to himself and to the cursor blinking steadily away. I have got to talk to a woman.
That night, a wet and gusty one, he stopped his car on the way home on Charles Street at the first empty parking space he saw near a bar, a place named "The Bust of Pallas." Inside to the left of a line of stools was a small stage with a lectern, a lamp and a microphone, and gathered before it were a dozen people, most of them women, and as the door pushed against Benford's back, a gust of wind lifted the hair of everyone sitting in the row of metal chairs nearest the door, causing several to look his direction in annoyance.
"Sorry," Benford said, and someone shushed him as attention refocused on a woman stepping toward the lectern, clutching a sheaf of papers to her breast with one hand and carrying several thin volumes of a muted shade in the other. Her hair was a large mass of graying curls, she was wearing a blouse covered with representations of what seemed to be china cups, and her skirt was either black leather or a high quality imitation. She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and then lifted one hand to her forehead.
Poetry, Benford thought. It's a poetry reading. She's going to read her poems out loud to us, just as sure as her bunch of papers is about to slide off that lectern.
Which is exactly what the poet (Mistene she gave as her name) proceeded to do at some length. Afterward, Benford Ferguson asked her to re-read one of her shorter offerings, which pleased her greatly, and later that evening he ended up seeing her to the door of her apartment, just two blocks from the George Washington monument at Mount Vernon Place. After several cups of coffee and some thin cookies, Benford placed his arm around Mistene's shoulder and inclined his head toward hers, a sizeable swatch of her gray hair, prematurely that shade he concluded, rising up in his face and slowing his progress.
"No," Mistene said gently, and Benford began to withdraw immediately toward his rightful share of the sofa. "This is what I do," she went on, and firmly pulled Benford's right hand off her shoulder and toward her lips.
She then proceeded to place each of his fingers, beginning with the pinky, in her mouth and to suck first gently and then, as she warmed to the task, more robustly. Benford allowed her to continue, not wanting to offend, but he wondered what he should be doing in the meantime. When Mistene finished the middle finger on one hand and was shifting to the index next to it, Benford offered to touch her breast. Like kissing, that was not allowed, either, and Benford considered other options. Was it appropriate to begin sucking at the fingers on one of her hands at the same time she was doing his, or was it like oral sex where it was better to take turns at giving and receiving so one could concentrate and be more effective?
Benford didn't know, couldn't decide, and after Mistene had finished with each of the fingers on both his hands, he left her in the apartment after pleading fatigue and a busy day ahead, all her fingers unsucked and dry, and on the way home he held his own fingers awkwardly away from contact with the steering wheel, as well as he could. He drove a little faster than he should have, given the fact that he was maneuvering the car with only the palms of his hands, but he wanted to get home as quickly as he could so that he could get his fingers properly washed with liquid soap and dried with a real towel in the master bathroom of his own house.
It wasn't that he harbored any repulsion for female secretions as such, he told himself. It was just that his fingers had been in the mouth of a woman whose last name he didn't even know, and he needed time to get used to this aspect of dating in the new millennium, if it happened to be a general practice. It could also be the case that Mistene was singular in her habits and likings and might even be considered dangerous by people younger than he and more in the know. How many less common ways than anal sex did HIV get around anyway?
Washing up after midnight in the all white bathroom, a line from a poem by W. B. Yeats popped into Benford Ferguson's head, something that hadn't happened since he was a senior in the last week of college studying for the comprehensive exams at Kenyon. He had walked around then for several days with all manner of words written by other people roiling through his head, but that had been understandable because senior comps week was a time of trauma. To have the lyrical words of a dead poet surface now, however, was beyond weird, in Benford's estimation, but he supposed he was in a sort of trauma again. He had to be, as cut loose from life with a woman as he now was.
The words in his head were only part of a line, really, and it wasn't a nice one, either, but Benford knew where it was coming from. Somebody in the poem by Yeats had "liked the way his finger smelt," the poet had declared, and it took Benford half an hour in the public library the next day to find the full reference. He read over the entire poem several times, and still couldn't understand what Yeats was getting at or why he had written something which surely would have been terribly shocking back when it was first published. Not only was the poem sexually bold, it seemed to Benford, it must have been sacrilegious as well since St. Joseph was the man who had sniffed at his finger and liked it.
Thinking about why the poet might have been impelled to say such a thing, and what it might mean coming from somebody who usually wrote such nice sounding lyrics about loving that woman (Maude Gonne, who never would let him have her), led Benford in a new direction that he had not anticipated. He checked a collection of Yeats's poetry out of the Pratt library, along with one of those thin little yellow-backed books containing the works of some contemporary woman poet--it was called What Is Round Can Be No Rounder--and read through both books in about three nights of sitting on his living room sofa.
He found the experience oddly soothing--he was able to go right to sleep after slowly reading eight or ten poems, and somewhere during the third night he discovered himself dreaming that he was actually writing a poem of his own. He could read the words, see the lines in which they were arranged, and they came into his head in the dream with no effort, unbidden. The poem grew in his mind like a flower.
However, it wasn't that way when he woke and tried to remember what he had composed while asleep. Not a syllable of his production remained, and as Benford sat with a legal pad and a pencil at the breakfast table waiting for something to happen automatically, nothing did. He drew a complete blank, his memory of what he been shown while asleep nothing now but white noise in his ears, and after five or ten minutes, he gave up on the idea of trying to be a passive receiver of communication from the unconscious, a simple recorder of verse data.
He let himself be late to work that morning, in fact, for it came to Benford to try to write a poem on his own as he sat with a cup of coffee and his legal pad at ready. Maybe he'd do one influenced by Yeats, as he remembered reading somewhere that was what apprentice painters in the Renaissance did as they copied works of the masters while waiting to become major themselves. He would try, perhaps, a lyric in praise of a lost love, a woman who refused to return his affection but in so doing raised the level of his feeling to something universal, gave his pain meaning and direction, made his anguish art.
"Step softly, Karen," he wrote carefully on the legal pad, "for you tread on my dreams," and then he stopped to study the effect. He could see that it was not good. For one thing, the name Karen was not one which lent itself to mystery and romance, and the image of his departed wife stepping softly was ludicrous. She weighed well over one hundred and forty muscular pounds and had been on a championship women's swim team at Kenyon. In fact, when Benford thought back to Karen in those days, he remembered her as being intensely robust, always slightly damp, and smelling faintly of chlorine.
And, as angry as she had grown to be with him over the years together in Baltimore, if asked to tread softly on his dreams Karen would most likely have kicked them into little pieces and ground them under the running shoes she wore while doing her three miles a day.
No, not Yeats, Benford said to himself at the breakfast table, feeling disappointed that he would not be able to write a poem about lost and despised love raised to the universal level of myth.
Still he didn't leave the breakfast table and start for work in the Monumental Insurance offices on Charles Street that morning. He felt a little paralyzed for some reason, as if he had to at least begin a poem after the strange poetic visitation in his dream state during the night. If not Yeats as master, who? What, Benford said to himself, taken by a sudden thought, would the feminist author of the little yellow-backed book from the Pratt library have done in his situation? If she were a man, that is, who had been abandoned by a large, health-conscious wife who did stretching exercises before and after each daily long-range run. What language would Molly Kratz use that had not been available to William Butler Yeats in his day?
Benford Ferguson picked up his mechanical pencil, looked deep into the surface of the top page of his legal pad and wrote the first two lines of the first poem he was to complete since his twentieth year: "Love lies flattened beneath the tread marks / Where the rubber meets the road."
That completed poem, which was a verse explanation of those first two lines, now resided in a manila file folder in a canvas carrying case Benford purchased especially to hold whatever poems he might decide to write in this new phase of his life. Two weeks after the birth of what Benford called in shorthand his "road kill" poem, the canvas case for poems lay on the table before him in the Bust of Pallas Coffee Shop and Bar, and Benford touched it every now and then with his fingertips as he waited for the Thursday night poetry reading to begin.
He didn't know exactly why he had brought the poem with him to the occasion, which he had learned of through reading the cultural events calendar of the City Paper. It had seemed appropriate somehow to bring it along, though, much the same way a father might take a sports-minded child to a baseball game to see the professionals perform. Being in the presence of competence, paying witness to acknowledged accomplishment, watching the real thing being done--all this couldn't make his own poem any better, Benford knew, no more than the sight of a big league second baseman turning a double-play could cause a ten-year old to keep his head down on a hard-hit grounder.
But it couldn't hurt, Benford said to himself. It might inspire the novice to witness the real thing. Who knows what causes motor neurons to line up and fire away successfully? What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? That line, that bit of mental furniture was from Yeats, not Molly Kratz, certainly. Maybe someday, though, Benford heard a voice whisper deep in his head, some person somewhere will try to remember a line of poetry written by Benford Ferguson. A new Benford Ferguson, one with sensibility.
Up on the stage, the small man who had just been introduced by a much larger one, an announcer with a thin and graying ponytail, approached the microphone, a black loose-leaf notebook held before him in both hands as though he were about to offer it in tribute to the god of sound systems. On his face he wore the look of a shy man entering an establishment where women took off their clothes and danced around to loud music while staring off into the middle distance. He wanted to be there, he wanted to see everything, he wouldn't even mind a table dance by one of the smaller women, but he was hoping desperately that no one in the place decided to ask him just why he was there.
When he began to speak, Benford was surprised by the man's voice, however, and it wasn't simply the amplification provided by the Bust of Pallas's sound system that explained it. Ray Tone, as the announcer had named him, may have been small, but he had a public voice that might have belonged to a Hollywood leading man of the 1950's. Charlton Heston, say, or maybe even Howard Keel in one of those old musicals.
The voice boomed, it sank, it rose, it soared, it rattled the beer bottles on the display shelf behind the bar. It caused Benford Ferguson to lift his hands instinctively to his eyeglasses to make sure they were firmly seated in the face of the blast coming from the poetry reading platform.
* * *
Which is where Madeline Peacock comes in. She is Ray Tone's co-reader for the night and sits a few feet behind the man at the microphone, once more feeling the resentment which always welled up in her breast when she had to endure the evidence of the unfairness of physical differences between the genders. Here Ray Tone stood before a group of people, reading aloud the same poem he always began with, the one about his father losing him in a marsh somewhere on the Eastern Shore while hunting ducks or dipping crabs or strangling muskrats--Madeline never remembered the details of the poem from one hearing to the next. She knew that the physical power of Ray's male diaphragm and vocal cords and the rest of the speaking apparatus was investing his words with a significance and scope the words themselves did not possess in the least.
That's the one disadvantage, Madeline said to herself, of doing a co-reading with a male. The physical disparity in voice alone. That and nothing else, she thought as Ray Tone bugled on about father/son separation anxiety. I'll match poetic insight, my ability to read meaning from image, my depth of feeling with any man, no matter how loudly he can bray. If you want to speak of poem qua poem, that is, and not shouting contests.
But audiences now , unless they were very special ones, and those are few and far between, are deeply impressed by broad resonance and vocal thunder, and the female reader of verse is at a decided disadvantage when it comes to shouting out poetic feet and baying forth the tolling effects of rhyme.
Take, for example, that interesting solitary man at his table alone, hunched over some sort of parcel before him. If he were a text--and indeed isn't each phenomenon and each sentient being precisely that--I would judge him to be an unemployed steelworker from Sparrow's Point, this his first time at a poetry reading. In his agony of pointless television watching and beers at the neighborhood bar and a harping wife starved emotionally and educationally and a clutch of dulled and resentful children, somehow something has dragged him to the Bust of Pallas this night of all nights, Thursday reading night. He knows not where he is, he feels he should leave, but something in the power of the word has spoken to him, and he lingers, for what reason he knows not.
His shoulders betray him, his baffled expression, his shy clutching of that bag filled no doubt with unfinished employment applications--all these speak of a lost creature hearing in the distance a faint sound of hope. When Ray has reached the end of his rant--let it be soon, dear God--perhaps that awakening steelworker will hear something that speaks to him in what I'll read this night.
But in the meantime, having to follow that blare of sound from Ray Tone's lament for the lone duck, there's nothing to be done but to make a weakness a strength, Madeline reminded herself. By indirections, find directions out. When my time at the microphone comes, I'll speak softly, yet clearly, as always. They'll lean forward in their seats and hold their breaths to be certain they don't miss a syllable of each line I read. These words are precious, these vibrations falling so gently on the ear, the audience's inner monitors of stimuli will tell them. Be still and listen, and you will hear.
* * *
Benford Ferguson noticed that the gale of words from Ray Tone had now reached a height and was declining, and assumed that the lessening of energy and tension meant that the poem was moving toward its close. The sensitive young boy depicted in the narrative structure had reached a new understanding of how he must face the future and measure the impact of his male parent on his prospects. The wild duck had been killed, or perhaps had recovered from its wounds--it was difficult for Benford to determine exactly what had befallen the central symbol of the poem, but he knew the status of the duck was important somehow to the poem's resolution, so he strained to hear and appreciate its final lines.
"A feather floats freely on the breast of the Chesapeake," Ray Tone said in that Moses-like or Mississippi River gambler-like voice, depending on whether it was most similar to Charlton Heston's or Howard Keel's, "and it shall ride there forever in the flow of my dreaming heart."
* * *
That image does not make sense, Madeline said to herself as she joined in the applause from the eighteen-person audience. It literally doesn't. It never does, every time he reads it. An image must be logical in its carrying out, no matter how fantastic the original conception. Look at that poor downsized steelworker alone at his table, trying to puzzle out what he's just heard from Ray Tone's umpteenth recital of his rite of passage from innocence into experience. After attempting to sort through that vision, he's likely to turn back from his newly awakened interest in poetry and hit the remote button for daytime TV again and leave the tube on for good.
"Something a bit lighter," Ray Tone was announcing into the microphone, "after that insight into the marshy darkness of solitude."
* * *
If that's what it takes to be able to read poems to people in public, Benford Ferguson considered as he applauded politely and stared at the little man and his loose-leaf notebook before him, they should sign me up. I can do that kind of stuff easy. The road kill poem I brought with me tonight is better than that.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, her reading ended, the sharing of a portion of her heart's work once more given others, Madeline stood with her head tilted a bit to the side, her eyes cast downward, the beam of the baby spot catching highlights in her hair. This was when it was best, this the true reward, she confessed to herself as she listened to the applause of the audience in the Bust of Pallas reach a crescendo and begin to moderate and decline. Stealing a glance toward the bar to her left, she could see that not only was the bartender joining in but a random drinker who had earlier attempted a cheap putdown of the whole event was also clapping and nodding his approval in her direction. He who comes to scoff remains to pray.
Yes, this is the reason to present one's work publicly, to lift a part of one's soul up into the light that it may be seen. Not for the applause itself--Ray Tone's presentation had received nearly as much display of approval as hers had, though not quite, thank Athena, and anyway people were always polite, no matter how they really felt about the poetic acts they had just witnessed--but for the experience of appreciating the immediate effects one's work had on individuals. Seeing someone awakened, seeing them get the point of something she had written, touching them with the fire of her imagination, that was the real payoff, the true money-shot. No, not the applause itself but what happened afterward, if anything did, and it almost always did happen, if the audience in the Bust of Pallas was attentive and not too drunk yet.
The reward was this: the procession of people coming up to the poet, one by one to say a word or, in the usual case of the women, to put out a hand to touch the poet's. And the beseeching looks, the long stares, the attitudes of hunger from those famished for insight.
Especially gratifying were the males who attended. Because they approached always, if they did, not simply to be polite--unless the female element in their nature happened to be strongly present--but because they were in the grip of a strong emotion, some impulse which overwhelmed their constitutional reticence, their inability to demonstrate having been moved. This made their paying of respect all the more meaningful.
Madeline considered this as she listened patiently to the final few words of praise by the last of the six women who had come up to the platform after Russell Masden had declared this Thursday night of poetry in the Bust of Pallas officially completed. At the edge of the circle waited the economically isolated steelworker, the solitary man who had brooded alone at his table during Ray Tone's reading and who had appreciably become more enlivened as Madeline had read her selections to the audience.
In the grip of metaphor, he comes unknowingly to speak with a woman for the first time in his life about the effects upon his sensibility of a verbal construct.
Gratifying. Gratifying beyond measure.
Lifting her gaze above the head of the woman before her, Madeline Peacock looked directly into the eyes of the man and smiled. She signaled nonverbally to the woman speaking to her that their conversation had reached a natural conclusion by gathering her sheaf of poems into a neat bundle and inserting them briskly into her book bag. This she then hung on her left shoulder by its strap.
"Well," the woman said, "I know you must be exhausted after that delightful reading. So emotionally draining it must be. I do so want to hear more someday soon."
"My next appearance, if and when, will be announced in the usual place," Madeline said, brightening her smile in farewell to the woman. "I do hope you'll be able to come."
"Not if, but when," the woman answered cheerily and moved away to join two others waiting for her near the exit to Charles Street.
"Hello," Madeline Peacock said to the downsized steelworker after waiting until the woman was fully turned away. "Is this your first trip to the Bust of Pallas?"
"I've been here before for lunch," Benford Ferguson said, smiling and nodding as he drew near the platform from which poetry had been broadcast just minutes before. "I work just up the street. But it's my first time at a poetry reading here."
Not a laid-off steelworker after all, Madeline Peacock told herself. A security man, perhaps. A man who had worked in law enforcement for twenty years, the son of an Irish-American cop on the beat, now retired from duty, living on an inadequate pension and working part-time as a rent-a-cop for a security-minded corporation. His shoulders told the story, his shoulders and his chest and the eyes, those eyes which have seen all manner of human depravity through a lifetime of watchfulness. They have grown old, like the rivers.
"I see," Madeline said. "You must have popped in for a quick drink at the end of your shift and happened upon us, warbling our woodnotes wild."
She smiled to show that she was being consciously over the top in her choice of words and dropped her gaze a couple of inches down from the policeman's eyes. "I hope you enjoyed some of the poems you heard read. I expect you found Ray Tone's first piece, the one about hunting ducks on the Eastern Shore, quite moving. Most men do."
"Actually," the retired policeman said, " that was my least favorite of all the ones I heard tonight."
"Really," Madeline said in a voice that allowed more surprise to show than she liked. The time to be demonstrative of inner states of feeling was in performance, not in casual speech. Besides, there was weakness in admitting surprise, an admission of innocence that confirmed stereotyped views of gender difference. "Why is that, may I ask?"
"That particular poem I found a little sentimental for my taste, " the retired policeman said. "It didn't seem to earn the feelings it expressed, if I'm making myself clear. I mean not sufficiently."
"Oh? I believe Ray would question your judgment on that point."
"Don't get me wrong," the deep-chested ex-policeman said. "I don't question the depth or the quality of the emotional impact the episode had on the poet. I'm speaking of the poem itself apart from any biographical content."
"Biographical content? You mean Ray's?"
"His, yes," the man nodded, "and of course the audience's experiences, too. They shouldn't get in the way, either. The poem stands as a construct on its own, don't you think? Or it should."
Where was all this coming from, Madeline Peacock asked herself. Were courses in poetry appreciation part of the curriculum at the Baltimore Police Academy? Or had this man before her, standing as solidly as a parked police cruiser, happened somehow upon an anthology of poetry and perused it those long nights of inactivity when it became too cold and wet in Baltimore for even the muggers and drug dealers to venture out of their row houses? And where was he coming from with this weirdly antiseptic view of the communication between poet and audience? How old was the poetry anthology he had been reading anyway?
She could see him in an alley, stopped near a streetlight, rain misting in thin sheets as he held an umbrella, a blue one issued by the police department, over a book of poems, hunched against the elements as he puzzled away at the meaning of some flight of metaphor. Donne, perhaps. Marvell. Or maybe a contemporary. Robert Pinsky. James Seay. Elizabeth Spires, perhaps. Far away, a ship hooted on the storied reaches of the Chesapeake, and a dog howled plaintively at the lowering sky, unseen in the somber bowl of the dull atmosphere crouching over Baltimore. A few blocks away, Edgar Allan Poe lay moldering in his tomb at the heart of this vexed and vexing city, a fool for death and beauty.
"I find your comments fascinating," Madeline said, her voice catching a bit in her throat after her momentary vision of Poe, dead yet alive, like a poem itself, at once simple ink marks on a page and yet a sacred fire forever burning. She moved toward the edge of the platform, stepping down to stand on the same level as the poetry-struck policeman, noting with a slight but quite perceptible tingle that he was a good half head taller than she. She clutched her sheaf of manuscripts in their leather case to her breast.
"Why, thank you," the ex-policeman said, extending a hand in acknowledgment of Madeline's descent to floor level in the Bust of Pallas. "I enjoyed your reading, especially the new poem."
"The new one?"
"Well, yes. I guess it's new. The one that's going to be in the magazine. The one with no title."
"Oh, it has a title," Madeline said airily. "By default, of course. The first line, I believe I mentioned." She knew damned well she had mentioned it, it being her policy to remark always on the title of any of her compositions. Titling a work is where the poet comments on her own work and comes as close to giving away her own assessment and perspective as she ever does in an explicit sense. Readers must pay attention.
"It's not a new poem, though. Not really," she went on. " By the time they appear in print, poems always have some age on them. Would that they did not."
"Well, that makes sense," the burly ex-policeman said. "When you think about it. Not that any true poem ever really gets old."
"I need a coffee," Madeline heard herself saying. "Would you care to join me?"
* * *
"And you say it's your first poem?" Madeline was saying two hours later, tipping her head to peer over her reading glasses at Benford on his end of the sofa. They had worked their way almost through an entire carafe of coffee, and had turned off all the lights in the room save for one reading lamp. "You've not attempted to write before?"
"Not since college," Benford said. "I've had no reason or need to until recently."
"Reason not the need," Madeline said. "You say college. Are there college curricula to prepare for your line of work?" She looked back down at the sheet of paper covered with Benford's road kill poem. She had read it twice and was prepared to read it all night as though it were a charm, if need be. "I suppose there must be degree programs in all manner of practical areas. I mean particularly in state universities or community colleges which must be all things to all people."
"I suppose, yes," Benford said, and took another sip at his coffee, a blend from somewhere in Sumatra as Madeline Peacock had explained it. The taste was on the edge of being both bitter and overly sweet, and it was beginning to make his ears ring. "Look at the University of Maryland. Lots of offerings."
"Would you say that this poem, 'Love Lies Crushed Beneath the Treadmarks,' is the result of playfulness or trauma?" Madeline said, tapping the sheet of paper with a tiny silver spoon. "Do you see it as a verbal construct primarily, or is it an outcry of pain?"
"Both, I think," Benford said, cocking his head to one side and staring at a corner of the room occupied by a cabinet filled with what seemed to be miniature bouquets of flowers made of colored glass. "But I guess mainly the pain outcry thing. That would be it. A little yowl."
"So mad Baltimore hurt you into poetry?" Madeline said and began to read Benford's poem again, this time aloud in a low voice with an undertone which thrilled Benford, and also at the same time made him want to giggle like a teenage girl in a television ad for personal products. He had written these words, and now a woman was mouthing them as though they amounted to something, caressing the syllables he had joined together as though they had a particular taste, which she was attempting to identify as she savored it. They're my words, Benford thought, and I put them into her mouth. And she makes them her own. He made a mental note to write that phrase down before he forgot it. It might come in handy for a future poetic venture.
"Yes, Baltimore," Benford said. "Charm City. It's hurt a lot of people over the years."
"And buried a good share of them," Madeline said, tilting her head back to minimize the bit of slack in her throat, which she had become increasingly conscious of for several months now. "You must have seen your portion of that over the years. In your work, I mean, of course. The burying."
"Protection is my business," Benford said, wondering whether or not the poet before him was going to turn her attention back to art and go ahead and read some more of his roadkill poem aloud. He found himself wanting to rock back and forth in expectation on Madeline Peacock's nubby sofa as he waited to see if what he wanted to happen happened.
"Insurance, you know," he added, restraining himself from the impulse to reach out and seize the back of Madeline's neck, gently but firmly and physically turn her head around and down, force her to focus on the sheet of paper she held so carelessly before her. "Trying to make sure that if bad things happen, somebody's there to clean it all up afterwards."
"The way you put it," Madeline said, " I've never conceived of the kind of work you do in those terms. So matter of fact, yet somehow--I don't know how precisely to phrase it--somehow dedicated, humble, selfless."
"It's not glamorous, certainly," Benford said, looking directly at his roadkill poem in Madeline's hands. Maybe if she noticed he was focusing on it she'd cut out the chatter and put some more of his words in her mouth. Let them form deep in her chest cavity, flow over the vocal apparatus and slide between her lips, moistened. "But there's some satisfaction at times. People do thank you once in a while, and when they do, that's nice."
I'd thank him, Madeline heard herself say deep in her head, somewhere near the physical center of where consciousness resided, this member of the thin blue line. If he had revenged in some fashion an insult against me or my property by a Baltimore perpetrator, I'd throw him an expression of gratitude long enough and strong enough to make Walt Whitman blush.
"So the ending image works for you?" Benford said, choosing a direct approach at herding Madeline's attention back to what he had written in the roadkill poem. He was coming to believe it was going to take either that or some kind of direct physical action to get her to focus. "I wasn't sure whether it tailed off too much or not. I want the reader to feel that's it's finished, that it got there."
"It works well," Madeline said, letting her gaze drop to the paper she was holding before her. Better that than yielding to her real impulse to throw the poem to the floor, to rip the shirt on this sensitive cop open down to his navel. She could imagine his top button breaking loose to fly across the room and skitter beneath a table with a rattling sound, the cheap cloth of the garment tearing at some point of weakness, a tangled mat of chest hair springing into view, a deep groan bursting from someone's throat. God, it would be her own. Had she in fact just groaned aloud? She couldn't remember.
"The ultimate image is synesthetic," she went on, and then paused to ask the retired policeman if he knew what that term meant, but she couldn't get the question phrased properly in her mind because he had seized her near hand and was pulling it toward him, and as she tried to come up with the proper way to begin to phrase the query, he placed the thumb of her captured hand between his lips and began to suck it like a hungry child at nurse.
"Oh, God," Madeline said, involuntarily crushing Benford Ferguson's roadway love poem into a wad in her free hand, "what you must have experienced on these mean streets. What you must have gone through."
"I want to make it into a poem," he said, finishing her thumb and beginning a shift of attention to the index finger.
"Your protection of others?" Madeline heard herself say in a changed voice, but a familiar one, the one she used when reading poems aloud. "The way you clean up the messes people make?"
Before her, an image arose of him in his uniform, a long sleeved winter issue, all in blue decorated with patches for service and bravery, the cold rain of Baltimore whipping his face as he refused to seek shelter, restless as he was to take another perpetrator off the streets of his city.
"Where the bee sips," he was saying now, the words moving past the tip of her glistening middle finger, his breath hot on her dampened cuticle, "there sip I."
"Already with thee," Madeline said, collapsing backwards into her corner of the sofa and finding herself unable to sort out the lines of one Romantic poet from another since all things around her had become swimmingly synesthetic, "I fall upon the thorns of life."
"I bleed," Benford Ferguson said, finishing her thought, engulfed in sensibility as he moved steadily in his progress toward the next digit, at one with the poem of Baltimore he had been born to write.
* * *
A native Texan, Gerald Duff has published six novels, among them Memphis Ribs and That's All Right, Mama: the Unauthorized Life of Elvis's Twin. His most recent, Coasters, appeared in 2001 from NewSouth Books. His fiction has won the Cohen Prize from Ploughshares Magazine, and has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, an Edgar Allan Poe Award and an International eBook Award. He is the academic dean at McKendree College in Illinois.