I grew up surrounded by females. My dad owned a women’s clothing store. Both of my sisters were girls, and my mom was a woman. We had two female cats whose names–Big Kitty and Baby Cat–could have been taken straight from a Eudora Welty short story. As far as I know, the box turtle in the basement was female, too.
As a result, I am uniquely well-equipped to intervene in, and resolve, disputes between women, sometimes referred to colloquially as “catfights.” At the tender age of twelve, my dad took me to see a night of men’s, women’s and midget wrestling matches. The truths I absorbed that night, all wide-eyed innocence as the ladies leapt upon each other’s bodies from the ropes, I have put to good use.
That’s why I am frequently called on to referee the All-Female Poetry Slams that are held around New England as fund-raisers for what A.J. Liebling disparagingly referred to as “the quarterlies,” the high-brow, low-revenue publications that pluck drops of verse from the torrent of poetry that is showered on them, providing them with a brief, mayfly-length existence, before they are recycled at one of the region’s many picturesque do-it-yourself town dumps.
“You’ve got your helmet, right?” my wife asks anxiously as she eyes the bandage on my forehead that covers a three-inch cut I received last weekend when a symbolist poetess smashed a villanelle over my head after I whistled her for a shot-clock violation.
“Yes, dear,” I say sheepishly, like a kid who’s asked if he’s clipped his mittens to his coat sleeves. It took three stitches to close the wound, and my carelessness will leave a scar that matches one I acquired four decades earlier when my helmet cracked in a freshman football game.
“Mixed metaphor–3 minute major penalty.”
“I worry about you, okay?” she says, her face a placemat of concern, like June Lockhart’s on Lassie when Timmie announces he’s going upstairs to study for his algebra quiz and doesn’t need his genius collie’s help.
“Just be careful,” she says with a lump in her throat. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” I say. We kiss, and I head out the door with my gym bag.
I arrive at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, one of the rougher venues on the NEPA (Northeast Poetess Association) circuit. A crowd of black-turtlenecked women and girls mills about outside, smoking French Gauloise-brand cigarettes, “freestyling” with each other. The losing female–the one who “craps out,” unable to come up with a quatrain after her opponent finishes–often runs off in tears to gorge herself on pastry inside.
The odds-on favorite.
I move through the crowd with difficulty, as many of the distaff versifiers have gigantic egos and yield only grudgingly. I squeeze through the front door and notice that two women are already going at it, and the bell hasn’t even rung yet!
“You couldn’t write your way out of a Barnes & Noble bag!” one screams at the other, who has a hand full of beret and is trying to get at her adversary’s hair.
“Ladies, ladies–please,” I say, with more extreme unction than a Catholic priest at a big donor’s dying bedside. “What’s this all about?”
“She says she was into confessional poetry before me!” the one in the beret says.
“You’re a Ginny-come-lately,” the other hisses.
The shock of recognition hits me, even though both women have had cosmetic surgery recently. In the beret is elena gotchko, who’s had the capital letters removed from her name, e. e. cummings-style, since I last saw her. Her opponent is jean-marie benson, who opted for an Italicized style during a recent fellowship in Rome. I notice that she’s added a hyphen between her first and middle names and her face is still puffy from the surgery, which has not yet been approved by the FDA. Even though neither will be eligible to enter the Yale Younger Poets Competition ever again, I have to admit that both are looking great.
“Why don’t we settle this lawyer-style,” I say, “using summary judgment.”
“How does that work?” elena asks.
“You both give me your version of the facts, and I decide solely on the law.”
“Okay,” jean-marie says. “I was into confessional poetry at such a young age I had an Anne Sexton Dream House, with working car running in the garage.”
“Hmm,” I hum. “elena?”
“That’s nothing,” the lower-case literata fairly spits back. “When I was a little girl, I had the Sylvia Plath Brown ‘n Serve Toy Oven!”
I look at the two, trying to conceal my self-satisfied amusement. “That’s it?” I say. “That’s the best you’ve got?”
“Well, yeah,” gotchko says. “I thought that made me–special.”
I can’t help but emit a mirthless little laugh. “Excuse my frankness,” I say, “but give me a break!”
Others have started to crowd around now, anxious to hear my decision. “I can beat you both–I handled Sylvia Plath’s foreclosure sale!”
“What?” squawks a forbidding women with a Katherine Hepburn-Main Line Philadelphia accent, and a haughty attitude to match. It is Professor Natalia Seals-Croft, Head of Women’s Studies at Bryn Mawr. “Sylvia Plath was never foreclosed on!”
Hepburn: “I’m thinking of a poem between 1 and 10.”
“Well, she wasn’t,” I begin, “but the site of one of her poems was.”
I’ve got them eating out of my hand, and it makes me hungry. “Bring me one of those congo bars, and I’ll tell you the story.”
My blood sugar restored, I launch into my tale. “Sylvia had a summer job at Lookout Farm, in the suburbs west of Boston. It was there that she overheard the conversations that she wove into ‘Bitter Strawberries,’ which was published in the Christian Science Monitor. You can find it on neuroticpoets.com.”
“So?” Seals-Croft asks, one eyebrow making its way up her imposing forehead like a mountain climber with crampons.
“In the 1980’s,” I begin, “the farm had a new owner. He’d taken on a lot of bank debt to buy the place and was going to try to turn it into a year-round attraction, with llamas the kids could pet and ride, u-pick-em apple harvesting, a butterfly exhibit. Real estate prices dropped, the bank got nervous, and they started to foreclose. The owner called me up and I put him into Chapter 11.”
Lookout Farm: I’m telling the truth!
“Why didn’t you start at the beginning of the book?” gotchko asks.
“It’s not that kind of chapter,” I explain. “It’s a court proceeding in which a company is protected from creditors while it attempts to reorganize.”
“There’s a lot of insolvency in Dickens,” benson adds helpfully.
“Right,” I say, then continue. “Anyway, the guy didn’t have enough cash flow to pay the bank, and people wouldn’t come to the farm until he’d fixed it up, and he couldn’t raise money to do it. So the bank got permission to foreclose.”
“On the very land that Plath walked on,” gotchko said sadly. “So what did you do?”
“Everything goes when the whistle blows,” I said, “unless you can find a ‘straw man’–”
“That shouldn’t be too hard on a farm,” benson interjected.
“Not that kind of straw,” I explained. “Somebody friendly to the owner who’d buy it and maybe sell it back when he could come up with the money. So while the auctioneer’s rattling off the terms of sale, I launched into a desperate plea.”
“How’d it go?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “Here it is.”
On Lookout Farm, where Plath did write
I rise to tell you of her plight.
If no one raises up their hand
The bank will shortly own this land.
Where she picked berries, red and blue
and where we planned a petting zoo.
The room was silent. Finally, a young woman in toreador pants and black glasses spoke. “So–did anybody come through?”
“No,” I had to explain sadly. “My guy lost it. Since then the place has gone through two owners, neither of whom knows Sylvia Plath from a lath.”
“What’s a lath?”
“A thin, narrow strip of wood used in building lattices,” I replied, becoming emotional. “They’ve got laths all over that place. You’d think they could name one–just one!–the Sylvia Plath Lath–but no.”
I noticed a few tears running down pale cheeks, and the owner came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Thanks very much for sharing that with us,” she said. “Would you like a complimentary vanilla latte or something?”
“No thanks,” I said, after I’d calmed down a bit. “I’ve got promises to keep. And, uh, miles to go before I sleep.”
Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”