8.30.2007

Part Son of a Fallen Star

I'm a small-town kid.

At the age of twenty-two I moved to Urbana, Illinois, the largest city in which I had (and have) ever lived.

I was pretty into reading and writing at the time, and I was reading a number of "local" authors: Richard Powers, Jean Thompson, Mark Costello, Michael Van Walleghen, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I was especially in love at the time with the works of Costello and Kelly. And it hit me at some point, living in Champ-bana, that I might actually come across one of these writers--at, say, the grocery store, or the coffee shop. I knew, based on sketchy author photos, what each of them looked like, but I wasn't always so sure what they would look like outside of the natural habitats of their dusk jackets.

And so I would wonder, when watching some woman thump a melon at Schnuck's, is she a brilliant poet? Or I would guess, while observing a guy sitting down with a double espresso and Tolstoy at Cafe Paradiso, that's the guy whose books I've been reading.

And so I was in Vermont for two weeks recently, where Brigit Pegeen Kelly happened to be on faculty. I spotted her a few days into the conference, and I circled her name on the calendar that let me know when she would be reading.

A few days passed, and then we waiters found out that we had the night off; we didn't have to serve dinner. Plans were made, and we all headed to Middlebury for a group dinner at a restaurant, where no one would ask us to get them coffee or wipe down their table. The idea was: We'd have a nice dinner and then get back in time for that night's reading; we'd be able to see Ms. Kelly and Rishi Reddi at 8:15. But, of course, things don't always work out, and we didn't get back in time to see the reading.

When we got back, I asked a friend how the reading went, and he had this kind of stunned look on his face. "Oh my God," he said. "Brigit Kelly, she read this poem about a scorpion." It went on from there, and he wasn't the only one. I heard from at least seven people about how great Ms. Kelly's reading was. Nearly all of them mentioned the scorpion poem.

Though I didn't get to hear her read it, I've printed out a copy and read it four or five times. Those people who were so amazed, they weren't kidding. Now you can read it, too:

Iskandariya
Brigit Pegeen Kelly

It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but
maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought
I said not "some sort of fish," but a "scorpion fish," a
request he would surely have granted, being a goodly
God, but then he forgot the "fish" attached to the
"scorpion" (because God, too, forgets, everything
forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish,
sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the
striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and
followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish;
instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar
prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part
bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a
disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or
even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly
does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in
mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling
backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail
doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a
venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of
Cleopatra's asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite
the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men.
In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight
eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and
is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and
feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison
barb when backed against a wall — a thing like me,
but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or
design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the
curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step
softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many
years, have I been stung, both times because,
unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes
now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he
is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal
Book because of his strange organs of breath. His
lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And
inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged
like the pages of a book — imagine that! And when the
holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood
that circles through them touches the air, and by this
bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of
books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the
perishable manuscripts — a little mirror of the library
at Alexandria, which burned.

(Link)

2 comments:

Caroline said...

I liked this. I think I might read it again.

Also, your Cubs are now playing my Astros. May the best team win, eh?

Christina said...

simply beautiful...thanks for sharing.