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FICTION

The Meaning of Poetry
By Robert Pope

 

I wished I were taller because of Fletcher. I'm five feet ten, which is fine, but Fletcher is six three. That's only five inches taller, but scale is relative. A building five inches taller than another nobody notices, but a mouse five inches taller than another you call a rat.

I can't deny the appeal of being able to lord it over everyone, but I admired Fletcher's style: always a gentleman, always considerate. If you're big, people are amazed if you're gentle. It's the surprise that someone large enough to kill you doesn't do it. Which is silly because we don't expect people to take advantage of others like that, though some do.

I'm not small, so I don't have short man's complex, but around him I knew what it would mean to be small. He had natural gifts—the blond hair, aqua green eyes, and wide shoulders. I don't think he lifted weights, but his arms were powerfully built, well muscled. He had long, smooth movements I would sometimes try to imitate, just to see what it might be like to be John Fletcher. He moved like he came from a world where everyone was built on his scale. There were taller guys, but what made him unique was he never acted like he was any better than anyone else.

We were taking a Western civilization class, and this old professor with long gray hair and a wild beard was lecturing about the meaning of poetry. When he asked us to follow along with a poem he read out loud, Fletcher opened his text, picked up a pen, and wrote a phrase in the upper-right-hand corner of his notebook and underlined it. It seemed so silly with those big hands of his. I leaned closer to see what it was, and that's when I realized he wasn't taking notes. He was writing poems.

I reached over and yanked the notebook off his desk. I turned the page—another poem! If it was just one, it could have been a freak. If it were two, luck. But three poems, all good ones, and I don't even understand the meaning of poetry. One was about playing baseball under the lights for the first time, like being inside an explosion for nine innings. Like living on another planet, in another world where only the game goes on, darkness all around, and when the lights go off, the universe comes back, with thousands of white stars all around his head.

The other two were just as good, but this one stood out because I remember the same thing happening to me. It could have been me in that poem, but it was Fletcher.

"Man, these are good," I whispered. "Can I take them?"

He held up his hands and shrugged, so I ripped the pages from his notebook and after class took them back to the dormitory, where I typed them nice and neat. The professor mentioned at the start of class, when I was still paying attention, that there was a literary magazine on campus, in the student union building, and I meant to surprise Fletcher if I could.

I was in ROTC at the time, a few formations two mornings a week, nothing really military, but I didn't like wearing the uniform on campus. I rode to ROTC with this gung-ho guy named Herman, who loved the blue, so I had to run back to change before my first real class. Since I had to pass by the student union, I took the poems in a folder and rushed to the literary magazine office, hoping no one would see me.

I burst in, once I found it, and right away I felt like I'd broken into a private office. There was this girl in a red T-shirt and faded jeans on a couch beside a metal desk, her legs tucked under her, bare feet to the side. She was lost in reading long printed sheets, making notes on them, so I could take in the reddish brown hair that created a light around her head.

She looked up, mildly amused, but said nothing.

I opened the folder, took out the poems, and told her they had been written by John Fletcher, also on the baseball team. She could let me know about them at my phone number, which I would write at the top of the page if she would loan me her pencil. Her arm came out, the pointed end of the pencil extended. I took it and scribbled my name and number at the top in what turned out to be blue pencil. I told her I lived in the same hall, same floor as my friend. She took back the pencil and touched the flat end to her chin as she watched me.

"Set them on the desk," she told me. "I will get to your friend when I have time to look at them."

It wasn't until I backed out and started hurrying to the dorm that I realized she thought I had written the poems. What other way could I take her attitude and the emphasis she put on your friend? I hadn't let it sink in she was pretty because I was as nervous as if the poems had been mine. And maybe I expected some awful witch with Coke-bottle glasses, smoking with a cigarette holder and talking in a dry, raspy voice that would make me feel like I had the IQ of Yogi Berra.

Wow, I thought, as I changed out of my uniform. I could see her face and the way she looked at me. Ouch. I was bitten and she wasn't there. But a sophisticated chick, best put her out of my mind—unless she really thought I wrote those poems!

Next night in the hall, one of the guys hollered my name, but when I got to the phone and the voice on the other end said hello, I didn't recognize it. "Who is this?"

"Margaret Lake?" she said.

I thrust my head forward, as if she were standing right there, trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted.

"The editor of the literary magazine?" she said.

I started to recover, but what should I say?

"You brought in three poems? Written by a friend of yours?"

I stuttered a little, like, "Uh-uh-uh."

"John Fletcher?"

"Oh, yeah! Hi, how are you? I didn't recognize your name."

I was quiet again, because I didn't know what else to say.

"Are you there?" she said.

I thought it was weird that just about everything she said was in the form of a question.

"Yes," I said. "Yes."

"Well," she said, drawing out the

word, "I've decided to put them in if

you are still interested."

"Oh, great. Thank you."

"I'm not much of a baseball fan," she said, "but they are very nice."

She let me hang a little longer, until I laughed nervously.

"Wow. Thanks. I'm really glad you called."

She laughed a bright, airy laugh with little bells in it.

"Why, thank you, Mr. Fletcher," she said.

"Oh, no, I'm not Fletcher. He's on the team, but I just saw them in his notebook and thought they were good." I held my forehead. Why did I have to say anything?

"Oh?"

"I typed them up and submitted them."

"Well, they have been accepted and will be in the next issue, which is going to press tomorrow. As it turns out, you caught me editing proofs, and I had just enough room to add your poems."

"That's great."

"Perhaps I will get to meet your Mr. Fletcher sometime?"

"Sure," I said, but I didn't know how that would ever happen.

"Well, thank you, again. You can pick up a complimentary copy here, at my office, in a week or two."

Then came the final click on the other end that told me I was standing in the hallway with a dead phone in my hand.

"Good-bye," I said and hung up the phone.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2004 issue.

—EFQ

 

ROBERT POPE awaits each Cleveland Indians' season with trepidation, interest, and a little hope. He teaches at the University of Akron and has published a collection of stories, Private Acts, and a novel, Jack's Universe.

© 2004 Robert Pope

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