Breathing together elbow to elbow on the couch, we were finally alone and ready to explore the next phase of this mildly racy psychodrama that I'd a zillion privacies ago secretly escalated into my flagrant private war. After a few minutes of jostling for favored logistics in reading and mutually editing the WordPerfect data file stored on the spanking-new IBM laptop her parents had given her for Christmas, I was quite anxious to filter the single-paged coverletter Jennifer wanted to include in her application for poor grammar and redundancies. Regular post-graduate status at Cornell was absolutely imperative. Her one year of special study in the Indonesian language curriculum would end soon, and once completed, she would have nowhere to go since she had failed to secure grant monies that would allow her to conduct fieldwork among the volatile social upheavals of Indonesia itself. I had read some of her academic writing before, and knew some of her tendancies, and here they were again. This was not a very well written piece. I read the whole thing once, but then hemmed and hawed in leveling any sort of critical assessment. There was much to do in every paragraph.
"Well, your vocabulary is quite strong, and you seem to make your points adequately clear and concise enough, but..."
"I don't really know what to say. As I said to you and many others before, I really don't like being critical of other people's writing. I'm a writer, not a critic of writing. Now, character flaws, that's a whole other..."
"Well, what is it? I wouldn't have asked you for your opinion if I didn't respect them and want them. Spill it baby..." she commanded in sultry vox crypto-doll she played so well. Know the rules, break them only if you can persuade others that this rule or that rule must be the first to go (with the flow, or against the toe). We both knew that game.
My defenses were slowly melting away. Of course, knowing how much psychotopology had rushed under the bridge in these past few months between us, I was trying to keep from hurting her feelings with unnecessary criticism or insult since I was worming my way closer to her, my confidences balanced by fear of driving her beyond my reach, especially in light of the catastrophe of a few years ago when my brother Chaz suggested I critique this Atlanta woman's poetry. She was the sister of his ex-fiancee, a mother of three teenagers, she about my own age, and a devotee of G-d, which of course meant that she was brimming with Jewish false pride, sparring with vowels. But she certainly could not write a phrase remotely resembling modern poetic seasoning. Not an single original thought or sentence pattern made it to the thirty or so pages she mailed me.
Dead vocabulary of the eighteenth century romantics, or more precisely, the mock language of a junior highschool sensitive emotional type was etched into her perfectly typed double spaced pages. She broke up lines into short fragments of three and four words imitating Cummings I suppose she thought (or worse, she'd never even READ ANY 20th century poesymakers), or else longer lines consisted of three or four of these fragments separated by a double-space. Floating like penguins on a small iceberg of whitespace each fragment began with a preposition or conjunction. Well, there WERE the few fragments which started with the personal pronoun, you or I (no he's or she's). Her pathetic attempts at corrollary were as flat and indistinct as a penny plucked from the locomotive railing just after a long slow-moving train had rattled by, page after page after page. Dozens of pseudoinspirational references to Gee dash Dee marred the reading.
Conversion was not an option. No good enough for her sister. Chaz had no choice but to hit the road. But here she was two years after that aborted marriage, two years after my brother had weathered one storm this high-strung princess had tossed, maintaining a friendship with the beloved younger, again begging for applause, and as I learned later in a rebuttal letter, as a gentile, I was commanded by Gee dash Dee to give it to her, straight from scripture, chapter and verse, applause. I had TRIED to be gentle. I suggested she package her poems to give them and read them to her forthcoming grandchildren. I counseled her on the abuse and redundancy of prepositional phrases, marking them with colored marker on the pages. And finally I suggested she treat her writing like she would her bedroom. Vigorous, sweaty, acrobatic language was far more powerful than langauge that just flattened out on the page. Modernize, use real life images, not staid boring recycles from the past, I urged her, writing these comments out along the margins of specific chunks of floating icebergs...
To nobody's surprise but her own, this fiendish Jewish woman was neither amused, nor inspired by my biting criticisms. Well, hell, on a whim as I wrote this I checked my database and sure enough I found traces of the events I described above from memory. Let's check the record:
Finding a piece of mail dated April 21, 1989, in my file cabinets where I kept records of every copy inch of correspondence I had alphabetized, running the eighties and nineties, I am now swelling up with geek pride, geek pride in my record keeping. In the shallow absence of a sporting life I'd changed in a twinkling of a cobra's eye into an information inker ruthlessly chained to the same pride and energy an old school baseball statistician had for esoterica and scorebooks.
The letter is a killer in the trees. To add to the irony, I received it while in jail, serving time for a DUI. I had been laid off from my party chief surveyor's gig, and was collecting unemployment. Excellent time to experience and experiment with the Big House. Sure beat hauling butt into Baltimore once a month for a year's worth of unoriginal horror flicks and dry lung lectures. About two months before I was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs bound straight for jail, I received a phone call from a strange woman donning a thick Brooklynese Jewish clip asking to speak to me. I had been recommended to her by my own brother "Chuck". I had to think for a moment before I realized that I did indeed have a brother, who in some circles, might be called "Chuck". See, my entire sibling generation has one by one fetishized name-change operations. We wear out one name, then try on another for look and feel. She introduced herself as Barbara Kosmal. She definitely sounded like a Barbara...
I said hello. It would be the last time.
Her line was this. She wanted me to critique her poetry manuscript. I was quite flattered, but told her that I was not comfortable in the role of critical voice over someone else's work, and like the chicken hawk that I sometimes pretend to be as I try to avoid the social butterfly net, I tried to back out. I could criticize anything under the sun, but by whom was I now justified to insist she write to my own tastes.
The fact that Kosmal was for all intents and purposes a cunning, sweet and sour, pretentious New York to Atlanta transplant, all of which with a few minor changes, spell bitch in any language, did not leave me much of a choicereject her plea for my accommodations, reject her poetry as the undernourished junior-high saccharine joke it proved to be, or lie through my wolf's teeth hacking off a few greasy superlatives just to be "nice". The third option had early on been written in stone cold spaghetti as being against my religion, as was the first. So I agreed to see the manuscript. I mean, any numbskull illiterate enough to classify a work of serious intent as a cross between e.e. cummings and Rod McKuen, had my attention! Hell. I had even been known to toss off an easy, "well if you really need to know, I feel my work is a dress hybrid T.S.Eliot & Allen Ginsberg style and content..."
But those words had rippled off my tongue when I was so much younger (& a lot less crass), with frank eyes to the ivory tower crowd. Ms. Kosmal stated that she was a fortysomethingish mother of three teenagers. I think I was married to her in another lifetime. But that's another story. One thing she did add which offered me the way out I needed to survive this holocaust with my artistic integrity intact.
She said that Chuck had told her that she could be sure of one thing. That I would be "meticulous and bluntly precise". Those were her exact words. Saved by the bell! Now I could really get into the guts of the matter. Within a week the slim package arrived.
However, I lament sometimes that I had not been a "kinder and gentler" critic to this poor "poet". After all, the woman had done me no visible harm. And my own efforts at the poetic task have hardly set the world aflame. But I reported my opinions to her. Her reply speaks for itself. Yet I must remark further on what she labeled [my]"filthy language". In trying to transmit the essence of my rejection of her stuff, I drew upon the sexual metaphor of one's behavior in bed. Does language just lie there, stiff, emotionless, uninvolved in the special act of enchanting communication? Poetry is like sex, I scratched in the margins. It must scream, caress, impose friction. I suppose I now know the answer to both questions. Vulgarity was not my intent. In fact, I never used a single expletive, as they say. Nor did I criticize her Jewishness. I merely questioned her incessant repetition of the g-d rendering of her Lord's name. But I cannot supply the wealth of information I have at hand to rebut her reply here. Read the lamb's bleat, bless her heart.
Enough said. The woman is neither linguist or bibliophile. But Barbara Kosmal had her say. I honestly wonder if she has found a publisher. She probably went vanity, or self-published. I wish her well, but she as baiting the wrong Gentile she if she thought she had me over a barrel, or would not only recognize her kind, but refuse to play her stupid game of let's call anybody a poet, especially if she's Jewish. And yes, I still despise being forced to wear the mantle of "objective" critic, so as I shut my eyes, imagining the warmth of death (although I hear it is chilling), the words of Goethe echo through the broken alleys like gunfire the gangs incite, "More light, more light!"