For the first time, one of my poems was returned to me.
Today in the mail, a big brown package arrives, plastered with stamps. Any package plastered with stamps is a subtle form of aesthetic justice—since in this digital era we live in, at the Post Office a computer will print a soulless bar-code sticker unless you specifically insist on using stamps, and then flip through their book of choices hurriedly while everyone waiting in line silently resents you for wasting 45 seconds of their lives for the sake of beauty. How positively American.
Sitting on my bed and staring at the unopened package, the stamps teleport me back to a sun-spilt day 10 years ago, when I was a teenager falling in and out of love in Denmark, of all places, and I wandered alone into the Copenhagen post office to try to send a postcard. The experience must have taken an entire holy hour. Everyone in the building moved slow as cold honey. I stood gaping at the ornate ceiling flooded with light for a full five minutes before approaching one wrong counter after another, until I was ushered to a wide glass window where the stamps were sold. A wrinkled Dane in an immaculate trenchcoat was carrying on a glorious conversation with the vest-pocket-watched stamp salesman, as they perused acres of exquisitely colored stamps on display. I listened to their velvety Elvish-sounding dialogue, and lost myself imagining their discussion of the tiny intricate steamboats rendered in mauve, the masonry of obscure fortress ramparts, vague historical personages. Time stopped. I was rapt. It took an age. They must have discussed and inspected 35 different stamps before choosing the precise one he needed, and then counting out coins in slow motion. There was no cash register. The salesman tallied everything in pencil and tore off a sheet of paper and handed it through a slot, like a bank teller, and the old man buying them didn’t leave before an exchange of elaborate parting sentiments, perhaps wishing good health to various nieces and nephews. When it was my turn, I remember being so delighted that he sweetly and unapologetically spoke no English at all. We conducted the transaction as two mimes. I paid but walked away richer.
I open my eyes and the bedroom surrounds me again, familiar books and furniture. Someone is practicing trombone up the street, and a big brown package plastered with stamps sits waiting patiently in my hands.
Stamps are tiny pieces of art, endowed with an actual purpose. Stamps are a pantheon of fallen heroes, a bestiary of species, an illustrated history of war, a museum of ephemera, an encyclopedia, a reliquary, an observatory. I used to collect them as a child. Most of my collection was given to me by my uncle Kevin, a massive 3-ring binder stuffed to its gills with plastic sheaths containing all that’s left of Geronimo, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and Jupiter’s lesser moons. Some of them were rare, yellowed 1 and 2 cent stamps, probably quite valuable, and no matter how strange the living conditions of my life became, I could never part with them. So I ferried this collection around with me to various apartments in Burlington, Vermont, where they sat in the darkness beneath a bed constructed from milk crates and a wide piece of used lumber, which I had carried on my back up the hill from an art studio, trudging through the snow like a ludicrous bohemian Passion.
Unable to part with their beauty, I brought the stamps to New Orleans, where for total lack of money, I somewhat painfully decided against my collector’s instincts, and used them all to send ecstatic letters from the puppet theatre where I was living in the frigid dressing room all winter, as the trains shuttled back and forth. In the French Quarter that year, someone asked for a poem about envelopes:
But: today in the mail, a big brown package arrives, plastered with stamps. Two Harvey Milks, martyrs of love, grinning in black and white, in taut ties, wool suits. Two bouquets of roses with a Chinese character in gold and a tiny creature—year of the monkey? HAPPY LUNAR NEW YEAR, they wish me, in all-caps that are both silent and screaming.
One pastoral vista of two wild ponies reflected in water, one of them bending to drink, the other gazing out over a disintegrating world, just as the sun slips below the horizon. There is a beta fish swimming in what would be the sky above the ponies, and a cornsnake coiling harmlessly on the stamp to their right. Then two circular stamps, of moons, which seem to be trying too hard to pull off a European vibe, and failing. This is no par avion, just a brown paper package sold for $2.19 to try to keep the USPS’s doors open. More distressing are the $1 stamps, four of them, with what look like a computer-generated image, in red, white, and blue. A patriotic screensaver. A subliminal flag.
Usually, I would try to decipher the tarot of these images (two moons—two months from now? Two bouquets, two ponies, two mirrored martyrs...twins...Gemini?) but the faux-patriot images throw it all off, and I tear the package open and cease breathing.
Inside, it’s her dirty linen nightgown lined with lace, swaddling a menagerie of objects: a tattered plastic rose that was once white, a Christmas ornament of a cherubic child bearing a red rose astride a gigantic sparrow with curious plumage, a few feet of copper-colored decorative paper woven into a bird’s nest. A glass star with a hole in one of its five elbows—I hold it in my palm and stare until I realize it’s all that’s left of a wand. Two packages of razor blades, which make my stomach go cold until I find an unopened Exacto-knife in the folds of the nightgown’s sleeve. A 3rd edition of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters Etc from City Lights Books. And my poem for her, for Kathleen de Simone, who giddily commissioned me to type a poem about maple syrup when I was setting up at the Burlington Farmers’ Market as a poet-for-hire.
When I was a kid, our landlord tapped maple trees and I would stay up all night while the adults drank beer and boiled it down in a ramshackle barrel stove. There were two huge plastic trash cans in the yard that the lines ran to from the trees on the hill, and in the mornings before I got on the school bus I would look around furtively and then cup my palm in and drink. But I didn’t want it to be about that, I didn’t want a narrative-memory poem. Something else welled up in me and I listened:
There are so many others who knew her better, who are more qualified to tell her story. All I can add is that for me, she was a petite angel wandering around the streets of Burlington in a red beret. Not hobbling, but walking slowly with the help of a stick, or should I say staff. I want to say stave. There were always red roses tied onto the top of it; Kathleen would appear suddenly like a bohemian wizard, like a Greenwich Village Bilbo Baggins. She smelled like potpourri. At least, I had heard that she was from Greenwich Village—she certainly spoke very New York. She didn’t like the show, she adored it. The music wasn’t good, it was marvelous. Hello, darling! she would say to me when we crossed paths, and I would stoop down and kiss the top of her head.
I first met Kathleen when I joined the Spielpalast Cabaret, a risque Weimar Republic-style burlesque show that performs inside City Hall, of all places. Kathleen created all the costumes, and sat front row-center every night, applauding madly and laughing brassily.
Then I saw her again at the Fool’s Gold Art Auction, a brilliantly eccentric fundraising scheme for small artist grants, run by many of the same characters from the Spielpalast. The MC of the show, Maxi, did a hilarious turn as the bawdy art auctioneer, and stripped off a layer of clothing with every piece of art sold, until everything was gone and he stood naked before the audience, his cock dangling in front of their happy faces. Ah, Burlington. The highest bidder of the evening received a coveted prize: an outrageous Dadaist hat, lovingly constructed by Kathleen. It was a matter of immense pride to receive one, and I saw the various hats resting in places of honor in apartments around town.
I wonder if Kathleen knew what little time she had left when she hired me to write that poem. Only six months after coming to see me in the market, she came back to tell me she was dying. There’s nothing they can do, yes yes they’re quite sure, she said and waved away my alarm, my protests, my sadness. She was quite matter of fact about it, and utterly unafraid. As if life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis, as a poet once said. She looked precisely the same as I’d always known her. I stooped down and hugged her like I always had, and watched her stride away, beaming at everything around her.