Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry, You Win

Words cut a hairdresser to the quick.

Here I am, later riser, haircutter, part-time musician, reluctant business owner. My job is creative and visual and social, but never literary. So I always want to talk about books and reading and writing so that part of my brain doesn’t wither and die. I have cut the hair of many writers, poets, and readers, and we often talk about what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and how what we’re reading is affecting us at the moment. I am always curious about what people are reading and    ...    whether or not I should? What am I missing? I’m always surprised when I find out that someone is a reader of poetry, like they’re part of some secret club that I can’t decide if I want to join.

I always think that I don’t like poetry, I’m too cool for poetry, I’m pragmatic, I’m punk, I’m everything a poetry reader isn’t. Who needs all those feelings? Give me the spare prose of Hemingway, something tough. But then I’ll be walking through my neighborhood and I’ll think of the Bukowski poem, “sway with me,” which I used to recite to myself over and over as a teenager and declared my favorite poem in the way that you have a best friend, until you don’t.

used books, used people
used flowers, used love
I need you
I need you
I need you.

At the time, I thought, this poem is cool, I can like poetry and still be cool and punk. Lots of things I thought were cool from that era of my life, like the band the Dayglo Abortions, don’t hold up, but some, like that Bukowski poem and the first Damned record, really do. Even as I’ve thankfully stopped caring about what’s cool and what isn’t, otherwise known as no longer being a teenager, that poem still makes me feel like I am a person who could like poetry, despite me being me and not that person who I imagine is allowed to like poetry — like maybe a grad student? Or someone who wears a lot of linen?

I’ve had a lot of best friends since I memorized that Bukowski poem. When I first self-identified as a feminist in college, I would read Patti Smith lyrics and think they were better than any poems, and I still kind of do. During my mid-nineties minimalist phase, when all I wanted to wear was Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, E.E. Cummings was my favorite poet. How few pieces of furniture can you have? How little punctuation can you use? There was also a brief druggy phase where I listened to a lot of Can and read and reread Howl, but that was more of an affectation, like when you say Eraserhead is your favorite movie. Um, no it’s not, you actually love Pretty in Pink.

— From [why] by E.E. Cummings

Then, recently, a friend who is, like, a for-real legit poet gave me a book of poems by John Ashbery, and I was like, damn. This is the real deal. I’m not ready for this. It had been a long time since I’d read any poems at all, and I considered carrying the book around and pretending I was reading it, like everyone did with Infinite Jest when it came out, so that I’d either absorb its contents through osmosis or I’d eventually be so bored that I’d actually crack it open and read it. But it was kinda too heavy to carry around so I just stuck it on a shelf and forgot about it. I finally dragged it out months later out of guilt and shame, and, holy shit! I didn’t know words could be this good!

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.

fine, poetry, you win. I feel slightly stupid for never having heard of Ashbery before, but also kinda smart because at least I discovered him while he was still alive. But now, best friend, let’s make up for lost time.

          I mean there is no escape
From me, from it. The night is itself sleep
And what goes on in it, the naming of the wind,
Our notes to each other, always repeated, always the same.
— From A Love Poem
Originally Published: March 1st, 2018

Bathsheba Nemerovski lives in Chicago. She cuts hair, plays music, sleeps late, and is excellent at mixing patterns.

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