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A Dance With Lady Baldwin

ART TIMES July 2004

It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee

The rhythm of very old waves cascading in a sea of salty tears was almost audible as my mother first read aloud to me Edgar Allan Poe’s musical, mournful "Annabel Lee" when I was perhaps eight years old. Poetry, then and always, has brought alive to me the world’s motley cast of grieving, joyous, crazed, graceful, menacing, lost, and gorgeous inhabitants and their habitats. My love affair with language and its astonishing power to stir intense response would lead me to graduate degrees in English and eventually to law school, where I gained a further respect for words as brazen manipulators, little hussies capable of seducing judge and jury. (No brief, of course, could ever match "Annabel Lee").

Despite my particular reverence for and delight in poetry, I was unable to produce it myself; it seemed certain I could never hope to join that breed of writers mysteriously wired for poetic inspiration.

One torpid afternoon in June, an unexpected rendezvous changed my vicarious alliance with poetry. With classes at the university where I teach in recess, my only duties for the summer would involve representing abused/neglected children in court for a few hour each week. Hot and drowsy after running errands, I arranged myself languidly on the sofa. The luxurious prospect of several free hours stretched out before me like a deserted beach of warm golden sand unfurls before an Ohio snowbird newly arrived in Florida. Unaccustomed to sitting still, I considered rising from my cozy seat to play the piano that stands against the wall opposite the sofa, but sluggishness restrained me.

What a fine piece of furniture that piano is, I thought to myself. Over one hundred years old, my upright is a rich brown oak with a satin finish that the years have made lustrous. As I looked at the curvaceous scroll-work, the lid onto which it is carved was transformed into a forehead furrowed with lines of wisdom only a long, thoughtful life can etch. I noted the mellow ivory keys, slightly yellowed by age, and heard melodies sung, in a haunting soprano, through those eighty-eight "teeth," none of them false. And then my lady the piano began to dance before my mind’s eye, her three glossy black pedals a trio of quick little feet that never miss a beat to a tango, waltz, or jitterbug. Her partners were all who had danced with her — tentatively, awkwardly, gracefully, or tenderly — over her lifetime, as she graciously, patiently accepted the hand of even the novice.

I had picked up a pen and paper instinctively, almost unconsciously, and began writing, crossing out a word here, substituting a phrase there. At the end of what seemed like a short while, I held my finished version and realized five hours had passed. The afternoon sun had sunk, twilight had fallen, but I had completed my first draft of my first real poem. When my husband read it that night, I felt a rush of gratitude when he responded, "Our piano has a life." We named her "Lady Baldwin."

In the next few weeks, poetry did a wild, tireless tango in my head at all hours, often as I slept, demanding acknowledgement and devouring my time like an underfed, ravenous refugee devours food. Terrified that she would leave as abruptly as she had arrived, I fed her, often working on two or three poems at once, and stashing the rest in my poet’s pantry, a notebook.

The frenetic poem-making continued throughout the remarkable summer, the most vivid of my life. Even the death of a beloved uncle triggered poetry, as did painful memories, the natural world, and the most mundane events and tasks, which I viewed or re-viewed with hyper-consciousness. I was nagged with concern that my new friendship with poetry would be strained by the advent of classes in late August; but once the semester began, I made time to nourish that glutton who provides corrective lenses for my blurred vision.

Through it all, I wondered why an erstwhile frustrated poet whose writing had been limited previously to prose was suddenly able to create poems. Initially, I speculated that I was so absorbed in the busyness of doing that I could not experience the surprises of being. Despite the ostensible frenzy and fury with which I have written since that June afternoon, I had to embrace quietude in order to listen to the poems waiting in the wings of my heart to be heard. I am not sure if my previous suspicions that poetry chooses her vessels, the vessels don’t choose her, are valid. Is her presence in our lives by an amazing grace that can’t be rationalized, but simply must be accepted and cherished? Or does she visit almost any hospitable, relatively articulate host?

For whatever reason, Lady Baldwin waltzed out of my piano, onto my page, and into my life to become the first of my poems to be accepted for publication. But more importantly, she roused me from a lifelong semi-coma in which I perceived the world through five torpid senses. Since that summer day, I am overwhelmed with joy as I see violets chase each other through a yard like schoolgirls in purple uniform; with repugnance as I hear and smell death’s labored and decayed breath pervade a hospital room; with wonder as I feel snowflakes brush my cheeks like chilled powdered sugar.

Likely I will never create a poem as ravishing as "Annabel Lee". Today, however, my struggle and my gift is to remain fully alert to all experience in a dance with my Lady Baldwin that I hope continues to bless all the days and nights of my life.

(Shari O'Brien lives in Toledo, OH).

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