One Pot of Basil
Only three of us attend the poetry workshop. It is holy Saturday and
raining. Elizabeth Bodien is our instructor.
We are very varied. I am blind, Bob uses a wheelchair, and Maryann is
the able-bodied representative. Most of our writers' group workshops are
attended by lots of able-bodied folks, but the perfect storm of late
advertising and holiday, not to mention heavy weather, has descended.
Maryann and I have worked together on various projects. She is the visual
artist and I write text. She directs me to chairs and ladies' rooms, and
will drive me home after the workshop. I have heard Bob wheel by me at
other writers' meetings. Though I've casually asked about him, I've never
tried to find him or find out about him. I've just wondered silently. I'm
really glad he has stayed.
Bob and I talk before Elizabeth arrives. Maryann is exploring the public
part of the library where our meetings are held. "What happened?" he asks.
I know what he means. I answer with my "born blind" shorthand. "And
you?" I am now happily able to question him.
can't kill a poet, right?
I'll cross my fingers.
Bob's voice is sometimes wispy. He confides, in short sentences:
strokes, a heart attack, aphasia. I mention that aphasia might create some
interesting poems. "Your voice," I say, "is ageless for someone who can't
see." Bob says he still has all his hair.
Elizabeth does the workshop despite the attendance. As a true adventurer,
she dives into our unexpectedness. We begin by writing poems about real or
imagined gardens. Elizabeth wants around 8 lines from each of us.
I do not bring the thousand-dollar word processor out in the poring rain,
and I do not compose in my head. I have also never brought a noisy,
conspicuous Braille-writer to a workshop. But I am pulled back a few days
to Wegman's Supermarket with Anne and Louis...
Louis picked up a basil plant and talked of starting an herb garden. As
he walked with me holding the shopping cart he asked, "Want a taste?" I
laughed. With the first touch of my teeth I was reminded of my Italian
next-door neighbor of years ago. She grew basil, oregano, and mint. I was
often given sprigs. One leaf was enough for me but Louis, without asking,
pressed a second one to my lips. What could I do? I opened and chewed.
With the third leaf I said, "No more" in the non-negotiable voice that all
seasoned disabled people learn. Like a good poem it needs tone and few
words. He stopped feeding me...
Maryann's confident, many-lined garden is silk flowers, paper birds, and
glittery man-made gemstones. Since it is not real, it requires no tending
and creates no mess. At first read it seems too beautiful and unchanging.
Elizabeth reads Bob's poem. Bob's garden is grapes separated from stems
and crushed for wine. It is a memory of his grandmother helping his
grandfather. Elizabeth suggests a haibun form (combining prose and haiku).
It would end with poetry of hot sun and red juice.
We become and
become again. Old and new
connect our seasons.
Elizabeth writes too. She experiments by composing with her non-dominant
hand. Her recited draft about a flute garden is much more polished than
any first draft of mine would ever be. She wonders where the flutes come
from. Is she thinking about a garden with more than visual elements?
Normally I hide in these workshops. I am not a spontaneous writer. I
smile and say I don't have an easy way to write and read back in class.
This is relatively true, since Braille-writers are loud and Braille
displays are expensive. I can't possibly remember 8 lines. I could play
the blindness card. But then Elizabeth would have only two people to work
with. And Bob is already much braver than I am. After all, I'm with
Maryann and not alone. In such a small group I would stand out more by not
being part of it. What can I do? Okay. I can manage a haiku:
One pot of basil.
One by one, stemless leaves crunch.
In my mouth, surprised.
I wonder whether Bob expected to hide too? I hear him revising his grapes into
wine. His hand does not sound afraid...
Later, at home, I thought about our gardens and our day. What could I
make in permanent art that would give this day permanent meaning? What
words would affirm that I am still a writer? What could I control?
Elizabeth's suggestion for Bob called me. Art does more than imitate
life. It explains life. It lasts so we can look and look again more and
more deeply. Perhaps had I been able to write 8 lines in that workshop I
would not have needed to write what you are reading now:
Bird of paper.
Some will see no flying.
They are blind.
What first must be crushed
gives celebration, quenches
with red courage.
Flowers sing to us
but only writers hear them.
We are lucky.
One pot of basil.
Words said, chewed, tested, savored.
Who is surprised now?