I'm sitting in a Starbucks right in the middle of the University Library at a booth for one next to a booth for two. Two women, both poets, are talking about poetry, poets, publishing poetry and whom they like. Elizabeth Bishop has earned a 'two thumbs up.'
The American is a tenured professor in the English Department. The Brit is cruising a job and has just announced she is not a fan of most women poets. Politely, with only a hint of outrage, the American notes that the subject matter of male poets is a bit too clever to sustain their ancient complaint about overgrown suburban gardens.
"Cleverness is good for cocktail parties," she warns, "In poetry it comes off as cunning, cagey, calculated and appear ingenious, but is actually ingenuous".
The Brit listens patiently. Unfortunately, her anti-feminist stance is an ill-conceived strategy to sidestep the fact her own poetry has not yet been published in prestigious literary journals. She is failing to establish a political common ground. Successful candidates in academe gain the support and confidence of senior faculty by demonstrating an understanding of two well-worn locutions: 'one good turn deserves another' and 'never bite the hand that feeds you'.
Both women are now dropping names of twentieth century literary giants, one or the other has known personally-Pinsky, Merwin, Strand, Hass, and the notorious Ted Hughes, all males, of course. The Brit seems to have topped the American in this category. Cambridge literary life compared to Long Beach, California, end of subject.
The American poet momentarily defeated, physically deflated pushes her paper coffee cup away and uncrosses her legs. I cannot help noticing that her shoes are utilitarian black leather, flat, and worn. She is thin, almost frail, her pale skin, pasty. A few daily laps in an outdoor pool or a bike ride on the path parallel to the Pacific Ocean would do wonders.
The Brit is wearing a colorful silky dress, a little too short, a little too tight. Once our British allies lose the slimness of youth, they rarely break a sweat trying to fight their genetic heritage. At least twice a day before, during or after dinner a swig of something stronger than reality seems to handle the anxiety fomented by full-length mirror. A possible teaching job in America may produce a strain, especially if located in California where body image is believed to be the only subject taken seriously.
The Brit is a good ten years younger than the American poet. The skin, like the circles concealed in a tree trunk reveals age. Her outer layer is smooth, taught, pink, actually rosy, and a little brighter than the flowers on her dress. Shiny auburn hair, muscular forearms and calves almost justify the length of her dress. In addition, she has never married; I suspect that my colleague considers this to be the candidate's most valuable asset. I've heard rumors that my colleague is growing tired of supporting her second husband, a younger man, the house husband type who stays at home watching their seven year old while finishing his dissertation.
Twenty years ago the American poet was a real dish, arrogant, and confident, arriving fresh out of an east coast graduate school believing that working in southern California for a short time would be an experience--something to write about. She met 'the dude' at a party in the Hollywood Hills where a valet parked her 1972 Chevy and movie stars thought being a college professor was a sexy role. His gentle curls fell, just like hers, on to strong, square shoulders. He played a soulful guitar and actually had a record album with his picture on the cover for sale at the vintage record store on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard.
'The dude' became husband number one, disappearing soon after they tied the knot into the Los Angeles forest and the high desert in order to continue his old habits-drugs and women. Thanks to the push for equality, the California courts forced the poet, a newly hired professor, and young mother to support, 'the dude'. She sold her house and cashed in a few mutual funds in order to remove the illusion of bliss from her life forever.
The son produced from their union is attending Ivy League U. partially paid for with an inheritance from her parents, who tried to protect their talented daughter from having to work past the age of sixty-five. At least once a month her progeny calls home for another hit from his mother's dwindling bank account. "It's a worthy cause," she whispers as streak of lightening flashes across her car's windshield, while changing lanes on the freeway. "Especially worthy cause", she ruminates, leaning over the rail of her condominium's terrace, eight stories above street traffic, "if it relieves my god dam guilt ¾ trying to write and raise babies".
The Brit, since the age of five, I'd wager, she has been on a roiling journey through Dickens' merciless winters of the soul, the wild cliffs of Beowulf, Milton's British blank verse (the essential argument between the poet and god) the religious impropriety of Donne, the insanity, sexual proclivities of Byron and Shelly, the power of chaos in Coleridge's post-lapsarian garden, and Blake's iconoclastic mythology ¾ the poet's final break with Christian self-righteousness.
The British candidate's superior education, contentious sense of entitlement, and a recommendation letter from the Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, leaves us with the impression she's a force one cannot easily ignore.
Of course, students in today's market place are also a force not easily ignored, and may be intimidated by a woman whose confidence comes from what is stored in her head, rather than hangs from her body. If one is vying for tenure low scores on student anonymous satisfaction surveys can send a qualified candidate back to the academic want ads searching for another position, but this time, with an indelible stain on their record.
"I have to pick up my daughter from ballet class," the American poet announces suddenly. "She's only seven."
"I used to take ballet," the Brit exclaims enthusiastically--a last ditch effort.
The American smiles and exits the booth quickly. The British candidate follows slightly behind.
I leave the scene with only ten minutes to prepare for my 7:00 o'clock class--Directing Theater. I sigh, close to dementia myself, yet feel a dumb smugness knowing I will never again have to measure my words and manners in order to please an academic hiring committee. I walk past the students trading bits and pieces of their generation's indecipherable code at tables in the quad. The California sunset is startling, a blue sky rapidly changing to blood red.
Later, walking to my car in the dark, empty parking lot I am not able to locate feelings evoked earlier by my job or job security. In the late afternoon, like a juror, I had the opportunity to argue for a British poet cruising a position eminently qualified to fill in the English Department; instead I let the opportunity pass anxious to return to my life of silence.
I couldn't sleep that night and went to my desk looking for the notebook where I scribbled a few lines about the Brit's interview. My words a last ditch effort to take stock of the present quality of my character and position at the roundtable of life.
I wouldn't hesitate betting fifty bucks that the Brit was no longer being considered. Never again would she have the opportunity to flaunt her credentials, youth, and muscular jaw in the face of an overwrought colleague while enjoying a soy latte in Starbucks . Okay, I admit, a cosmic joke in the middle of a university library one more sign there is nothing left that's sacrosanct. If the fever of endless competition descended before me like ' wind shadows of the indignant desert birds  would I forget or be forgotten by the tiger, ah the tyger ¾
TYGER, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee? 
 William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming". (Excerpt)
 William Blake, "Tyger Tyger". (Excerpt)
© S. Blumenthal All Rights Reserved, 2012