“The shells go on the floor.”
That was Brigid’s command to her clientele at The Back Fence. She worked there as the weekend cocktail waitress for decades, taking delight in sticking the adjective ‘sober’ onto her job description. The Fence has been on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson Streets since the end of WWII. Its ceiling and walls were painted black to hide the cobwebs and create a thirsty gloom. Tiny tables draped with red-and-white checked tablecloths clustered around the bar. Sawdust covered the floor. Brigid swanned around with her pencil stub and little pad, pitching bowls of whole peanuts onto customers’ tables, along with her terse injunction to dispose of the shells.
Sunday afternoons, the management let her host a poetry reading. The readers were twitchy or mopey and the poetry was rarely very good. Lots of poems about not getting – laid, paid, heat, respect, enough beer. One poem was all you were allowed; two if they were short or you were aggressive. You put your name on the list and waited to be called.
Brigid had been the grande dame of this salon for eons. She offered me my first-ever opportunity to read my work in public. I was inordinately proud of a sonnet I had composed while flunking out of college. In a fanciful attempt to graduate, I had taken a poetry workshop. I called the poem ‘Kissing My Ass Good-bye,’ applying what I hoped were Elizabethan cadences to a fantasy of having my backside actually disappear. The fourteen lines rhymed in hit-or-miss fashion, up to and including the final couplet – Condemned to wander celestial halls / A eunuch for want of ass, not balls.
Adding my name, I waited my turn. Nothing came of my poetic debut at The Fence, but I had taken a baby step. Every single creative undertaking I have attempted however tentatively; Brigid played a part. She has been my crabby muse.
I liked to show up at the Fence in the clear cold light of a late Sunday afternoon. With the place empty I could hang with her, sip on a diet Coke, and try to get a word in edgewise. One snowy Sunday, however, I found myself stuck sitting there with Alice, my nine-year-old daughter, listening with half an ear to a parade of luckless poems. Things perked up when Brigid announced the next reader would be two people.
The twosome jumped up, bouncy gray curls spilling out from the hoods of their puffy parkas. They clapped their mittens together and beamed. “We are the Acrobatic Poets.”
They unzipped their coats and kept peeling off their clothes. Uh-oh, here we go. Quickly and efficiently, they shimmied down to shiny lycra unitards, one red and one blue, and it became apparent they were a man and corresponding woman. “We believe poetry has been divorced from physicality for too long.” Backstroke flourish of four arms.
The red one crumpled to the floor in a slo-mo ‘S’ motion and lay on his back in the sawdust and peanut shells, then raised his arms and legs into the air in unison. Blue faced Red and, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, settled her midsection onto his outstretched feet and, stiffening, rose until she was parallel to the floor, one hand in his and the other holding a small leather-bound book. She craned her head back and read some verse that was completely beside the point. Several more dramatized contortions followed.
The grand finale consisted of a Y-shaped pose accomplished by Blue again faced Red and, holding his hands, stepped onto his bended knees. The pair leaned away from each another. As they balanced carefully, they let go of their near hands and faced the room, arms out-stretched, transported.
A swell of murmuring rose from the peanut shells and was, after several long moments, supplanted by erratic clapping. Acrobatic poetry: we are still astonished.