Several months ago I was at a haiku reading in a small town in Southern Vermont. We were in the backyard of a market that had opened up after the quarantines. They used to burn bodies in the streets of that town but now they had one lone pyre, next to the pumps of the biodiesel gas station. The smell was acrid. The haikus’ host was grilling sausages and there was beer. I was not drinking because I had to drive and because I was shaking and sweating and felt that I might vomit. From the smells, and from my own nervousness. I ended up not reading. The event was put on by the griller and by a minor local poet who did not write haiku but was in several polycules. Her face was dry and she read the opening remarks from a handbound book. Four men read after she had finished. The first was the griller. He read this:
After the reading of the haiku, which was stilted and overly theatrical, trying for some Oriental feel he failed to capture, he took several sips of water from a tin cup and swallowed, and then complained that his mouth was still dry. When he returned to the grill the sausages were burnt. I ate one and was vomiting on my shoes when the second haiku reader arrived before the audience. He was a banker from Randolph. He made a joke about the pyre near the gas station, and I remembered sitting in a friend’s car, still on, as she pumped gas. It was allegedly dangerous to do this but I said nothing back then. As I finished vomiting I was thinking that I might love her, and then the banker began to read —
The vomit was black on my shoes. It was wet and graying now around the edges and acrid. A friend of mine was reading next. He had invited me and tried to convince me to read and was now looking at me generously and sadly. We had met at the University of Vermont when I was a sophomore in high school and he was a junior in college. We drank out of a rye handle by a rock that looked like a puzzle piece; I’d liked his eyes, back then. I did not like them now as he made amends for my anxiety. He read what I thought was one of his lesser pieces:
When he finished I was quite upset with him for the choice. I wanted better for him, or for myself. I was cleaning the vomit off my shoes with a wet rag the organizer of the event had given me. The griller was making small talk with me and apologizing profusely for the sausages. I could smell the pyre burning. The husband of the organizer was the next and last to go up and read. First he told a long story about recapturing one’s sexual appetites at the age of sixty-five. I was not sure I was happy for him. He then announced the presence of an enormous vulture, somewhere on the roof of the market. On command, it hopped down, and then it read about itself:
After this, a smattering of applause. I got my friend into the back of my car. He was drunk. I took off my shoes and drove home in my socks. My shoes sat on the concrete of the market’s parking lot. My friend started undressing himself in the backseat and complaining about the summer heat. My hands trembled a little and I kept my eyes on the road. I dropped him off at his apartment, naked, and a spindly woman wearing a wig of black hair opened his door. She took him into her arms, like a baby bird, or grandfather in hospice. Then the door closed and she was gone and he was gone until the next morning, when he called me. That night I wrote a few poems and burned them.