Gianna Russo, "My First Time"
We were at a dim little place off campus, my heart beating out a manic meter to this, our first rendezvous. I wanted to look nonchalant, unflappable—anything, but the novice that I was. I’d heard he was a Vietnam vet. He had an air about him that could come off as arrogance if you didn’t know him—and I didn’t. When he strolled across the college lawn, his hat pulled low across his eyes, stand-offish, he seemed to take everyone in and allow nothing inside to peek out. His voice was gravelly--from booze, cigarettes, weed and other drugs, I’d have guessed--and its roughness attracted me. He kept his voice low at all times, and refused to articulate. It said, I’ve seen the world and this voice is what’s come of it. You wouldn’t know, you’re just a babe in the woods.
He shuffled some papers as I shifted to look at him. Staring at him, I understood why he was thought of as a very cool dude. Tom was the founder of White Mule, the literary magazine that all the serious writers on campus ached to be published in. Of course, it wasn’t a school magazine—no way. This was the real deal, a magazine made by poets for poets—no faculty advisors needed. If he published you, your fame was made. Plus, he’d written some kick-ass stuff himself about drinking all night and making love to unfamiliar women. So he had his fans: the poets, writers, vets, users, and shady characters who were tough enough to match his reputation for living hard and writing harder.
I felt myself a poser—not as a poet, no, I’d been a poet all my born days. But a poser in experience. Now, a junior at the University of South Florida, I’d been raised by protective parents in an era whose motto was sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. I was most familiar with the latter. To have the hippest editor in the universe know what a virgin I was in the ways of the world—I would have just died. That included my never having been published.
Tom studied my “Sestina for September.” It was the culminating poem in a poetry task I’d set out for myself that summer: to write a poem a day for the month of August. For aiming at the stars, I’d hit the fencepost and ended the month with 24 poems.
I have no idea now how I learned to write the sestina. I’d had no formal training in poetry and had written in near secrecy since middle school. However, I’d absorbed an understanding of rhythm and rhyme through the nursery rhymes and children’s poems that my mother had read to me (and I later read to myself) from my set of Childcraft books, and from the music that seemed to fill my parents’ house. Playing on my swing set or swaying in the branches of the live oak across the street, I’d often make up poems and songs for myself. In elementary school, I sometimes wrote stories, stapling them into books. But, I rarely showed my poems to anyone. Once in 8th grade, I shared a couple of poems with my English teacher. She gave me some faint praise and encouragement, but there were no creative writing classes to direct me to, and besides, I was going on the high school.
Despite being a voracious reader and a strong academic writer, I was not placed in honors English classes in high school. My best friends loved their honors English teacher. I dimly recall Mrs. Stokes, the regular English teacher, going over meter with us. I dimly recall reading The Canterbury Tales. Our high school had a literary magazine. I applied to be on the staff and also submitted at least one poem. Both attempts were met with rejection. But all through high school and my first years in college, I continued to write poetry, never showing it to anyone.
How this meeting with Tom had been arranged was another kind of literary adventure. I had been working at the college library and had met a man who entranced me. Even though the hippie days of the sixties were behind us (this was the mid-seventies), I was desperately attracted to the artsy, hippie, intellectual type. With long hair and an earring, a reader of Wittgenstein and Virginia Wolfe, this man was the first poet I ever met. He wrote in a spare, clean style that used nature as a favorite metaphor. He painted some his poems on large folio sheets and hung them in his apartment amid paintings of fronds and stems. I was utterly enchanted. Eventually he became my mentor, and later, he broke my heart into a hundred pieces, but in the early days of our friendship, I only knew that because he was a real poet, an artist, knowing him might make me one, too. Over a similar meeting in the school cafeteria, I had shown him some of my poems. He had let me read some of his poems. It was the first time I had read original work with the author sitting right in front of me. He was the one who said to me, You are a poet. He was the one for whom I’d written the sestina. I had even shown it to him, thinking that by doing so he would reconsider his feelings for me. Instead, he had set up this meeting with his good friend Tom.
Now Tom looked up from “Sestina for September.” He moved his coffee to the side and spread the two pages of the poem out on the table. Pretty good, he said. His voice was low and mumbly. Pretty good poem. But what did I mean by this line about “abandoned between cans that pull the ends of streets grim and straight”?
Well, I was referring to my sadness, being thrown out and waiting for pick up, like the garbage cans. I felt myself saying that too, too slow, like I wasn’t sure myself, and maybe I wasn’t.
Okay, he could see that. He fastened his eyes on the pages again and kept them there. What does “welkin” mean?
Well, well, it has to do with the sky, the vault of heaven. I was praying that was right. I had looked the word up.
Alright. Why is there an “e” on “pointe”?
It’s a ballet term. It means “the tip of the toe.” I wondered if the word choice made sense or was it just stupid?
Tom slurped up some coffee. I held my breath, waiting for the next question. It’s a pretty good poem, he said again. A sestina is damn hard to write. He looked up and I felt my stomach drop out of me. So we’ll take it, he said. Okay with you?
I gulped air. O gosh, gosh, yes, that would be wonderful. I knew I was losing my cool, gushing, but I couldn’t help it.
You’ll get two copies for your pay, he said.
My insides turned cartwheels, but I could only nod. I’m getting published! I thought. Two copies! To me, it was a million bucks.
Sestina for September
Gone the doggish month
You want your blue frond pictures down,
feeling differently about them now.
I hide them gently and straight
and hurt. For you it is done
while the jacaranda doesn’t see
the welkin harvest I see,
like the bruised rape of the month,
coming on with nothing done.
I reach to force the shutter down,
push my bedspread prim and straight:
I don’t need its bandage now.
I am more rounded now
I have penciled out the angles of summer. I see
a line skimming along eased and straight,
hooking off into the eye of the month
and jerking its whole windpipe down
and reeling back once it is done.
The year is over-done,
past the watered senses now.
In my closet I brush out the down
of my womb: no pangs suffered to see
it bundled with a wire, pinched as a month,
abandoned between cans that pull the ends of streets grim and straight.
What a lie we spear to be straight,
that we impale ourselves to have it done.
It is naming thirty days a month,
yelling that a breath means now,
when the sloughing off of the selves we see
is not more than a horizontal spectrum climbing down.
An oven’s temper, in a hood down
over scars, over veins and breasts, jets straight
to where September trees are only half to see.
It was not a solstice, summered and done,
that ferried me to this landing. Now:
I am spilled salt and wet and mulch, and spy the pointe of the month.
Gianna Russo is the founding editor of YellowJacket Press (www.yellowjacketpress.org
), currently the only publisher of poetry chapbook manuscripts in Florida. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has publications inTampa Review, Ekphrasis, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Florida Humanities Council Forum, Karamu, The Bloomsbury Review, The Sun, Poet Lore, The MacGuffin
, and Calyx,
She is the author of a chapbook, Blue Slumber,
and the full-length poetry collection, Moonflower
, published in 2011 by Kitsune Books. She teaches at St. Leo University.