Poems April 1990
“An academic story”
One day during his office hour
a young woman appeared. “I’m Merridy,”
she said, “Merridy Johnson.
I’d like you to read my poems.”
He said that he didn’t teach writing.
“But couldn’t you just look
and tell me, are they any good?”
She was carrying a flat white box.
She removed some tissue paper,
lifted out an album with a red cover,
and handed it to him carefully.
The poems were written in green ink
with flowers and birds in the margins.
She said, “What do you think?”
He said there were some nice images.
“Where?” she said, and leaned to see.
His wife didn’t go to poetry readings.
He went by himself, and sat at the rear.
But this evening he stayed to the end
and went to the reception afterwards
at Professor “Pat” Melrose’s house.
When he arrived the poet was reciting
again, to a circle on the floor.
Merridy patted a place beside her and he sat.
Her eyes were shining.
Poetry gave her goosebumps.
Taking his hand she showed him where.
Melrose was a poet himself.
And there was nothing professorial
about these evenings. They were . . . bohemian.
Melrose’s wife, a little woman
with a face like a rhesus monkey’s
went around the room winking and grimacing.
“The pot’s in the kitchen, acid’s in the study”
she said with an eldritch laugh.
He was stoned, and so was she,
going down Spruce Street
with a moon in the redwoods
and San Francisco glittering
on the bay, through the fog.
The poetry was great, she thought.
“As great as Bob Dylan’s?”
But irony was wasted on her,
she was innocent. Like her room
with its posters of Joan Baez
and, right on, Bob Dylan.
Her books . . . Siddhartha, Ferlinghetti,
Alan Watts and Suzuki on Zen.
They spoke for her generation
like the Poems, Sacred and Moral
of a mid-Victorian girl.
And as softly as saying her prayers
she murmured, “Let’s go to bed.”
Sam Mendelson was a font of wisdom.
He knew there was going to be an opening
for a medievalist at Ohio,
and who was sleeping with whom.
He said, “But they don’t do it here.
They go to San Francisco.”
The MLA was meeting in San Francisco.
There were sessions he had to go to,
Henry told his wife, Cynthia,
all very boring but unavoidable.
He’d be back in three days.
He and Merridy walked all over.
They ate at Fisherman’s Wharf
and rode on a trolley.
They explored Chinatown,
and went dancing at Whisky à Go-Go.
He took her to The Hungry I,
and they saw Doctor Zhivago.
“Cynthia,” he said, “I'm home!”
No answer. He went upstairs,
unpacked his suitcase, came down,
and was settling in with a scotch
in front of The Untouchables
when he had what he could only describe
as a sinking feeling.
He took the stairs two at a time.
No, her dresses were in the closet,
her doodads still on the table. She came through the door
minutes later. She’d been shopping.
“How was the MLA?”
He gave a circumstantial account
of the sessions he’d attended
in Yeats and Pound and Eliot.
“I had a vision,” she said.
“I saw you in a room with a woman
as clearly as you’re sitting here.”
And he had always thought of her
as a person of limited imagination!
He was up for promotion, to associate
“Melrose is out to get you,”
Sam said. “Can you think of a reason?”
Henry thought. He shook his head.
“Did you insult Mrs. Melrose?”
“I don’t recall. I may have.”
At the meeting to decide his fate—
they’re supposed to be confidential
but someone always tells—
His only concern
was in the area of collegiality.
“Associate” . . . think what that means.
Someone you have to your house,
introduce to your wife . . .
If the fathers and mothers of the children
to whom we stand in loco parentis
were here, they would ask, they would demand to know,
not is he supposed to be clever
and did The New York Times or some other publication
give a book a good review, but is he a moral man?
Henry wasn’t promoted, and he didn’t get tenure.
That was why he was at the MLA.
He was being interviewed at five
by a man from upstate New York.
They had a place for a lost soul
somewhere in the Finger Lakes,
“I’ve never taught it,
but I don’t suppose it matters.
I’ve been talking it all my life.”
He laughed nervously. “Shall we have another?”
But I had to go. We were interviewing
on the fourteenth floor.
“You’re just in time,”
said the Chair. “Mrs. Harris
is going to tell us about her dissertation
on women’s writing.”
she said. “The title is Theory
and Praxis in Feminist Criticism.”
In a little while it became obvious
we weren’t interviewing her, she was interviewing us.
We used to teach poetry, now it’s theory.
There’s no longer room in the system
for a mind as romantic as Henry’s.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 8, on page 44
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