BBQ Ribs For the Dead (on Writing, Loneliness and Repurposing Poems)
I came back from my personal 3 day weekend and a secretary passed my desk, stopped and told me how over the weekend Linda had died suddenly. I’d worked with her about seven years and was surprised nearly to tears to hear that news. The story I’d gotten was how she was on the street (in the neighborhood of the office? during lunch?) talking on the phone and passed out. She spent the next day on life support and the day after she was gone.
I immediately thought a couple of things. First: how another co-worker of ours went to Emergency with her all of two months prior just after work one night and Second: how despite her being incredibly warm and chatty (ok, a motor-mouth) she NEVER talked about how ill she was, nor that she had cancer.
That I learned from the other coworker in question. A month ago, I went downstairs to visit him and Linda had sat across from him telling him a long, drawn out story. Her voice was light, animated, engaged. He kept mumbling Uh-huh, Yeah, I See, into his chest as if he were on punishment and continued to type while she talked and talked. I felt sorry for him.
And then, after hearing the news about her, I felt something different. I felt connected.
The other coworker told me that there were plans to have her cremated, but he also said her ashes were not going to be sent to back east where we all assumed she had family. Her ashes were going to be kept by a mutual coworker and friend. There was no family for her ashes to go to.
In that case, she and I were the same. Her hallway joke that I treat her like she was my mother, was but vaguely true. My heart recognized something in her I could never say aloud. I saw and understood her loneliness. I felt it in my own experience as much if not more than she did in hers.
This is probably why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I found myself taking a break from the office and walking over to the library for my brief writing slash study session. Its a break I take on the regular, every other day if I can. And if just for an hour: to grab a book of poems and sit and read and try to work something out. On this particular day, I returned to the library for my session, but didn’t write anything. I felt like I was waiting for a call or text that never came.
After a few minutes sitting quietly, doing nothing, I got up as to leave But suddenly as when touching a doorknob gives an unexpected electric jolt, words occurred to me and I started writing. I balanced my notebook on the dusty window sill and expecting to write a sentence or two of notes, I instead wrote three pages. It was a mad scribble of words and ideas about death and loneliness and processing what I’d been told and I remembered about Linda and her predilection for telling spontaneously long stories.
I never expected to write a poem. But one immediately took shape and rattled me for its clarity, its specificity and demand to be born. I didn’t write it — rather, it wrote me. This sounds cloying and twee, but in truth it felt all but channeled. I came into the library with no intent or agenda and was just as happy to be out of the office communing with books. Then Suddenly…
And should Suddenly occur to you, will you be open for it?
I typed up the notes. Something began forming like an image though a slowly lifting fog. I thought of Linda, hyper friendly, eternal smile, and how often I was short with her to the point of appearing rude. Not always and not unfriendly, mind you. But once I realized she talked to people as if it were a condition that couldn’t be helped, and how warmly she accepted my lack of patience for her habit (I know you hate my stories, Cagney, but…) I sometimes playfully wouldn’t wait for her to finish talking. I stayed gleefully defiant to the social custom of patient listening.
While re-typing my notes for a poem inspired by her, I was also struck with a crazy idea.
Last July, I began writing a poem about BBQ ribs and how I bought an entire slab at the farmer’s market that I ultimately ate by myself. Here’s an excerpt from the original draft:
days of picnics, families having ended A lineage of rhyming names remains having dissolved like sugar Only the patrolling sun remains insistent to the point of hostility
There is you, the rottiserie truck and 30 dollars rubbing in your pocket like fly legs– You watch this man lay a rack of blackened ribs on a running carpet of aluminum sheeting then swaddle the whole thing like a newborn. This youngster in a baseball cap and apron blackened with sweet animal fat handled the slab ceremonially folding the crisp edges down sharp as an envelope
The poem had some cool lines, but I couldn’t get wholly engaged with it because… well, frankly it was irrelevant. All vegans, vegetarians had no entry point for it nor would they appreciate the language because, for them, its language wasted about meat and intended for meat eaters. I even dared opening the poem with the kinda humorous if off-putting lines:
Damn every vegetarian and their anemic families And their portable pulpit of entitlement
But all of us, myself as author included, were wrong. The poem was NOT about meat, but about loneliness. Its about my own isolation, which at first I couldn’t clearly see. It wasn’t about the purchase or even eating, but rather how in the poem, the purchase wasn’t shared. Couldn’t be shared. It wasn’t about greed, it was about a ‘need’ that the meat itself wasn’t going to fill.
So the poem sat idle for a while, until I found myself working through the poem for/about Linda. It occurred to me that I could take lines from the BBQ poem I fancied, and fold them whole into the Linda poem. The great irony being how Linda herself would NEVER participate in office lunches and gatherings, them being much too social (wink).
I allowed the narrative of her poem to run long and then… get off the subject, by having this other poem appear. It was weird, and perfect. The first poem about her was intentionally chatty. I thought of the security guard at the same library who’d always stop me to talk, then worked in conversational phrases people always say: …I’ll be short, I hate to cut you off, Let me tell you this one thing…
I wrote and re-wrote the poem a good four or five times over and was surprised how solid it felt, running a hefty three pages– too long for most open mics, but perfect for itself just the same.
Linda would sometimes side-eye me and say, You know, I was probably your mother in a former life. And for that reason, my mother cameos in the poem. The cameo is unflattering because its a memory of my mother perhaps a month before she passed away, and a memory I’ve referenced in another piece. But it also feels perfect. Because, like Linda apparently, I didn’t realize how important she was to me until she was gone.
I don’t know if I have it in me to share that poem at Linda’s memorial. Its pretty much sermon length. I’ll print it and keep it with me and hope the spirit… does with me what it usually does. Take over and drive me to a very unexpected but most appropriate place.