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Masquerade


ISSUE:  Autumn 1990

She pushed the door and, as it swung back slowly, she propped herself against the frame. “Hi.”

He was behind his desk, papers, books, school files scattered about in some secret order probably unknown even to him. He looked up, smiled, leaned back in his chair. “Well,

      ”Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
eyes of Picasso. . . .”

And he was off, his whole body off into poetry and commentary on poetry, smiling, quoting, dazzling. She knew that hypnotic wall of words. But today it would be different. Today she was going to breach the fortress.

She pushed off the frame and waded through the stream of sound to the chair by his desk. “Setzen sie sich, meine Schöne, come stai?” The ironic armies of Europe join the learned forces of the New World, but though their strength is as the strength often, it will not avail! Not today. Today my heart is not, definitely not pure.

The talk meanders into the usual kind of conversation they have constructed for themselves during the past four months, since they first met in his seminar. Though he flees from me, he sometimes does me seek—that’s clear. We will wait, we will talk, we will go on. There will come an opening.

“How were your ephebes today—what came out of your writing class? Anything interesting?”

“Not much” (and now here it comes, so easily, so quickly). “But I found this poem in my box this afternoon. Interuniversity mail, no note, just the poem and the signature.” She watched him as he took the piece of paper and read the words.

“It’s wonderful, it’s a love poem.”

“No it s not.”

“Well it’s a lust poem then, what’s the difference. Are we to become quibblers when bright Eros decides to pay a visit to a university, any university, our university? Have you seen him around lately? In the hall, by the English office?” She laughed a little and looked down, he went on:

“Who is the guy anyway?

“I don’t know, I don’t recognize the name.”

“Better and better, more and more romantic. A masquerade of love.”

“It’s not a love poem.”

“OK, let’s call it an obsession poem. We don’t get much obsession around here either, so far as I can see. You get an obsession poem, from an unknown adorer, who signs himself—or maybe herself—yes, perhaps?—with a fake name. Adoring at a distance. And how do you look? I see no radiance—is the splendor gone from the grass, the glory? Do you flee from him that sometime did you seek?” (My god, she thought, and burst into a laugh, remembering her mind a moment ago—which he could not see, could not have seen. But thinking he saw, seeing something, he went on until she interrupted him at a pause.)

“Maybe it’s from that graduate student who asked me to have coffee with him last year. I used to see him around the halls and he would look away and I knew he wanted to say something. But he always kept back until that day he asked me to have coffee with him. I said OK, and when we went he told me he was “obsessed with my face.” He saw me all the time in his head, and when he saw me “in the flesh,” as it were, he would go wild, he said, inside himself. Speechless. He asked me to have coffee because he knew it was the only way he could get his lips to move.” All the time she tells the story Jonathan is looking at her, listening as if to some sibylline words. She knows he has surrended completely to her talk. So she stops.

It is a silence he lets stand only for a few incredibly tense seconds. “Well, what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean? What did you say to him when he spilled his guts like that?”

“What was I supposed to say? Anyhow, it wasn’t as if he spilled his guts. He just said it, straight out, like he was giving a baseball score.”

“Ah, his masquerade again, changing modes this time. And so you get this poem, months later, another genre shift. You are a fortunate soul, Chris, like Asia in Prometheus Unbound, inspiring love. “Life of Life.” Where is he now?”

“I don’t know. After that coffee date I saw him a few times and we even talked a bit, but when the year ended and we came back to school, he was gone.”

“But not gone, is he? Here is the poem, he’s around somewhere. Hiding from love, smitten, like Dante before Beatrice. He probably lives with someone, maybe he’s married. Dante called those women “screen ladies,” the intermedia who receive the lover’s attention so that the world shall not know his true love.”

“Why not know?”

“Because Satan rules the world. So he writes this poem, it’s wonderful. It even has five and a half terrific lines. He’s not a writer like you but he can write a sonnet with five and a half unforgettable lines. That one in particular, I’d give a lot to have written that line:

“”You have bound me in the chains of my own construction.”“

She smiles, it is a good line, and so are the other four and a half. But why, she wants to ask him. Why would you give so much to have written that line? She looks right at him, right into his returning eyes. They still seem so cool, so steady. Then she looks down and doesn’t ask.

* * *

Dear Nick,

A “story” happened to me today and you are about the best person to tell it to. We will title this “The Romantic Movement in America.”

There’s a graduate student here in the writing programs, a poet and playwright whom I have gotten to know and like. We talk about contemporary and older writing etc. She comes into my office today casually to chat, nothing unusual, then says that she just found a poem in her mailbox, from someone she doesn’t know (it turns out to be signed with a male name, also unrecognized by me). It’s a love poem, 14 lines, an irregular sonnet, very sapphic, a bitter berating of my friend for not requiting his love. It has about five and half wonderful lines, and one in particular I shall, I hope, remember always: “You have bound me in the chains of my own construction.”

I tell Chris she is a lucky person, the identity of her adorer doesn’t matter—who gets love poems like that? how often? She says it’s not a love poem, I say what difference does it make—suppose it’s an obsession poem, a lust poem—who gets those any more, I mean in the woeful academy? She laughs, we agree it is full of wonderful lines and speculate about who might be so smitten. She says there is a graduate student who asked her to have coffee last year, and she went, and over coffee he told her she absolutely transfixed him. (A man with a different name from the name on the poem, and not, so far as she knows, a writer—an academic.)

That’s about it. But as the scene went on I grew absolutely wrecked with passion.

Such is the meaning of poetry in the romantic mode.

Ciao,
 Jonathan

* * *

Dean Jonathan,

Thanks for dealing me into that game of yours, or “story” (as you call it). Here is the way I imagine it being written.

In my version the sonnet is written by you, and then suppressed for all the obvious and perhaps necessary reasons—so that you become not only criminal but confessor, rather like Hugo’s Frollo. The line you quote is a fine one, and no wonder you like it. One romance leads inevitably to another for those who play at it.

Or suppose your young friend Chris wrote the sonnet. That is a hand the cards have dealt from time to time, and with equally interesting consequences.

Love is a fatality, is it not? The odd thing is that those who know this best, and who ought therefore to keep clear of that special fate, do the opposite. But “The tree of knowledge is not that of life.” So you seek it out—a very dangerous thing to do even when “your fate” is someone who is also conscious of these machineries. (It is pure disaster when she isn’t.) So what about your friend? Is she initiate? Often even young women are, it seems to me. But young men rarely.

As ever,
 Nick

* * *

The note in the box was short: “Chris—I have something for you. Stop by when you have a minute. XXXX Jonathan.”

His office door was, as usual, closed but not shut. She pushed it open and saw his catastrophic desk. But he wasn’t there. So she went in to wait and had hardly sat down when he came sailing in behind her.

“Ah, my queen—and I not here to receive you.” He lost not a beat between his movements and his words, talking all the time as he passed on to his chair and sat down. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness? In the 17th century you would have expected a sonnet sequence at least, I begging your mercy.”

“You’re forgiven. And I got your note.”

He seemed to hesitate just slightly, then reached into his briefcase and took out a thin sheaf of typescript pages. “This is for you,” and as he handed it to her she felt transfixed by his eyes. She looked down at the first page and began reading:

Masquerade

She pushed the door and as it swung back slowly, she propped herself against the frame. “Hi.”

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