February 17 1998
Dear Mr Yeats,
Hello! How are you doing over in Ireland? Greetings from Louie and Melinda J__ in Elkhart, Indiana!
My husband, Louie, was recently confined to bed for fourteen weeks as the result of a double hernia that he got trying to drag our old refrigerator out to the curb. Television made him restless, and reading novels put him to sleep. Neck and toe massages only alleviated his discomfort temporarily, and then he would become his old irritable self again. The situation was beginning to look desperate when Celie, a girlfriend of mine over at the church, lent me a copy of your book A Poet to His Beloved and suggested I try reading some poems to him. ‘Melinda,’ she said, ‘Everybody likes being read to, and this is some pretty romantic stuff.’
Louie objected at first, not being the type to sit there listening to all that lovey dovey stuff. (Louie is in construction, Mr Yeats.) But I asked him nicely to give it a try since he had nothing to lose other than a few minutes–one thing he had more than enough of. I’m happy to say it worked like a charm! Right from ‘The island dreams under the dawn/ And great boughs drop tranquillity’ straight through ‘Love fled/ and paced the mountains overhead,’ Louie was under your spell and I have to admit, so was I. I don’t mean to boast, but I’ve been told that I have a very pretty voice. The trouble is, I can’t usually think of what to say with it. Now I just reach for a book of poems.
Even though Louie is back in action again he still likes being read to. Celie has given us some other books-John Keats, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare (and you thought he just wrote plays!). Their stuff is good too, but A Poet to His Beloved will always be our favorite. Have you written any more love poems? I found some other books of yours at the library, but they were mostly about religion and politics-two things I know nothing about.
Anyways, good luck in whatever you do! Thanks again, Mr Yeats, and keep up the good work!
Louie and Melinda J___, Elkhart, Indiana
May 14 1998
Dear Mr Yeats,
You know plenty about desire, but nothing about love! Not even the first thing: the point of entry. ‘Love comes in at the eye,’ you say.
No, love does not come in at the eye. Like the poison that got Hamlet’s father, love comes in through the ears.
I first learned this the summer I graduated from Yale University when I fell for a girl in the corridor of a Spanish pension while waiting for her to finish using-the bathroom. She sang ‘Under ze boardwalk/ out by ze sea/ on a blanket wis my baby/ is where I’ll be.’ The alluring vibrato from within turned out to be a gross mismatch for the spectacle that emerged from the toilet, but that didn’t stop me from following her around Europe for two weeks. Finally, in a Brussels laundromat, I accepted a Hard Rock Cafe Amsterdam Tshirt in exchange for leaving her alone. ‘Allen,’ she said, ‘You are ze craziest man I ever met.’
How can you say that love comes in at the eye when vision is such a grim and debased sense? The correspondence between the things in the world and the light waves that register on the retinal wall, only to be transcoded into electric pulses, is tenuous at best. (Compact discs are a tragic mistake for the same reason.) Get up close to an eye and you are met with such barriers to penetration as lashes, lids, biological and synthetic lenses, and a salty fluid designed especially for killing organisms. Try touching an eye and your hand will be batted away before you can say ‘Fergus rides the brazen cars.’
The ear is by far the more inviting organ. See how the flesh spirals inwards and outwards. Think how many echoes of its efficient design can be found in nature: in conches, carnations, storm clouds. In several ways, ears are homologous to the pudenda with their ingenious yet simple means of e(a)rasing the distinction between inner and outer, their emission of a harmless substance that even housecats seem to enjoy and above all, their sensitivity to vibration. Whereas visual data, as I have said, are unreliable, aural data are vibrations: the substance of our universe. We have gotten used to thinking of ourselves as solids, but scientists have known for decades that we are in fact vibrational.
(Permit me a brief digression addressed to the manufacturers of vibrators. It seems that you people are far more concerned with the knobs, ribs, and spikes-that is, the hardware-of your products than you are with the software-the vibrations. It is not enough simply to provide low, medium and high settings when you could introduce, for instance, the blue scream of Jimi Hendrix, the toying precision of Erik Satie, the furious befuddlement of Lenny Bruce to match the mood and disposition of the user. Study the example of Sony’s Walkman if you want to note some of the possibilities. What I am proposing here is the development of some sort of cassettes to be implanted in the vibrator.)
Mr Yeats, if you could hear Arlene W_a_’s voice. How it harmonizes with itself when it rounds the comer, stops on a dime, doubles back. It’s a voice that seems engineered to the mechanisms inside my ears, which start humming like dual tuning-forks whenever she speaks. Her pronunciation of certain words is particularly lethal. An abbreviated list of such words would include: one, you, bye, weather, Pepsi, onion, and Allen. If there is a better reason for falling in love with somebody, it escapes me.
Because of how I feel about ears, I object to their mutilation. This is why earrings have become an ongoing matter of debate between Arlene and me. (This isn’t to say that certain pairs don’t look ravishing as they dangle from the lobes, something of which clip-ons are incapable-except in the mechanical sense.) Arlene agrees to wear her hair up for me, but refuses to allow the lacunae in her ears to close. She says it’s because not as many styles of earrings come in clip-on any more and she already has so many pairs of pierced. I’ve seen her collection and it takes up an entire wall of her bedroom! She hangs them on a wide strip of black silk: I find the sight of all those earrings without ears disheartening, but she says it keeps them from getting tangled. Recently, I met a jeweller at the club who professes to be able to convert any pierced earring into a clip-on. He says the finest drag queens in the city of Chicago bring their earrings to him. Arlene is skeptical.
My own ears sometimes get clogged with wax to the point where it gets so bad that I can’t hear the car radio on the way to the office in the morning. Even a monster yawn won’t clear them! The doctor showed me what to do when this happens. You lie on your side with a folded towel under your head and you pour an over-the-counter solution of hydrogen peroxide in there. The sound is miraculous. If you close your eyes you will believe that you are in a grotto with sea water gushing in from every direction. Set the bottle down and massage the recess behind the lobe with one finger for one minute, letting the hunks of wax loosen and dissolve. Turn over and let the warm fluid leak onto the towel. Repeat the process on the other side. Swab both ears, gently but thoroughly.
Afterwards, the world takes on an aural clarity that puts the finest crystal in the shade. Clear your ears, Mr Yeats, and you will see!
Allen R___, Chicago, IL.
May 25 1998
Dear Mr Yeats,
As Desi said to Lucy, ‘You got some ‘splaining to do.’ I thought at least I could rely on you for a good old-fashioned kiss-off poem. In When You Are Old, I thought I had found just the thing to pull it off with some bitter dignity-some starch in my collar. I took out my fountain pen and a sheet of robin’s-egg-blue stationery with satin finish, sat with her picture before me on the desk, and wrote out the poem, underlining the title and the final three lines:
‘Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.’
The woman in the picture was Sharon B___, a near-albino with a pink mouth and an endless supply of pink sweaters, against which her white-gold hair shone like the Milky Way. When we met, she moved with all the comically obvious stealth of Lucy and Ethel sneaking chocolate on the assembly line. I met her in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was studying American Popular Culture on a one-year leave from the University of London. I never expected things to turn serious after a few nights of carefree doorway groping, but she was very American and so not as sophisticated as she thought. When I returned from my year abroad, I forgot her like an exquisite meal, until I received a long letter imploring me to understand how lonely she had been without me, explaining how Donald T___ comforted her, and insisting she never expected to fall in love with him.
I couldn’t let a missive like that go by without comment, and that’s when I hit on When You Are Old. I thought it said things in an obvious enough way for her, but that as a quotation, it wouldn’t be exactly me saying them. Accountability is somewhat interfered with by quotation. Admiration for the poet’s character (not that I have much, sorry), wilful association with the poet’s good name, the desire to appear educated, and the romantic notion that one is so overcome by emotion that self-expression is impossible-all these and more must be taken into consideration before a quote can be digested. The relationship between writer and audience becomes triangular, opening up space for irony, doubt, guilt and that feeling of inadequacy that comes with incomprehension.
I thought that notwithstanding all these conflicting and fragmented messages, she would get this much: 1) You are too young for me 2) When you are older, you’ll understand that 3) I wasn’t just in it for the sex (Wink!) 4) The news of you and Donald has had some effect on me 5) There isn’t anything more to say about it. Good luck and eat healthy!
So you can imagine my astonishment at Sharon and my disappointment with you when she booked a flight to London to tell me I was the kindest, sweetest man she’d ever known and that she’d, been a complete fool. She cooked me a delicious dinner of veal medallions in a sherry sauce, and within a week seventeen Seagram’s boxes of her possessions arrived at my flat in South Kensington. Now that I have a weepy ex-cheerleader in residence, I can’t invite any of my friends over any more. Got any other good ideas, W.B.?
Simon N___, London
June 10 1998
Dear Mr Yeats,
By now you have probably received a querulous note from my ex-boyfriend Simon N___. I suspect he has misrepresented our situation on a number of counts, for example, his being an Englishman. In fact, Simon is from Duluth. More importantly, I feel compelled to set the record straight re the circumstances surrounding your wonderful poem When You Are Old and my response to receiving it in the mail from Simon.
He is not a bad man, Mr Yeats, just insecure and more than a little besotted by the I Love Lucy show. When we were together he made me laugh with his funny faces and his pathetic little mambo bit. Simon used to pick up Korean be-bim-bop for dinner, and we’d eat it in front of the television with all the lights out before making love. I liked having him with me in my bed, but he never fully appreciated me, and I certainly never loved him.
The afternoon of the day he left, I met a senior named Donald T___, the singer for the most popular band on campus. Before long, your poem arrived in the mail.
‘How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true, But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face’
Reading it, I felt that I had been studied by restless, searching eyes. 1 had been turned inside out and placed under the microscope. That’s a frightening position to be in, and at first I had to strip off my clothes and climb in the shower to hide the tears from myself. Gradually, as the hot water ran out, I recognized that the eyes on me cast a gentle, flattering light. This was the stage when I called the travel agent, confusing the messenger with the message, I suppose.
Admittedly, I am a sucker for a handwritten poem, especially one that arrives in my mailbox in one of those international envelopes with the blue and red borders. Also, I had just eaten chocolate-a dense, dark bar with almonds-which tends to create the impression in me that love is everywhere. None of this is to take anything away from your handiwork. It is merely to establish the conditions of reception.
The poem’s open-faced sadness and dancing, doting appreciation of my ‘pilgrim soul’ sent me into a tempest of emotion, and in the resulting disorientation I attributed the feeling to poor Simon. I booked a trip to London, a city I had never seen. I imagined teenage boys on street corners hawking newspapers, gangs of ruffians hatching plans in alleyways-the basic Dickensian London interrupted periodically by punks in red mohawks. I wanted to watch a Shakespearean comedy with Simon at my side. Any one would do, but preferably Twelfth Night, which I dreamed would cure him of his fixation for Lucille Ball!
What didn’t dawn on me until midway over the Atlantic was that you, not he, had turned me inside out. I’m staying with Simon until I find work, and at this point it seems unwise to
refuse him my body, but every second I am with him I am in truth somewhere far away. Somewhere across the Irish Sea, I lie down with you, Mr Yeats, and I will
cure you of all love’s sorrow, love’s pity.
Sharon B___, London