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On Discovering My Poetry Causes Hysteria

Flash in the Pan| Views: 286

A ceiling fan cuts the humid air. A decrepit bookstore; the musty aroma of hardbacks. I wait until ten minutes after the hour, to allow for stragglers. Tonight’s audience is equal parts silvery intellectuals and undergraduates in collegiate sweats. As I approach the lectern, a fly lands momentarily on my papers. My shoulders are tight and sweat beads above my lip. Readings don’t usually make me nervous; tonight, something is different. I take a sip of water before beginning.

“Good evening. Thanks for being here. I have some new material. A collection of poems about saints. I’ve never read them in public before. I hope you won’t mind being my guinea pigs.” I pause for a ripple of polite laughter. “The first one is called ‘Agnes, Virgin Martyr’.”

I cough and straighten my papers before beginning.

Dragged through brutal Roman streets
A virgin, too young to die
Stripped of her modest robes
Naked in the noonday dust

Before I reach the end of the first stanza, there is shuffling in the seats at the back. I pause and look up briefly before continuing.

Always chaste
Always pure
She casts her eyes down to the dirt

At some point during the second stanza, an elderly woman on the back row stands and begins to sway, as if to music. I am tempted to pause, but for all I know this woman and her mental illness are well known in the locality. I continue.

She whispers
Never will I look into your eyes
Never will I see the faces of my tormentors

During the third stanza, others stand and begin to sway. Some are mumbling; some thrust their arms aloft, reaching for the heavens.

Flames may flicker and rise
But Agnes will not be burned
Her body will not succumb to earthly elements

At the end of ‘Agnes, Virgin Martyr’, I pause and look up. Those audience members still seated, about half of them, look on with concern. Those standing continue to sway and moan in ecstasy. The moaning is becoming disturbing, animalistic. This has caught the attention of bookstore staff and browsing customers. Casting my eyes across the audience, I am sorely tempted to collect my papers and make a swift exit. But a seated man catches my eye and indicates with the frantic twirl of a finger that I should continue. I turn the pages, skimming through for something that might have a calming effect.  

I speak up over the moaning. “This next one is called ‘Basilissa and Anastasia’.”

With their own hands they dig
The graves of martyrs
Deep into the sandy clay
They lay the bodies down

By the second stanza, the moaning is drowning me out. I raise my voice until it is just below a shout. Now, almost the entire audience is standing and swaying. I wipe sweat from my forehead with my sleeve, wondering if I can continue. The bookstore manager arrives, a grim expression on her face, and then returns urgently to the front of the store. A hot flush runs up the back of my neck; my body is telling me to get out.

Hunted like dogs
Through a long, cruel night
Dragged into a court of unbelievers
They refuse to forsake Him

During the fourth stanza, a young man on the end of a row flings himself onto the floor, writhing. Browsing customers are ushered outside. The noise is now cacophonous. I rush to the end of ‘Basilissa and Anastasia’, reading each stanza faster than the last. Then I grab my papers and swig the rest of the water.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and head to the door, but it is too late. A siren is followed by lights flashing through the window.         

#

A ceiling fan cuts the humid air. The sweet stench of body odor. I share the holding cell with a prostitute and several drug dealers. They talk among themselves, agitated and eyeing me with suspicion. An officer approaches, ostensibly to escort me to the bathroom. I must time it just right. I stand tall, projecting along the hallway. The other prisoners fall quiet and stare at me.

Dragged through brutal Roman streets
A virgin, too young to die
Stripped of her modest robes
Naked in the noonday dust

By the time the cell door is unlocked, the officer and most of my cellmates are writhing in ecstasy, moaning, thrusting their arms aloft. I escort the prostitute and the drug dealers out into the night.

Jonathan Payne is a British writer based in Washington, DC. His short fiction has been featured at the North London Story Festival and in magazines including Turnpike and Twist In Time. He holds a master’s degree in novel writing from Middlesex University. Follow him at www.jonpayne.org and on Twitter @jon7payne.

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