It is unlikely you know or know of Lon Darby. He is one of the unfortunate lost of our time—though if it were up to Millie Fray he’d be enshrined in mosques and temples and steepled churches right now. I had certainly never heard of him, nor of Millie Fray, before one night two weeks ago at the Bozeman Poetry Collective open mic. The program host–I forget who it was this time, maybe Timles?–read her name from his list of readers: “Our next reader is Millie? Fray? Who has brought us a poem by someone named Lon? Darby?.”
A stout blond with shadings of a mustache on her upper lip stood up and walked to the podium. She thumbed through a sheaf of rag soft paper, shuffled them, and without looking at us, murmured, “It’s more than a poem.”
Then she started to read:
“Poison the Well, Ma
“by Lon Darby
“If you ever find yourself north of Norris
“On a sunny day, think not of sun,
“Think not of gaiety and fun,
“Think not “this scenery is for us.”
“It’s not. What’s done is done. . .”
And it goes on from there. Thirty-five verses, I believe, five lines each, rhymed ABBAB, epic and archaic in tone and mood, arrhythmic but strangely cadenced, almost biblical at times. Sometimes disquietingly lovely, more often, banality at its worst.
The mustachioed blond who read it, read it all. All thirty-five verses. She read for ten or twelve minutes. She read every single word and sometimes backed up to get in a word she had somehow dyslexicishly misread, or skipped, or mispronounced. She never looked up at us. She read with all the inflection of an earnest Sunday School student who has been asked to read the Sermon on the Mount for the rest of the Sunday School class and who is intent on not committing the unpardonable sin of changing Holy text. Her voice did not vary, her stance did not shift, neither vocally or physically. She read us into oblivious ennui. She read with so little passion, I wondered why she’d read at all.
Normally when confronted by mediocre poetry and mustachioed women, my assay of it tends toward ziltch.
If the mustache is barely noticeable and the woman is otherwise comely, I have been known to mutter “I liked that line where (repeat some random line from reading). . . .” After which things usually coast into nowhere because I am not interested in her poetry and she is not interested in a fool who is not interested in her soul. Such is the emptiness of my life.
There may have been memorable lines in “Poison the Well, Ma,” but the woman who read it was already out of sight-out-of-mind by the time the break occurred.
That would have been the end of it. Except during the break, I found myself standing behind a stout, blonde woman who was hunched over the treats table, stacking two small paper plates with salami, crackers, and cookies. When both plates, were stacked to their limit, she picked them up and turned suddenly, and there we were—mustachio to mustache—scrunched in the treats table herd, with two plates of goodies between us. There was nothing either of us could do to escape the other, though it appeared she wished something along those lines as much as I did.
And then she did the one thing that ensured neither of us would escape.
She looked up at me, her dark, browless frown like an accusation. She looked down at her two plates. Then she thrust the one in her left hand at me.
“Here. I don’t need two.” I took the plate, automatic reaction. She looked longingly at it.
“Why, thank you,” I said.
“No problem,” she said. She began eating salami and crackers.
“Interesting poem,” I said.
The frown disappeared, the mustachio lifted at the corners, and she looked up at me with a face of the devout who thought they had found a fellow traveler. A Ritz cracker crumb specked her pale lower lip.
“He’s God,” she said.
For your edification: I am at a complete loss as how to proceed when someone tells me a meh-poet is God. You can tell me you spoke, beard to beard, with Jesus Christ or Krishna, or Mohammad, and I have no problemo with that. I can handle that in a “Poor-Wayfaring-Man-of-Grief” sort of way. You meet people everyday who say things like that—or at least who believe things like that can happen. You don’t even have to dismiss them as nut jobs—just religious. But telling a complete stranger that a meh-poet is God? What do you do when that happens? I was completely lost, incapable of applauding or dismissing the unnerving reality her devotional smile suggested.
What I did was “Umm.?”
She did not need any encouragement.
“You heard it, didn’t you,” she said. “You heard his voice speaking when I read His Word. Didn’t you. You heard. You heard.” She said ‘His’ and “Word” with capital H and W. The Ritz cracker flake on her lip danced and joggled like a pebble in an earthquake.
I hadn’t heard him. I was shaken by her suggestion, but I hadn’t heard anything but a dull series of words. But could I really say something like that?
Have you ever tried to tell a missionary she is full of shit?
Me neither. For all my lostness and cynicism, I have yet to master that kind of darkness. And apparently I wasn’t about to start with this mustachioed lady.
“I kind of liked the rhyme ‘Norris’ and ‘for us’,” I started to say hoping to get a discussion going on something less ethereal, more technical.
I barely finished saying ‘Norris.”
“O, The whole thing. Every jot and tittle, every rhyme, every sound. Every every every every thing.” She was grinning. Her face shone with ecstasy I have seldom seen. I felt a surge of unexpected envy. I had never experienced that kind of joy. Why do the crazies get it all? The cracker crumb had migrated and now danced on the edge of a white, beaver incisor.
“Well, it is an interesting poem,” I said. I said interesting in an interesting way that implied interesting was a euphemism, knowing full well she would not hear the inflection. She didn’t.
“O, Yes. Interesting in so many ways.”
“Well, you know,” I said, “I’d kind of like to meet ole Lon sometime.” This was a lie. But a necessary one meant to lead toward polite words and an exit. But that is not what happened.
Her face fell, all the smile, all the ecstatic shine was suddenly floor-low slump. It was as if someone had held a match in front of a wax mask. Her whole presence sagged. The suddenness of the change that came over her shook me in a way I cannot explain, as if I had been caught up, if just for a moment, in her ecstasy and now felt its utter vanquesment.
“He’s dead,” she said.
“O, No!” I said, “I am so sorry. I didn’t know.” I remembered the flippant way I had suggested—had lied about—wanting to meet him.
“It’s Ok,” she said. She put her empty plate on the table, wiped her hands on her blouse, and began rummaging her large handbag. From which presently she pulled a tattered, nearly ruined, hand sewn booklet.
“We have His Word.” She waved the nearly ruined, hand sewn booklet above her head. “His Word will save the world.” She was weeping, tears flowed down her cheeks and dripped from her jaw. “Save the World,” she repeated.
About this time, somebody started riffing a guitar and the open mic opened for the second round of reading. The stout blond woman with the tattered bible of Lon Darby’s poems–“His Word”–did not stick around. I saw her waddling out the door at the back of the room.
When my turn came, I read one of my poems about being lost in the vastness of community, country and the universe that I have since come to consider trite, effete, tired. The whole time I was reading, I wanted to say the words, “If you ever find yourself north of Norris // think not this scenery is for us/it’s not.”
And it occurred to me, just as I finished reading that unlike Millie Fray I had not found myself north of Norris or anywhere else.