Long Before It Was A Shade Of Grey; More Early Poems

A statue of Ken Kesey in Eugene, Oregon

A statue of Ken Kesey in Eugene, Oregon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Tie me tightly I ache to please

The steel in your gaze holds me tighter

Than these cords

Symbols of our boredom

We try to tie down fleeing love

Fading, like a drug-induced illusion

Searching for thrills

We burn up our options

Building our tolerance, each rush

Demands more
Coming in handy once again

My mouth, cotton, and God I need to stretch

And I know we’re not going to last, anyway

So come, cut me free.

I wrote this poem in college and, while it wasn’t what I would have written without a prompt, I wrote it to win. I understood the assignment (“evocative language”), and I knew I would be elected to read it to the class (my goal).  Years later in the Dale Carnegie class, I would win the coveted green pen, not for my skilled presentation, but because I understood the assignment. While I couldn’t have written a more heartfelt narrative, I played to key audience members and appeared to be taking a risk. It might have been risky for someone else, but my self-deprecating style was easy to expose. I had been doing it all my life, the difference was that now I was getting credit for it.

The poems that got me the most attention were the ones based on truth, or at least a dash of truth, so I learned at a young age to “write what you know.” One poem cost me a boyfriend. I should say, it led to confusion that only the written word can. When the misunderstanding was abated, a feeling of lack, (not lack of anything specific but just lack) lingered; I was left with the idea that if this misunderstanding could even have happened, the relationship was doomed.

Ken Kesey  (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s NestSometimes A Great Notion) was appearing at the Writer’s Conference in Gainesville, FL. I had been there once before and I loved it. My school was an intimate college community; this was a happening college town-live music, poetry readings, art shows, and various combinations of the above available every night of the week. I wanted to see Kesey, and I wanted to see George, a former classmate, who I heard was in grad school there.

The drinking started immediately upon our arrival. One of the chaperones (for lack of a better word) had a bottle in her room and I downed a few shots just to be part of the group. I met up with George, who joined me for the first few readings. I didn’t bother to tell anyone that I knew him from school so it appeared that I picked him up off the street.

The final night we saw the keynote speaker. Kesey arrived on stage with a bottle of clear liquid in hand. I thought it was part of his shtick, but it soon became clear that he was drinking on stage. (This is why you send your daughter to college). We wanted/expected him to talk about the Merry Pranksters and LSD, maybe some “Me and Keroac” stories. (Hippies and journalists click here).  There were a few laughs but he spoke more generally about fiction and Sometimes A Great Notion in a rambling message of unpreparedness and increasing intoxication. My revisionist mind  wants to say how illuminating and heady it all was, but my heart remembers it as disappointing and sad. After the late-night post-reading party, George was waiting at the door, and I later wrote this poem:

Nothing to do with love, our being here

Nothing to do with love, our being here

We finished each other’s thoughts breathlessly

Like incomplete kissing

After our beer we had one last slow one

My feet scraped the floor restlessly,

My fingers traced the sweating mug—Dylan haunts me

(you said the bartender had good taste)

Out on the street you asked me to breakfast

And later, by the flickering candle

We catch our breaths and sigh our sighs and wonder

Why isn’t love this easy?   -Feb. 1980

End Notes:

* “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer– they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

— Ken Kesey

**Dylan was in virtually every poem that semester, in the same way that the music of  Taylor Swift permeates college campuses today.