The Purloined Poem
By Frank Thomas Smith
Geschichten schreiben ist eine Art,
sich das Vergangene vom Halse zu schaffen.
I never asked my friend, Peter Product, the origin of his family name. I just assumed that it was shortened from one of those long, unpronounceable Polish or Czech names. In any case it raised eyebrows and, often, grins. Pete was a poet, a profession not very amenable to earning money, so he moonlighted as an assistant insurance underwriter at Encore Underwriters, Inc., 66 Wall Street, New York City, which is where I met him.
One day he hit the poetic jackpot when he wrote an epic poem with the title “Ode to the Brooklyn Bridge”, dedicated lovingly to María, and had it published in the The New Yorker. Getting something published in that magazine was enough to win Brooklyn’s 3-B (Best Breast-Beating) Gold Medal, so Peter Product’s reputation went into orbit. Simon and Schuster approached him directly (he had no agent yet) for a book of his poems. S & S knew that they would gain no profit, but publishing poetry is good for a publishing house’s reputation. Pete had a pendrive full of his life’s work, none of which, by the way, approached the poetic quality and heartfelt metaphoric feeling of “Ode”. He sent it all to S & S, who edited it as best they could and issued it with the title Ode to the Brooklyn Bridge – and other verses by Peter Product.
In the real world not even a successful poet can live on the royalties from one book of poetry, so Pete kept his job at Encore, for a while. His girlfriend – María, a dark-haired Argentine beauty – worked as a secretary at Encore, actually my secretary. I was a licensed insurance underwriter, Peter Product was one of my assistants. My section was growing and making a lot of money. Most of the other sections used the secretary pool, but I had the most important places in the country to cover: New York City and Kentucky. The importance of NYC is obvious, but Kentucky? It’s the whisky, stupid. Whisky distilleries were and probably still are great fire risks, and their contents valuable. So risky and so valuable that no insurance company would dare to cover them alone. That’s where Encore Underwriters came in. We would distribute the risk over various companies, even including Lloyd’s of London. The latter, the biggest insurance company in the world, would automatically accept fifty percent of any risk if our American companies combined would take the other fifty percent.
First I’d hired Peter, then María, without knowing of their relationship. If I had known I certainly wouldn’t have hired them both. The complication was that I fell for María, but she had already fallen for Pete. My situation was hopeless because company policy forbade intimate relationships between managers and underlings of the opposite sex, for example: male manager, female secretary. It was further complicated by the object of my affection´s lover also being my underling. There was one advantage to this situation though. Although it would have been improper for me to be in an intimate relationship with María, it was harmless if I hung out with María and Pete together — although it was like inquisitional torture. When we sat together in a bar or in their apartment, or walked in Battery Park and they cuddled and held hands I felt like I was being burned at the stake.
But allow me to get to the crux. After Peter Product’s poem was published in The New Yorker and his book was published by Simon and Schuster, everything changed. Although young women generally prefer poets to clerks – if money isn’t important that is – a successful poet is an irresistible target. They stick to him like ants to a honeypot. The result was that Pete neglected his work – and María. He began to hang out with the unwashed, bearded, pot-addled fellow poets in Greenwich Village. He even wanted to live there. And, María suspected, he was shagging a free-verse poetess from Brooklyn, whose muse’s initials were LSD.
That’s when María rebelled. She’d had enough of potheads in Buenos Aires who, despite having talent – mostly musical – were usually broke, stoned and rock crazy. Her appreciation of rock and roll ended with the Beatles. So when Pete moved to a communal pad in Greenwich Village, she left him. He claimed that he simply had to soak in the artistic atmosphere where his muse was more likely to visit his soul; she told him to go fuck himself with a broomstick. (Profanity always comes easier to non-native speakers, who are not intimidated by its shock value.) I of course was more than willing to let her cry on my shoulder, playing the avuncular card, which wasn’t hard. After all, I was twenty years older than María, fifteen older than Pete.
I didn’t actually fire Pete, just had a man-to-man talk with him one day after work in Smokey Joe’s Wall Street Irish Pub. I suggested that he would be happier devoting all his time to artistic creation than merely moonlighting at it. I even offered to loan him a thousand dollars to tide him over until the royalties from his book began to stream in. If you think that this was an indication that I was desperate to get rid of him, you’d be right. He stared at me for a few moments, took a big gulp of beer, and started to tear up. I didn’t know what to make of that. Did he need his miserable salary to support an invalid mother I didn’t know about? Had he been diagnosed with cancer and needed the company’s medical insurance plan? But, no, it was nothing like that. On the contrary, he was overcome by emotion and gratitude. He said that he had been thinking of resigning, but didn’t want to leave me in the lurch, as it were. He feared losing his second best friend, after already losing his first, María. He grasped my hand, knocking over his beer glass, which luckily was almost empty. For a moment I was afraid he might kiss my hand.
Although Peter Product was tall and gangly, handsome in a way and probably well endowed you know where, as such tall and gangly guys usually are, and I am short and almost bald and no poet, but solid I’ll have you know, María finally saw the light and fell into my arms, only outside of office hours of course. I warned her of the dangers inherent in boss-secretary office romances. At first I worried that she’d back off, but she actually liked it. A secret affaire is often more exciting, as long as nothing goes wrong. Just in case though, the new assistant I hired was a sixty-year-old plumpish woman.
About six months later it happened. I almost didn’t notice, but María brought my attention to the article in The New York Review of Books. A graduate student in English Literature from Redbrick University, UK, unearthed a nineteenth century book of poetry containing an epic poem by C.D. Maypole, titled “Ode to the London Bridge”. Except for the title and some thees and thous, it was an exact replica of Peter Product’s Ode to a different bridge. At first the student thought that the author had used a nom de plume, but soon tracked her down as a female infant (no given names) having been baptized in 1789, died in 1822 in Reading, England. She found no other literary work by her, however. She accused Pete of being a plagiarist, because he must have somehow also found that book and simply changed the English spelling and some archaic words.
“Wow!” I said when I finished reading it. “Poor Pete.”
“Poor Pete my ass,” María rejoined. “Poor hijo de puta is more like it.” The news spread like wildfire, at least in literary circles and the office. There was much similarly divided opinion: some pitied him, others damned him. But all agreed that he was a schmuck. His reputation was ruined, Simon & Schuster withdrew his book from circulation and he was banished from the Greenwich Village communal pad. Poor Pete.
Several months went by before María and I received the same email from Peter asking us, practically begging us, to meet him the following Saturday at midnight at 333 Atlantic Avenue, apartment 5E, Brooklyn. What the hell! María and I exclaimed. I emailed him back for both of us, saying we could meet him right here at Smokey Joe’s Wall Street Irish Pub. But he insisted that we go to Brooklyn, that what he had to tell us was so extremely urgent and delicate that it must be kept “Geheim”, for now. María, who is quite a linguist, told me that Geheim means secret or occult in German. We decided to humor him; after all, he had been our colleague, my friend and María’s special friend. I was also by now sufficiently certain that María was over him and at least comfortable with me.
We took a taxi to Brooklyn because I didn’t want to leave my car without a bodyguard on a Brooklyn street at midnight. Apartment 5E means the fifth floor – without an elevator. When I rang the bell, Pete leaned out of a window near the roof and called out: “Is it you guys?” as though he didn’t want to reveal our names. “Yeah, us guys,” I yelled back. He buzzed and we began our journey up to 5E.
When we arrived, panting, Pete pulled us in and locked the door. It was one of those old downtown Brooklyn buildings where large apartments had been subdivided into smaller ones. It was large enough for a living-dining-bedroom-kitchen rolled into one; at least the bathroom was separate. Ms LSD was sitting on the sill of the window Pete had called us from. She was wearing only panties, no bra, although her tits were so small she didn’t really need one. Actually, in order to avoid a false impression, she was quite pretty – short blonde hair, full lips and great legs. She ignored us and stared out the window, ready to howl at the moon, should it appear.
“Thanks for coming, really thanks,” Pete intoned. He embraced me and tried to do the same with María, but she backed away. “Can I offer you something?” he asked. We’d noticed the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, so we declined.
“Just tell us why we’re here, Pete”, María said “That’s what you can offer, it’s late.”
“Oh sure,” he said. “Here, let’s sit here.” We sat on rickety chairs around a scarred table, María and I on one side, Pete on the other. LSD didn’t move from her windowsill.
“Okay,” Pete began with a cheesy smile. He was nervous, tapping the fingers of his right hand on the table, noiselessly because he’d bitten his fingernails to the quick. “There’s one thing I gotta tell you guys, and you must believe me. He looked from María to me and back. We didn’t say anything or even nod, so he went on. “Do you remember that poem, Ode to the Brooklyn Bridge?” A rhetorical question so we didn’t bother answering. “Well,” he said, “I really wrote it and I never saw that book with Ode to the London Bridge in it, and I’d never heard of C. D. Maypole.”
“Can you prove it?” María asked with acid in her voice.
“No…not in the usual way.” He began tapping with all ten fingers.
“Will you please stop banging on the table,” María said.
“Oh, sorry.” He withdrew both hands from the table and held them on his lap.
“What do mean by not in the usual way, Pete?” I asked him as gently as I could, although I felt like kicking him in the teeth. Why doesn’t he finally admit that he purloined the poem? was what I was thinking.
“Has either of you heard of Madame Blavatsky?” No reaction. “Or Rudolf Steiner?”
To my great surprise María said, “Blavatsky was a theosophist, Steiner an anthroposophist.”
Pete seemed surprised as well. “Yes, yes, María. How do you know about them?”
“My crazy uncle was an anthroposophist, he talked a lot about it, and he had books, mostly in German, but some in English and even a few in Spanish.”
“Crazy?” I said, hopefully.
She laughed, her attitude was changing. “He wasn’t really crazy, but some people called him crazy, kidding, because he believed that stuff.”
“Did you read any of those books, María?” Pete asked. “Do you believe it, too?”
“I read a couple, skimmed them really.” She paused, looking at Pete in a different way, as if she knew what was coming. “I’d say I’m agnostic about it; I mean it’s pretty weird stuff.”
“Weird?” I said.
“Sí – and cool too.”
“Yes, Yes, exactly,” Pete gushed. “Cool! They knew all about reincarnation and talked and wrote about it. Cool, María!”
She was smiling and it disturbed me. I thought we’d come to hear Pete out – I admit that I’d been curious – but then to tell him very sorry, and don’t bother us again.
“Listen Pete,” I said, “if you got us here to listen to a lecture about Hinduism or something, we’re not interested.”
“No, Steiner wasn’t a Hindu, he was an Austrian philosopher, and he westernized reincarnation, so to speak.” He looked at María, who nodded.
“What does that have to do with your poem though – or her poem?” she asked.
“If you can believe that I really wrote my poem without having seen hers first…”
“We didn’t say we believe you,” I interrupted.
“But just for a moment if you could accept it hypothetically, that what I say is true, what does it mean? A coincidence?”
“Hardly,” I said. “Look Pete, I’m not calling you a liar, it’s possible that your subconscious convinced you that you wrote that poem alone. Stuff like that happens.”
“But then I’d have had to have access to her book first. Right?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I didn’t, I swear it. So…”
“Is your mother alive, Peter?” María asked him out of nowhere.
“My mother? Why no, she died when I was a boy, but why do you ask that?”
“Swear on your dead mother’s memory that you are telling the truth.”
Pete looked at her with bulging eyes. Then, as though completely beaten, he hung his head and murmured, “No, I couldn’t do that, it would be…dishonorable. She has nothing to do with this.”
María jumped up from her seat, facing Pete, leaving me the only one still sitting. “OK,” she said, “I believe you, that you never saw the other poem, but how do you explain that yours is identical?”
“But María,” I objected, “he won’t swear on his dead mother’s memory. How can you say you believe him?”
“In my country men are always swearing on their dead mother’s memory, and they’re all fucking liars. Now I know that Peter is honest. Don’t you see?”
“If he was lying he would have sworn on his mother’s memory.”
“Why?” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“He refuses to dishonor his mother’s memory, which means he’s honorable. Don’t you understand?”
I didn’t, but I let it go, because LSD had approached. I noticed now that her breasts, though small, had large rosy nipples. She stood facing me. I didn’t stand up because I knew I’d be a foot shorter.
“I can explain it,” Pete said. “There’s only one explanation. You see, when Rose here introduced me to Blavatsky and Steiner, and I began to meditate on my past lives, I realized that I am the reincarnation of Claire Maypole, so…”
“Claire?” María interrupted, glancing suspiciously at Rose, “Were did you get that name?”
“I found her, in my meditation, that is. My middle name was Dorothy, or Dorothea, not so sure of that.”
“Did you say my middle name?” I screamed. “You’re stark raving fucking mad.”
Rose put her hand on my shoulder, to calm me down, I guess, and it worked. I felt as though I’d been touched by an angel, my heart slowed down and my neural functions as well, because what happened next is a blur. María and Pete went over to the window Rose had vacated and were talking and hugging, Rose was massaging my scalp and I was half asleep with an incipient erection. When I opened my eyes later, how much later I don’t know, María and Pete were gone. What happened next I leave to your imagination.
María quit by email the next day, very sorry and all that, but she had to attend to Peter’s spiritual crisis. The next time I heard from her, they were in England researching Claire D. Maypole’s biography. They had already interviewed the grad student who’d discovered her poem, and who agreed that Peter Product could be her reincarnation.
I continued studying spiritual science with Rose as my mentor cum lover. I’m not interested in my previous incarnation, who probably was like one of those maids in Downton Abbey, but we’re into meditation in a big way. There’s a symbol to meditate on called the rosy-cross, or rose-cross, or rose croix. But if you remember Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, where his hero, a Jew, prefers not to meditate on a cross and does so instead on the lighted lampposts on his street, you will understand why I chose Rose’s rosy nipples.
Pete began writing poetry again, under a nom de plume, which María translated into Spanish. They found a down-and-out publisher in Brooklyn, who printed it and also offered it in Amazon Kindle. Most of the critics who even noticed it said it was antiquated, spiritualistic, romantic trash, but when Oprah recommended it as “heart-warming”, it took off and the non-intellectual public, especially the ladies, loved it.
The names used here are not the protagonists’ real ones (not even my own), because Rose and I swore to keep Pete’s identity – that is, his present literary incarnation’s identity – secret, for obvious reasons. I often wonder, however, if the story behind the famous poet’s past were made known, he would be even more famous, or infamous, though in either case more successful with his core fan base. But please don’t ask. Our lips are sealed.