In the city of Sandness everyone is a poet and everything is poetry. When flocks of avian scholars descend from the sky to promenade down main street asking questions of “who,” and “whom,” — it is figurative. They are each but words in a poem, and because they are a poem they are all in love. Because it is a poem, the center of Sandness is not a town square, or city hall, or even a wild sprawling park overswelling with meaning; the center of Sandness is not even a couplet or volta or any of the utterable words that litter its language in bright bursts of flavor or a hammer’s blunt edge; the center of Sandness is instead only to be found at 2 AM at the Salon of Experiences run by a poet named N.
N was trying to sleep. N rarely slept. As he closed his eyes the twilight colors of Painted Rock canyon pooled and swirled at the foot of his bed. The colors nudged his foot. They formed into a small, iridescent hand of words that peeled his eyelids open. Perhaps like an insistent cat, perhaps like a beating heart, or perhaps like a bullet of dread — no — the similes, once he gave home to them, would not stop coming. Outside his window, words bounced as soft pellets of hail. The crafty, cold words lifted the latch and tumbled in toward N. They smelled like cotton candy in a poppy field. “Come back later,” N said. But the hail joined the colors at the foot of his bed. He was so tired. Tired as a tombstone. Tired as a moth-eaten coat in the attic. Tired as an eighty-year-old prom photograph rubbed raw at the edges. No — he wanted to be tired simply as a person who had not slept for days. But the dimpled pellets opened his lips and slid coolly down his throat. The colors entered his eyes and traveled in through his optic nerve in burgundy and periwinkle and the copper halo of the moon. Together they filled him with words, ideas, and dreams. His window shattered and the blackout curtains blew open as the hail poured in faster and the colors illuminated every crevice of the Grand Central Station of his mind. The white pellets filled him, starting at his feet, working up his calves, his stomach, his spleen — the entire time making him lighter and lighter. He felt radiant. He could waltz on the wind. Every breath was a sonnet, every blink was a storm of villanelles. He was too light and high on the inspiration to stay in his bed. He leapt to his feet and dashed to the door, zen couplets and Epics of Gilgamesh tight on his heels.
N was seventeen when the inspirations began taking him. He was walking by the river without a sense of purpose, not going anywhere in particular. He was, maybe, a little sad. Somewhere in the high, lonely pine trees a bird repeated a call he was familiar with — one high note, one low — and he wondered what that bird looked like. He looked up into the still blue sky and saw the faint wink of the moon. That is when the world went white and abominable and became a blank page before his eyes. No longer did the river meander alongside him. The river left. The water was leaving him. The water was love and love was leaving him and he was very cliche and sad and he tore the fedora from his head and bewept his heart’s outcast state, and his tears were chocolate kisses and they melted on the ground in cocoa and peanuts like mixed metaphors.
He tried not to think of the inspirations as pathological. His friends also wrote poems. And if they complained that a passion kept them from an easy sleep routine, or drove them to make too frequent an acquaintance to Jack Daniels, or led them to tirades against that presumptuous maestro on the moon — N felt seen. Unable to sleep he would often climb from his window down a sturdy trellis, scraping his shoulders on the roses’ petals rather than their thorns. On one such evening, amidst the perfume of the night’s lilacs, he passed by a group of women walking home from a party and overheard in their conversation, unmistakably, the voice of the french rondeau poetry form. Their metronomic gait drummed out the heartbeat of the syllables as he approached. One of them exclaimed, “How did we do that? Did we just speak in poetry?”
Another said, “It felt so exhilarating!”
And the other said, “It wasn’t really a good poem though, was it?”
As they noticed this stranger in his black beret and wool sweater they swallowed their lyricism. How often it is — N thought — that we snuff out the language of our brilliance at the intrusion of the other? Soon, they disappeared from his presence and he was left with only the faint memory of a poem bouncing between three bird-bone rib cages, almost a song he could cherish if only he could recount it word for word, soaking in the quiet thrill of midnight’s solitude as a soft pentameter of rain began to fall. When N thought of those initial nights of inspiration the nostalgia nearly tore him apart. It was too much to remember at all when even the least significant memory could be translated into a thousand poems, and it still wouldn’t be perfectly understood. Memory was a mountain that only grew taller as he attempted to climb it. It was red rope burns on the palms of his hands as his grip wavered and he slid down to certain death. It was the voice of the wind high up on that impassible cliffside promising its secret name, and the true names of all real things if only he could reach the summit. If he wasn’t careful his entire life would condense into a single moment and shoot, formidably, into the sky.
In his morning — actually around two in the afternoon usually — N would stagger to his coffee maker and demand the bitter machine to allow him wakefulness without his chronic inspiration. Let him spend one day as a regular person with no language or need of language to exalt his ecstasies and emotional ruins. But by the time the first drop touched his tongue he had named a never-before-recognized shade of the rainbow and penned a love poem in the voice of a long-dead sailor pointing his ship to heaven to challenge God to a duel.
Trying to free himself of a case of the odes, N bought a loaf of bread and walked to a park with a pond to feed the ducks. It was a gray, underwhelming afternoon, which N hoped would allow him to keep himself from composing for at least half an hour. “Bread isn’t good for them,” a woman said to him from the next bench over. N recognized her from the Salon, Miranda. She was often there, watching from the back, but she’d never actually read a poem or encanted an experience on stage. When he saw her, in her 90s low-waisted jeans and with the way her brown hair settled across the small of her back, he was given the impression that her visage and perhaps even her personality belonged on the cover of a horse-centric romance novel.
“They seem to like it well enough. And it helps keep my mind off poetry for a moment,” N justified himself.
Miranda looked skeptical, “Have you tried meditation?”
He’d noticed the others at the Salon kept their distance from Miranda. It was no surprise. For one thing, she never seemed to be sporting either a hat or a technicolor scarf, and her whole demeanor lacked the attention-hungry flourish with which the rest of the poets felt most comfortable. She was always telling people about the latest health and wellness doctrines instead of talking about her feelings. Kale, exercise, a proper bimodal sleep regimen, moderation — absolutely conversational turn-offs as far as the poets were concerned. Her rugged practicality made it seem impossible to picture her launching into a ballad — not to mention imagine her falling with reckless abandon into a post-reading bacchanalia. It seemed impossible to think even a part of her wanted to tear someone’s flesh off — so to speak.
“I can’t meditate,” N said, “I get visited upon by too much revelation.” He broke off a chunk of bread and threw it to the pathetic, yet delightful, descendants of avian dinosaurs.
“There are better things to do for your mental health, you know. You don’t have to poison ducks to calm your autonomic nervous system.” She rattled off a list of possibilities: adhering to a strict schedule, training for a 5K, enlisting in a distinctly non-poetic career. “It’s not that hard,” she completely ignored the infectious and reality-bending nature of his inspiration, “It’s all about becoming the sort of person who can be uninspired. Try filing your papers alphabetically.”
Miranda left and N’s inspiration returned. He didn’t see her again until the next week at the Salon when he caught sight of her at the back of the crowd. N struggled more than usual to navigate his half-dream fugue state to find a good place for the Salon that week. Unlike regular poetry readings in the city, the Salon moved locations. It happened wherever N was inspired to take it. And its attendees were any of those, roused in bouts of poetic insomnia, who managed to seek him out to find the inspiration that so surely struck those in his proximity. They crowded around him as birds and beasts in fluorescent haircuts and beaten leather coats, drawn by some unseen force to wherever N had hidden himself.
That week N had fled his room, unable to sleep for a pouring rain of words, and had walked out the back alley behind his house. Before then he had only noticed thorn-tipped weeds overgrowing the rutted tire track, wet-lipped garbage cans, and sloppy letters of graffiti decorating the bland, unattended-to sides of fences. But that night he saw the perfect place for a midnight market. Where he stood a vendor could sell UFO and alien paraphernalia. Ten steps to his right a psychic could set up a booth for past-life regressions. Maybe the neighbors with children could set up an arcade where competitors could test their knowledge against that of a fifth grader. Down in the cellar, where he could hold tastings of fermented spirits with the ghosts of deep time, that is where the Salon belonged. Where that cellar was, and how anyone had managed to find themselves there, could be matters of great debate. But that question could not be asked because the Salon was not a place of debate; it was a space for pure expression. When Miranda caught him, she asked if he’d had any success with her recommendations. “Not yet,” he lied. N had gone on a run that very morning — afternoon — and at first it was fine but soon enough he was ‘running from,’ something rather than merely running — that something being a long-buried fear he had trouble putting into words. It symbolized itself as a sort of pack of corgis with the hearts of werewolves. He escaped, if barely, with their oversized jaws nipping at his heels. He tried alphabetizing his tax information, but he was struck by the utter arbitrariness of the alphabet’s order, and that led him down a path straight to deconstruction, and he couldn’t handle the sheer amount of un-meaning in his life without writing at least a prose-poem ars-poetica.
“Just give it a try. You don’t have to live like this,” Miranda called out as the undulating body of the crowd lifted N and carried him away.
Later that week he tried working as a night laborer in a warehouse. He hoisted heavy boxes to precisely waist level and no higher and set them on a conveyor belt. The dreams and colors could not find him to pelt down and flood his body, but despite concentrating on lifting with his legs and not with his back, a few magic words managed to sneak in through his nostrils and ears. “It’s only dust,” he rationalized. The conveyor continued its metered pace like an iambic heartbeat, like a river of commerce — no, no — it continued only as a conveyor belt, he tried to convince himself. That night — morning actually — N drew his blackout curtains and collapsed into bed. His body felt like a solid chunk of granite. When the inspiration found him it was in the form of a million and one tiny insect Michaelangelos. They were determined not to let him rest. They removed from his cognition everything that was not poetry and thus forced him to craft a masterpiece. He could barely lift his arms, so he composed in his head a rhyming, neat, orderly poem on the meaning of gifts traveling through the postal service.
For the first few hours the next day, his inspirations were all at waist level. “This is nice,” he thought, “I can wade instead of swimming.” But soon enough a tsunami came and he found himself thrashing about in want of higher ground or at least a surfboard. He bumped into an old friend named Christine at a coffee shop. It was his favorite coffee shop partly because it was named for a morally righteous book character, and partly for its sense of decor. He liked to appear fashionable and well-read at the same time — all for the price of an Americano! N told Christine about Miranda’s advice.
She wrinkled her brow in disapproval. He was used to surprising people with his eccentricities, but it shocked N to see actual concern on his friend’s face. “That’s your death-drive speaking,” she said.
“I’m not doing anything drastic,” N said. “I’m only trying to get some respite.”
“Your inspiration, that’s a blessing. It’s pure libido — life force — the rainforest leaping out of the ground, the deer and the mountain lions chasing each other across the field, the hunger of all living things to reproduce, the very spark that fuels our existence. It’s the most beautiful thing there is, darling. I don’t know why you would so carelessly throw it away. This is your Thanatos drive. Do you know what that is? It’s a lemming walking off a cliff. A cell expiring. I don’t think this woman is a good influence on you.” She took a sip of her coffee and gave N a knowing look, “You know, some people say Freud was a poet.”
When N thought of death, he thought of a poem that went on and on, that would never end, that would never satisfy. He thought of a centipede that would crawl in through his ear and convert every neuron into a dreadful whisper on an inarticulate tapestry. It was being trapped underground in a coffin with a poem he could never quite hear clearly enough to translate into words. He would know. He’d written tomes and volumes about death — and yet he still hadn’t put a dent into its gray, inevitable eyes. No — Miranda was nothing like death.
N ruminated over his second quad shot macchiato, the frothed cream lighting up his olfactory receptors as an espresso machine whirred and clicked a beautiful song in the background. He was thinking about how quiet his mind had been — how devoid of inspiration — when he had talked to Miranda. A nightingale flew into the immaculate glass window and fell to the concrete outside with a thud, and lay there twitching its tiny feathers helplessly — and just then N was struck by a storm of Miranda. The storm began in gusts that blew his hair out of his carefully curated mullet — business in front, bird nest in the back. The words of wind continued. She made him feel different, as no one else ever had, and in the hob-nob doldrums of infinite inspiration wasn’t any departure from the norm to be cherished? In a moment of clarity he looked around the coffee shop at the people drinking beverages and chatting, and he knew they must all have insight into his internal mind’s voice, and he felt naked and ashamed and absolutely ridiculous. The storm of Miranda picked up a house and dropped it on him. It had a white picket fence and yard with lush grass dotted with only enough dandelions to make a good wish come true. Two cumulonimbus Pomeranians burst from its door to lick his face. “Stop it, stop it, let me up,” he pleaded with them. But they loved him too much. They licked his face with such fervor he worried it might come off entirely and he’d be stuck as a faceless man. And that’s when the storm really picked up. Tornadoes spawned all around N and scooped up everyone around him, replacing them with Miranda’s wind-swept hair. He could crawl in and make a nest. He could sleep, and sleep, and sleep in that wonderful safe haven that had never fallen into abstract, existential horror. He pictured their life together and the winds turned into a hurricane. He saw them growing old and gray and becoming quiet worm-food. He saw their children sprouting as happy flowers with the faces of doctors, teachers, and engineers. He felt his bloodstream glowing gold with numb happiness. “Miranda, Miranda, don’t abandon me,” he muttered. The winds pressure-washed every billboard to replace them with Miranda’s face. Miranda’s lovely face. Miranda’s face of bland, calming honey. The sides of buildings were her laugh — had he ever actually heard her laugh? Everywhere he looked was Miranda. The stars came out and they danced about and each one was another Miranda. His every thought. His every feeling. Miranda. Miranda. He could not deny it any longer. He was in love.
In the city of Sandness, not everyone was particularly happy that everything had become Miranda, but in any case they did not have to worry for all that long. Soon, things returned to poetry. Leaves danced on branches — imbued with whispers of death — and became haiku. Hardly a road led anywhere without circling back in on itself and becoming a sestina. Conversations rhymed without intending to, and the whole city felt invigorated with meaning while secret lovers retreated to their bedrooms to pen illusive sonnets — hot blushes streaking across their faces. Even the dirge-master smiled as he beat his lonesome drum. With so much poetry to be lived-in and experienced people quickly forgot those moments of that storm of Miranda. If they saw a billboard and momentarily frowned, they most likely thought it must be some problem with the meter.
More often than not, N lost his battles against the inspirations. He was lifting boxes, no higher than his waist, no more than fifty pounds without calling for a second pair of hands, when he realized “capitalism” nearly rhymed with “rabbit-Samaritan.” No — “rabid-talisman” — which was even worse. Whether the problem was capitalism or rabid-talisman he didn’t know. But he surveyed around himself and saw the men surrounding him in honest labor, the light pouring down on them from buzzing fluorescent bulbs, their shadows framed on the saw-dust floors like the fossilized skeletons of the first feathered raptors dreaming of how their children would have it better than them — their children would one day fly. It was too much. Humanity was so beautiful he nearly had to pick up his box cutter right there and pluck out his eyes. Storms of Miranda came and went as the week passed. At the gym, while he was being a good hamster on the elliptical machine, right as a poem about exertion nearly composed itself in the morse code of sweat dripping from his forehead, N let down his guard and Miranda rumbled in as tremors that grew to an earthquake. He fled with the bodybuilders — ducking his head in embarrassment — as the Earth opened up and swallowed the free weights and treadmills while a voice echoed, “Become the sort of person who isn’t inspired.”
Contrary to his experience of the actual Miranda: being in love made him even more of a poet, and being a poet made him even more in love.
Miranda tore the sky apart as rolling lightning the next day. The day after that she burned down a strip mall on the outskirts of town when she manifested as a wildfire. N overheated at the mere thought of her abstract existence. He wrote one hundred love poems, and when that did him no good he wrote a song of despair. When Mirandas downpoured as a rain of frogs the citizens of Sandness decided they’d had enough. They assembled in a massive protest outside N’s house — amphibians bouncing from their umbrellas. Picket signs read: “We want poetry,” “Birds are better than love,” “Yes Inspiration, No Miranda,” “Give me back my house I can’t live in a lock of hair.” The crowd stretched for blocks as if it were a long, segmented animal swimming through a slimy sea. Not since N released a volume of protest poetry had he seen such an incensed revolution. At the front of the crowd, directly below N’s bedroom window, the leaders hoisted up Christine’s familiar face. She called to N through a tinny loudspeaker. “I hate to say it — well, I actually love to say it — but I told you so.”
“The transformative power of love can only be a good thing,” N said.
“Look at what it’s doing to our city. Do you think any of these people enjoy having their homes turned into that boring face?”
“I can’t help if my love is a meteor.”
The crowd gasped to see Miranda’s face burning up in the atmosphere on the other side of the mountains. “See, that’s just the sort of irresponsible thing your heart would do. Love doesn’t burn down supermarkets, darling. It’s probably only infatuation. Tell me, don’t you just want to fuck her? Does she remind you of your mother?”
“What do you think I should do?” N asked.
“If you’re not going to give up these silly ideas, the least you could do is to stop taking your heart out on us and actually talk to her.” The crowd nodded at the rationality of the idea as the downpour of Miranda-frogs cleared up. “This seems oedipal. Tell me, have you taken ownership of your penis?” Christine asked, but the crowd had already begun to disperse into groups of rambling narrative poems about the joys and difficulties of ordinary life.
That night the Salon took place inside a dream of Miranda. Doubtlessly it was a heavy-handed gesture, but as always the decision of the Salon’s location came from somewhere buried inside N’s subconsciousness over which he had no actual volition. N was nervous, and on the whole ungrateful that throngs of eager poets — some of the finest in the city — had managed to follow him into the surrealist space. His well of infinite inspiration seemed to him of such miniscule consequence against the stresses of the day, his mounting burden of sleeplessness, the love lost downward spiral of his life, and the now eminent fact that he — whose tongue continually fluttered with a million perfect poems — had no idea what to say to Miranda. If the readers peeled back the meaning of life in revelatory layers over the course of the sandman’s hours, N barely noticed. One poet evoked the loneliness of an isolated blue whale so viscerally the audience felt wrapped in the waves of the wine-dark sea, a solitary song traveling through cold water in vibrations below the human ear’s capacity to hear — deep and unknowable in its pangs of longing. Another poet read three short lines about cherry blossoms and the educational system that could certainly change a person’s life forever. Inside the dream of Miranda the audience roared with enthusiasm. A poet stood in silence for four and a half minutes, but did so with such bravery and intention that it was obvious he had managed to say everything and nothing. N knew, objectively, this surely could go down as his greatest Salon of Experiences yet — the greatest poetry reading in the history of humankind. But he felt disengaged. As he welcomed each maestro of word-cobbling he glanced to the back of the room to see Miranda clapping politely, analyzing the poet’s behavior as a biologist might study a nesting eagle. After N read the final name from his sign-up list and brought the evening to its close, he knew he had to approach her. The crowd parted in tensed breaths to let him through — falling to an anticipatory silence as if this were the poem they had truly been waiting for the entire night.
N pulled a bouquet of wildflowers from behind his back and offered them to his love Miranda who seemed so courteous and distant. On another day the flowers would be a baroque sunrise or a flamenco lament, but he was unable to think of even a single metaphor. So he simply stood there, his mind in quiet yearning, hoping that especially without speaking she would understand his meaning. She reached her hand, but instead of accepting the flowers she pushed them away. “I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s all very sweet. Really, it is. The flowers, this venue, everyone turning into different aspects of my face. I’m sure anyone else might find that to be truly romantic. But you have to understand that’s not me. I’m not a natural disaster. I’m an anti-poet. We’re polar opposites. This could never work.”
Late, late at night, only hours before dawn, a group of one hundred fifty or so eccentrically dressed people stared at a young man holding a bouquet of dandelions. The crowd evaporated as each person went their separate ways and the flowers’ white puffs lifted into the air at a gentle whisper of wind. Soon, everyone else had gone and it was only the young man at the park. He wandered to the children’s play area and climbed to the top of the slide, setting down the spent flowers. He craned his neck to the darkened sky.
The inspirations came for N as they always had. Days ran together as poems vaulted from his throat, but though they were perfect, rampant, gorgeous things, he failed to be stirred by them. He grew out his hair less by intention than by simply ignoring it. When he passed people on the street it no longer brought him fulfillment to parse their intricate, alexandrine stanzas. One night in his meanderings he found himself at a planetarium hidden away in an obscure corner of the community college campus. They were having an open viewing night to raise funds for an astronomy-themed poetry collection, so he ambled in. N knew about the sun, the planets from Mercury to Pluto, a half dozen constellations from the mythologies they represented, and he knew that he was an Aquarius. While the learn’d astronomer lectured about orbits, astronomical units, and black holes N found himself composing a poem for each topic without meaning to. He became frustrated by his inability to pay attention without the incessant inspiration grabbing at his sleeve and tugging him back. The other attendees gasped as the rust-red planet of war morphed into a poem spoken to the beat of a drum as bronze-armored warriors marched to battle beneath the gleaming starlight of polished lance-blades. But N was unimpressed. Why must everything mean? Why can’t it simply be? Good for the stars, he thought, watching from so far away as patient, sleepless hermits — No, he was doing it again. N remained in his seat after everyone else had left. The room darkened, lit only by the exit sign over the door and a red dot that blipped on and off below the power button to the planetarium screen. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the moon had opened up the ceiling to sit down beside him. Its smile was a crater. But it was definitely a smile, slight and bruised though it was. In the sky it had always seemed so massive, but sitting next to N it only took up two seats. It was time they had a talk, wasn’t it?
“Why?” N asked. “Why me?”
Its face remained unchanged, craters cemented into place by celestial collisions thousands and billions of years ago. But as if in response it filled the room with its distant, soft glow. The seats, the projector, the exit sign, all of it was swathed in swirling light. The glow pulsed, and all the things it enveloped throbbed with meaning until they sublimated away and N and the moon stood in an empty amphitheater. Then, after even the amphitheater disappeared, they stood in an empty field. N looked down at himself and saw his own body crawling with that same glow, the little whiskers of radiance penetrating his skin and filling him. He wondered if he should run, but even the thought was limp — its words numb. His body and mind were so light he rose into the sky. A thousand meanings passed through him without sticking. N orbited the Earth. Maybe eons passed. Maybe moments. Specks of dust and fist-sized chunks of rock pelted into his crater-faced companion. “I only ever thought it was a gift,” the moon said. Craters and hills spread as far as he could see and N felt distant from everything, even his own thoughts. N turned his head to look at the Earth.
“So be it then, but there will be no going back to the way things were.”
N fell all the way back to the open arms of the planet.
Years passed. Sandness became like any other city. The Salon of Experiences was no more. Objects ceased proudly bearing the weight of odes. Of course some poetry still lived — thrived even, hidden in libraries and tucked away in the unexplored sections of tired teachers’ syllabi. Occasionally a cafe hosted a poetry night. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe a city can’t stay figurative forever. Poetry’s impact remained in the form of nightingales, the most poetic of birds, that still populated the city in excess. But as time passed biologists surely explained their prominence as the result of ecological factors.
N hadn’t written a poem for a very long time. He kept his window open and gazed at the moon as though it was a very old friend, or perhaps a distant relative he was allowing to look in on him. If, when he slept, an incomprehensible part of himself muttered myths in the language of words between words, he later awakened without giving it another thought. Sometimes on his walk to work he’d look up and notice the clouds drifting, and beauty beyond mortal expression would light like a sparrow on the tip of a taste bud. But it would take flight before he even needed to speak it aloud. It went wherever words go when they die, or where they come from before they are born.
Mark L. Anderson lives and writes in Spokane, Washington. He co-founded the popular Broken Mic spoken word poetry series and has traveled the United States performing at open mics, poetry slams, taverns, coffee shops, and libraries. From 2017 to 2019 he served as Spokane’s poet laureate. His first book, Scarecrow Oracle, was published by Korrektiv Press in 2022.
One thought on “In Pentameters of Rain”
Oh the curse of being a besotted poet! This is beautifully fanciful and at times deliriously silly, like a children’s story. We get carried through Sandness image to image.
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