From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
The Smell, or Why I Write Poetry
We have an over-the-john cabinet where I store extra rolls of toilet tissue. My wife also stores her nail polish stuff as well as extra bars of Dove brand soap there. Whenever I buy more paper and restock the little cabinet, I get the whiff of Dove, maybe mixed with acetone, maybe not, but it is exactly the smell my Grandmother Brown’s little over-the-john cabinet emitted 30 years ago in her little house on Santa Clara in Jackson, Mississippi. The smell reminds me of her bathroom, the thick cushy throw rug and the old tub without a shower, and how I struggled to bath and rinse because we had showers at home. Then I remember many years later staying with my friends in Pensacola, Florida, Mike Quinn and Debra Bond, whose house in Easthill was a hundred years old and had been built in sections from a tiny cottage to a pretty decent sized house, and they had an old cast iron tub with no shower and I struggled with the same issues there, but I loved every minute at both my grandmother’s house and at my friend’s house. I remember the warmth of the thick rug, as I shivered and dried off in the cold bathroom. The cold was tempered from the warm steamy air from the bath, but it was always winter when we went to the house in Jackson. Outside the bathroom door was a floor furnace, but the heat did not travel into the closed bathroom.
There is a certain time of morning when the light seeps behind the vertical slats over our giant glass sliding doors that is pretty close to the way the light would come in around my uncle’s slider in their den when I would stay over on Churchill Drive in Montgomery, Alabama and my cousins and I would “camp out” in the den until my uncle awoke us with the sounds of breakfast being made in the kitchen.
There are sounds and sights and smells that take me on journeys to places only I have ever been, from the tannic acid/sweat mix smell of my dad coming home about late dark on a summer afternoon from his work on pecan trees, to the way a certain clanging of a metal pipe, reminds me of the catamaran I owned over 30 years ago. There are the sounds and smells of the old screen door on the back porch and the shiny black paint we painted it with and how it was a shiny coat over many, many layers of painted wood. These are the things that drive my writing. I don’t often write about them. But it is the sense that I will not be here forever, and all these moments will die with me, unless I can capture some of them as poetry.
I had an unpleasant exchange with an English teacher from Utah, who was busy promoting the “clever” bromide that “Originality” was the greatest sin, because it encourages the impossible and usually only leads to bad writing. When I pointed out to him the flaws in his logic, he insisted I didn’t know what I was talking about. The flaws, as I see them, are this: 1) the theory that there is nothing new under the sun goes back what 3000 years, before we knew 90% of what we know today, so to assume every thought had been thought, every image had been painted, every word had been written, is preposterous on its face. To assume primitive man had already drawn everything on the walls of a cave that was to come, that the Odyssey is more than Shakespeare, more than Faulkner and Joyce, more than Kafka, and Doerr, and Kingsolver and Morrison, but more importantly, one would have to hold that Homer was only a rip off artist of someone who came before. 2) One has to assume the first man was just copying the mammal that preceded him. That the greatest literature was possible written by our great-grand mother Eve, though we have no evidence she ever wrote a single word.
I do get that we are all influenced by so many people, places, events and words written and spoken, but to say, “there is nothing new under the sun.” is as trite as it is arrogant, as it is stupid.
Does any of my poetry rise to originality? I cannot judge that. Maybe you can, or maybe not. I do not write to be original. I write a poem to capture my experience, to capture the thing in front of me, at the moment, even if I am only seeing something from 50 years ago.
I may never write a poem about my grandmother’s bathroom, though I have written poems about bathrooms, and I have written a poem about her and the hallway just outside the bathroom door, but these are the things that drive me, the things I struggle to capture and leave behind, like so many butterflies pinned on a board. I hope you or someone else will come along and admire them and be thrilled to see a long extinct insect pinned in perfection in a glass case, but if not, it gives me a hope, no matter how pointless and unrealistic, that I am saving a tiny bit of the world I know and sharing it forward to those who can never know the world in which I lived.
I sent the piece you've just read to my professor, Al Filreis. He is the head of Poetry for the University of Pennsylvannia. I have been taking a free poetry class from him for the past five years (ModPo, or Modern and Contemporary American Poetry). I highly recommend it for EVERYONE!
He doesnt write much poetry that I can gather, he is a critic and a student of language, and especially of poetry. He understands what I do a lot better than I do.
I was hoping to get some sense of how badly I had missed the mark. Instead he responded that I should "write the poem." Of course, it could be that he wrote that to be polite, because I was so far in the woods, there was no help, I don't know, but I took him up on it, so here it is:
For my Seventh Birthday
I got my last dead grandpa,
I saw daddy cry.
By most accounts,
my first dead grandpa
was a saint.
I mostly remember
And folks, including
my last grandma,
who will never quite be dead,
thought my last grandpa was a jerk.
He doted on us grandkids
we all missed him,
my grandma lived alone
in the little green house
on the farm
by the big pond.
I guessed her lonely
though she never said
not to me,
within two years
she married her
high school sweetheart
and became Grandma Brown
This is not the story of my dead grandpas,
and come to think of it, I had three.
The last, JB Brown, she buried, too,
but lived in his little house
on Santa Clara in Jackson
until she died.
This is about smell of soap.
Grandma Brown had one hall bathroom
as old houses do
outside a floor furnace,
almost burned bare feet.
The bathroom, unheated,
save steamy bathwater,
but a plush rug
spared one when drying.
of golden plastic
held spare tissue and soap
there, between the soft imagery
of nude children bathing
the aroma blossomed in heavy air
a sweet perfume of ladies soap
in a small boy’s nose
All the grandpa’s and grandma’s have been dead a generation, the houses, too
the lone remainder is the smell
and when I die it will be gone
for no one else alive will remember
standing cold and clean in the little Santa Clara house in Jackson, feeling the chill, the softness of the rug, steamy little prints faded from years of moisture, the coldness of the floor off the rug, the burn and cut of the furnace as one trod across to a bedroom to dress.
This painting, I hold in my head, of smells and memories and touches of cold and hot, locket size, fits only in my mind, if I can share it, maybe someday, someone, long after I am gone will and know what an old man knows, what a small boy knew, a thing that was wholly good, a thing to hold a lifetime, after bodies have rotted, after bulldozers smash old houses, after the air has become too polluted to breathe, in some place, where the world I knew is almost forgotten, maybe someone will see and smell whatever soap they have and imagine they can remember steamy air turning to cold and feel of the towel,
out to the furnace and on swiftly as it burns and cuts, to the cool dark bedroom to dress warmly to go out with the cousins and play down by the creek in the cold Christmas air.
For my Grandma Brown, and the amazing Al Filreis who never got to meet her.
(It is hard to express how much I dislike long poems, as I am a firm believer if you need more than 100 words, you need an editor or another poem, but I cannot manage to make this any shorter than 448 words.)