Photograph of the poet W. B. Yeats wearing small round eyeglasses
[ Photograph of W. B. Yeats by Alice Boughton (Whyte's) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. ]

The Poet’s Progress

Declan expects Byron Appleby to be a middle-aged, rumpled Englishman wearing worn cords, a hairy tweed jacket and smelling of pipe tobacco. But Byron is young, probably in his mid-thirties, and looks more like a member of an elite military unit than a poet. He has the etched features of a movie star, wears olive green cargo pants and muscles bulge beneath his black t-shirt as he leaps on to the small stage at the Queen Street pub his agent has chosen for this Toronto event.

Declan would never admit it to Sylvia – who sits beside him, shifting restlessly with anticipation – but he doesn’t get the point of poetry. He can never share the pleasure she gets from the tight assembly of words, the rhythm of phrases presented in lyrical form. To his way of thinking, if you want insight, prose gets the job done with greater clarity. Coming to a reading has become a form of torment, a reminder that his lack of enthusiasm for poetry is the seismic crack which lurks beneath the surface of their relationship.

Tonight, he’s even more disheartened by the ad in NOW magazine which promises, “An unforgettable night as a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Byron Appleby, assaults Toronto with his poetic pyrotechnics.”

After two months of dating Sylvia, Declan has been exposed to enough readings to recognize that the description “poetic pyrotechnics” suggests this event will be more performance than reading. Declan prepares himself by downing three pints of Guinness in rapid succession and now feels a pleasant, warm buzz.

The lights dim and Byron Appleby launches into a diatribe of works that are simple and declarative, with titles like, Fuck It and Life is Shit.

Fuck It consists of the expletive repeated over and over, with Byron’s Lancashire accent adding an extra smack to the words. First in a slow rhythm, voice kept low and sad, then speeding up and rising to a more ecstatic tone as Byron builds to a crescendo. He shouts and sobs, shimmies and squirms, hips thrusting like a rock star, his face dripping with sweat, collapsing on his knees to the floor at the finale as if he had just performed an athletic sexual act.

The audience hoots and howls, swept up in the sheer energy of the performance.

Declan has to admit, if nothing else, Byron has their attention.

“Bit over the top,” he mutters to Sylvia.

“Yes,” she whispers back, her eyes never leaving the stage. “But so primal.”

Declan likes Sylvia to use words like primal. It suggests an earthier Sylvia, a signpost to something deeply erotic beneath her neat, perfect appearance that makes his body fizz with longing for what lies ahead in her apartment later that night. He just wishes she had not said it to describe another man.

He could have declined her invitation to come here tonight, but he would never refuse an opportunity to spend time with her. To say he is in love doesn’t describe his feelings. It’s more like an obsession – a complete and willing subjugation of his being, an addiction akin to crack cocaine. With Sylvia, he feels complete. Without her, his grip on reality breaks loose, his body twitches and all he can think about is that blood-pumping moment when he will see her again, hold her close and breathe in the sweet, apricot smell of her skin.

Tonight, she has ditched her contact lenses and wears round, wire-rimmed glasses that only draw more attention to her extreme prettiness – a heart-shaped face, wavy chestnut hair that falls to her shoulders and eyes the color of toasted walnuts. He leans back in his chair and studies the way the curve of her upper lip fits perfectly into the lower, the small, straight nose that barely carries the weight of her glasses.

Sylvia assumes that anyone born in Ireland is instinctively a poet, so on the day they met – when Declan asked for directions at Bloor and Yonge and told her he had just arrived from Dublin – she took it for granted he would be steeped in the verse of his birthplace. He had mistakenly reinforced this impression by quoting Yeats when she asked him about growing up in the city that spawned the 1916 Easter Rising.

“Ah yes, a terrible beauty,” he had said, citing one of the few snippets of poetry that had ever lodged permanently in his brain, and that had more to do with contemporary Irish politics than history. “A terrible beauty, indeed,” his father would say whenever the government annoyed him and he wanted to comment on the venality of politicians.

But Sylvia’s eyes had lit up and she recited in a breathless voice, “All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born. William Butler Yeats. My favorite lines from my favorite poet. So precise, so prescient. Such a wonderful way to describe the birth of Irish independence.”

“A lot of people died on the way to that independence,” said Declan. “And it didn’t stop after the Rising. English and Irish killing each other and then the Irish turning on themselves in the civil war after independence. It was terrible all right. I just don’t know how Yeats could have seen any beauty in it.”

But once he had uttered the phrase, there was no going back. Add Declan’s soft Dublin accent and Sylvia was smitten with this blue-eyed, dark-haired Irishman she believed would become her soulmate for a life bathed in literature.

He too is smitten and lies awake on the nights he’s not sleeping with her, listening to the rumble of trucks on the highway outside the window of his dingy rented room, a dread stalking his consciousness – a fear that one day Sylvia will realize her attraction to him is just a shooting star of desire, fueled by her romantic notions about the country of his birth, and doomed to flame out when she discovers he is not the well-read Irishman she takes him for.

Declan has a degree in geography from Trinity College Dublin, a course that requires no grasp of literature other than to write a coherent sentence. He does, however, know that gasoline made from Middle-East oil is cheaper to refine than any other. But there is no demand for that kind of information at EasiGas, the 24-hour service station he works at on Keele Street near York University. By keeping the details vague, Declan has led Sylvia to believe this full-time employment is only part-time and the days and nights he can’t be with her are spent studying for a master’s degree at York, at the campus in the suburbs too far from her downtown orbit to actually visit.

Declan suspects that Sylvia’s love for him has blinded her to the flaws in his story, perhaps some instinct making her back away from delving too closely. She is taking her MA in twentieth century English literature at the University of Toronto and pays for this by working at a restaurant favored by downtown executives on expense accounts who try to impress Sylvia by leaving large tips. It’s a place Declan could never afford, but he likes to walk in and pretend he’s looking for friends, just to see her dressed in the closely fitting black pants and white shirt that accentuate her small-breasted, sapling figure as she flits between tables.

Byron Appleby wraps up his performance with some re-workings of Shakespeare – Romeo, Romeo, where the fuck are you? And, To be or not to be. Who gives a shit?

The mangling of some of the most revered lines in literature raises laughs in the audience and even Declan is amused by Byron’s audacity.

When it’s all over, Byron bows deeply, wipes his face with a towel he retrieves from the table on the edge of the stage and steps down into the throng of admirers – mostly female – who gather around him.

“Back in a moment,” says Sylvia and heads towards him, waving the ad in Now for Byron to sign.

Declan notices the way Byron draws a sharp intake of breath when he sees Sylvia, a reaction he has observed in many men when they first meet her. It used to make Declan jealous, but once he realized she likes male attention but only has eyes for him, he began to look forward to the disappointed look in her new admirer’s face when Sylvia introduced Declan as her boyfriend.

He watches Byron and Sylvia speak, how Byron leans toward her as if he is confiding. They look over in his direction. What are they saying? He signals to the server and orders another Guinness for himself and a glass of white wine for Sylvia.

“Byron’s mother was born in Dublin,” she announces when she arrives at their table with Byron.

He nods, shakes Declan’s hand and sits, frowning at his half-empty glass of mineral water with a brown-streaked slice of lime floating in it.

“Why don’t you get rid of that stuff and let me buy you something worth drinking,” says Declan, waving his Guinness.

“Best suggestion I’ve heard all night, mate,” says Byron and places his glass on the table. “I don’t drink alcohol when I’m performing, so I keep my throat lubricated with water. Right now, I’d give anything for a pint.” He fixes Declan with a steady gaze. “By the way, what did you think of the show?”

Declan searches for words that are diplomatic. “Well…”

“Pure shite, wasn’t it?” says Byron and laughs at Declan’s startled reaction. “Load of rubbish.” He looks relieved, as if a veil has lifted.

“Sylvia thought it was primal,” says Declan.

“Did you, now?” Byron looks amused as Sylvia blushes. “That’s the whole idea. It’s supposed to be a visceral experience. Keep it moving with all those fucks and shits, brutalize the Bard of Avon and hope people won’t realize it’s just a meaningless babble.”

“But isn’t that the point?” says Sylvia, looking at him intently. “You’ve created a verbal metaphor for the meaning of life. We drift along from day to day without thinking about where we’re going, what it’s all for. All that time filled with noise, that babble you just mentioned, the distractions of daily life. Then, one day, it’s over. Finished.”

Byron is impressed. “Thank you. I’ll remember to say that next time some snotty reviewer confronts me in an interview.”

“If poetry is a way to interpret experience, then what you do fits the definition,” says Sylvia. “Poetry is supposed to evoke emotion, not suppress it.”

Declan listens to them bat their points back and forth. This is the kind of English Lit Speak that Sylvia loves and she’ll go on all night unless he intervenes. He points to the ad in NOW. “It says here you’re a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

“Absolutely true,” says Byron. He nods in the direction of the crowded tables around them. “Gets them in the tent, doesn’t it? The RSC taught me how to perform, but I was going nowhere. No Hamlet or Romeo for me. I had to face the fact I’m just an actor of limited talent from Blackburn, Lancashire. After ten years, I realized there were only so many times you can play Rosencrantz or Guildenstern and the only way to break out of that was to come up with something of my own.”

Declan nods politely. He has heard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but can’t remember which play they appear in. Hamlet or Macbeth? Or maybe King Lear? He is saved from revealing his ignorance by the arrival of Byron’s Guinness.

“Nothing like a pint of stout,” says Byron. “Even this far away from the Liffey.”

Slainte,” says Declan and raises his own glass.

“Do you miss Ireland?” asks Byron.

“Not since I met Sylvia,” says Declan and is rewarded with a look of pure adoration. “But that was luck. The reason I came here was to find work. The Celtic Tiger is dead and gone and the prospects of employment for someone like me back home are non-existent. Thanks to a cousin in Vancouver, I got a temporary visa and joined the huddled masses at Dublin airport.” He smiles as Sylvia. “But this young lady distracted me and I never made it farther west than Toronto.”

“He works part-time near York University because he’s taking a master’s there,” adds Sylvia. “I’m taking one too, but at the University of Toronto. Nice coincidence, eh?”

“Too perfect,” says Byron and smiles at both of them. From someone else, the words might sound insincere, but there’s no trace of sarcasm in Byron’s voice. He seems genuinely awed to meet two people so deeply in love.

“By the way,” says Sylvia, reaching out to touch Declan’s hand. “Yesterday, my manager said there were some jobs coming up at the restaurant and did I know anyone who might be interested. I gave him your name and he said to call him. It’s a good place to work. With tips, you’d make a lot more money than at the gas station, enough to move out of that depressing excuse for accommodation you’re living in at the moment.” She strokes the back of his hand. “Maybe we’d have enough between us to get our own place.”

Declan feels a surge of panic. He’d love to live with Sylvia, but he knows that all that shared time would soon expose the sham of his academic pursuits.

“We can talk about it later,” says Sylvia. “But first, a bathroom break.” She stands up and heads to the back of the room.

“Lovely,” says Byron, watching the sway of hips in her tight blue jeans. “You’re a lucky man. And it looks like your relationship is about to enter a new phase.” He pauses and stares intently at Declan. “But you don’t look very happy about it. In fact, I’d say you look positively stricken.”

“Living with Sylvia is not the problem,” says Declan, meeting Byron’s stare. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better. The problem is, I haven’t been totally honest with her.”

He never thought the conversation would take this intimate, personal turn, but he feels comfortable with Byron’s easy-going manner, his lack of pretension. With no male friends in Canada to confide in, Declan finds it surprisingly easy to confess his fears.

“The big problem for me is that Sylvia thinks everyone from Ireland is a budding writer and we’re all familiar with the great authors. For sure, I studied them at school, but it’s all a blur. I’ve always been a skimmer – just learning enough to get me through an exam. None of it sticks in my mind except a few lines from Yeats I quoted to her when we met. I have a degree in Geography, not English. And that business about taking an MA at York is a lie. I just said it to impress her, make her feel we had things in common. When we’re living together, she’ll figure that out pretty fast and realize I’m one big phony.”

“You’re going to have come clean with her, my friend. Tell her the truth. If she really loves you… and it sure looks like she does… she’ll forgive you.”

“Sometimes, I think she’s already guessed,” says Declan. “She never asks me about the courses I’m supposed to be taking. She must have noticed I don’t say much when we get together with her friends and the conversation turns to literature. I can bluff a bit, nod in agreement and mutter something vague about someone making a good point. But the day either she, or one of those friends, asks me a direct question I can’t dodge is coming fast. And living together will only make that question come faster.”

“We all have to face up to who we really are.” Byron sips his Guinness and his hazel eyes take on a wistful look. “I make a living from these kitschy shows, and it comes with some perks.” He smiles at the attractive woman sitting with her friends at another table who has been trying to catch his eye. “I really can’t complain, but it’s not what I would have chosen.” His voice becomes quieter and his face looks older. “I took my small talents and coddled them into something that allows me to perform. But it’s a far cry from the RSC. You have no idea how hard it was to see younger actors with the magic touch I didn’t have snatch away the roles I thought I was destined to play. So here I am. You, on the other hand, are only starting. You still have the time to discover what you really want to do. And you’ve got that gorgeous girl to help you. Don’t fuck it up.”

Before Declan can answer, Sylvia arrives back at their table.

“You two look as if you’re having a heavy discussion. Can I join in?”

“We’re talking about launching your lover’s literary career,” says Byron and winks at Declan.

“We are?”

Sylvia’s eyes flash excitedly. “Like all writers, he just has to find the voice to express himself.”

“Precisely,” says Byron.

“But how?” says Declan. “I’ve never written anything.”

“It’s all there in your genes,” says Sylvia. “The way the Irish have layered the sounds and structure of their own language onto English to create something unique. Prose or poetry, there’s a writer inside you. You just have to let him come out.”

“But where do I find inspiration?”

“She’s sitting right beside you,” says Byron. He gives Declan a conspiratorial look. “Who needs an MA when you’re in love with the best kind of inspiration a man can have?”

“But apart from you, Sylvia, my life is so dull,” says Declan. “No great historical moments to drive me on, none of the turmoil that people like Yeats lived through.”

“You don’t need the sweep of history to write,” says Sylvia with a note of surprise in her voice. “Some of the best literature comes from the small details in life. Look at Ulysses. A bunch of everyday events Joyce turned into a masterpiece. Look at T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J.S. Prufock, a man of self-proclaimed distant emotions who became one of literature’s most vivid characters. You must have come across other examples in your studies.” She frowns at him and Declan feels a surge of panic.

Sitting in his booth at EasiGas a few nights later, he can’t shake the memory of that tone of suspicion in her words. Business is slow and there isn’t much to do except watch the occasional customer pull up in front of a pump, fill their tank and hand him cash or a credit card with barely a word.

Everything in this part of Toronto looks utilitarian – tarmac and concrete, sharp-angled cinder block buildings and the bluish glow of neon from the gas station splashing out onto the street. He feels diminished, a human being stripped of identity in the midst of urban bleakness.

As the night reaches that limbo just before daybreak and the early September air turns colder, Declan wishes he was in bed with Sylvia, the warmth of her naked body beside him, listening to the soft sigh of her breath as she sleeps, and his mind begins to drift.

He watches the way the neon washes away the color of the few cars on the street, turning them to grey ghosts. They swish by as if they barely exist.

Two words start playing in his head.

      Night neon.

He rolls them around, adding three more.

      Night neon bleaches the soul.

He says them out loud and scribbles them quickly on the cash ledger as whole phrases leap into his mind.

      Up here on Keele Street,

      In the shadow of the nowhere hours,

     Night neon bleaches the soul to winter grey

     Before the autumn solstice.

The gloomy tone surprises him, as if the words had come out of someone else’s imagination. There’s something frightening about them too, something dark that bubbled up from his subconscious mind, something he never knew was there and he wants it to go away. He tears the sheet off the ledger, crumples it up to throw in the trash, then changes his mind and puts it in his jacket pocket.

What would Sylvia say about his scribbling? Would she call those words poetry, or laugh and call them the blather that comes from a tired brain in the dead of night?

It’s a question he can’t answer. Maybe it’s a question he shouldn’t ask. Maybe he is just a blue-eyed lad from Dublin with no obvious talents beyond enchanting a beautiful young woman with a quote from Yeats. Maybe that’s all he has to be.