Having Frank Gaspar out to Knox for a reading last week was like that. I know planet earth is in big trouble, but sometimes, despite so much suffering, the universe comes full circle, and a student and her teacher become colleagues, officially, inasmuch as she can officially offer him an honorarium for his reading, fly him out on her college's budget, and introduce him to her own poetry students.
--Nothing short of a miracle considering she'd never seen a poet before she met him at a writers' conference twelve years ago, her first conference, and not one she was actually attending, but one held at the community college where she took classes and worked a few workstudy hours, which is what she was doing there, making coffee, running errands, handling cash. The conference director offered her a fifteen-minute conference with Frank Gaspar the Poet if she agreed to go get him a hamburger; the director offered him a hamburger if he agreed to look at this kid's poems and meet with her for fifteen minutes. The kid was a pre-pharmacy major, not a serious writer. The Poet said at the end of their fifteen minutes: take care and send me some poems if you want to, which is what you say to people when you mean it but doubt it will happen.
And the kid got a lot years out of that hamburger, though it was Meg, the conference director, who ran that errand.
So: though it could not be done, a feast beyond hamburgers was called for. She cooked all week for the post-reading dinner she held at her place, invited the entire department and several advisees, fed them tamales, chicken mole, Spanish rice, pintos, guacamole, all the wine they could drink, and had not a doubt in the world that her mole would seduce even the vegetarians in the room to eat it, which it did, though everything else on the table arose from vegetable love.
Mole is exquisite and Aztec old. It took three days to prepare this time. I boiled six chicken breasts (bones and skin are necessary) in water with garlic, onion, white wine, apple juice, fresh ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, oregano, and salt, to make stock. Poured off the stock, set it aside, and removed the skin from the breasts.
Softened dried red chilies--three varieties--in warm water, removed stems, veins, and seeds, then set them to boil in some of the chicken stock with more cloves and more ginger until they were nearly fluid and ready to puree. Added red wine. Poured the whole pot into the blender and made a red chili smoothie. Then the hard part: worked the contents of the blender through a medium mesh strainer, discarded anything that wouldn't go through or wouldn't be ground.
Toasted a couple of pounds of almonds, pecans, walnuts, and Spanish peanuts in the oven for a few minutes to bring out the oils. Sauteed half a sweet potato in oil, thin slices of it cooked through, then put everything in the blender with more chicken stock and a few animal crackers and pureed that mixture too. Worked it through the mesh, also. Further blended whatever didn't mesh, and put it through the sieve again and again.
Then, in the biggest sauce pan I've been able to find, I combined the chili smoothie and the nut shake, and let the whole thing simmer on low all day, stirring vigilantly, and let it reduce and thicken into the wonderful robust color and texture of stuff you don't pour, but spoon. Added several ounces of semi-sweet chocolate. When the whole thing looked like the dark red mud I miss from home, I spooned heaps of it on top of the chicken breasts and slid them into the oven where they baked on low for a couple of hours.
The students showed early and nervously took up the couch and chairs in the living room. They put on music and lit candles and talked to each other. By the time my colleagues arrived, it was clear we'd need to find another place to sit and eat, so we sat on the floor close to the dining room and felt comfortable and close and somewhat mystified that the students didn't invite us in, though we teased Andy into handing us pillows from the stack on the floor beside him.
When a reading goes well, the party does too. The students left, but the rest of us stayed and took over their living room and talked, mostly about teaching. Friends took Frank back to his hotel room, thankfully, for I hadn't been to bed at all the night before. I crashed.
Today, a week later, I'm still washing some of those wine glasses.
On Saturday, the day after the reading, Frank and I went pouring through the antique shops here in town. We talked; we looked through several glass cases on the first floor of the Antique Mall before discovering a little wooden plaque, six by eleven, a Byzantine Madonna seated and lone, though labeled "Annunciation." No angel in sight. He saw her first. He said: wow, look at that. I said: god she's beautiful, I want her, but I'll bet she's expensive. We both held our breath. He walked around the back of her case to get a look at her price tag; I stared at her gold leaf halo and tried to place her. When he came back around I said: she's spinning, I think. And he looked at her again, closely, said: There are a lot of Madonnas in the novel I'm writing right now. I've seen a lot of Madonnas. You have too, I'm sure. But I've never seen one spinning.
So he bought the Madonna for fifteen bucks, and now I'm looking right at her. Spinning.
I wrote him:
I did a little research on Our Lady. Apparently Mary is thought to have
been spinning purple wool when the angel arrived. Here's a link that
gives you some of the textual sources.
Anyway, because I didn't realize right away that you'd given me
another annnnunciation, I didn't think to tell you
that the year I left Cornell and came here, I kept a
moleskine journal filled with every depiction of the
annunciation I could find and I filled it up with
writing Zali says I should make into my next book
(don't know about that..). I was thinking hard about
what it means believe that the universe makes
announcements. (You want to go to Smith? Okay, go to
Smith. You want to go to Cornell? Yes, that's in the
plan, go to Cornell. You want a job? Okay, but the one
we have for you is in the midwest and far from the
desert...it's a sacrifice, but your fate...) And I was
thinking I needed to dump my mother's divine child
theory ("The universe has a special plan for you,
Ginita") because it was killing me, making a martyr of
me. And I was thinking I needed to stop looking in the
mail for some sign of what my life is doing: did I
publish another poem, did I get a job offer, did
I win a prize for teaching? etc.
So I couldn't help but be drawn to her, you know, when
we saw her, but it's weird: that journal was about
fighting these superstitious impulses to find
something cosmic at work. About realizing that while
I'm not religious, I am easily moved by coincidence,
and easily shaken by it because I am a skeptic about
nearly everything too. And now you give me another
annunciation to look at: the angel is not yet in
sight, she is spinning, and her life is still the
mystery mine is, yours is. And but for that thread in
her hands, she has no purpose. She is free.
Except that she is always already haloed and dressed
in gold leaf and red and blue robes--