Spring reading at Bennington College

Charles Simic is reading aloud. His voice is gentle, wry, low and humorous, and he peoples the room with well-dressed men with no shoes, the late-night water at a Chinese restaurant, an old sailor pouring coffee for a young man with a book of philosophy and empty pockets. From his introduction the room has been leaning forward and laughing.

It’s a squarish hall, a one-room building apparently made to hold a steep slide of soft benches. The outer walls are dark brown like cedar shakes, and broad windows in the back wall give it a feeling of being open to the air. I’m at Bennington College on the first warm night of spring, listening to a poem about a dictionary of angels that no one has read in 50 years.

It feels extraordinary. It’s spring. After a week of 40-degree drizzle, the sun came out. I woke early to the sound of a man cranking a scaffolding up the wall under my window — the house painters had arrived to turn today into the kind of comedy that should involve bowler hats, marching bands and men carrying plate glass. I walked out the door this afternoon to find three chickens scratching in the front lawn. Around the corner and along the river path (where I stumbled yesterday on the meeting of the Green River and the Hoosic) the violets have come out and the young ferns are shin high.

Professor Simic tells us he has written very few spring poems, because he lives in New Hampshire, where spring tends to last about three days. Our weather is not so far from the Great Bay, and we’ve hit those days — that brief, magic time when the leaves are opening damply and the sky shows through. It’s hard to stay indoors.

And I have been indoors almost constantly, these last two weeks. I’m typing calendar and pulling together roundups for the summer magazine. These last two days I’ve been making phone calls about summer theater and writing stories that will run in strawberry season. Summer is coming, and it’s carrying me along inthe rush. But tonight I Ieft the house.

As I drove north, I thumbed a CD into the player. My brother’s college a cappella group held its 21st reunion in April, and my family gathered up a few copies of their new Greatest Hits album. The first solo came on, Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and the voice is Sung Kim’s. He was in my first-year entry. I heard that song live 20 years ago.

As I sit here in the spring night, Professor Simic tells us that he first came to Bennington in the 1960s, and I am remembering the workshop when he taught me, 10 years back now. I was at UNH, working on my MFA in fiction, and I had come into his class feeling uneasily that the poetry I wanted to write didn’t seem to make sense to anyone else. With blunt kindness (and kind bluntness), he turned that impression topside. He won’t remember, but I always will, his condensed comment on the last assignment I turned in: Keep writing.

He is reading quietly, easily reaching the back of the room. And it blends together: the mild night, the attention in the room, the young man stretching two rows down in a loose shirt, the tensile strength in the lines. He is reading the click of glass beads in a curtain over a restaurant door, empty streets, old friendships, wakefulness and loneliness. And then, in the last line, the shadow of a house plant moves on the wall “with what looked to me like wild joy.”

Walking through campus at sunset, looking up at a blossoming cherry and the delicate shapes of hemlock cones overhead, I thought yes — that’s the right word.


Photo at the top: Spring evening light reflects in the windws of a New England-style building on the Bennington College campus. Photo by Kate Abbott

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