H. Palmer Hall
A Story about an Old Woman and Poetry


1.

I had been teaching a small workshop at a medical center. Eight rather small, one-floor buildings surround a large pond filled with water lilies and a stone fountain. The buildings were all labeled: Counseling Center, Substance Abuse Center, Hospice, Special School, Chapel, Cafeteria, Reconciliation Center, Administration. The grounds were always bright green, well-manicured, with pecan, ash and live oak trees. I enjoyed walking through the area on breaks from class and sitting near the pond for a few minutes each evening after teaching.

I first saw her on a Monday evening. She sat on one of the wooden benches positioned half-way between the fountain and the hissing sound of the pump that recirculated the water. Mostly, she stared into the water apparently lost in thought. From where I stood, she appeared to be in her seventies, perhaps an ambulatory resident of one of the treatment centers. Or she might have been tired from visiting a grand child in one of the other centers.

She was an attractive woman. Tall, elegant, she wore long pants and a windbreaker, tennis shoes. That first evening I saw her, she took one shoe off and extended her foot down into the water. I enjoyed watching her. She held on to a cedar post supporting an arbor that extended over much of the pond and delicately dipped her toes into the cool water. That moment stuck with me for some reason beyond the physical act.

2.

A few days later, I saw her again. She sat quietly near the same pond. Apparently lost in thought, her eyes looked upwards into tree limbs losing their leaves in the summer heat. She whispered something, but I was too far away to hear. After a few minutes, she stood up and walked back across the campus into the hospice.

I sat down on what I was beginning to consider her bench. The pond was noisy: the gurgling of the water spilling over the rock fountain, the wheezing of the pump. From time to time one of the many white-tailed doves that drank from the pond would stand nearby and lower its head down to the pond to drink. From where I sat I could see the reflection of the trees, the sky, birds on the still surface of the water.

3.

When I taught again the next night and walked out onto the quadrangle, she was already there. I sat down on a bench on the other side of her pond and pretended to read from a book of poems. She walked around the pond and stood behind me. "What are you almost reading?" she asked.

I looked up at her. "Almost?"

"You've been watching me."

"Yeats."

"I love Yeats. Why have you been watching me?"

She had a soft voice, but not weak. The voice I had thought she would have. "I don't know," I said. "I teach poetry at the school two nights a week. It's a form of therapy for the substance abuse patients. And I walk out here afterwards. I happened to see you."

"Lost," she said. "We are all lost here. In one way or another. It's beautiful, but it isn't real. Why do you watch me?"

I almost laughed. This is what I would have expected of her, a kind of odd flirtatiousness, a directness hinted at by that toe she had dipped into the water.

"Because you're beautiful," I said.

She laughed. "Perhaps. You've read Stevens? 'Sunday Morning'? The part about the ripe fruit needing to fall? If I am beautiful, then that's the reason."

And this is how I had thought she would talk, moving from one thought to another, dropping poetry into the conversation.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"That doesn't matter. I'm dying," she said. "Throat cancer. Too many cigarettes over too many years. Do you know that Yeats poem about the fisherman?"

"Yes."

"You remember, he says 'Before I am old I shall have written him one poem maybe as cold and passionate as the dawn." That's what I want."

4.

I didn't see her again at the center. The term ended and the Substance Abuse Center gave up on poetry. But I think of her often and see her standing there stretching her foot down to the pond and quoting Stevens or Yeats. I never learned her name but she was right. That doesn't matter.