Article: 19930401082

Title: The Visiting Poet

The Visiting Poet
HMH Publishing Co., Inc.
beautiful, willing students come and go from the bed of the visiting poet, jill was certain to changeall that
Mark Winegardner

beautiful, willing students come and go from the bed of the visiting poet, jill was certain to changeall that

Until now, Murtaugh has lived life amassing the sort of history, carriage and mystique that makes blooming, disaffected women imagine themselves in bed with him. This is no easy job. At its expense, checkbooks go unbalanced and student poems go unread. Upkeep on his rented lodgings goes unkept. Phone calls to his daughters go unmade. Calls from them go unreturned. He does mean well. He loves his daughters and displays their pictures. When Tracy and Annie visit, he pulls out all the stops: movies, theme parks, concerts, ball games, rafting, skiing. He is that best and worst of divorced fathers: Mr. Entertainment.

Perhaps--even after the harassment scandal, even after his younger daughter stood hatless in a spring snowstorm and begged him to grow up--he hasn't changed. This year he took his usual one-year gig at a small college in a small town, where he stars (even at his age) in the usual lunchtime faculty basketball game and where he has the usual classrooms full of Christinas.

That's who takes poetry workshops at pricey church-run schools. Transpose the eighth and ninth letters and what irony! Willowy Christinas, dressed in black, with too much makeup or none at all. Vegetarians. (continued on page 100)visiting Poet(continued from page 95) Recyclers. Smokers. A Christina without the code would be a mere Shannon or Julie, those wholesome diarists who round out his classes, even the prettiest of whom accept their fates as taxpayers and yard-tending neighbors. Christinas are outside time. They exude uninjured, tragic beauty. They are the hippest young women at the squarest old schools, a plight from which Murtaugh offers brief deliverance.

Responsible people might see Murlaugh's life as a dangerous relic of another era. But that's part of it: Christinas like to shock themselves. He beds two or three of them a year. Sometimes one, rarely four, never five. So far, never zero. The Christinas find Murtaugh as tragic as he finds them, though their sense of tragic is forged by TV, which they claim never to watch. But in bed he gets them to sing the theme song to The Brady Bunch. Never yet has one failed to know the words. A sad thing, this, but he and the Christina laugh. He rests a hand on the lovely dent below her buttocks. She strokes his chest hair, comments on it. He goes down on her. When she can take no more, she pulls him up by what's left of his hair, handles on each side of his skull. She condomizes him; he enters her. Afterward, he tells her she has talent.

Murtaugh and the Christina then discuss the frauds they know, both at the college and in the world of art. Murtaugh drops names of writers and actresses he's met, drunk with, beaten and fucked. The Christina summarizes her sexual history. They fall asleep.

The scandal disrupted all this. Exhibit A: He's been here two months. He's had the chance to bed a Christina, an unusually busty one named Emma, with gray eyes and a knack for villanelles. She had her hand on his crotch, and he let the moment pass.

So maybe Murtaugh has changed. But into what? If he could answer that, he'd have changed a long time ago.

Last year Murtaugh's gig was at a huge research institution out in one of those rectangular states, a place where people get lost, the last place you'd expect people to be in your business.

Her name was Jill and she was no Christina. She was half Cherokee, half Irish and six feet tall, two inches taller100 than Murtaugh. They met after a reading by an old confederate of Murtaugh's who, like most of that circle, had quit booze, achieved tenure and married a plain-looking lawyer.

Jill wore go-go boots and earth tones, which should have tipped off her true identity. Academics rarely dress like grown-ups. It's like the old joke: Why do dogs lick their genitals? Because they can. Same deal with academics. Few could hold down real-world jobs, fewer yet could dress the part. People in academe comport themselves as they do simply because they can.

But Murtaugh mistook Jill for a student--she looked young enough. She was actually a 32-year-old newly tenured associate professor of music. He didn't learn this until after they'd slept together. Murtaugh had her pegged as a closetpoet, but she in fact hadn't attempted a poem since fifth grade. It took him weeks to find out she'd grown up in the Ozarks and SAT'd her way into Harvard, where, presumably, she affected that Brahmin accent. He read her superficially, as quick to pigeonhole as the lit-crit colleagues he reviled.

Jill could play the hell out of the piano--classical, honky-tonk, anything--which she did their first nightat his place, a sublet from a dean on leave, the usual farmhouse with a baby grand. Murtaugh had never seen a tall nude woman at a piano. She lit a candle and played, her long hair sweat-damp and mussed, back straight, breasts cast into relief by the flickering light, her deft fingers a metaphor for Jill herself.

The next day Murtaugh wrote a poem about her fingers. He showed it to Jill. She found it sexist. Three weeks later itwas accepted by a national magazine. He started writing a series of poems about her body. Magazines snapped them up. He wrote a poem about her heart, based on an incident in which he and Jill snuck into the med school and did it on an examining table in a room ringed by chest X rays.

After Christmas break he invited Jill to move in with him. She accepted. Meanwhile, he continued to bed the occasional off-campus Christina. For a while, a good time was had by all.

This year Murtaugh also has the usual forlorn Ricks. Here's their Ur-poem:A sensitif looks into a hot red car, past an unworthy jock to the jock's stunning, captive girlfriend. The last lines concern walking into the wind on a rainy day.Rare is the Christina who falls for that. The best a Rick can hope for is a one-nighter, and it'll be the Rick who gets used and dumped. Ricks should find nice Pams or Lisas in the business wing, get married and underemployed, have kids, purchase a minivan, a house and a family pass to the zoo, grow miserable, get a paunch and a divorce, lose everything and get on with it. Even then they won't be able to bed Christinas. They'll be fat, bitter and desperate. Three strikes, grab some bench.

But, ominously, one of this semester's Ricks has talent. Worse, he's thick-skinned, athletic and--in that corn-fed Midwestern way--confident. One day the Rick (whose name is John Kilgore) catches Murtaugh after class, and they work interminably on a passably adept poem. They seem at last to be done, but the Rick won't leave.

"I don't know," the Rick says, stammering. "It's like, I don't know how to say it, to ask this, to ask you what I, like, need to." He looks down at his shoes. Scuffed black penny loafers. Kid'll go far. "But, well, Dr. Murtaugh, have you--"

"Mister," Murtaugh says. "I'm not a doctor." Murtaugh hates being called doctor. He is a master of fine arts, with four well-received books. That, he intones, is what entitles him to be a professor. He does in fact have a Ph.D., but evenwhen he applies for these visiting gigs (he is more often invited, as was the case here), he conceals this residue from his past.

"Whatever," says the Rick. "What I'm trying to ask is if you were ever married." He points. "No ring. But I wondered."

Murtaugh frowns. "Why do you want to know?"

The Rick says that he's engaged but that he's scared he can't earn a living as a writer. Maybe law school? Or is thata sellout? His fiancée said she would give him the time and space he needs, bu.... blah, blah, blab. The Rick gets up. "Sorry. Forget it." He grabs his motorcycle jacket and backpack and leaves, closing the door purposefully behind him.

Murtaugh sizes up the closed door, knocked woozy by the horse hooves of one of God's heavy-handed ironies, the sort of coincidence even poets dare not contrive. And it goes like this: Once upon a time, Murtaugh, too, was an earnest young man with literary urges (continued on page 171)Visiting Poet(continued from page 100) and a fiancée, a redhead who is now a buyer for a chain of discount bookstores that do not stock poetry. At the time, heand the woman were in the hormonal bliss that the young mistake for love. Yet Murtaugh took seriously the job of artist and feared how marriage would change him. So, suffused with the zealotry of a good student, the pretense of an overpraised boy and the panic of a prospective groom, Murtaugh had asked the young professor of his undergraduate fiction workshop the same thing, more or less, that the Rick had just inflicted on Murtaugh.

Looking back, the professor was a cliché of academe: aging golden boy who had never published anything beyond his lone, sweet book of early promise. "You poor bastard," he'd said, leaning back in his squeaky chair, chuckling, twisting his wedding band. "The old lifeversus-art question."

Murtaugh, choosing art over love, broke the engagement. Then, alone, he lost his nerve, became a hobby writer, attended a top-drawer grad school for his doctorate. His dissertation was so tediously clever, he's forgotten what it was about.

Murtaugh is such an ugly name that he threw up his hands and ceded his daughters' christenings to his wives. (Murtaugh so rarely uses his first and middle names that he wouldn't react to them; his byline involves initials.) The wives, inhis opinion, chose good names and raised the girls to be the canny, street-smart beauties you'd expect from mothersburned by having once been reckless enough to marry Murtaugh.

is older daughter, Tracy, is 17 and lost to him. She saw too much: broken plates, ruined holidays, bad arguments in the dark. Murtaugh thought he loved Tracy's mother. They were grad students together, had hoped to get tenure together. Except that she never published word one. Murtaugh, on the other hand, carved his dissertation into six chunks and published them all. It was too easy. He started having affairs, which, in memory if not in truth, was tied to his decision to become a poet.

Murtaugh and Tracy's mother took jobs at different schools, he in Boston, she in Cleveland: a commuter marriage. Meanwhile, Murtaugh snuck off to get an M.F.A. at Columbia, where he started writing poems, partly because they were short and could be written on the train, partly because he'd started a novel he couldn't finish (he still has it, filed under "Buick Title"). Back in Ohio, Tracy's mother volunteered for committees, kept office hours, graded papers and tried to raise a child more or less alone. The last nail in the marital coffin was a vacation at her parents' lake cottage in Michigan. Murtaugh stashed his teaching assistant from Tufts at a motel two towns away. Tracy's mother found out. Tracy witnessed her mother's attempt to drown her father underneath an aluminum dock, which can't be a good thing to see.

When Tracy came to visit last year, she took a quick liking to Jill, who gave Tracy piano lessons and taught her to drive. After the harassment charges hit, Jill called Tracy to explain. Tracy congratulated her. "I'm with her, Daddy," Tracy said. "She had to tell. I mean, that's disgusting. Gross. At my last school they fired the band director for that."

Murtaugh started to point out that he had slept with young women who were of age. Then he remembered he was speaking to his daughter, a girl less than one year from being lawful prey for men like her father. He stopped explaining and tried to apologize.

Apology. He had, with Tracy, gone to that well too many times. She hung up.

His daughter Annie is 14 and another story. Murtaugh was in one place for the first three years of her life, during which time he changed diapers, mowed grass and gave pony rides. That marriage ended well, brought about not by infidelity(Annie's mother, Karen, never knew) but by the strains of their divergent careers. You'd think no one could wind up in two commuter marriages in a lifetime, but a human life tends to be an exercise in what you wouldn't think possible. It was, he and Karen agreed, nobody's fault.

Karen was and is smart (Phi Beta Kappa, 16th in her med-school class at Duke and now a surgeon and professor in Phoenix), athletic (varsity swimmer in college, triathlete now) and too wonderful for words (patron of the arts, gourmet cook, careful gardener, unassailably terrific mother). This wonderfulness was the problem. Men think women like Karen are overcompensating, repressing or in some way inferior to their beer-swilling selves. Maybe someday men will catch up. Studies suggest not.

When Karen reproduced, did she ever. Annie is Karen, only more so, which makes Murtaugh fear for her. At 14 she is gorgeous in a coltish way that boys her age are--thank God--too thick to see. She's read Anna Karenina and can discuss it more sensitively than any undergraduate that Murtaugh ever had. Taught.

Murtaugh, the oldest man on the court, takes the ball at the top of the key, holds it in front of him, taunting the taller, younger history prof assigned to guard him. Murtaugh isn't fast, but at this level, competing against the bitter, myopic Caucasians who staff schools like this, it's enough to be quick. He head-feints one way and goes the other, slicing across the lane past the other defenders and in for a lay-up. "Game," he says.

"Jesus pleezus," says the professor of history.

"Muy bad," says the dean of humanities, a blond priest named Frank. "Should have helped on D." He's 35, too young to be a Frank, too young to be a dean, too hunky to be a priest. He's clearly being groomed for bigger things; priests who are capable of making it in the real world blast through the ranks. "Good take."

Murtaugh accepts Frank's casual side five. "Thanks."

"No one with a shot like that," Frank says, "should be on a one-year contract."

Murtaugh laughs--not that this is funny, just that he figures that's how Frank means it, as a joke.

Murtaugh spreads the scoring around. But whenever a game gets tight, he cans one from outside. His team cannot lose.

Afterward, he and Frank hit the weight room and wind up on adjacent treadmills. "Seriously," Frank says. "We need someone with a vita like yours. Good for our image." Frank is going twice as fast and is half as winded as Murtaugh. "How does tenured full professor sound? We can talk money in my office."

Murtaugh shrugs, using his windedness to dodge this bullet.

Frank finishes, steps off and admires himself in the mirrored wall. "I know," he whispers, "about the incident with the woman." He mops his brow with a red towel. "Come see me. We'll talk."

Last year, on a humid March afternoon, Murtaugh lay sprawled and sated on his living-room floor alongside a Christina. Her name, as fate would have it, was Christina. She had a fiancé and wouldn't do the actual act, not even oral sex. They'd kissed and dry-humped and masturbated each other; then, at her suggestion, taken turns masturbating themselveswhile the other held on. This was a new one on Murtaugh. He'd found it surprisingly sexy. The Christina's orgasm was a bucking and wondrous thing.

Murtaugh hadn't expected Jill for hours. "Hello," was all she said at first.

She stood for a while in the doorway to the kitchen. The Christina covered herself with an afghan. "Have we been introduced? I'm Jill." She shook the young woman's hand. "I live here."

"I'm Christina." She was ash-white. "Hi."

Murtaugh rose, hands fig-leafed over his genitals. He nearly claimed this wasn't what it looked like. Instead, he took the offensive. "You and I are through, Jill. I found someone else."

He felt like a small, mean animal.

Jill went to pack a suitcase. On her way out, she paused to say a civil goodbye. Dressed now, the Christina sat shivering in a wing chair, her head in her hands. Jill pointed at her. "I know you. You were in my music-ap survey. And I've seen you at readings." She turned to Murtaugh and smiled.

Another thing about Jill that Murtaugh was slow to learn: She was vice-chair of the campus committee on sexual harassment.

Fiction teaches you that people change. History, experience and poetry all teach you this is a lie. Murtaugh, who'd fancied himself a novelist, who'd published stories in fine places, grew to be exclusively a poet, reversing the usual pattern.

This did not go uncommented upon.He was working that year at a Lutheran college in Minnesota. A colleague, a married woman named Jane, sold her first novel for $40,000. Half drunk at someone's retirement party, Jane announced that she would never write another poem. "The money's on the right margin, Murtaugh."

"But the truth," said Murtaugh, "is on the left." He stood ramrod straight, a parody of rectitude.

"Fine," she said. "Go left, young man."

He and Jane had an affair. They met at rustic inns, where they spent Jane's money on sex toys and the repair of antique canopy beds. They went skydiving and had the needy sex couples have after tempting death together.

Are there male Christinas? Murtaugh doubts it. Too bad; name an earnest young man who wouldn't benefit from a fling with an older, smarter woman. Women would have fun in Murtaugh's usual position. They'd handle it better. Murtaugh would encourage women to try, but who'd want to bed a Rick?

Speaking of Ricks: John Kilgore got a poem accepted in a journal that paid him. Murtaugh was ten years older than thekid before he'd published a poem in as good a place. He'd encouraged the kid to submit, mostly to get rid of hint, and now the Rick is awash in gratitude. To celebrate, he throws a party, which Murtaugh is begged to attend. The Ricklives ina townie neighborhood, in a ramshackle group house. A sign outside reads La Casa De Pepe.

Murtaugh arrives just late enough. Many, many pretty young women are drinking and dancing. A motorcycle is parked in the living room. The Rick rushes to the door to take Murtaugh's leather duster and Brooklyn Dodgers cap. Murtaugh keeps them on, claiming he can't stay. But the costume is part of the persona.

He spots two women he presumes he can have, a Christina from his Tuesday workshop and some psych major whom he's never seen before. She eyes him but good. That he and the psych major eventually leave together, can you call that change?

Jill had discounted the rumors about Murtaugh and students until she'd seen a smoking gun. After that, she hunted down leads like a good scholar, finding all three Christinas he'd bedded that year. One he'd been with only twice. Shewas unstable, and Murtaugh tried not to sleep with anyone crazier than he was. The woman had subsequently convinced herself she'd slept with Murtaugh to raise her grade. That was all Jill needed. But, citing her conflict of interest, she didn't participate in the hearing.

The truth was, Murtaugh slept with the Christmas because they were going to get As, not the other way around. But he gave the committee what it wanted: the facts, not the truth. Yes, he had slept with the women in question. No, it had not affected anyone's grade. Yes, he knew he had shown poor judgment. "But with all due respect," he said, as decorously as he was able, "could someone show me what policy I violated?"

He had them dead to rights. The policy was a morass of committee-encoded doubletalk that could mean anything, but, infact, meant nothing. Had the school possessed the guts to adopt a direct policy (say: Amorous activity between faculty members and enrolled students is unethical; unethical faculty members will be fired), the committee would have hadhim. But no institution in academe is that direct. Rarely is anyone in Murtaugh's position in any real danger of gettingin any real danger.

Last year Annie came to visit him during her Easter break, as she always does. He had not told her about the harassment thing; he was using her as an escape from all that.

He picked her up at the town's airport and they embarked on the usual fusillade of fun: college baseball, the Cowboy Hall of Fame, a rib burn-off, a rock concert by musicians Murtaugh's age in an arena 215 miles away. On the drive back from that, Annie stared out the window of his old station wagon, a souvenir T-shirt and program in her lap. "I want to know," she said after a hundred miles of empty chatting, "who you are."

The rain had turned to spring snow. Murtaugh pretended to be confused by the question.

"I come all the way out here," she said, "and all I get is a tour guide. Let me guess what's next. The zoo?"

Lucky guess. "I don't get to see you that much, honey. I want us to have fun together, sweetie."

"I want you to be a dad," Annie said. She turned in her seat to face him, a lawyer pleading her case. "Why don't we ever rake leaves or go grocery shopping or, like, wallpaper the half-bath?"

"It's not my house. I can't very well wallpaper the half-bath in somebody else's house."

Annie swore at him and went into the kind of adolescent funk Tracy used to affect. They rode the rest of the way homein silence, through wet snow that piled up before you knew it. Murtaugh wondered if classes would be canceled. They were, for only the third time in the school's history.

In the morning Murtaugh made pan-174 cakes. If domestic was what Annie wanted, that's what she'd get. She still wasn't talking. She sat at an oak dinette, hunched over Murtaugh's copy of Death in Venice, handling her silverware with the efficiency of a surgeon's daughter. "Why don't you get a newspaper?" she said.

"They don't deliver the Times. And the local rag's a rag."

"I need a sports section. Box scores." Another flash of Karen, who is a walking encyclopedia of baseball.

Murtaugh drove Annie to the Safeway at the edge of town and handed her 50 cents. She rolled her eyes. "I got it." Shereturned with copies of USA Today and the local daily.

Theirs was the only car on the road. The snow was coming down in flakes the size of dimes. He let her out by the front steps and parked the car in the barn. He sat listening to the ticking of cooling metal and the rustle of barn sparrows. Annie was right: He'd gotten into the habit of being a certain way, so much so that he couldn't think how to turn things around. But if he lost her, what then? How low can you go?

As he walked to the house, he saw her. She'd just come outside, without a hat or a coat, a section of the local paper held before her like a torch to ward off beasts. She was crying.

"I can't believe you," she said, as menacing as a 14-year-old can be. "I cannot fucking believe you."

He stopped in his tracks. He nearly told her to watch her mouth, as if he were the one with the upper hand. But he knew what had happened, what she had read.

"I don't know you," Annie said. Snow had already covered her head. From where Murtaugh stood, it looked as if the news had shocked her hair white. "I don't want to know you. It's like you're this person, this terrible person, who doesn't believe the rules apply to you. Jesus, Murtaugh, would you please, please, please just grow the fuck up?"

Jill had goaded the unstable Christina into going to the school paper, which had, thus prompted, done a series of articles on sexual harassment in which it named names. Other papers and TV stations picked it up. In the middle of allthat, when Murtaugh feared he might never live things down, might never escape from himself, he'd been invited to this sad little school back East. It felt, at first, like a pardon from the governor. And he was off.

Once, Murtaugh would have argued that people never truly change. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking, but now he'd argue otherwise. This, ipso facto, represents change, doesn't it? Maybe Murtaugh has been too long in academe, home of the split hair.

If change is possible, Murtaugh is certain it's not linear. He's had moments of progress and regress. He's tried mending fences. Tracy was warmer to his overtures than he'd expected. He calls her every Wednesday night, and he's only forgotten twice all year. She goes to a third-rate nonresident coed prep school and thinks she might major in accountancy. Seventeen years old and that's what she says: accountancy.

Annie went back to Phoenix and did not speak to him for months. He'd call and she'd hang up. He asked Karen for advice. "Give it time," Karen said. "She's as angry as they come right now, and part of it might be her age." He detected a sad smile in Karen's voice. "But most of it's just you."

Murtaugh gave up on the telephone and began mailing Annie a letter every Monday. He vowed to keep it up, whether or not she ever replied, for the rest of his life, if need be. After a few weeks he stopped getting around to it. In November Annie sent him a birthday card. "I wouldn't have minded it if you'd have begged a little more," she'd written. "But I'm ready to be your daughter again, which must mean I'm even crazier than you are, especially since I doubt you'll ever be ready to be my dad." The letter included six lines from a Stevie Smith poem.

Frank closes his office door, presses a slip of paper into Murtaugh's palm and motions for him to sit. On the paper is a number, half again what Murtaugh now earns. "Have a Frangelica," the dean says. Two cordials are already poured. It's noon. "It's a new thing I've started doing when I have visitors.""I'll pass." Murtaugh points to his tennis clothes in demurral. He has a court date with Annie, who is in town and waiting outside. "I warn you," he says. "I'm on leave all the time. I don't serve on committees. I don't counsel students. I don't respect authority. And if you're not careful, I might take you up on your hastily tendered offer."

Frank laughs. "Writers," he says. "You creative writers." Priests go on retreats to learn fake badinage. He downs his drink and picks up the other glass. "Between men now: This sexual harassment madness these days is really something, isn't it?"

What do you say to that? Murtaugh nods. "Something."

"Women can say anything. People find scandal inherently believable. What defense do you have?"

"None," Murtaugh says. He has become the world's foremost authority on delivering the right answer.

"This used to be an all-boys college. Once, half the faculty were Franciscans. Now, five percent. I often feel I was born too late." He gets up, walks to the window, as dreamy as an old dog. "I'd have been more at home in another era," Frank says. "The Forties, let's say. Don't you decry the demise of the men's hat?"

Murtaugh smiles. This is the first time he has heard anyone utter the word decry. Despite himself, he does like Frank.

Frank picks up the faculty newsletter, in which Murtaugh mentions his collection, Nude Pianist: New and Selected Poems, coming from Knopf. "We don't get people publishing like this. That must change. You can help pave the way."

"Ah," Murtaugh says.

"I've seen everything," Frank says. "The newspaper accounts of everything." He turns and sighs, exasperated. "I know how women can be."

Murtaugh is so close to laughter that he bites his cheek. But because Annie's on his mind, the mention of the newspapers stings. "I don't want to know if those allegations are true," Frank says. "I don't want to know anything you don't want to tell me. Except this. This and only this." He refills his glass to the brim. "Why on God's green earth have you moved around so much?"

Murtaugh is caught short. This should have been a question he had been asked before, a question he had asked of himself, but it's neither. Moving around is who he is, a force of his nature. His circumstances have allowed it, and when they haven't, he's altered his circumstances. At first he affects a bad-boy grin. Then he lets it fade, dropping the role and telling the truth: "I don't know."

He accepts tenure.

Murtaugh bounds down the steps of the administration building, past a rusting sculpture of Saint Joseph.

Annie will be happy to hear this news, he's sure of that.

When he catches sight of her, she's sitting on the tailgate of his beat-up old station wagon, dressed in a blue Phoenix Firebirds hat and a plain black T-shirt. She's smoking a cigarette. Beside her, holding what are undoubtedly some newpoems Murtaugh will be asked to read, is John Kilgore, also smoking. His motorcycle is parked beside the wagon. Annie and Kilgore have their legs crossed toward each other. She is holding his helmet, rubbing it, and they're laughing. Murtaugh stays in stride, making his way toward his daughter, moving through the sunlight as if it were water, overcoming theurge to run-to her or away, he's not sure which impulse is stronger.

"He beds two or three of them a year. Sometimes one, rarely four, never five. So far, never zero."

Illustration by Bryan Leister