Stranger Among the Plants

There are times when I have an idea or desire that leads me to think I must be a little bit crazy. And then I read something in a work of literature, any kind of literature, where someone says they have same idea or desire. And I stop and read it again and at least I know that I am not alone in my craziness.

This experience is one of the treasures of the reading literature. And when the person who has written this confirming statement is a highly regarded poet or writer or commentator, then I can be sure that I’m not yet ready for the loony bin.

Recently at the New York Review of Books Blog, Charles Simic, former US Poet Laureate, wrote about the imaginary snapshots he has taken as he walks around the busy streets of the city. Mostly they are images of attractive women. This is the way it is for me, as well. Simic writes:

Here is a tall, well-dressed young woman with a look of utter despair in her eyes and an incongruous smile on her lips. In the next instant, she’s gone and we forget her as we busy ourselves with other things, except she may reappear later that day to haunt us, or in a month, or even years after, like some snapshot we found in the shoebox in the attic that we can’t stop looking at because we no longer remember who that person in it was or when or where it was taken.

It was the intensity of her gaze that caught my attention. She wasn’t looking at me rather it was the plants at the nursery where I found myself one day. She never looked up as she moved from one table of seedlings to the next, in search of a good specimen, reading the labels, I don’t know what else. She was relatively thin, with medium length black hair, streaked with gray. She must have been around fifty or so and she was married or had been.

Everything she was wearing was black—slacks, shirt, lightweight coat. From time to time she brushed the strands of her hair back behind her ears in that appealing sweep that women perform. I thought she was beautiful, obviously thoughtful, with a finely sculpted face. I imagined she was well educated, maybe an attorney or a writer.

I was fairly certain she was well read or hoped she was. I wanted her to smile, just once please. Where did she live? What did her voice sound like? How could I ever meet her? Would she rebuff me? Never once did she look up and by chance catch my eye.

Often I have experiences like this. Again I wonder if they bespeak of some kind of malady? Or is it fairly common among men and perhaps women too of my age or any age? Again Simic comes to my rescue.

Fifty years ago sitting in Washington Square park one warm spring day, I overheard a story on this very subject. Two old men were chatting about different kinds of women they knew in their life, and the various way in which they drove both of them crazy, when one said that his father told him before he died that the most beautiful woman he ever saw in his life was getting off the Staten Island Ferry just as he was getting on. Their eyes met and that was it. His father even remembered the exact date and the time of day, which as I recall was in the month of May in 1910.

Simic admits he carries around a collection of such random images and suggests they are kind of unintended autobiography of others too. One of the “others” is the poet Baudelaire, for whom he offers a link to three alternative translations of his poem À une passante. Here is one:

A Passer-by
The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
A woman, lifting with a stately hand
And swaying the black borders of her gown;
Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,
Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.
A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance
Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!
Through endless time shall I not meet with you?
Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing
Who you may be, nor you where I am going —
You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!