Adolescence would have been unbearable, if not for the poet.
The poet was brought to me by Alicia, who stuttered. Her stutter was not the territory of language or even sound. It was not the stutter of my mother when she answered the phone at work. The click of the receiver picked up and then Ka-ka-Kathleen Kinney, an engine revving, a needle stuck in a scratch but only for a second. Just when you reach to move the arm, the record plays on. My mother, the stutter of a nervous childhood, which is not fair, who knows for sure, but behind her caught name, I heard a young girl. Am I pretty? Am I smart? Yes, yes, you are mom. Which, of course, is me consoling myself as my mother’s daughter, born with the same almost-ness, the same not-quite.
Yes, mom. You are fine. Yes, Carolyn. You are also fine.
So my mother’s stutter revealed an insecurity hidden and neglected, pushed down and brought into adulthood, into marriage and divorce and the office where she answered the phone, a philodendron on the windowsill, a picture of her daughters on her desk. It is a real insecurity and therefore a real stutter, but it seems somehow answerable and therefore surmountable. It has a one-two-three rhythm we anticipate and then we’ve moved on: Yes, home from school. No, there’s nothing to eat. No, didn’t feed the cats. The conversation now a continuous flow of language, her words strung together like her parochial-school cursive.
But I was talking about Alicia, whose stutter was deep. It was a spiritual trench from which you watched her climb out. Her face tilted to one side and her chin jutted in the other direction, her mouth open and struggling to shape the words stuck in some unsayable center of her that was in direct communication with God. She was stuck. You had to witness her being stuck, the human part of her stuck because the words did not want to come out into the world of the school parking lot where I looked for the poet. He went to the lake is what she said, but she didn’t say it in a horizontal line.
What’s the shortest distance between two points, the poet once asked me in the cafeteria. The question was without context. What two points? It’s a straight line, Carolyn, he said. After that there was no virtue to the zigzag. The straight line answered all questions. The straight line got things done. So standing in front of Alicia and watching her words dig down and then struggle up to fall down again, the feeling was not discomfort but awe that there was another way. Eyes closed, head tilted, her jaw caught in a syllable, and you waiting it out, it was like standing before the bush, watching it burn, this talking, burning bush out of sync with the parking lot and the unremarkable Oklahoma sky.
He’s at the lake, she said.