Dear Mr. Gerald Stern, I liked your poem by Missy-Marie Montgomery
Associate fiction editor Robin McCarthy on why we selected today's bonus fiction: This story is a love letter in the truest sense. We talk about there being a limited number of stories, delight in finding an old tale retold in an astonishing way. That is exactly what Missy-Marie Montgomery has done in "Dear Mr. Gerald Stern, I liked your poem." This epistolary short work moves toward two tasks at once. First, it address the measured anxieties of infidelity, assessing the earworm it becomes in the narrator's marriage in a simple, illustrative way. Then, as though a fresh take on unfaithful husbands were not enough to ask of less than six hundred words, Montgomery reminds us that so often it is art that shines the right level of light on the tumult of our lives. She sends us off the page, to the work of Gerald Stern and Jane Kenyon, and she asks us to consider all the ways the words can be wrought to revisit old beasts. There's nothing overdone here. Instead, Missy Marie Montgomery quietly provides the sense that we're all in this together, nudging us toward a story that has already been told and igniting the embers at its edges.
Dear Mr. Gerald Stern, I liked your poem
That is, I liked most of it. I hope you don’t mind if I lop off that last mule and the bit about the rubies.
I decided something today—today when I came across my husband by chance, just after work, smiling a fresh smile. It was delightful, but then somewhat disturbing, to see him unexpectedly. Because when he saw me, he looked…caught. Perhaps it was nothing, but I watched for five minutes, and that look stayed perched there on his face as we chatted affectionately, me on the way out of the gym, he on his way in. I considered asking him about it. He could certainly see me noticing him wearing his guilt like a bruise on his chin, or like a bit of food—from a restaurant we never go to—stuck in his beard. Perhaps it really was nothing. Or perhaps it was even about something good—like, he’d hoped to clean the kitchen before I got home, but now he could see that I’d get there before him and discover the spilled breakfast remains still on the floor.
(Mr. Stern, do you happen to know that Jane Kenyon poem about the surprise party? My students all think she’s a bitch, the woman in that poem, since the man had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to surprise her, they say. They insist it’s a nice thing he’s trying to do, for God’s sake, and they don’t see what her problem is at the end. Sometimes the young men in my class say, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” “Women,” they say, with that tone. But I understood right away how a surprise is sometimes a trick. How it might feel to have naively bought the whole idea about the quiet, romantic walk in the park, because he was so convincing. So without guile. I got how the sudden appearance of all those friends in party hats could feel like a corroboration; like a butter knife in the heart.)
My own beloved husband is usually terrible at surprises. He says things to me like, “If I were planning to buy you a new coat for your birthday, what color should I get?” (I don’t think a coat is a good present, by the way.) My point is that my husband generally wears his thoughts right on his face. He’s a clear window; always has been. He can’t even lie about polite things, like, “Does this haircut make my neck look funny?”
And so I decided today that it would be OK if I mined the world for its pearls. Therefore, I chose not to pursue the origin of the bruise on my husband’s chin. Instead, I went to a bookstore and got a pastry and a coffee and a copy of this book with your poem in it, in which there is a weight that you carry. A weight that has become a normal part of your body by now. We’re alone in this café together, Mr. Gerald Stern. We’ve sat our weights down in the empty chairs. Mine is kicking me under the table, but I’m ignoring it. Instead, I’m asking you about your poem. I’m touching the poem lightly with my finger, saying that I wish it could end here, instead, at that part with the wings.
Missy-Marie Montgomery is a Humanities professor at Springfield College, where she teaches environmental writing, creative writing, and composition. Her work has appeared in over 25 literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review,Connecticut Review, Poetry International, Rattle, Pearl, Cimarron Review, and Crab Orchard Review. Her manuscript Half-life of Passion was a finalist for the Zone 3 Press first book award, and a semi-finalist for the Kore first book award, the Crab Orchard Review first book award, and the Black Lawrence Press award. Her manuscript The Fish Beneath the Words was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Review first book award. Her website is www.missymariemontgomery.com.