I wore turquoise knee-socks to the poetry reading, with the thought that wearing something jaunty might cheer me up. For a multitude of parental, professional, spousal, astrological, and hormonal reasons, I was in a foul mood. I arrived at the Lannan Foundation Meeting House for a small gathering of local luminaries feeling strangely disconnected and to my surprise, the turquoise socks made it worse.
My arrival, mere seconds before the doors closed for the reading, was hampered by a broken grill part, a late returning husband, and a child who attached herself to my lower leg like a barnacle and had to be pried off so I could leave. It had been a challenging day, to say the least. A poetry reading, especially by someone as wonderful as Atsuro Riley, would ease my beleaguered soul and remind me that I am, at the core of my being, a writer. The temporary hiatus forced upon me by the pressures of being a grown-up aside, somewhere, buried under the dirty laundry and grant reports, was a poet.
I sat down at the end of a row in the relatively small room to listen to the inimitable Arthur Sze introduce Atsuro. My god, Arthur’s introductions are phenomenal. He obviously prepares them with such care and reads them the exact same way he reads his poems – soothing and lullaby-like. By the time Atsuro stood to read, I was eyeballing him with the strained anticipation of a wheelchair-bound man waiting for an evangelical minister to heal him.
Atsuro read mostly from his book, Romey's Order, which came out last year. He transported me with his thickly layered, intensely crafted poems about life in small town South Carolina. He has a languid reading style that, at times, reminded me both of David Sedaris, for its somewhat lilting quality – the way he would let the end of a line just hang in the air – and Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Jim Williams in the film version of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The poems, as Atsuro would later tell us, are crafted in a very specific and arduous process that can take years, and in some cases, decades. When you hear him read, you can feel the weight of that process in the spare, lean lines spattered with parentheticals and italics. The poems are dense and lush like a rainforest, or a sponge so saturated that you can’t pick it up without some water leaking out.
When Atsuro stopped reading, and the small gathering opened up for Q&A, the magic ended. My life came rushing back with the ferocity of the tunnel vision that precedes a blackout. Inky charcoal filled in the details of the verdant, complicated, and mysterious landscape Atsuro had painted so carefully. I went to the small reception following the reading and felt ridiculous in my turquoise socks. I knew most of the people there, but found myself incapable of engaging in conversation with any of them. Instead, I wandered around with a lovely glass of rosé looking at the horrifically beautiful photographs of South African photographer Guy Tillim until I saw my chance to sneak out quietly. As I was leaving, still torn between my desire to stay and bask in the heady glow of Santa Fe’s incredible literary community and my strange desperation to leave and crawl back to my messy life, someone yelled to me, “Hey, those are some great socks!”