This is a story about Desdemona Peoples, known to her friends and those who read her poetry as Dez Peoples. She works at Oberon’s, the only stationery store in town, and used to be married to Larry Peoples who is now married to Penny Peoples. Given that they all live in Ophelia, Washington, a small town, you may wonder why Dez doesn’t drop Peoples and go back to using her maiden name Persons to make things less confusing for everyone. And the reason she doesn’t go back to Persons is poetry.
A striking brunette, Dez was born in Ophelia, the youngest of three kids with two older brothers. Her father Skip was a logger, her mother Ernestine a housewife who took in sewing work to supplement the family income, and both Dez’s brothers became loggers, too. By the age of twelve, Dez was determined to get out of Ophelia and never come back. Blazingly smart, she thought everybody in town was an idiot. Now she knows everybody in Ophelia is not an idiot, but when she was twelve that’s what she thought.
Dez graduated from high school at sixteen and went to college at San Francisco State where she majored in Dance. Upon graduating with honors, she moved to Portland and joined a modern dance company called Epiphany, had parts in several plays, and wrote poetry. She worked as a waitress, had a series of musician boyfriends, wrote hundreds of poems, and tried to get them published with little success.
When Dez was thirty-seven her father died and she went back to Ophelia to take care of her grieving mother. After she’d been home for a month, she had a fling with Larry Peoples who had briefly been her boyfriend in high school, and because her birth control implant gave up the ghost six months early, she got pregnant, married Larry, and took his last name to make things less confusing for everyone in Ophelia.
Much to her surprise, Dez enjoyed being married to Larry who was sweet to her during her pregnancy and sweet to their child Rosalind until Lindy, as Larry called Rosalind, was three. Then Larry got together with Penny and had little to do with Dez or Rosalind ever again.
But during Larry’s initial sweetness to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them Dez Peoples, and the minute she made that change, literary magazines started publishing her poems, which led to Seven Painted Elephants Press publishing her first volume of poems Before Rosalind, which was subsequently published in a German-English edition by the Swiss publisher Werner Schaffen. And when Before Rosalind proved successful, Seven Painted Elephants Press published Dez’s second volume of poems Now She Is Two and Werner Schaffen published a German-English edition of that collection, too.
Which is not to say Dez became famous, but as poets in America fare, she was faring quite well, which is why when she and Larry divorced, she kept on being Dez Peoples.
On a muggy Saturday in August—Rosalind eight, Dez forty-six, and Dez’s mother Ernestine seventy-two—Dez and Rosalind are working in the vegetable garden in back of the two-story house where Dez grew up, digging horse manure into the soil for planting pole beans and potatoes.
Ernestine comes out on the back porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”
Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu, Grandma.”
“Lulu, Zulu,” says Ernestine, laughing, too. “Some sort of ulu.”
“Dig on, Roz,” says Dez, hurrying to the house. “I won’t be long.”
Zulu Manhattan is Dez’s editor at Articulate Dinosaur Press in Seattle, publisher of Dez’s last three volumes of poetry. Dez’s latest volume, her seventh, Controversial Recipes, just came out in America and Europe and is getting stellar reviews. Werner Schaffen has published German-English editions of all seven of Dez’s books and she now has a small following in Germany and Switzerland.
“Hey Dez,” says Zulu, her accent southern, “we just got a call from James Billings. Well… from his people. Do you know him?”
“No,” says Dez, sitting at the kitchen table and using the same wall-mounted telephone she grew up with. “Somebody sent me the book he won the Pulitzer for. Can’t think of the title. Haven’t read it yet.”
“Well you better read it, honey,” says Zulu, emphatically, “because he apparently loves your work and wants you to open for him at a big show in Seattle on October fifth, PBS taping the show for a national Christmas special. Wants you to do about twenty minutes. They’ll pay you two grand and put you up at the Four Seasons and interview you for the special, too. Yes?”
“I’ll need to check with my mother,” says Dez, terrified. “Make sure she’s available to take care of Roz. Can I call you back tomorrow? Or Monday?”
“Monday at the latest, darling,” says Zulu, hearing the fear in Dez’s voice. “Billings is going to be the next poet laureate, you know. Or the one after that.”
“I probably can do it,” says Dez, breathlessly. “I’ll call you back.”
Dez hangs up the phone and bows her head. This is her dream come true and her worst nightmare. She wants to be successful and wants to be anonymous.
Ernestine comes in from the garden cradling zucchinis and cucumbers in her apron, dumps the produce on the kitchen counter and says, “You okay, Dez?”
“They want me to read with James Billings in Seattle,” says Dez, anguished. “In October. For a PBS Christmas show.”
“For your new book?” asks Ernestine, getting Dez a glass of water.
Dez smiles at her mother who knows nothing about poetry except that Dez is a poet and Psalms in The Bible are poems.
“James Billings is very famous,” Dez explains, “and it certainly would help my new book if I read with him and a million people watched the show, but I’m not sure I want to.”
“Why not?” asks Ernestine, frowning at her daughter. “Wouldn’t take long. Three-hour drive to Seattle, read your poems, come on home. We’ll hardly know you were gone.”
“You make it sound so wonderfully simple,” says Dez, giving her mother a hug. “But it isn’t.”
As they plant the bean seeds, Dez tells Rosalind about the reading in Seattle.
“Can I come?” asks Rosalind, nodding hopefully. “I love Seattle.”
“I don’t know if I’ll do it,” says Dez, sinking her hands in the soil and closing her eyes.
“Why not?” asks Rosalind, frowning at her mother. “We could go to Pike Street Market and get fish and chips and salt water taffy and go on a ferry boat ride.”
“It’s complicated,” says Dez, thinking Maxine is the only person I know who will understand what I’m up against.
When Ernestine and Rosalind take the mutts Portia and Petruchio for a walk, Dez sits at the kitchen table and calls Maxine in Portland. Maxine is an artist ten years older than Dez who makes her living staging houses for real estate agents. She and Dez shared a flat and were waitresses together when Dez lived in Portland.
“Hey baby girl,” says Maxine when she hears Dez’s voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you and tell you how much I love the new poems. The one about the old lady buying whiskey in the Pakistani liquor store? I laughed until I cried. You just get better and better. And who took the picture of you on the jacket? You look like Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”
“Roz took it,” says Dez, smiling as she recalls standing in the vegetable garden, her hair still wet from her shower, Rosalind snapping pictures with a tiny camera. “You got a minute?”
“For you, baby girl, all day.”
Dez tells Maxine about the gig with Nathan Grayson and her mixed feeling about saying Yes, and Maxine says, “Self-sabotage or self-preservation? That is the question.”
“I’m not unhappy,” says Dez, as if that might be a good enough reason not to read with James Billings.
“What are you afraid of?” asks Maxine, getting out her notebook.
“I write poetry,” says Dez with anger in her voice. “I don’t want to be mistaken for Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”
“You’d be sensational,” says Maxine, writing Sensational at the top of a blank page. “And that would open a Pandora’s Box of interest in you. Tell me why that’s bad.”
“I like not being famous,” says Dez, hearing how false she sounds.
“And what will happen if you don’t do it?” asks Maxine, writing Pandora’s Box under Sensational.
“If I don’t do it,” says Dez, knowing how the world works, “my publisher will drop me and I will ever after be known as the uppity bitch who wouldn’t read with James Billings.”
Maxine laughs. “You are so not an uppity bitch, baby girl.”
“I’m stuck,” says Dez, quoting Rosalind who often says I’m stuck when seeking help.
“Let’s go back to the beginning,” says Maxine, writing The Beginning under Pandora’s Box. “Why do you write poems?”
“To capture moments,” says Dez, thinking of Rosalind on her knees in the garden placing big white beans in the little trench snaking through the dark brown soil.
“Why capture moments?” asks Maxine, writing Moments.
“To share them with others.”
“Why do you want to do that?”
“To connect. Maybe help.”
“You know… maybe awaken someone a little.”
“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much in Ophelia.”
So Dez takes the gig.
At the end of Dez’s sound check a few hours before the big show, James Billings and his entourage enter the vast theatre and Grayson strides down the center aisle to meet Dez coming off the stage.
A movie-star handsome fellow in his fifties, his hair a flawless gray pompadour, James takes Dez’s hand in both of his and says, “Your author photos don’t lie. Why no videos?”
“I’m low tech,” says Dez, who got her hair cut stylishly short for the reading. “Just write.”
“So you’ll do about ten minutes,” says James, winking at Dez. “Sound good?”
“I was told twenty,” says Dez, having memorized six poems that take her seventeen minutes to recite without haste.
“Less is more,” says James, winking at her again. “Aim for ten. They always take fifteen.”
“Will do,” says Dez, wanting to like James but finding him repulsive.
“Perfecto,” says James, winking at her a third time. “Just be yourself.”
The first poem Dez recites is called Café Idyll, about a day in her life as a waitress—the seventeen hundred people in the audience entranced from the first line and roaring with laughter throughout.
Aiming to finish under fifteen minutes, Dez skips her second and third poems and performs A Tale of Two Bass Players, a funny poignant imagining of her long-ago bass player boyfriends showing up in Ophelia to take her back to the life she had in Portland before the coming of Rosalind.
The audience goes bonkers when she finishes the poem, cheering and whistling and applauding thunderously.
Now something in the wings catches Dez’s attention and she glances to her right and sees James Billings gesturing wildly for her to stop, to be done, though she’s only been on for nine minutes.
And when the stage manager and the show’s director fail to calm James down and he’s about to walk onto the stage and do God knows what to get Dez off the stage, Dez leans close to the microphone and says, “I’ll close now with a poem inspired by James Billings who so graciously asked me to read with him.”
Which simple speech quells the beast.
When I was a child my older brothers would say to boys
questioning the little girl playing ball with them, “She’s tough
as nails. Not afraid of anything.” Which was true for all my
life until at thirty-seven I swelled with child, my Rosalind,
and in a second-trimester dream I drew my sword to fight
a man who would slay me before my babe was born. And
in that bloody duel was born my fear and the prayer
Oh let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.
And when my babe was four-years-old my prayer became
Oh let me live until she can make her way without me.
Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless as I
before she came to be, and in a dream
two nights ago that same man came to slay me.
But this time when I drew my sword I felt no fear,
for Rosalind was beside me, her sword drawn, too,
a cunning smile on her soon-to-be-a-woman’s face.
A gorgeous day in October—Rosalind thirteen, Dez fifty-one, Ernestine seventy-seven—they are having breakfast in a café in Zurich, Switzerland with Dirk Rosenfeld, Dez’s translator at Werner Schaffen, publisher of all ten volumes of Dez’s poetry in beautiful German-English editions.
“Soon,” says Dirk, watching Rosalind take a sip of coffee from her mother’s cup, “you will be having your own cups of coffee, Roz.”
“I prefer sipping from my mother’s cup,” says Rosalind, smiling at Dez. “I suppose I might move away some day and then I’ll have my own cups of coffee, though I only ever want a few sips.”
“It begins with a few sips,” says Dirk, nodding sagely. “Then one day we want a little more and a little more, and soon one cup is not enough.”
“That’s me,” says Ernestine, never having imagined she would ever go to Europe as she has now twice with Dez and Rosalind. “Two cups every morning and sometimes three, and another two in the afternoon. But not Dez. She finishes the one with breakfast and that’s it for the day. Been that way since she was twelve.”
“Not counting the twenty years I lived away from home,” says Dez, remembering the cozy flat she shared with Maxine in Portland, purple paisley curtains, big pillows on the living room floor, Othello the cat snoozing on the windowsill, the air rich with the scent of coffee brewing.