Poets and Scholars
I never owned a dog. Maybe that had something to do with it. Or maybe I had taught too many poetry workshops and heard too many stupid comments from students about poems, which made me crack. Or maybe I was having a mid-life crisis, trouble adjusting to the gray hairs and waning libido. Or maybe it was some deeper existential reason. But the fact is, in late summer of 2007, I chained my wife to the toilet for a week. I provided her with a bowl of water and a bowl of Cheerios, both always filled. The reason I chained her to the toilet and not somewhere else is that I didn’t want to hear the constant barking to use the bathroom and have to unleash her every few hours. I also wanted to be able to leave the house and come back and not find a mess on the floor. I had thought it out some.
At the time, I was an English professor at a small state university in southern Ohio. I also was a fairly successful poet, having published three collections, which attracted some attention. One of the books even won a national competition—no easy feat. My life was good: nice house, flexible schedule, good colleagues, a pretty wife. I was at work on a fourth poetry book and the poems were flowing. I was even losing weight, going to the gym twice a week and walking through the neighborhood every night. Then it happened: the conversation.
“God, Emily Dickinson was a genius,” I said. “Her lyric compression, her totally original word choice, her unique rhythmic sense.”
We were sitting on the porch drinking vodka martinis. I had the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson on my lap.
My wife looked at me and rolled her eyes. “What a crock. She was just trying to be different. All those capitalized words, all those dashes. You of all people should know that the dash is the most self-centered punctuation mark, overly dramatic, hogging space on the page.”
Then she stood and recited. With each capitalized word she raised her voice unnaturally and with each dash she flung out her hand melodramatically:
“Could—I do more—for Thee—
Wert Thou a Bumble Bee—
Since for the Queen, have I—
Nought but Bouquet?”
She bowed, as if concluding a stage performance. Then she plopped back down. “Pure hogwash,” she said.
My wife, Olivia, also taught at the same university. We had met years before at a conference. We both were participants of a panel discussion called Toward a Friendlier English Department: Bridging the Gulf between Creative Writers and Literature Professors in the Academic Setting. The panel addressed issues of conflict that have existed for years, and still exist, within English departments around the country. The creative writers, most with MFA degrees, often view the academics with their PhDs as stodgy, boring, elitists. How could these people, regardless of their schooling, teach poetry or fiction written by others without being poets or fiction writers themselves? How could they truly understand the inner workings of the processes that went into the creation of their beloved required texts? On the other hand, the academics often view the creative writers in their departments as loony and seriously lacking sufficient literary training, not deserving to share the titles of Assistant, Associate, or full Professor. How could these self-proclaimed artists know how to address issues of literary criticism and historical intertextuality without having done the exhausting and necessary research?
Olivia was one of the academics on the panel, with a PhD in 19th Century American Poetry. She had been teaching at a small liberal arts college in northern Ohio. I was one of the creative writers, with an MFA from the infamous University of Iowa Writers Workshop. The discussion was friendly, and at its conclusion, everyone in the room felt warm and fuzzy, chummier, as if we had all done important work mending these perennial wounds of academia. And like most conferences, where the discussions and debates spill over to the post-panel wine and cheese receptions, this woman—my future wife—and I found ourselves at a long table across from each other stabbing cheese cubes with toothpicks.
“I really liked what you said about creativity manifesting itself in different ways that are all valid,” I said, reaching for a plastic cup of chardonnay. “And the question you raised—why do we have to create a hierarchy within our departments anyway?” I was hoping she would look at me with her chocolate brown eyes and give me the full brunt of her high cheekbones and full lips.
“Thanks,” she said, looking up. “And I liked what you said. What was it? That an English department is like a football squad, that the members are not supposed to all possess the same skills, that each one brings his or her unique strength to form a stronger overall team—for the benefit of the students.” She reached for a cup of wine. Little did she know that in that instant I mentally shrunk myself and swam in the dark waters of her eyes and slid down the slopes of her cheekbones onto her lips. I hugged those glistening lips the way a child hugs pillows many times his own size.
We sat at a table with a few other professors who wanted, for some reason, to rehash the day’s tedious events. After boring small talk, she and I zoned out, gazing at each other, downing one wine after another, until I whispered in her ear if she wanted to go some place quieter. We moved on to the hotel bar for martinis. The next thing we knew we were in her room, in bed, and that’s where it all began.
Over the next twelve months, we corresponded daily via email and phone calls. We visited each other nearly every weekend, making the four-hour drive to northern or southern Ohio. Then, in the spring, one of the English professors died in a car crash and our department needed, as luck would have it, a 19th Century American Poetry specialist. I lobbied for Olivia to apply for the job. She applied, and I lobbied the department to hire her, which they did. Then I lobbied Olivia to marry me, which she did also.
“Braaavo,” I said, clapping. “How can you dismiss Dickinson’s style when it clearly establishes her worldview and poetic voice?”
I had always loved Olivia’s fearless and outspoken brilliance. It was one of the things that first attracted me to her—along with her perfect bubble butt and sailor’s laugh. But I suspected she didn’t honestly believe what she said about Dickinson’s poetry. Sometimes, especially after multiple martinis, one or the other of us would find the slightest reason to engage in some sort of verbal jousting. It was the manifestation of a lot of other problems we had buried over the past five years of marriage. We had both been divorced, both had children, both were in our forties, both should have understood the tensions of remarrying in mid-life. And we both should have known how alcohol—which we loved and self-medicated with—was the match that lit the fuse to these confrontations every time.
“Worldview? Voice? Jesus, you are such a poet,” she said. “That’s the way it is with you creative writers, isn’t it? You get so caught up in the touchy-feely aspects and can’t examine things objectively.”
I gulped the last swig of vodka from my glass. She was frowning and gulped the last swig of hers. I didn’t feel like a fight.
“How about another martini?” I asked.
“Avoiding the subject, eh?” she said, smirking.
“Well, I’m getting myself another.” I got up.
She held out her glass. “Here, I’m going to need another too. Especially if I have to hear more star-struck blather about that mousy little hermit of Amherst.”
Looking back now, I still don’t really know where it went wrong. The first couple of years were pretty smooth. Teaching together, traveling. We even read each other’s work. She had provided keen insight into the revising of my third book’s poems. I had read her scholarly articles and given both positive and critical feedback. We seemed to be a good team. Especially in bed.
I brought the two fresh martinis back out to the porch. It was a beautiful late afternoon. Sunny but cool. The trees and the yard spread out before us. An orange and black butterfly perched on the porch railing.
“Thanks” was the last kind word I remember hearing Olivia say, as I handed her the drink.
Then, more Dickinson ballistics. More drinking. The martinis mounting. The real sources of tension surfacing, gradually, and then in a wildfire—but only after Dickinson’s weird poetics had provided the necessary stoking of the flames. The real sources were many: issues with our children, visitation schedules, problems with the exes—the usual drunken, maimed verbal bleeding of gashes that never fully scab over.
It still is fuzzy what happened. But I remember Olivia bringing up the name of an old boyfriend. Something about them secretly corresponding for months. Something about wanting to explore other options. I remember her at one point tossing half her glass of vodka in my face. I remember grabbing her by her long black hair I always loved that reminded me of Pocahontas. I remember dragging her across the kitchen floor while she kicked and screamed, making my way to the closet where I knew I had a long chain saved from when I first moved in, which was used to anchor large furniture in a moving van.
The next morning, I found her. The chain was secured on one end around the toilet’s base, and on the other end around her waist; not only tied, but relinked in order to ensure captivity, as if the chain, the toilet, the woman were one fused thing. How I had the clarity to do all this with an ocean of vodka cruising through my veins and a screaming woman in one hand still escapes me. I was never even handy. What tools had I used? Maybe she had passed out, making the operation easier. I don’t know. And she was naked. I couldn’t remember taking off her clothes. I, too, must have blacked out.
She was asleep, curled in a question mark and hugging the toilet.
At some point, sanity flies out the window. Years of personal anger and frustration—fueled by alcohol—can explode in an act of crazed ferocity. At least that is what I think now, looking back. But still, I could never have pictured myself doing something like this—something you read about other crackpots doing, in newspapers, and just shake your head in disbelief. Even stranger was the fact that as I looked down at her, chained there, I felt myself starting to transform into something…some sort of mutant. The only way I can describe it is that it felt as if I were breaking out of a cocoon that was my old self, my old life, and sprouting new muscles, new wings. It felt the way I imagine the Incredible Hulk felt every time he changed from the meek little man into the giant green beast. The thought of how I could have done such a barbaric thing was quickly replaced with an almost self-satisfied wondering how I had mapped this plan out so well, so quickly and in an alcoholic haze. The toilet was the perfect spot.
She started to stir. She slowly uncurled. She rubbed her eyes and pushed the hair from her face. Then, as she began to sit up, I could see that she felt the cold metallic chain around her naked waist. She could probably also feel the cold of the bathroom floor tiles on her skin. The chain clanked against the porcelain base of the toilet.
“Oh my god, what the hell is this!” she said. She grabbed the chain in her hands and looked up at me. “What the hell have you done, Nathan? Are you insane? Have you snapped or something?”
I leaned against the back of the bathroom door with my arms folded. “I honestly don’t know. Maybe I have snapped. I have been feeling tense lately. You know, too many student poets with inflated self-images of their talent, three rejections from magazines in one week, feeling myself getting older by the second.” I scratched my chin as if flipping through more items in my mental Rolodex. "And, oh yeah, the news that you are fucking some old boyfriend.”
She struggled to her feet and sat on the toilet lid. That was about as far as the chain would allow.
“Shit, Nathan. You are seriously disturbed. Now get me the hell out of this thing!”
She winced as she spoke. I could tell that her head was throbbing from the hangover, just as mine was. She cupped her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. Then she looked up at me again.
“Nathan, I swear I will fucking send you to prison if you don’t untie me from this thing!”
“I never did have a dog,” I said. “Maybe the long suppressed need for a furry little pet has finally surfaced. Though I always envisioned a beagle or cocker spaniel.” I couldn’t help smiling. I continued.
“Yeah, so maybe you can fill that void. Don’t worry, I will house break you. I will give you plenty of water and food. You’ll thank me in the end.” I stepped forward and patted her on the head. “And you will be man’s best friend. Good doggy, good doggy.”
She snapped her head away from me and threw a wild punch with each fist, but I backed away and she hit air.
“Fuck you, you god damn maniac! I swear you will regret this!”
I stepped to the mirror over the sink, opened a drawer, pulled out my toothbrush. I brushed my teeth as she snarled and barked some more.
“You see,” I said, “You are still a very wild doggy, and you need to be trained.”
I threw water on my face and combed my hair. She continued raging.
“Besides, a doggy really does need to respect her master’s opinion about great poetry, especially when her master is a poet himself. Take the case of Emily Dickinson. How could a non-poet, a so-called scholar ever truly understand the mysteries of poems.” I waved the comb at her like a baton.
In a rage, she tried to lift herself from the toilet seat and lunge at me but fell back. The chain was the perfect length. She had a radius of about one foot to move.
“God damn it, Nathan!”
“And also,” I said, “a good doggy needs to be loyal to her master. No running around and screwing with other doggies behind the master’s back. We will have to work on that as well.”
“You’ll never get away with this, you asshole!”
I grabbed two big bath towels from the closet and threw them at her feet. “Here, use these to bundle up with if you get cold. I will get your bowl of water and some food. Don’t worry, doggy, it will be all right.”
One hour rolled into the next. One day blurred into another. I had to close the bathroom door to muffle her ranting, but since we lived at the end of a country road, there was no way anyone could hear her. I came and went, bought groceries, paid a few bills. At one point, I did start to feel a bit sorry and brought her pajamas to help her keep warm. I also made her a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. These were met with barks of a slightly complex timbre, something almost close to, but not quite in the realm of thanks. I even brought her a library book, a literary biography, The Genius of Emily Dickinson. I placed it next to her bowl of Cheerios when she was dozing, but when I returned later I found it torn to shreds all over the room.
“Bad doggy, bad doggy,” I scolded.
After about a week, I started to get tired of turning the stereo up all the time to drown out her howling. I could feel the Hulk effect wearing off and the guilt starting to creep in. I fixed a couple of vodka olive martinis and carried them up to the bathroom.
“Here,” I said, extending one to Olivia, who was starting to smell pretty bad. “Take it. It is your reward…like a milk bone but better. I have been seeing some progress in your development. You still have a long way to go to appreciate and understand fine poetry, but you are calmer and have used the potty quite nicely.” I put the long-stemmed martini glass—filled to the brim—on the edge of the bathtub, just within her reach.
“I really should throw this in your fucking face,” she said with little gusto, clearly exhausted, “but I need it too much.”
She picked up the glass and sipped. Her closed eyes and the faint “mmmm” sound from her lips meant the drink was just right.
We drank down our martinis. I made seconds, and we drank those. I made thirds and fourths. In her last one I dissolved a sleeping pill also. The conversation—her sitting on the toilet, me sitting against the opposite wall on the floor—ran from Dickinson’s terrible fashion sense (which we both agreed on from the only known photo of her wearing an Amish-looking gown of black, buttoned tightly all the way to her goose-like throat), to how our children (now off at college) were doing in school, to our shared hatred of our exes, to the latest department gossip about who was denied tenure and who was sleeping with which student. Of course we were badly slurring and starting to see double, but it was, oddly, the first conversation in years without the slightest disagreement. We even concurred that poets really are the most interesting people on the planet, and the strangest, due to their often normal exteriors and unseen inner wildness—unlike rock stars who try so hard with their long hair, tattoos, piercings and antics to visibly appear different.
When she passed out, I found metal clippers. I knew from experience that the next morning, the sweet haze would wear off and the skull-pounding hangover would just be starting. Her friendly mood would be gone, and with that, most likely, whatever brief, alcohol-induced numbness of what I had done to her. I knew that our last conversation would never be topped, and that she and I would never share even that much tenderness again. I also knew that she might very well come after me with a knife or call the cops.
I made her one last martini and quietly placed it next to her on the tile floor. She might need it for the hair of the dog. Then I wrote a pathetic little note that said I was sorry, that I set her free—literally from her toilet prison and literally from our marriage. I capitalized letters in the middle of sentences and interspersed every few words with a dash, hoping this might reach through the anger to some strangled sense of humor, tickling it and causing a chain reaction leading to some memory of the once good days between us. I wanted to kiss her lips one last time, but it was too risky. So I shrunk myself down, the way I had when we first met, and stretched my tiny arms as far as they could reach around her lips’ soft, slopy curves. I slid the note under the base of the martini glass. I took the clippers and cut the chain. Then I went downstairs, made myself one final extra-strong drink, sat in the big corner chair, and waited.
Neil Carpathios is the author of three full-length poetry collections—Playground of Flesh (Main Street Rag), At the Axis of Imponderables (winner of the Quercus Review Press Book Award), and Beyond the Bones (FutureCycle Press). "Poets and Scholars" is a story from a collection of short fiction in-progress. Carpathios is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.