The story of Lewis Maury's emergency room poem is one John Graham tells with a mixture of sorrow and delight. The clatter around them, the heart disease that would soon kill the 93-year-old Maury, the loss of the man the 76-year-old Graham thought of as a second father fade as Graham remembers.
"He couldn't get the meter to quite come out right," says Graham of Maury, who was composing a poem as he lay on a table, waiting to be admitted. "I can't recall what the poem was, but I think it was about some attractive lady. I said, 'Let's try concentrating on the stresses, just pay attention to the beat.' I was pounding on his shoulder: 'One! Two! Three! Four!' The nurse shouted, 'What are you doing to that old man!' "
Graham, a sizable man who looks well able to strike fear in a nurse's heart, leans back and laughs.
"That," he says, "ended my bedside privileges."
For eight Washingtonians, most of them over 70 and several of them far beyond that, poetry at such a moment is not surprising. The Iona Poets, as they call themselves after Iona House Senior Service Center, which sponsors the class, have been meeting weekly since 1980 to read and write poetry, the very fact of which astonishes many of them. Bankers, teachers, social workers and editors among them, the eight are all well educated, literate. None, however, anticipated retirement as a long-awaited opportunity to grapple with Gertrude Stein or confront the delicate demands of haiku.
But because they wanted to meet some new people, because their lives had always been filled with activity and they saw no reason to stop now, and because they were enticed by an enthusiastic teacher named Judith Bowles, they are now each writing a poem a week, giving readings around the region and bridling at the thought that some unenlightened observers may look at them and think, as one Iona Poet describes the imagined condescending comments, "Those dear old things! Aren't they sweet!" Life at the lull Discarded fathers and mothers Wander in wonderment Steps slow Eyes dull Hopes dim Hither and thither Fledgelings blown Uncertainly homing Snagged on a thorn. Winifred Morris
"I am a living miracle in the flesh!" Winifred Morris declares, her Alabama voice wrapping itself luxuriously around the dramatic statement.
Six years ago, Morris (born "toward the end of World War I," as she puts it), was wheelchair-bound, unable to use her hands, diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis.
"I could not sign my name," she says. "Judy would say, 'Do a poem.' I was always a good student -- I was so intimidated I just did it."
She wrote, or rather dictated, poetry for Bowles until the multiple sclerosis was rediagnosed as a tumor pressing on her spine. The growth removed, Morris recovered, hands once more able to fly in punctuation to her romantic stories ("It's such a love story!" she says again and again) and the slightly outrageous comments she accompanies with a small, wicked grin.
"I've learned how to die," the retired librarian says matter-of-factly about her illness. "I wasn't depressed. Terror-stricken, afraid and all that, but not depressed. God is not off the hook for grinding me down for all those years. He was on a three-martini lunch and I don't know when I'll forgive him.
"I told myself, 'You are going to keep your mind so furnished you are interesting,' so I would interest myself right to the very end. Have you read about that little bitty dinosaur the size of a sparrow they've found up in Nova Scotia? The fact that you can hear the Big Bang to this day, you can measure it? These things excite me beyond measure."
As does Bowles' poetry class, which Morris says, "got us off our behinds."
Like classmates Graham, his wife Dorothy and Eleanor Lack White, Morris lives at Friendship Terrace, a retirement home across the street from Iona House. She has seen many in the halls and dining room who never think about the little dinosaur, the Big Bang. A woman who reads the papers so diligently she "could debrief Kissinger," she attends current events discussions at Iona House "to get them from talking about light bulbs and the heating and constipation and back to current affairs." Our band of wakened, older poets soars to lyric peaks of joy or heights of woe celebration or defiance pours from our throats; but was not always so. John Graham
"I was looking for a way for older people to connect up that was more expressive than basket-weaving, something that was really vital and interesting and challenging," says Bowles, a former high school English teacher who began teaching poetry in nursing homes, then joined Iona House. At first it was only poetry reading with the group that would become the Iona Poets, but then she announced her "secret agenda": This class would write. By now, the group has collected two slender volumes of verse, printed with donations and the help of friends.
"I'm not particularly interested in poetry therapy," says Bowles, "doing things for people that just help them get through the day. I'm interested in doing things that are challenging and truly educational. The creative voice -- I think it can dry up in a person. If you don't pay attention, it may not cease to exist, but at least cease to be heard."
"For my part, I can say this is the happiest period of my life, with a good bit of that coming from my special interest," says Graham.
"We're getting at an age when words tend to escape us, as well as faces. I do think our work, in trying to work with words, is at least assisting in trying to defer the loss of memory."
He calls it "leaning against the wheel of time." Heart beating wildly; Trying to scream The scream That will not come. Death was in my room And will not go away. And will not go away. Esther Stovall
"At this age, it's very hard for people to get to know each other," says Bowles. "Sometimes they can't hear too well, sometimes they can't see so well. Through the poetry, each of us has come to know each other really intimately. You know what happened to somebody's father, you know they've been divorced and you know what that divorce took from them. It's like a therapy group -- we're not there to let it all hang out, but it does through the poetry."
"You go through periods," says Esther Stovall. "Maybe you're not feeling well, maybe a relative or a friend dies. You know about this, so you treat the person very tenderly. Nothing's said about it. You just know."
A former editor at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, Stovall is a Quaker with a firm jaw, the settled mouth of a pragmatist and a deadpan delivery she employs for such subjects as the travail of living with a child who -- as her now-grown son used to do -- bites other children. "That can lose you friends," she says without a glint of smile but knowing she will evoke one in the listener.
She's a woman who would seem more drawn to prose than poetry. "My first reaction was, 'Somebody is going to read my poetry and tell me what to do? No way!' " But, she found, "there's no meanness" in discussions, and the former skeptic is now the senior Iona Poet, the member who has stuck with it longest.
"Some of mine tend to be surface poems," Stovall says, referring to a genre common to the Poets. Reveries on nature are especially popular. For Winifred Morris, poems "about animals or nature or topical events" save her from obsessive self-involvement, from merely "looking at my navel." For others, like Stovall, the distance of "surface poems" offers other protections.
"There are some poems so personal I find it difficult to read in class and I could not read in a public reading," she says. Once for an assignment she wrote a poem about someone who had treated her badly. It was, Stovall says, "just about the nastiest piece of prose I had ever written."
"I came home, I tore it up and I threw it in the wastebasket. I don't even have a copy -- I didn't want anyone to go through my papers after I died and see it. But I got to thinking about it after and I thought, 'That is really terrible. Forget the poem, you've destroyed that, but what about what's in you? I don't have to forgive -- that's not part of it, but am I really comfortable with that feeling? No, I'm not.'
"I'm still trying to figure out how to live with it -- not forgive, but not have this dreadful antagonism. Writing it down made me think, and the fact I had to tear it up made me go back and say, 'You have to resolve this.'
"But," she says, "I don't ever want to see that poem ever again." When she agreed I kissed her lightly, she responded like a lovely dream . . . Then I took her to the village saying we'd not meet again but all my life I have remembered the seventeenth of May, the mountain, and our one night of love. Eugene Fisher
Eugene Fisher does not understand why his poem "One Night of Love" aroused such controversy within the Poets' circle.
"They said, 'How can you write such things?' " he remembers. "One woman said, 'I think there's something naughty about you and that girl.' I didn't feel that. I thought I was loving her cleanly and beautifully."
The poem is about romance, not sex, he says. Romance is one of his favorite subjects.
"I like to write about the United States and the beauty of it, the beauty of the young ladies," says Fisher, 85, who came to the United States from Russia, via China, Vietnam and a stint in the French Foreign Legion. Mention of "the young ladies" adds an extra curve to Fisher's nearly constant smile, a twinkling affair that sends his whole face -- jaunty mustache, eyes sheathed in wrinkles, quizzically arched eyebrows -- into a crinkle of joy he pours out onto paper.
"He's never been known to edit," says Winifred Morris. "Geysers and geysers and geysers."
He reads his work to the class in a thick accent that still embarrasses him after more than 60 years in the United States. A poem about a dream of love is filled with repetitions: "dream" appears 12 times in 19 lines. After praising Fisher's idyllic vision, Bowles gives him an assignment: to rewrite the poem with only three repetitions. After a few more gently phrased suggestions from the class, Fisher bubbles with appreciation.
"Thank you very much. You always help."
In 1977, the former Voice of America executive producer was living in a nursing home, his leg broken, told he would never walk again.
Fisher, who recently visited India and just returned from a trip to Miss Porter's, a Connecticut prep school where he read his poetry and spoke about his life in Russia, says he knew if he couldn't walk, "I would have died."
But in the nursing home, where he fought the doctor's prognosis and regained the use of his leg, "One thing happened to me which changed my life and made me very happy."
He met Bowles.
"I asked her, 'How could I write poetry when I was obliged to speak a foreign language?' " he remembers. "Judy said, 'You can't hear an accent in your poetry.' "
And the geyser was unleashed. Poetry, like a quiet river, sails Along the shores unknown to me And I begin to feel so many things Which I have never felt before And I find words Which I have never known before That tell of wind Quietly touching leaves Of waves chasing each other Everything singing, dancing Of music that is playing only for me. Eugene Fisher
Retired government writer and editor Mary D'Imperio is younger than the rest of the group and is offended by the assumptions many people make when told of a class of "older" poets.
"They think, 'Isn't it wonderful! They can prop themselves up at the table!' "
Retired teacher Eleanor White was similarly angered by an article in her college alumni magazine describing older Americans "in their apartments, looking at television, eating TV dinners and taking their medicine -- that was the end of their scope. They seemed to think our old age was just sort of doddering. I finally wrote and said, 'You've got it all wrong. There are many of us who are still learning, learning as much as we did in college. We're not all on our last legs.' "
Even Bowles has found herself guilty of underestimating the strengths of her students.
"I have to overcome continually the thought, 'Oh my God, can I make demands? How tough can I be, how honest?' " she says. "At the beginning, I think I may have felt that the elderly are so frail, they're on a shelf, we shouldn't deal with them. I'm struggling with something our whole society struggles with. I suppose I feared if I tapped them, nothing would come out."
But things did come out. Poems about parents and poems about children. Poems about politics in the Philippines, poems about refrigerators. Poems about flying over Lake Michigan and poems about living at Friendship Terrace and poems about fear and love and music and poetry. Why should I sniff hound-wise zigzagging for my voice? It yells, "Heed, I'm here!" John Graham