The poet laureate of Virginia grabs a large wooden shillelagh and pokes it at her yapping dog.
"Heaven only knows why they made me poet laureate," says Jean Elliot, a spry, 78-year-old grande dame of Old Town in Alexandria. "Personally, I think it's silly."
Elliot was named to the unpaid post three years ago by the Virginia General Assembly. Since then, she has not been asked to write a single word on the glories of the Old Dominion.
When asked what her duties are, Elliot -- Wedgewood blue eyes shining -- smiles and smooths back a wisp of silver hair. "I don't do anything," she says.
State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchel (R-Alexandria) nominated Elliot for the postion in 1976 as part of a state program to honor the creative arts.
"I nominated her because I was familiar with some of her poetry," Mitchell said last week. That makes him a member of an elite group of fans: Elliot's first and only book of poems, "A Starrier Coldness" -- published six years ago -- is out of print.
("If they'd known I was going to be the poet laureate," Elliot said, "they might have come out with a second edition." The first edition consisted of "a few hundred copies.")
Mitchell said he did not know why Virginia's poet laureate had not been called on to pen any verse. "I'm not sure anyone really thought of that aspect," he said.
The Alexandria City Council named Jean Elliot the city's "poet in residence" at last week's council meeting.
Asked what Elliot's duties will be, assistant city manager Michelle Evans said, "That's a good question."
Elliot says she would like to help other poets "since, as you know, I haven't been writing much poetry myself lately."
A bronze commemorative plaque will be erected by the city on Elliot's Old Town residence, in recognition of her "outstanding contributions to the art of poetry."
Former city councilman Nicholas A. Colasanto, who suggested the plaque last June, said last week, "We have someone the city of Alexandria should be proud of. I'd like the whole damn world to know she lives here."
Elliot can't explain the Commonwealth's interest in her. "I'm not a Virginian," she said incredulously. "I know a great deal of Virginia poets better than I."
And don't ask her to write the praises of Alexandria. "I don't rave about Old Town," she says. "It;s very dirty and noisy."
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1901 Elliot grew up in the Bohemian environs of Bronxville before being sent to a southern finishing school "to smooth the rough edges."
While planning a career as a portrait painter, Elliot taught school, wrote society articles for local newspapers, and married a Manhattan banker. Now at 78, she has become, in her words, "an observer of life and little dogs and things."
She and her husband, Robert Sherrard Eilliot, live in the white brick mansion they bought 20 years ago, surrounded by dusty books, faded oriental rugs, ancestral portraits and floor-to-ceiling drapes yellowing in the afternoon sun.
From the front parlor, her observations flow like port wine. On women's lib: "Personally I think we have the best of things. I've enjoyed being pampered by men."
Jimmy Carter: "I wish he wouldn't grin all the time. It looks so silly."
On poetry: "Keats is my favorite. He's amazingly modern."
But Elliot is most endearing on the subject of love.
"My husband seems to be flattered that men are attracted to me." she says, pursing her lips. "I'm a romantic. I've been in love a good many times."
She settles back on the settee, reliving a broken engagement, midnight trysts under New York's famed Biltmore clock, gardenias and a six-month tour of Europe to forget the gardenia bearer.
"I'm glad I've had that color in my life," she says wistfully. "But I'm 78 now. Who in the world would fall in love with me?"
She reluctantly to returns to the subject at hand.
"You know, two years ago, I wrote to Governor John Dalton asking to read at the governor's mansion in Richmond," she says. "I never heard anything back from him."
But Jean Elliot says politics and poetry don't mix. "I don't think many poets are interested in politics," she complains. "Poets are apt to be dreamers." Suggestions to a Wolfe Street Neighbor Should you pull a mermaid out of the Potomac, bring her here but never again fetch us a catfish. Let those contaminated creatures live. Better we starve than fatten on dung-nourished flesh no matter how sweet to the tongue. -- Jean Elliott, Virginia poet laureate