The Poetry Project
by Link Worshiper
a.n. Yes, yes, I know all of you dorks want more Smells Like Teen Spirit, but this was a pressing matter that had to be dealt with before I failed AP English. As the title states, this if for a poetry project we were assigned in which we were supposed to pick a poet and, in addition to researching him, make one of his poems public. Hence this story. I hope you either sprout an interest for Countee Cullen and the Harlem Ren. (best period for poetry--had Langston Hughes ) or cultivates one you may already have. Enjoy!
Rating: Trying to keep it PG
Warnings: Shounen-ai, AU, Duo POV (so probably a bit of language), over-analysis of poetry
Feedback: OMG, it's vital that you do! My grade depends on it!
For D. Springer, who assigned the project and somehow managed to make poetry more than just words.
If you asked me whether or not I liked Mrs. Lucrezia Noin, I honestly dunno what I'd say. She's a real neat lady--I promise you I've never had a teacher with purple hair before--but she's also pretty strict, and she runs her classroom in a kind of militaristic way. Yet somehow, she still manages to come off as very prim and composed, as ladylike as a lady could be. She likes long sweaters with hoods and scarves, and I've never seen her without a cup of coffee in one hand, a book in the other. Always reading something, that woman is, which I guess really isn't that surprising, considering how much she loves poetry.
No, wait, let me elaborate on that statement a little more: Noin is obsessed with poetry. We have a poem up for discussion every week, and almost everything she says is littered with a quote from some poet or another. The classroom has poetry books crammed everywhere you could think to put them, stacked on the windowsills, piled on her desk, stuffed in bookcases. And she has so many posters and photographs plastered on the drab walls that I doubt she could have fit another one if she wanted to.
So when Noin got up in class today and announced that our semester project was to be an ongoing study of poetry, I was anything but surprised. While the rest of the class tittered and whispered at the notification, I kicked my combat boots up on the desk and folded my hands behind my head as if I'd known all the time. I think she finds me to be a little too nonchalant and lackadaisical about the structured form of her class, especially judging from the odd glares she'd shoot me whenever she caught me daydreaming, but for some reason, she still insists that I'm a bright boy and that I'm definitely in the right class. Maybe once she understands that I've never worked at traditional classes ever, she won't stare at me like I'm some kind of rebel, pot-smoking hippie.
Well, honestly, I don't really expect her to understand me, and I don't ask that she does. My hair is long and falls past my ass, even when braided, and I'll keep it that way no matter how much I get made fun of. I like my black clothes and my loud, jangling buckles and belts. Some people don't like all the earrings I wear or the black makeup I use to make my odd, bluish-violet eyes bolder, but that doesn't make a difference to me either. I'm Duo Maxwell, and that's all I care about. It sure as hell don't matter to me if the kid to my left, the kid to my right, Mrs. Noin or even fucking God don't like it, because I'm gonna be me anyway.
Standing at the front of the classroom, Noin started on one of her inspirational spiels. There are so many poets in the world and just not enough time in the year to cover them all, so I wanted to try and find a way to help educate our class with a wider range of writers but without taking up the whole term, she was saying when the kids had quieted down again. Her face was practically glowing like a zillion suns, her one eye that wasn't covered by a wavy fall of indigo hair twinkling with an almost mischievous glint, like she had a whole deck of aces stuffed up her sleeve. That's so something she would do, too.
A preppy young woman with longish, wheat-blonde hair and a thick, pink sweater--Relena, I believe her name was--raised her hand, asking, Yes, but how will we do that?
The smirk on Noin's face spread into a wide smirk as she held up the thick tome she'd been holding under arm. It had a worn, dark blue cover and yellowed pages; written across the cover in silver letters was the title: A Collection of Poetry Across the Ages.
That, my dear, is exactly what I was just getting to, she said to Relena, not even bothering to start the game of conversational circles she often liked to engage her students in. Books like these are chock-loaded with poets of all different kinds of backgrounds, styles and themes. As the rest of this year progresses, I will assign, as well as have you choose, poets and poems for each student for research and other such things. And your first assignment--she slammed the book down onto Relena's desk, startling the poor thing nearly out of her skin--begins right now! She looked carefully around the room, still wearing that smirk of hers. Any questions?
A tall, quiet boy by the name of Trowa raised his hand from the second-to-last row and asked succinctly for the details of this first assignment in the project. His voice was one of those soft, soothing tones that could lull you to sleep. It was too bad this guy wasn't much of a talker, because it sure was nice listening to him sometimes; he was one of the few people I could actually stand to have read out loud to me.
Oh, this first one will be easy, she said to him, walking back towards her small desk, which sat beneath a mountain of books in the far corner of the room, beneath the blackboard. With a loud clank and a bang, she produced a packet of envelopes from one of the desk's drawers and waved them at the class of hesitant students. As most of you know, our poetry night is coming up soon, and I'd like at least some of you to read there, she started to explain as she began walking up and down the aisles of desks, leaving each student a single, plain envelope. I'm handing each of you a poem, which I'd like you to practice and hone as best you can. We will have a little, mini poetry reading of our own in class next week, and the best three or four of you can read your poem at Caffeine for extra credit. (Caffeine was the name they'd come up with for the school's annual poetry night. Hell, even I found it clever.)
When she got to my desk at the back of the room, she spent more time selecting an envelope than she had for the other kids, who all seemed to have received theirs at random. I eyed her carefully as she flipped through the pack of uniform envelopes, as if she was searching for one in particular. At last, she pulled one out and tossed it onto my desk, where it skidded across the wooden surface and sailed into my lap. Unlike the other ones she'd handed out, mind had a single line written across it in blue pen: For a Poet.
In a low voice, she murmured to me, I hope something comes of this for you, Duo. As she moved away, she rapped my heavy combat boots with her knuckles, saying louder for the benefit of the class, Feet off the desk, Maxwell!
Begrudgingly, I complied.
Noin had forbidden us to open the envelopes until we were well away from her classroom. I stuffed mine into the depths of my hoodie and didn't even think about it until I was rummaging for loose change for an after-school snack. No matter what people perceived me to be, I was never one to rail against conformity when I knew very well that I was just as much a victim to routine as the next guy. My daily habit was the stop I made at the deli four blocks from my building every day on my way home.
I found myself staring at the crinkled, unopened envelope as I pushed the deli's door open, the bell hanging from it jangling loudly as I entered the shop. It wasn't much more than your typical city deli: lots of drinks, stale doughnuts and sandwiches. I never came here for the quality of the food, really, but more because this place felt like a home away from home. You know, one of those comfortable places where you're allowed to just be without question.
As to why this particular deli was the one I chose out of the ten others I passed on the way home, well, the answer was sitting on a high stool behind the counter, his nose buried in the pages of a thin paperback he had wound around itself. This young man, a half-breed Japanese, who went by the name Heero, was even more interesting to me than Noin. It wasn't just that his slanted, thick-lashed eyes were the most startling blue you ever did see, or that his eyebrows had this stern, determined angle to them. It wasn't the mess of dark, dark brown hair that curled over the nape of his neck and fell in long, thick chunks in his face, stroking the tip of his nose or the urge I always had to ruffle that unruly mop of hair. Nor was it the two top buttons of his shirt I was secretly glad he never kept fastened or the way his slim hands bent around his books. It wasn't even the waltzes that he almost always had playing on the boom box behind the counter. No, there really was no reason as to why I found myself so drawn to Heero Yuy; I knew only that there was no one else in the world like him and that I would learn what made him tick if it killed me. That's all there was: nothing less and nothing more.
I dropped the envelope, three crumpled dollar bills and sixty-eight cents in change onto the counter. He knew it was me without even having to look up from his book. His voice was deeper and even richer than Trowa's, though it did carry a slight, nasal, monotone. Had I not known that he just normally spoke that way, I might have guessed he was hitting on me or something. Green tea and a large chocolate-chip cookie for your Thursday afternoon? he asked more out of courtesy than question as he flicked one of the cheap pages of his paperback over. He knew all my strange routines and habits, even the ones that had nothing to do with the seemingly random things I bought from him on various days of the week.
I said, also out of courtesy and for lack of any other response to such an obvious statement.
Having the strangest aversion to dog-earing books, on a normal day, he would have asked me for a bookmark, and I would have produced something random from one of my pockets, be it some more dollar bills, an old receipt, a bobby pin or a bit of string. But instead, today, he just glanced down at the money on the counter, saw the envelope and plucked that up to be his daily placeholder. I didn't mind. Maybe he assumed that I had finally taken the hint' about the bookmark thing, though quite frankly, I considered his asking just as important a part of the ritual as me giving one to him.
He set the book down on the counter, the envelope sticking out of its pages oddly, as he punched in the price of my purchase and popped open the cash drawer with its loud cha-ching. Heero had the strangest, most amazing memory I'd ever seen and always knew exactly which price went with each set of my routine purchases. After he'd swept two of my old dollar bills and forty-eight cents into the register, he went about heating up the water for my tea in one of the coffee pots behind the counter.
What are you reading, there, I asked as I eyed the green paperback curiously. It had a detailed picture of an odd man in rags and a top hat reading a book, its lines a darker green than that of the rest of the book.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, answered Heero as he dropped a tea bag into a tall Styrofoam cup. He turned around to pluck my cookie from the display case in the counter, slipping it into a white bag for me. It's a satire of Hamlet, he said, handing the cookie to me. I think you'd like it.
Really? Can I borrow it, then? I asked, daring to flip the book over so I could see its cover. It wasn't much to speak of: just plain green with the dark green lettering stating the title and the playwright.
He was fixing the lid on my steaming cup of tea as I asked this, so I had to wait a couple moments before he replied. As he turned around to hand me my tea, he nodded, his hair rustling as he did so, long bangs stroking the tip of his small, gracefully sloping nose. You can borrow any of books whenever you'd like, Duo, he said, picking up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and pulling the envelope out. Here, take it now, if you'd like. I've read this many times before.
Aw, you're way nicer to me than I deserve, I grinned, accepting the book and cradling it against my chest like it was a dear treasure. I can't say I had the fondest memories of Hamlet; some psychotic, schizophrenic teacher I once had managed to make that a painful experience. Really, it was more gesture that meant anything to me. Hell, he could have offered me something in fucking Greek and I would have taken it just the same. I sometimes wondered just what it was about these real book-wormish types and their constant generosity with lending stuff. Perhaps it was some kind of need to share the stories they love so much with the world.
Maybe so, he rejoined, resuming his seat on the stool. Realizing that he still had the envelope, he looked down at it curiously, then held it out at me, a strange, suspicious look flickering across his face. What's this? A love note?
I made an odd, gurgling noise in the back of my throat as I went to try and snatch it away, almost knocking over my boiling hot tea in the process. Ack, that's from my teacher!
Your teacher gave you a love note? Heero quirked one eyebrow, though by this point, it was clear that he knew the envelope contained nothing of that sort at all. He may have been one of those quiet, calculating types, but he was way more sadistic than he'd ever let on casually. He flipped the envelope over and stared at the front, silently reading the words Noin had written there. 'For a Poet'? he asked, arching one brow. Are you a poet, Duo?
I sent him a glare, which was spoiled by his complete immunity to it. (Heero, himself, had perfected the art of the death glare; I'd seen him give it to customers that bother him, and let me tell you, it's scary as shit.) If you have to know, it's for a project, I informed him glibly, rolling my eyes. Some poetry assignment. I have no idea what she's talking about with that shit on the envelope.
His eyes sparkled as I said the word poetry'. I should have thought about that before I opened my big, fat yap; Heero and Noin were of a similar breed, and I should have known that Heero would react like that.
I see. Well, that makes sense, then, he said with a nod, sounding almost grateful or something. Heero always had the strangest intonations in his words and sometimes I wondered if I was missing some greater meaning whenever he hummed and sighed to himself.
If you don't mind my asking, but what makes sense? I asked, clearly feeling a little out of the loop, even though it was only Heero and me talking. I bet if that Chinese guy, the one who works on weekends, Mondays and Wednesdays, was here, he'd be smirking at us and dropping some droll comment that would make me turn red in the face, even if it was directed at Heero. Embarrassing me in front of Heero seemed to be a sport for that guy, and sometimes I wondered why he was always so keen to try and make Heero and I feel awkward around each other. Maybe he was just seeing something I kept missing; I'm good at not noticing obvious shit.
Heero said, indicating the blue ink on the envelope and jarring me from my mental grouse about the Chinese guy.
This what? I wondered smartly. I was a real fucking moron sometimes. I wondered if it made any difference that I recognized that in myself. I went on, pointing at Noin's lettering, is just my teacher's warped idea of sarcasm.
No, no, said Heero, shaking his head and making his hair tussle about. This is the title of a poem. Countee Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance, he informed me, tapping the envelope he still head aloft with a dulled fingernail. His cuticles were worn and he had a paper cut on the side of his thumb.
The Harlem what? I arched a brow as he handed the envelope back to me. I'd only ever been to Harlem once. It was across the bridge and too many subway stops away, not to mention a sometimes dangerous place if one wasn't careful. Look, if you're a dude, your hair hangs past your ass, you wear a lot of earrings and stuff, the last thing you want to do is go aimlessly wandering on unfamiliar turf. Especially if you don't want to get beat up for being a fag. Not that I couldn't pull a few nasty punches of my own, mind you, fag or not.
He sighed and leaned on the register, watching me curiously. Why don't you open the damn thing and tell me what your project even is, he said, toying with the red strap of his uniform apron. If I'm right, I'll help you out.
The ripping of the envelope's paper flap ceased for a moment as I paused and eyed him with confusion. Don't you mean if you're wrong, you'll help me out? Wasn't that how those deals usually tended to be laid out?
I'll help you either way. The answer was almost predictable. For a brief moment, I wondered why he ever even bothered, especially in something like this. It's not like he was gaining anything from helping me out anyway.
I finished tearing the envelope open and dumped out the paper pouch's contents as I quickly explained to Heero what the project was. A single, folded sheet of notebook paper fluttered to the countertop and I picked it up, reading it silently to myself. Once again, it was penned in Noin's fat, cursive lettering.
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found earth's breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.
It was a strange little poem, and to be frank, I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. It seemed a little forced in places, very formal and eloquent, yet the message was a very robust, free one. Even a little melancholy, which I liked. Wordlessly, I folded the paper again and held it out to Heero, but he shook his head and refused it. I know that poem, he said. I'd rather you read it to me than just hearing my own, boring voice read it again.
Your voice is anything but boring, I told him. He must not have believed me, even though I was being as sincere as ever, because he shot me a skeptical look. If anyone's voice is boring, it's mine.
Heero was always one to be very to the point and curt in his opinions. I don't agree. he told me flatly. Read the poem.
Picking up my now-cool tea, I took a sip to coat my throat. I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth, I began, my voice toneless and even as I tried to scan, analyze and recite the words all at one time. And laid them away in a box of gold....
If you're trying to make a point, it's not working, Heero cut me off, straightening himself and leaning on the edge of the counter.
I rolled my eyes. There was no denying that Heero was an odd person, though I'm pretty sure it was that strange, nameless quality of his that allowed him to be able to pick up on shit like that. Sometimes he noticed the crap I tried to pull before even I, myself, did. I'm not trying to do anything but read! I protested.
A small grunt fell from Heero's lips as he repositioned himself on the stool behind the counter. You can't just read it; you have to feel it too, he said, watching me from behind his thick, shaggy fringe. Know the words. What is it trying to tell you?
I knew that Heero was asking me these questions to help, but I really don't do well under pressure like that. Even though I had felt a sort of connection in the poem, I couldn't quite put a finger on just what it was that spoke to me. I vaguely recalled Noin saying something at the beginning of the year about the ability of good poetry to speak before it's understood.
I shrugged helplessly at Heero, hoping for some kind of help, but Heero just stared back at me, shaking his head slightly. If I told you that I.... Heero faltered for a moment, running his fingers through his hair as he tried to rephrase his thought. I couldn't just tell you how you're feeling now, right? It is impossible for another person to command the emotions of another, he began again, a faint dusting of pink upon his cheeks. So if I told you what I thought of that poem, what it meant to me, he went on, it would be the same sort of thing. It's not about what I think; it's about you.
For some reason, I felt like he was being tempted to add something else, but decided not to in the end. Well, whatever it was, it was making his face awfully rosy; it was actually pretty cute. Not that I'd ever tell him that, of course. Talk about awkward.
While I continued to think about this question of his, Heero turned around to fiddle with the boom box sitting behind the counter. I found myself watching him turn the tuning dial with his rough thumb, entranced with the careful percision with which he did everything; Heero definitely had the steadiest, strongest hands I'd ever seen. Soon, the quiet waltzes that had been wafting throughout the deli was replaced with some classic rock n' roll, far more my style than Heero's. All I want is you. Everything has got to be just like you want it to... because....' sang the voice on the radio. For some reason, the old, familiar Beatles tune was more distracting than I ever remember it being.
When Heero turned back around, I still had yet to give him an answer to his question. (Heero rarely asked rhetorical questions, and I knew that he was expecting me to give a response.) What do you want out of this poem? Heero pressed, glancing at the front window as someone paused on the sidewalk to look in.
Now that was an answer I had ready. A good grade, I replied automatically.
Heero shook his head, a low, nasal laugh rolling across his tongue as he leaned on the cash register again. Then I can promise you will get anything but that, if that's your mindset, he said, his lips quirked upwards at the corners. A small smile, perhaps, but on Heero, it seemed to light up his entire countenance.
I blinked stupidly at him, digesting this little piece of information as I let out a low whistle. Sheesh, Ro. For a guy working at a deli, you sure know everything, I said appreciatively, hoping I didn't sound flippant. Really, Heero was the most brilliant person I knew, which was yet another reason I loved this deli so much. (Heaven knows its sandwiches aren't why I came so often!)
Heero rolled his shoulders, shrugging, I just read too many books. I find myself to be extremely jaded.
It shows, I said flatly.
A comfortable silence settled between us, which we shared just watching each other. I knew Heero to be almost disgustingly observant, and I often wondered if he noticed as many little details about me as I did about him. Did he notice the little wisps of hair that fell around my ears? Or maybe the way I always fiddled with my braid whenever I was nervous? Did he catch onto my facial mannerisms, and could he tell when I was trying to avert saying something with half truths? I wondered what he thought of me and if he had as strong an opinion about me as I did him. For all I knew, he treated all his customers this way!
At last, the stillness was broken when Heero quietly requested that I try to read the poem again. I did, and I saw that faint quirk of the lips flutter across his face as I did so. When I was through, he straightened and held my eyes with that firm, steady gaze of his. Mouth half open, he was about to say something more to me when the bell on the door of the deli suddenly jangled obnoxiously, announcing the entrance of another customer.
Heero and I snapped our heads in the direction of the blond newcomer, who was approaching the counter. I quickly turned away to hide my abrupt scowl, knowing it would be impossible to continue with someone else in the deli. I thrice damned the oblivious blonde as he scanned the glass display case for something he wanted. Moodily, I crunched up the poem and the envelope into one, big wad and jammed it into the large pocket of my hoodie, nodding a quick goodbye to Heero as I headed for the door. That guy had totally ruined the mood! I was so going to fail Noin's class at this rate!
My hand was on the door, practically pushing it open when I heard Heero calling after me. I glanced over my shoulder to see him leaning over the counter. Where have you laid your dreams away, Duo? he asked, his question surely another one of those thought-provoking ones meant for helping me find a connection with the poem.
I stared at him for a few seconds, just drinking in the sight of him bent over like that. I nodded at him, silently signalling that I would roll the question around in my head before I came back to visit him again. What I didn't tell him, however, was that I already knew the answer by the time my feet had hit the sidewalk outside the deli.
a.n. ::: Okay, I know you didn't read the note at the top, so I'll tell you again, please let me know what you thought of this story! It's actually a project! A project, I might add, I've decided to keep ongoing. Should you wish to continue the story, find a poem, any poem, you think you could build another part around and send it to me. If I give you the okay, totally go for it! I think it would build a love for both poetry and our two favourite lovers! Details on the website!