Beauty, wisdom, virtue, strength, and love—we call them gifts, but none of them are gifts. One way or another, we end up having to account for them. As a case in point: I turned out to have a particular talent of my own, neither flashy nor immediately practical, for which it would never have occurred to me to ask and which, if I’d kept the receipt, I would probably have tried to return. Like everyone, I had given thought over the years to my purpose and destiny; but as I was only a junior in high school, the question hadn’t yet acquired much in the way of urgency. Once this “gift” business came to light, however, the matter was suddenly all but taken out of my hands.
We came back from Christmas break as princes on the eve of coronation. Only one semester, only one more summer, and then the rampaging ecstasy of seniordom was ours. I’d just turned seventeen (my birthday’s on January first), and I was feeling especially wise and ancient as I pulled into the parking lot that frosty morningtide. Emerging from my battered old Civic, I stood with my fists on my hips and gazed proudly upon that training hall of sages and scholars to be, St. John Vianney High. My regal moment lasted for approximately four seconds, and then Sean showed up.
“Joey!” he bellowed, he leaping out of the huge red pickup that we simply called, The Vehicle. “We meet again, after all these long years!”
In point of fact, we’d spent the previous day together playing video games; but rational responses only encouraged Sean. (Irrational responses, total non-responsiveness, and radical physical violence encouraged him too.) So I went for the unexpected approach: I snatched my bag and took off toward St. J at a dead sprint, with Sean ululating at my heels. He was a big guy—especially compared to my scrawny ass—but I was just a hair faster. We zipped through the halls, narrowly avoiding a lethal collision with Sister Thérèse, severed a Gordian knot of freshmen clustered around their goony yellow freshman lockers, and almost literally flew down the stairs to Mrs. Talleyrand’s homeroom. Bursting through the door, we found her standing perfectly still in the empty room, and skidded to a halt, panting. Somehow she always managed to convey the impression that if one had entered a moment sooner, one would have caught her levitating.
“Hello, boys,” she said calmly. “How was your vacation?”
“Jovian, ma’am,” I said, still breathing hard, and headed for my desk. Sean in his oafishness had forgotten his books and had to head back out to The Vehicle—not that it mattered, as we were over ten minutes early. Soon our fellow juniors began to arrive, and we sat chattering until Fr. Brown came over the PA to lead us in the Our Father and the Pledge of Allegiance.
My day started with European History (at present we were learning something about a monarchy of some kind), and continued with Pre-Trig. Then there was a ten-minute break during which I consumed more coffee than was entirely healthy, and then came AP English. Sean was in this one too, and he had developed the infectious habit of referring to our teacher, Mr. Mark Roland, as Commander Mark. The Commander commenced with polite inquiries about our holiday, and duly received the vague mumbles of reply which were customary.
“Good, good,” he said. “Then I trust your minds are well-rested and prepared for today’s assignment.” I leaned forward, interested. Roland came up with some pretty challenging stuff sometimes. “Today you will work in assigned pairs to create an original sonnet in the style of one or more of the poets we have studied so far. However! You will not work together in the ordinary sense: rather, you will alternate, one of you writing all the odd-numbered lines and the other writing all the evens. You may consult, of course, but the point of this exercise is to inculcate adaptability to the unforeseen, so don’t cheat yourselves. I want at least a rough draft by the end of class, and please observe the forms of the sonnet—fourteen rhymed lines in iambic pentameter, octave sets forth a problem and sestet proposes an answer. I would hate to have to flunk any of you for handing in a haiku.”
The teachers at St. J knew better by now than to put me and Sean together, but I was disheartened at the Commander’s choice of a partner for me: Sylvia Templeton, a slim, dark-eyed girl, very pretty but more than a little—well—I believe tempestuous is the currently accepted nomenclature. She was the editor-in-chief of the Augury, our school’s monthly literary magazine. Last semester, we’d all had to compose an original poem and read it aloud to the class. Sylvia had been so impressed with my work that she’d been badgering me for weeks to submit a few poems to the lit mag, and even the Commander had encouraged me to do so; but I had steadily refused. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I certainly had no desire to be a poet. Everyone knows that the cosmos twirls its cosmic mustache inventing horrific tragedies for poets.
She gave me half a smile and said, “Shall I start?”
I hesitated. I was in a good mood and wanted to write a happy poem; but I remembered that she was partial to the gloomier fellows like Hardy and Housman, and I really didn’t feel that was the correct note on which to begin. “How about rock-paper-scissors?” She shrugged and held out her fist, and we counted to three and fired.
Luck was with me: she threw scissors to my rock. “All right, take it away.”
I figured I’d kick things off with a little Shakespeare. Can’t go wrong with Shakespeare. Editing slightly for metrical purposes, I wrote, O what a piece of wondrous work’s a man!
Sylvia didn’t miss a beat. But Lord, what arrant fools these mortals be.
“Hey—we’re supposed to be on the same side here.”
“I don’t remember anyone saying that.”
I realized, with a slight frown, that she was technically correct. But surely the Commander wouldn’t simply turn us loose on each other for his own demented amusement? My frown deepened. “Look, I won the coin toss. I want to construct a paean.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to be your peon.”
Sean turned around in his seat and stage-whispered, “Swish!”
“Sweet holy mercy, Sylvia, how do you live with yourself?”
“A girl could wait a lifetime for another pun like that. Anyway, it’s your serve.”
“Stop it, the both of you. I said ‘coin toss’—we’re doing a football metaphor right now. In fact, Sean, you stay out of this altogether.”
“You got it, buddy. Have a good at-bat.”
I muttered something about the swift wings of death and returned to our—or, at any rate, my—little ode. Before proceeding, I would have to settle on a rhyme scheme: ABAB or ABBA. Pondering possible assonances, I stumbled into an innocent-seeming line: Stranger than dreamt in our philosophy.
My esteemed opponent considered that for a few moments and then added, And oh, how sharper than a serpent’s fang.
This wasn’t going so well; clearly, it was time to dial up the optimism. Yet God is in His Heaven, all is right, I scrawled.
She scowled. “You’re using Browning’s defense against me, eh?”
“I thought it fitting, considering the rocky quatrain.”
“Naturally. You must expect me to attack with Christopher Marlowe.”
“Naturally—but I find that Milton cancels out Christopher Marlowe. Don’t you?”
“Unless the enemy has studied Matthew Arnold—” she made a few deft pen-strokes “—which I have.”
My Browning assault reference was now followed by this:
Fall on us, hills, and hide us from His eyes!
We will not reign below but serve on high
Where ignorant angel armies clash by night.
I sighed. Our sonnet was going to end up looking like the work of a serial plagiarist with a split personality.
“All right, little Miss Anthropy. Exactly what problem have we just set forth in our octave?”
Sylvia quickly scanned our work-in-progress and raised her eyebrows. “I think we’ve confronted the fundamental struggle between light and darkness in the human soul.”
“Oh, good. I’ve been meaning to clear that up anyway.”
“Have at it, stud.”
“I suppose you’ll come down on the side of darkness?”
“The universe comes down on the side of darkness, Joey. Have you looked at it lately?”
“I’m looking at it as we speak. I see a room full of safe, well-fed people learning stuff about poetry. Ghastly enough, I’ll grant you, but still—”
“The sugar-coating topping on the abyss.”
“Boy, you’re a drop of golden sun.”
“And you’re a thread without a needle. Do the next line already.”
I bent over the paper again, and clicked my pen a few times. Maybe I could still creep to some kind of acceptable middle ground. I down-shifted from Milton to Pope and wrote hopefully, To stray is human, to return divine.
Sylvia rolled her eyes and made the precarious Pope-to-Poe transition: But we’re neither god nor human—we are ghouls. “So much for papal infallibility.”
Plainly, there would be no compromise here: this match was to the death. It suddenly occurred to me that the obvious rhyme for her was fools—as in, “Lord, what fools these mortals be”—and that, since the final line of the poem would be hers, she could thus bring the whole thing full circle and render my opening line superfluous. The prospects were looking bright for the pessimistic outlook. I had two moves left; if there were to be any hope, I would have to lure out her king prematurely. Gambling all upon my guess at her fools-based end-game, I reverted to the Bard and made my queen-sacrifice. Forever out of joint with Heav’nly time. I was all in now; if this didn’t work, the voice of optimism would appear to have defected and the poem’s bleakness would be complete. Maintaining a careful poker face, I awaited her penultimate play.
She pounced at the bait. The Hamlet-to-Midsummer bridge was already in place, and she followed it home like a bloodhound. What weak and aimless mortals be these fools!
“Nicely put,” I said, smiling.
“Nope.” And then, rather smugly, I dropped it on her. Yet, poetry still blossoms from the slime.
“What? Who the hell said that?”
“Joseph Ambrose Hopkins,” I answered proudly—and that was my ultimate mistake. Like Odysseus to the Cyclops, I betrayed myself through hubris to my foe. Couldn’t I have just said Keats or Wordsworth or something? Who was gonna check? But nay, in that moment I named myself irrevocably as poet, and thence arose all that was to follow.
Sylvia sat glaring at me for a long, silent moment; and then, abruptly, her smile re-surfaced. “Okay. Then let’s wrap this up with an original piece by S.B. Templeton.” She raised her pen and deliberated. I had time to project a few likely scenarios for our closing line—My partner doesn’t seem to follow rules, or maybe, Apparently no justice at this school—but I was startled by what she actually wrote. Thus every dragon’s dungeon hides its jewels.
Before I could frame a response, she raised her hand and said, “Mr. Roland! We’re done here.”
He looked up, surprised. Barely ten minutes had gone by; everyone else was still in their initial quatrains. “Are you sure? You’ve got plenty of time to edit; if you hand it in now, it’s final.”
“Oh, I’m counting on it,” she said, getting up, and the smile was definitely a smirk now. Quickly, as if she expected me to tackle her in the aisle, she loped over to his desk and handed him our sonnet. “We’re calling it, ‘The Soul,’” she added, like a haggler upping his price in the middle of the sealing handshake. The Commander nodded, murmured to himself, and jotted something at the top of the paper—presumably,Soul, Templeton, Hopkins, or some such.
“What was that all about?” I asked as she sat back down.
“Oh, nothing,” she said breezily, and pulled out her Calculus book.
I chalked up her behavior to an attempt at losing with good grace and shrugged it off, turning cheerfully to the task of distracting Sean from his assignment for the rest of the class. I had Roland for third period; by the end of fourth, I’d forgotten all about Sylvia, sonnets, and “The Soul.” However—and I expect you’ve already seen this coming—she and Commander Mark found me in the hall towards the end of lunch, and her smirk had returned like a self-regenerating swamp creature that no mortal weapon could destroy.
Sean and I were arguing heatedly over who would win a Scrabble game between Paul Bunyan and Gilgamesh (I can’t remember which side he took, but it was clearly ludicrous). I had just embarked on a series of decidedly ungentlemanly observations about my friend’s parentage and personal habits when the Commander approached and said, “Gentlemen.” We straightened and greeted him with courteous words. “Ms. Templeton would like a moment.”
“Joey,” she said briskly. “Our next issue is due in three weeks. I’ll need to see you in Mrs. Hennessey’s room right after sixth period. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“The Augury, Mr. Hopkins,” the Commander enthused. “In today’s assignment, you quoted yourself—thereby staking your claim to poethood in the ranks of Shakespeare, Browning, and the rest. Unlike Ms. Templeton, you have never voluntarily offered your work to the public eye, which made me question the validity of your claim; but she has convinced me to let you justify it, as it were, retroactively.”
“You’re now our staff poet,” said she. “Congratulations.”
“I—but, but—but I. . .” I glowered. “You two planned this from the outset!”
Sylvia scoffed, but the Commander merely assumed a mien of injured innocence.
My new editor-in-chief punched me on the shoulder. “Welcome aboard, Hopkins. Let’s see what blossoms from your slime.”
With that, they walked away and left me to survey the smoldering wreckage of my leisure time. “Damn, dude,” Sean said gravely. “You got served.”