n the distance the Rome zoo is trying to close. I say trying because it can’t hear itself. Instruments booming from the park stun the information. The loudspeaker begins, “The zoo is about to…” but is interrupted by guitars and a voice that sings “Because the night…” The half-sleep of a nap makes it sound like the zoo is about the night. Or that the night is about to close. But I recognize the voice.
I heard her only once. The rest I borrow from the fame that followed. The girl I liked but had never kissed, a poet, asked me to join her for a reading. It could have been winter but it might have been spring. The upper west side of New York smelled like a short circuit. Rats the size of possums did the Bohemian circuit after dark. Chinas y Latinas were the only ethnic restaurants. It was 1974.
She was the reading’s introductory poet and pronounced the name of the French poet Rimbaud as ram-BEAU. This was in the crypt of St. John the Divine, the cold cathedral on Amsterdam Avenue. We’d come, the poet and I, to hear Allen Ginsburg. He’d entered his annoying chanting phase, but I’d never kissed the poet in the year I’d known her and joining her was another chance. I was too shy even to hold her hand. I was 21.
Ram-BEAU. She was about to read poems inspired by him. Or so she said. Her voice was callused, gravel hauled up from a place lungs don’t normally visit, or shouldn’t. She mumbled her alphabet. When I worked to get a closer look at her I saw a small thin woman with no breasts and a shirt hanging loose, a solemn brunette with hair clipped so short she seemed all at once like an emaciated astronaut experimentally deprived of gender. The why wasn’t clear.
The poet I’d never kissed knew about her, had read her work, mostly in chapbooks. The rest was word of mouth limited to the small and dingy New York city scene represented in poetry by the likes of Mark Strand and John Ashbery, one a Brahmin, the other a rule-breaker.
The girl I’d never kissed liked neither. She had her own set of heroes, a dollhouse pantheon of incidental men and women she’d heard about through friends in the writing scene. Her friends regarded me dubiously: My limited poetic output had no staying power. Impressionistic ephemera, I was told. I had no idea what the words meant.
After her awkward introduction, the ram-BEAU lover stood up in front of a microphone and began to speak, not to read, since she had no book. But what followed wasn’t speech. She seemed instead to adjust the molecular structure of the crypt so that it manufactured a hysterical animal, or a wounded one. She did not breathe. Gunned out verses stepped uncaring on the ones that came before them. She read for 20 minutes before pausing.
By then the girl I’d never kissed had clutched my hand so hard it left dents. Our hands were soaked. She said “Wow.” I said nothing.
The ram-BEAU woman began again, and again she assaulted the crypt. This time the voice rose into singsong: images of stallions and razor blades and demons in dapper suede coats harvesting cotton on the moon. In all, she read for an hour. No one clapped. No one cheered. The Ginsburg-waiters simply stood there stunned. She said “thank you.” Then I said “Wow.” Later came Ginsburg’s chanting. We left after 10 minutes. He couldn’t compare.
Now it’s nearly 40 years later and the zoo can’t hear itself. Her band is practicing for a concert in the park. She went from poetry into music. She’s 64, the age to which The Beatles once paid gentle tribute to in a 1960s song as playful as the ram-BEAU girl was raw.
I bought her first album, which came out a year later, in 1975. By then I’d kissed the girl. Between endearments we even shared records, and one of them was by Patti Smith.