One of my favorite parts of taking a poetry workshop is picking the brains of my experienced comrades. On Monday night, I asked two of them to give me their list of favorite poets. I took out my notebook and recorded the list: Maurice Manning, Alice Friman, Jim Harrison, Jack Gilbert, David Shumate, William Stafford, and Karen Kovacik. I could hardly wait to get home, tuck the kids and my husband into bed, and dig into some new-to-me poems, by new-to-me poets. I surfed http://www.poetryfoundation.org and read as many poems as I could, until I could no longer keep my eyelids open. I was hoping a poem would grab me, but nothing sounded the alarm bells.
The next day, I recalled having attended a reading by David Shumate some years ago. I scanned my bookshelves until I found a signed copy of High Water Mark. I started flipping through the pages and stopped when I came to this poem:
How to Sit in a Cafe
by David Shumate
Place both elbows on the table and cradle the cup between
your palms. Gaze into your coffee and watch your soul surface
from time to time. Lean back and regard the sky when it suits
you. Your hair should look forsaken. Your clothes do not
matter at all. If someone sits at a table nearby, speak only when
it pleases you. Appear dismayed, even irritated. You owe
nothing to this purgatory that values your skills so little. Avoid
the impression of waiting for someone; you are here because
you are here. Bring an inconspicuous tablet if you wish. A
pencil for a note or a sketch. Come only when the moon is
present. Never be the last to leave. Cairo, Moscow, Paris,
Rome — everywhere the rules are the same.
As soon as I read this poem, I got that happy buzz I get when a piece sings to me. How did David Shumate know that I had just spent most of the day packing for a trip to Paris? And how did he know what it feels like to sit in Cafe La Bonaparte, nibbling on a tartine and sipping a cafe creme? This poem reminds me of my happiest moments in Paris: I sit at a round table at La Bonaparte. I gaze at red geraniums in the flower boxes of the Cathedral St. Germain. I admire the polished shoes of a Parisian man on his way to work. I smile at a dusty dog curled at his owner’s feet, beneath a woven chair. I pretend not to notice a woman scribbling in a notebook, pausing every now and then to tap her pen against her lips. I breathe deeply and savor every moment.
How can a poem transport me so? The next time I yearn for cafe dreaming, I’ll reach for this little sip by David Shumate. It’s cheaper than a plane ticket — cheaper even than a cafe creme.