He looks down at the book again and opens it. His rhythm has changed. He flips through it with excited purpose, some destination in mind. “To truly experience a poem,” he mutters, almost to himself, “you need to feel it. A poem is alive, it has a voice. It is a person. Who are they? Why are they?” He sticks his finger in the book, and closes it, holding his place. Then he looks back to me. “Hearing her words, as she speaks to you, you think and feel certain things. Just as, hearing my words now, you think and feel certain things. Reading poetry is a conversation of feeling between two people. It shouldn’t answer anything, it should only create more questions, like any good conversation. What did she make you feel? That’s what I wanted you to examine.”
I’d like to tell him that was a remarkable explanation of the assignment. Of life, for that matter, but all I can do is nod. I don’t think I’ve been this quiet since I was in utero. Possibly not even then.
“Here,” Davenport says, handing me the book with his finger still trapped inside. He opens it and points to a piece of text. “Read this. Starting here. Aloud.”
I take another breath, then read, trying to steady my voice.
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!”
I roll my eyes. “Give me something less obvious.”
“Obvious? To whom? You’ve read it, brilliant. Now feel it.”
This is too much. “Look, I get it, I get what you’re doing, saying.”
“But, I get it.”
He smiles impishly at me, those eyes twinkling. “Read it again, Ella. Please. You might be surprised.”
“Please” does something to me. I look back down at the poem. The idea of being surprised in some way intrigues me.
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
So various, so beautiful, so new—”
Davenport’s quiet, measured voice fills the room:
“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.”
I look at him. He recites from memory, gaze on the arm of my chair. He doesn’t continue, so, after a moment, I do:
“Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
God, isn’t that the truth? The words arrest me for a moment. I realize I’m not breathing. I forcibly inhale and continue:
“And we are here as on a darkling plain . . .”
My voice snags on the last syllable, like a bramble capturing my skirt. Davenport picks up the thread:
“Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight . . .”
And I finish:
“Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Moving fast but steady, he scoots to the edge of his chair and reaches over, closing the book in my lap, his hand resting on its cover. That same hand that was splayed in front of me in the Bodleian. I stare at it. “Now tell me,” he murmurs in a low voice, “what is Matthew Arnold saying?” I hesitate, thinking. “Don’t think.” I close my eyes. “If you don’t open yourself up, how can you ever be surprised by life? And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?”
Breathe. “That in death . . . love is all there is.”
“And how does that make you feel?” He presses into the book for emphasis and I feel the pressure in my lap.
I open my eyes, look up. His face is inches from mine, his eyes questing. The word falls out of my mouth. “Lonely.” And I finally realize what it is about his eyes. They’re the color of this swimming hole I used to spend summers at as a kid, at the end of a trail, at the base of a waterfall. The color was so magical I was convinced if I could hold my breath long enough, swim deep enough, pump my legs hard enough, I’d discover the bottom wasn’t a bottom at all, but a portal to another world.
I feel my eyes fill, swelling to the brim. But nothing spills over.
His eyes continue to bore into mine. I hear myself say, “How does it make you feel?”
For the briefest of seconds his eyes drop to my mouth before they blink back to my eyes. “Hopeful.”
I can’t stop swimming in those pools.
The realization comes at me sideways, like the buffeting of air from a semi on the highway:
I just lived years of my life in those eyes.
A voice: “Jamie, I’ve just had a ring from your—oh! So sorry, I didn’t—”
He’s standing, sweeping up the anthology with him. Only then do I hear my phone ringing. I stand as well, my legs unsteady, feeling as if I should be buttoning something up. I turn to the doorway and see Cecelia. She’s looking at the floor, saying, “The door was open, I didn’t—” I’m not sure if she is talking to me, or Jamie, or both of us.
“No, it’s fine,” I say breezily, taking my phone out of my pocket and walking to the door on shaking legs. “We’re done. And I need to take this.”
“Yes. Of course,” he says, crossing in the opposite direction, back to his desk. “See you in class.”
I slide past Cecelia, muttering, “You too.” I answer my phone. “Yes, Gavin?”
I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.
Charlotte Brontë (possibly Emily), “Stanzas,” 1850
The grilling began at the Bombay Curry House when, after being uncharacteristically quiet all evening and barely eating my chicken tikka masala, I failed to dodge Charlie’s loaded question: “How was the tute?”
Now, after thirty minutes of detailing and defending, I need a drink. Badly. “Guys! It wasn’t a big deal. Really. Let it go.”
Maggie looks at me. I can tell she senses that I was more affected by the tutorial than I’m letting on and, unlike Charlie and Tom, I think she also senses that the undertow of sexual chemistry is secondary to something larger. Something I don’t even understand myself.
I stand up from the table and announce, “Well, I don’t know about you locals, but this American’s going to her first British pub.”
Charlie and Maggie gasp. Tom drops his fork. They shout, “You’ve never been to a pub?!”
ON THE WALK up St. Giles, Maggie informs me, “Pubs are like churches here.”
“Right,” Charlie replies. “Except we consider them sacred and attend them religiously.” Then he pulls open the old, beaten-to-hell door of the Eagle and Child.
The Eagle and Freaking Child. This isn’t just a pub, this is the legendary watering hole that hosted the Inklings, an informal assemblage of writers including J. R. R. Tolkein and Magdalen’s own C. S. Lewis. I get a chill when I walk through the door. I turn to share the moment with my companions, but they’re already halfway to the bar, immune to the ghosts of history.
The pub has beams that make the ceiling head-bumpingly low in places. Tom stands with his head at a constant tilt, unbothered. Rooms lead to other rooms, which grow progressively smaller, like caverns in a cave system. It smells like hops and rain.
Charlie turns to me, taking me by surprise. “Tipple, darling?”
I come back to reality. “Yes! Cider!”
He shakes his head. “Save your cider for Old Rosie at the Turf.”
“Then a Grey Goose dirty martini, straight up, three olives.”