Kim, our friend from Peoria, joined the conference call late and apologized, as people sometimes do, profusely and at a length that rendered the apology more disruptive than the lateness.
‘I had to wait for ages at the store,’ Kim said, ‘and with social distancing the line went round the corner, and some guy cut in ahead and there was shouting, and security were in the parking lot.’
I wondered about the detailed description – which came by way of excusing an interruption. I was at the same time intrigued by a captivating, if gratuitous, glimpse of American life.
‘There was a shooting?’ Dimitri asked.
Either Dimitri believes that every altercation in front of a US supermarket ends with weapons drawn, or he had misheard ‘shouting’ for ‘shooting’ or ‘lot’ for ‘shot’.
And then he added, ‘Can’t you people settle anything peacefully?’
When Dimitri and Kim first met last year – at a seminar in Brussels organized by one of those Francophone organizations mandated to spread bonne volonté around the globe – they hit it off. They share an enthusiasm for the Belgian Symbolists and dragged us all to a boite behind Lemonnier to drink absinthe.
So, I gathered that Dimitri’s question was intended to amuse rather than offend.
‘The pot calling the kettle black,’ Marianne said, taking offence, apparently, in case Kim chose not to.
Marianne and Dimitri do not get along (she was not one of the party at the Brussels boite).
‘Shall we move on?’ Patrice asked.
‘I meant only that some parts of Europe rival the United States in the matter of trigger-happy citizens,’ Marianne said, not moving on.
Dimitri was – I am almost certain – being ironic, but Marianne is an earnest sort. She would, I fear, be comfortable with irony only if it were a symposium topic – Irony and the Ramifications of the Patriarchy, perhaps.
‘There wasn’t any shooting,’ Kim explained.
‘Excellent!’ I said, as though expressing collective and very heartfelt relief. ‘You hadn’t missed much. We are about to review Jasmin’s poem.’
Written by one of Dimitri’s most promising students, the poem, slated for pages 16 and 17 of the latest issue, contains the slightest hint of what may or may not be chauvinism.
‘I’m agnostic on the stereotyping,’ Kim said, displaying a commendable capacity to get to the point that had, I felt, been absent earlier.
‘What is your objection, Albus?’ Dimitri asked, in the manner of a professor challenging a slightly irritating tutorial student – affable but ready to pounce.
‘Perhaps Patrice . . .’ I replied with that species of awkward prevarication for which the adjective pusillanimous was invented. Patrice was the one who first raised the chauvinism issue, so it seemed to me appropriate that he should make the case.
‘My objection, Dimitri, is that the poem paints a picture of one particular group as though every member of that group were the same.’ Patrice said.
‘Like assuming all French people are fond of smelly cheese?’ Dimitri chuckled.
The conference lit up – electrified by a ray of indignation from Marianne.
‘But why wouldn’t we allow this to be said?’ Dimitri continued quickly.
A lesser literary pugilist might have carried on punching, but Dimitri knew better. The silence that filled the ether seemed somehow to make his argument for him.
‘We are committed to . . . an elevated view of human nature,’ Patrice remarked at last.
‘We could be sued!’ Kim said – making a characteristically north American reference to litigation that rather supported at least one stereotype.
Then Marianne surprised me.
‘Dimitri is right,’ she said. ‘The poem is effective. It expresses an authentic voice of anguish, even if it does so with a sometimes broad brush.’
Another silence, until broken by Dimitri’s voice: ‘That is very gracious. Thank you, Marianne.’
‘Albus, you have the deciding vote,’ Patrice said.
Damn! My natural habitat is very much on the nearest serviceable fence.
‘Well,’ I began, ‘I have been torn . . . Jasmin’s work certainly . . .’ I struggled for words.
Marianne was more direct. ‘She has put her finger on the pulse of the patriarchy!’ The alliteration was intentional, no doubt; but the pronoun was misplaced.
‘That is true,’ Kim said, about the patriarchy, apparently, rather than the pronoun.
I waited for Dimitri to clarify. But again he was silent.
‘Let’s publish the piece then,’ I said.
What is the point of poetry if it doesn’t undermine assumptions from time to time?
In due course Marianne will grasp that Jasmin is a boy. Perhaps Dimitri will enlighten her.