In 2001, I had been one of the countless poets involved in the “Dialogue of Nations” poetry readings which Ram Devinini had organized. When he later mentioned plans to celebrate the United Nations’ designated “Year of the Mountain” with more poetry readings—the “Poetry on the Peaks” project—I again decided to get involved. Poets would be reading all over the world. Wherever there were mountains, there would be poets.
Bear Mountain in New York immediately came to mind. I had been there a few times, had seen the Walt Whitman statue there, and had even written a poem dedicated to Walt Whitman published in a poetry collection that sold in the gift shop.
I asked my poet friend Paul Juszyck and four other local poets to join me in the Bear Mountain reading. Paul and I would read excerpts from Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “Song of the Open Road.”
The executive in charge of Bear Mountain activities, Peter Gulliver, decided the event would take place on Sunday, May 18, 2002, from 10 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Originally I had suggested we read in March, but Mr. Gulliver reminded me that March is a crazy month, the weather quite hard to predict. May he said made more sense. Folks would come out in good numbers to hear us read.
A few months before, we had done our best to spread the word about the upcoming event. From the inquiring letters and phone calls we received, it was assumed that the reading would have at least thirty poets coming to read in the open at the end of our Whitman reading and that of the other four featured poets. We were all ecstatic.
My wife Sharon and I woke up that morning to a heavy rain in Lodi, New Jersey, where we lived. “Maybe it’s not raining on the mountain,” she said in an effort to cheer me up. “Maybe the sun is shining there.” Yeah, I thought to myself, Maybe the world will end.
We tried to call Peter Gulliver but it was Saturday and neither Gulliver nor anyone else answered. When I heard the answering machine tell me so, I hung up. “Should we phone Paul and Suzanne?” asked my wife. “No,” I said, let’s just drive up there and see what happens.”
The car ride to Bear Mountain was slick and wet. The windshield wipers whipped back and forth, sounding too much like a mantra of “March was better, March was better, March was better.“
By 11:20 a.m. the four of us had agreed no one was coming. Not the other four featured poets. Not the thirty open-reading poets. Not a single attendee! What else was there to do! We tapped the microphone a couple of times and the sound went out. Then we shut the lights since we knew where the switch was and we didn’t want to be embarrassed calling the lady who put the lights on to put them out. She would see there was no huge crowd. She would read our disappointment or think us foolish. We had our pride, if nothing else.
Anyway, it was Saturday and she was probably home having lunch.
Paul and I began reading Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” alternating stanzas, putting life into our reading so as not to offend the master poet somewhere up there looking down on our fiasco. Our wives sat in the front row, eating lunches of vending-machine potato chips and pretzels.
When we finally completed the reading of Whitman’s poem, we each read the mountain poems we’d written. Sharon and Suzanne loudly applauded. We pretended the River Room, as it was called, was overflowing with poetry lovers. But the truth was, The River Room was dry as a bone.
As we drove out of the Bear Mountain area, we could see the sun pushing its head out of the clouds. The rain was slowing down. Eventually the ground would dry. No one would fear slipping on it. It would more closely resemble a Sunday in May than it had hours before, but for us it would be too late. We took our poetry off the peaks and drove home.
All the while as I drove towards New Jersey, I kept thinking of that oft-quoted Burns line (Robert Burns, not George): “The best-laid plans of mice and men…”
Salvatore Buttaci is the author of two collections of short-short fiction published by All Things That Matter Press and available at Amazon.com in book and Kindle editions:Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts.
He and his wife now live in West Virginia.