By Kathy Fagan
Featured Image: Café Concert (The Spectators) by Edgar Degas
When Peter Byrne of the 80s synthpop duo, Naked Eyes, played for me his acoustic cover of k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” in his studio over- looking Los Angeles, the peacock—not the NBC peacock but a real peacock among the many on the grounds—opened his fan as if the music were a potential mate. He strutted and shirred. He shimmied his many eyes. He’d been drawn to the music, then spotted himself in the sliding glass doors. He leaned in and turned for us like a Vegas show girl. He brought tears to my eyes. When the song was over I could barely muster, “What a tender version, Peter,” though tender wasn’t the word for the primitive if aimless seduction on the lawn.
As it happened, I’d packed my silk shirt, peacock blue, to wear to a poetry reading I was giving that night, but unlike the peacock and Frank O’Hara, I didn’t intend for anyone to fall into bed with me. Being a purist I wanted my audience to love the poems—and if they didn’t love them, at least they appeared to enjoy them a little. In Los Angeles, people seem primed for entertainment at every turn. My aunt-the-former-nun was there, looking like my dead grandmother. My AP English-teacher-turned-television-executive was there. I hadn’t seen either for twenty-five years. I’d been a grim child— what would they make of me now? I tossed off words in cadences I’d used a hundred times. I tried not to think of myself as myself or my words as my own. I made eye contact as often as possible without losing my place. From the hills of Palos Verdes, you can see the L.A. basin fan out like a poem. Imagine the Hollywood hills as the title, center-justified, the Pacific lapping its left margin, and all the lights of the city blinking across its page: i’s dotted by arriving flights, t’s crossed by the departing. Byrne’s partner, Rob Fisher, died in 1999. “Always Something There to Remind Me” was their breakout hit; “Promises, Promises,” their last. I’d loved my English teacher with a love that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. My aunt was kicked out of the convent for loving a fellow novitiate just as hard. In ‘73, my childhood friend moved to Palos Verdes; my family moved to California a year later but we never spoke again. A year after that, I heard that her cousin had slept with my first boyfriend. We’d believed we’d marry. In ‘83 my ex-husband and I married in the Max Factor Chapel in West L.A. I can’t look at pressed powder or a freeway exit without thinking of him. The citizens of Palos Verdes recently circulated a petition urging city officials to remove the city’s peacocks by any means necessary. There’s always something we almost always want. When we see ourselves in each other’s eyes the craving stops but only for the moment it takes for the applause to die down, for the Hollywood sign to be shrouded in smog again, for a promise to be made or broken, for the cursor to strut from left to right, before it struts away.
Kathy Fagan’s fifth book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. Milkweed will publish her new book, Bad Hobby, in 2022. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Ohio Arts Council. Recent work has also appeared in Poetry, Tin House and The Nation. Fagan directs the MFA Program at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where she serves as series co-editor for the OSU Press/Wheeler Poetry Prize.