By John Simonds
A few years back, a women’s organization in Chicago published a delightful collection of each member’s favorite poem and called it Rhymes and Reasons. The beloved Peggy Carr had chosen Horatius at the Bridge, a poem she could recite from memory right up until she died at age 103. But what was of special interest to me is the fact two of the 50 learned members selected poems by the contemporary poet, Billy Collins. I have been an avid fame of his for many years and especially of his most famous poem Forgetfulness:
The name of the author is the first to go
Followed obediently by the title, the plot
The heartbreak conclusion, the entire novel
Which suddenly becomes one I have never read,
Never even heard of . . .
The reason that Billy Collins has suddenly come into view is because I am in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and on February 16th he will give a keynote address to the Seventh Annual San Miguel Writer’s Conference, an event attended by almost 1,000 aspiring writers, literary agents, those who simply love the world of literature, and a good margarita.
I have made a solemn promise to Judy Bross, our editor, that I will send dispatches from the five-day event, to keep her readers abreast of what is going down and who might be attending from Chicago. In the meantime, I am standing on my balcony, located on a busy cobbled stone street a few blocks from the Central Plaza, known locally as El Jardin. I have been coming here for eleven years so many of the sounds have become as familiar as those where we live on the Chicago River.
It was only a few years ago that El Jardin featured an overweight, bearded news vendor with a Pavarotti voice hawking his wares. His volume was so high that it carried above the din of the crowds that gathered daily to visit the iconic ancient cathedral. But he died, and no one can possibly replace him unless Enrico Caruso is reincarnated for the sole purpose of selling newspapers.
Then there was the old man wearing baggy pants peddling a specially designed bicycle while sounding a shrill whistle to notify the populous that he had come to sharpen their knives on a grinding wheel attached to rear of his bike. But he also died.
Every where there are remnants of this colonial city’s past. I watch as a dilapidated pickup truck with five ten-gallon milk cans in its bed pulls into an available space, and gives off three blasts of his horn; two elderly women holding empty pots approach the truck. I watch curiously as he the driver of the truck ladles fresh cream into the four-quart pots, collects his money and drives off on his appointed rounds.
From a distance I hear the clanging of metal on metal. It pierces the air. It is the familiar sound notifying everyone that the garbage truck is about to arrive. A teen age boy, no more than 15 is racing ahead of the truck with a 24-inch piece on steel on a cord and a simple rod to create the ancient method of communicating to the world that they better get out on the street with their trash bags, or wait three days for the next collection time. The city has eight garbage trucks but only three of them are currently in working shape, the rest are in sorry need of repair. It is Mexico, I am afraid to admit.
The vrooming motor bikes are everywhere. The big change since I first came here is that the drivers are wearing molded plastic helmets, some resembling Darth Vader. They zoom in and out of traffic, some getting dangerously close to the automobiles, weaving through traffic like they are running a slalom course at Vail. It is customary for a father to place a young child in front of him on the motor scooter, with no protection what so ever. It gives me the willies.
Come next week, the only sounds that matter will emanate from the cavernous great hall of the Hotel Real de Minas where Billy Collins, Mary Karr, and a line-up of other impressive writers are sure to dazzle; it’s the opening of Writer’s Conference, and I will try to manage sitting close to the stage so I can hear. A waiter will bring me a margarita in a paper cup and I will block out all that is happening in these chaotic times, and simply groove on the words of writers I have admired for a very long time.