John Van Kirk

Stanley Plumly Listening

Stanley Plumly has finished his talk about Emily Dickinson’s birds and leans back in his chair. The other panelists take their turns. Stan, at seventy-two, looks older now, the face is craggier, the hair and beard white but still magnificent, the slouch still casual, but no longer a perfect picture of ease, there is pain in his body, but he tries not to show it. He cannot keep still; he shifts in his chair, wrings his hands, scratches his ears and his beard. Only when the speaker reads a few lines of Dickenson does he seem to settle down. His motions—the gentle nodding of his head, the soft tapping of a finger—follow the rhythm of the poem, which he obviously knows and is reciting silently to himself, sometimes even moving his lips. Often he closes his eyes, as if it’s too difficult to listen while looking—seeing—as well . . . More fierce than ever, yet somehow diminished by time and age, those expressive eyebrows, that mouth, capable of more expressions than perhaps any actor’s mouth . . .

We watch Stan think, which is a very physical thing, as he is a man who seems to feel ideas, to have to live through them, or let them live through him; he nods sagely, or quirks his head to one side. His hands, clench them together though he might, as if to keep them from betraying him . . . the hands cannot keep from moving; they strain to pull apart, or push more tightly together, the thumbs point this way and that, deliberating. Then the hands break free, he reaches toward his face, takes off his glasses, folds them carefully, and leans his head on one curled fist, the other hand on the table before him. He might be asleep . . . But no, he is listening, as the hand on the table tells us, for it is gently rising and falling, counting again, keeping time, measuring each moment.

He smiles, he frowns, he smirks, he looks around the room. He takes his glasses out, almost puts them in his mouth, breathing first on one lens and then the other, polishing it with his handkerchief in turn. He puts the glasses back on, folds his hands again, leans back in his chair, and closes his eyes. He hears something he likes, something he approves. He smiles, frowning.