To Geoffrey Chaucer

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I wish I could get your advice on how to write this second book. I give myself directives to stay on the subject, to expand, but the words clot into jelly, or just will not be whistled up at my command.

Translator, astronomer, courtier, diplomat, you were a renaissance man before the Renaissance was a thing. I teach creative writing and am a monoglot. All the books that I should’ve read in college and did not beam out to me from my bookshelves their chorus of reproach.

Reading you, however, was fun from the start, overhearing your pilgrims trading stories to pass the time, at a decasyllabic canter in your trademark riding rhyme. Even if those first pages of Middle English each took an hour to decode, your big book, like a wise, old, wicked lover, devoured me in my dorm room, cover to cover. You saw pretension everywhere and liked people more for it, not only nonetheless. You taught me that underneath the fig leaf, there is a place in art for pubic hair, for sweat, for twelve greedy friars dividing up a fart.

Today, instead of selling fake indulgences, the pardoner might be a life coach or a psychiatrist. I like to think the wife of Bath would be tenured somewhere, teaching English Lit. Is your gracious knight, for all his handsome speech, meant to be a bore? Is the prioress an anti-Semite who feels compassion only for her dogs? Your ironies hide inside other ironies, making you difficult to pin down; you gave yourself a place among the pilgrims, and made yourself a chump, who believes whatever he is told and wants above all to be liked.

I wish you’d come visit me in one of those dream visions that were always happening to poets of your time, and guide me through the grey neighborhoods of the underworld or to the feast of St. Valentine, and teach me to bring life’s largeness to the page.

And I wish I knew exactly what you meant by that note that’s tacked like a kick-me sign onto the back end of your book, the coda where you take back half the stories that you’ve told, retracting many a song and many a leccherous lay because you’re sorry, you say, for mixing up the godly and the sexy, the naughty and the good. Is this remorseful one Chaucer the pilgrim, full of religious feeling at his long journey’s end? Or is it you yourself, on your own deathbed, afraid of Hell, because you could not spin your gold back into straw, or de-alchemize it into lead?

It’s cold this morning in Rodgers Forge. A new gas line going in has brought men, jackhammers, heavy trucks. The lead man whistles on and off throughout the day, while unperturbed, a few dry leaves turn and whirl, tornado-style,

as though inside the rim of a bowl of air. Love life more; love life more I string and restring my one phrase, trying to build a home inside it, whereas you are a great river, bringing news from countless towns and jurisdictions, places that are familiar but unknown.