Nicholson Baker and I

Catherine Barnett

At dinner I was seated next to him,

with whom I might have fallen in love

were he not married and living in Maine.

“What’s your favorite anthology?” he asked,

out of the blue. I told him I like

In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth,

where even friends who dread poetry

find something to love, some gateway drug.

Which must be how we got to addictions.

“What are you addicted to?” he asked.

Not wine, I thought,

though our wine glasses were touching.

Not crab cakes, which I moved from my plate to his,

or dinner parties, though I wondered who he was,

this stranger in a navy sweater.

“Mornings,” I said.

“Trader Joe’s vegetarian meatballs,” he said,

but he’d resigned himself to potatoes

and spoke of their virtues. Every morning

he boils up six or seven

and eats them all day long.

Perhaps because I wasn’t wearing my glasses,

I mistook a hole in his sweater for a feather,

a small down feather on his shoulder,

and tried to remove it, but it was only a hole,

only something to be repaired,

and I’d embarrassed him.

He said he’d spend the rest of dinner

with his hand over the hole, like this,

and as he lifted his arm across his body

I noticed other holes, in the other sleeve,

and thought of all I’ve meant to mend.

Meant to mean.

I keep many drafts of failed poems

on my kitchen table, beside a little sewing kit,

a notebook, and this memory of Nicholson Baker,

whom I walked to the subway later that evening,

afraid he might get lost. “Wait a minute,” he said.

We were in Times Square,

I was guiding him through the canyon of lights,

which were an antidote to grief,

as was Nicholson Baker himself,

someone I just chanced to meet

and may never see again.

“Don’t look,” he said as we were crossing Broadway.

“My pants are falling off.”

So I looked instead at the fifty-five giant LED

nonstop life-affirming lights,

which made me think of my father,

sundowning 3,000 miles away.

Shouldn’t we try to floodlight the dark

outside the dining room where he sleeps,

or doesn’t sleep, in a hospital bed?

Flawed solutions are sometimes prayers.

“Open the second shutter

so that more light may come in,”

said Goethe on his deathbed.

It costs $25,000 a day to keep Times Square lit

but it wouldn’t cost much to light up

our front steps. Failing that,

we keep giving my father morphine,

now that he is officially in hospice

and before we gain

the hour of daylight savings,

which he might not live to see.

I know how addictive it is.


Open the second shutter now.

I could have waited there indefinitely

while Nicholson Baker hiked up his trousers

and tried to keep his hand over the little feathery hole.

But we were on a journey of sorts, at a way station.

Which was where? And where were we headed,

Nicholson Baker and I?

I was heading home and he

to his overheated Airbnb,

which he chose, he said,

because it was near Alice’s Tea Cup,

where once years ago he was served

a tea so electrifying it let him write

one good paragraph,

and he was looking for that high again.

He got out at 72nd Street.

At home later that night, I found him

in the pages of a slim, hilarious novel

whose hero lights a match

at the beginning of every chapter.

Catherine Barnett is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2022 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors. She teaches at New York University.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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