about the author

Allison Gruber is an essayist and educator. Her first collection of essays, You’re Not Edith (George Braziller, Inc. 2015) was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Recent work has appeared in The Forge, Pithead Chapel, and Brevity, among others. She lives with her wife in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches English and Creative Writing.

Bookmark and Share


font size

Iambic Pentameter  

Allison Gruber

You don’t get iambic pentameter and the more you study it the more you hear stresses in weird spots. All your sentences go da-DUM, da-DUM like congestive heart failure.

CON-gestive heart FAIL-ure.

Scansion destroyed you in undergrad. Fortunately, you did your graduate studies at an art school where no one gave a fuck about formalism. Everything you read went da-da-da or DUM-DUM-DUM.

Can’t scan a poem to save your life.

And you love poetry, but you hate the way people read poetry. Sounds like static or a slow roll down a steep hill or someone getting progressively drunker or someone pretending to be sad.

What about the fucking denotation and connotation of words?

FUCK-ing. You hear it there. The stress is on “fuck.” It’s not fuc-KING.

Today, a sixth-grade student wrote a poem that included the line “I hate barfing cake.”

When he read it aloud you had to ask for clarification: Like, is “barfing” an expletive?

He just meant he hates barfing cake, as in he hates vomiting, but especially cake.

You wonder how to scan that line. Barfing cake. BAR-fing CAY-ke.

DA dum. DA dum.

The piano teacher used to praise your brother who never practiced, gave you grief for slipping on the F sharp—Pivot, she’d say. Pivot your hand. And then she’d invariably interrupt the lesson to get up and microwave a hotdog for her teenage delinquent son who’d come crashing through the front door, kicking his skateboard against the stairway as he announced he was hungry.

His name was Mark. He had a mullet.

And she’d just get up, leave you sitting there, in your school uniform, re-doing your Dozen-a-Days.

Pivot. Pivot.

On your drive back to Illinois (where you were born) from Iowa where you stopped to see your ninety-two-year-old grandmother who has cancer the doctors say will not kill her before her advanced age does, friends, a married couple from Wisconsin text you, beg you to stop by as though Wisconsin is just on the way from Iowa back to the suburbs of Chicago.

Nevertheless, you’re a sucker for feeling wanted, so you pivot toward Milwaukee where you lived for five thousand years.

Where you lived for twenty years.

Where in all actuality, you lived for four years.

Your friends live in a big, gorgeous house on Lake Drive, not to be confused with Lake Shore Drive. Lake Drive, in Milwaukee, is far more beautiful, far more serene—you can give Milwaukee credit where it’s due.

Your friends have gone paleo and they make steak and collard greens and tall gin and tonics. They give you big hugs and tousle your hair and say you look happy.

You just think you look fat.

You think you ought to go paleo, too.

Two gin and tonics in, you invite a friend to the home of your friends. She’s someone you knew from Chicago who’s now living in Milwaukee, finishing up a PhD in Creative Writing—all bad decisions that begin in Chicago lead straight to Milwaukee.

You’ve seen Wayne’s World and always remember what Alice Cooper told you, “Milwaukee is Algonquin for ‘the good land’” and it is good, unless you happen to live there.


The friend was not just “someone you knew from Chicago” though you like to arrange the facts that way. Rather the friend was someone from Chicago with whom you were once in love.

She spoke fluent German and Spanish and English, and in her apartment, once upon a time, you’d sip beer and overhear her on the phone with her father—where she spoke Spanish—and on the phone with her mother—where she spoke German—and on the phone with her sister, sliding effortlessly between German, Spanish, and English. A gorgeously strange stream of consonants, syllables, stressed, and unstressed—or so you think.

Her father once told you to get rid of the big dog you’d recently adopted, the dog who chewed through his leashes on walks and once grabbed half a ham shank that was inexplicably lying in the street on Ravenswood Ave, and after that dog ate your only pair of glasses hours before you had to teach a class, you did get rid of that dog.

Her mother was a homeopathic healer who cautioned you against mammograms and chemo after your breast cancer diagnosis. You went ahead with the chemo and mammograms regardless.

Her sister you knew only distantly, met her a couple times when she visited Chicago with her two boys. And it was only after you learned of her sister’s death that you reached out again to your friend with whom you were once in love.

The falling out, seven years prior, had been grim—full of insults and accusations—when you’ve known a person very well for a long while, you really know how to hurt them, so you do hurt them, badly.

You had ended the relationship during your treatment for breast cancer, and now her sister was dead of breast cancer. Sometimes, but particularly in this situation, it felt odd to assert your own survival, to come out of nowhere, to say, “I’m still here.”

But you reach out in a Facebook message, you are blunt, I heard about your sister and I am so sorry. And you are received well. And suddenly you’re officially reconnected, you don’t talk much about why things ended, but both of you express remorse for how things ended.

You don’t love her again, but you like her.

You spend time on the phone reminiscing about all that was worth remembering: carrying a full-length mirror down Argyle Avenue at midnight in a snowstorm, finding a kitten eating garbage in an alley, how she thought the cat was a female and named him Darlene, and then, upon finding out he was male, she still named him “Darlene.”

The cat is dead, she tells you.

Darlene fucking died of cancer, too, she laughs, mirthlessly. Can you believe that shit?

You discuss the debauchery of Andersonville during the height of its existence as a real honest-to-god lesbian neighborhood. The annual Capricorn Parties thrown by an unknown lesbian couple in their three-story home—naked women and bathtubs full of beer cans on ice and the crying fights and how did we never know the names of the hostesses?

She says Andersonville has gone the way of straight couples now. Straight white couples and gay white men, she says. The only people who can afford to live there.

In Andersonville, where you used to live, you had many jobs. One of them was at a school which occupied the space once owned by Charlie Chaplin as Essenay Studios.

Chaplin’s earliest films were made at Essenay. The studio moved to California once Westerns started gaining popularity and Chaplin realized it would be difficult to make plausible Westerns in Chicago.

The titles of the movies made at Essenay included Danger Lights, Police!, Mr. Inquisitive, and your personal favorite, An Awful Skate.

You knew nothing of the building’s history until you once decided to Google the word “Essenay” stamped above one of the school’s doors.

St. Augustine, the school that now occupies the building, was a college that catered largely to a population of new migrants and English Language Learners. Your students were from India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala—you thought maybe Essenay was a word in another language meaning “welcome” or “peace,” instead you discovered it was the name for a studio that once produced a film about a hobo careening down streets on roller skates until apprehended by cops and children.

Come meet me, you text the woman with whom you were once in love.

She takes an Uber to your friends’ home. They give her now cold steak and collard greens.

She eats like a feral animal.

She was always stylish. Always went with you to the thrift stores, and sometimes, regular stores, helped you choose your pants, your shirts, your shoes, taught you that you can tell if a pair of pants will fit by wrapping the waist around your neck before you try them on. Told you not to get that haircut.

So you are taken aback first by her clothes—a mismatched skirt and too-tight blouse, thick glasses, hair haphazardly pulled back.

You perceive this as grief. Grief does fucked-up things to a person. Grief changes a person. Grief undoes a person.

Gr-EIF. da-DUM.

She still laughs so easily at the things you say. You’ve always liked that in women. You’ve never been attracted to a woman you can’t make laugh. A woman really laughing is a holy thing because women are groomed to fake laugh—all the time—fake laugh at men, laugh when nervous, laugh when sorry, so a woman laughing because she finds something truly funny is transcendent.

You drive her back to her apartment, tell her you want to come in to meet her dog, which under any other circumstance would sound like a bad come on. But this is not, you really just want to meet the dog.

She tells you the place is “messy.” You remind her of your former apartments. She says, “it’s a bit worse than that.”

You can’t imagine how it could possibly be. She was fastidious. She wouldn’t keep a sponge longer than two days. She, not unlike your wife, bleached white fabrics, cleaned crevices with toothbrushes and flipped her mattress. You, on the other hand, never paid attention to such domestic details.

Her apartment isn’t a bit worse than your old apartments, it’s a lot worse. You practically have to tunnel through. The kitchen is rendered inoperable by dirty dishes and broken appliances. The bedroom is heaped with dirty clothes and random papers and the mattress is bare, she sleeps on the couch, a soft nest amid medication bottles, more random papers, and unfolded clean laundry. There is no art on the walls, though you remember the black and white photos from her days in San Francisco in the 90s—punks and dykes and artists—those photos that used to be on her walls, that you used to stare at, gawk at, wondering at, impressed by, her life before you.

Where were those photos? You did not ask.

She is ashamed, and you are sorry that she is ashamed and sorry you asked to come inside, though you do get to meet the dog.

Sometimes, when you can’t sleep you think about stories from the silent movie era that feel sadder than yours and those of your friends. You think of Alice Lake who died of a heart attack in a sanitarium, you think of George Spoor, one of the founders of Essenay Studios, how one version of his obituary was titled “Lost Money in the Crash” and detailed how he spent his final days penniless, living with his son and daughter-in-law, how it focused mostly on the accomplishments of all the people he had known. Given this sort of write-up, you think they might as well have written “Total Loser Dead: Preceded in death and survived by people infinitely more interesting and successful.”

You think of Dee Lampton, the guy who within the span of five years was cast in fifty-two movies, who died of appendicitis at twenty and never even got to see his final film because Harold Lloyd fucked it up when he mistook a bomb for a prop. You wonder how common it was for bombs to be mistaken for props on the set of films in the silent era.

You think of Harold Lloyd’s thumb and index finger which he lost in said whoops-that-was-a-bomb-not-a-prop mishap.

And then you think of Harold Lloyd, Jr. who drank too much, who was engaged to a socialite, but the engagement was broken up by Bing Crosby when Crosby discovered Harold Jr. was a homo and how shortly thereafter Harold Jr. suffered a massive stroke at thirty-four. He was dead by forty.

You have friends here, you ask the woman you once loved. You have people who can help you out?

She says something about needing to finish her dissertation, something about how when that is done she can get the apartment under control. She tells you she was concussed in a car accident, and the cat died, adding, and then, you know...

And then there’s a pause, and then there’s that guilt—the guilt of surviving and the guilt a person feels when they move far from home. Guilt for aging parents having knee replacement surgery, guilt for brothers in bad marriages, grandmothers with cancer, guilt for nieces who are being teased at school and for friends who are falling apart. Guilt because you felt you were the glue and then guilt when you realize you never were the glue, life goes on without you, and sometimes moving away feels kind of like witnessing life after your own death.

You used to think about this when you had cancer. What would everyone do without me?

And now you know: this is what people will do without you—the same damn thing they would have done with you.

You say goodnight to the woman with whom you were once in love, pet her dog, pivot back to the pristine house on Lake Drive to spend the night on the couch and cry into a decorative throw pillow.

Back home in Arizona, you do the cooking and worry about the dog’s ear infection and bring your drug-sensitive wife half a tab of Benadryl when she’s stuffy after a root canal.

What you wouldn’t give for a tab of something better.

You’re teaching Shakespeare and have to touch on iambic pentameter, you just have to, so you consult the oracle for ideas books haven’t given you:

Google search results:

Iambic pentameter is sonnett?
Iambic pentameter why is it used?
Why iambic pentameter is important

You give up and you search “grief.” Search results:

Grief does it get easier?
Grief does not change you
Grief does it ever go away?
Grief does not discriminate
Does grief ever end?

You give up again, think of the promo poster you once saw for Chaplin’s film Police!

The poster quoted Chaplin himself. “Charlie Chaplin says, ‘It’s a scream!’” And you wonder at the confidence, the sheer self-assuredness, of a person who reviews their own work in promotional materials.

You could never do that.

About your own work, your writing or your teaching or the work of your life, you’d probably say something like, “It’s not too bad” or “Room for improvement” or “Nobody’s perfect.”

But unlike Chaplin’s Police!, you’ve yet to produce anything that is, “a riot of fun; every foot packed with mirth.”

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...