I recently had the chance to beta read and critique a preview of Dandelion Symphony, a poetry collection by one of my closest friends, Azelyn Klein. It was such an interesting experience going back through poems I helped edit or was there for when they were written or had read a hundred times because of loving them so much over the years. But now instead of seeing them in the form of blog posts or pencil on paper or in a Google Doc, I’m seeing them in a collection of the seasons. A book. One that I’ll soon be able to hold and flaunt in front of my socially-distanced friends. And it’s all about these places I’ve heard so much about or seen. Here they are presented in a brand new way to me. And it makes me nostalgic of the times I visited these places with Azleyn. Of all the adventures we’ve had.
Most of our adventures took place during our undergraduate years in Missouri or during a summer in Italy. We took a few day trips together, called each other in different countries on a regular basis (sometimes twice weekly), vacationed with her family, and just relaxed and worked at her home. Even if it wasn’t always in person, we’ve experienced Missouri, Texas, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, and England together. That list will be growing even more as the years continue. Whether it’s through video calls, texting, stories and poems we write, or actually living or traveling together.
Several of the poems in Dandelion Symphony were written in or inspired by Azelyn’s time in Italy. In the early spring of 2016, I decided to start studying Italian, just for the heck of it. The tiny bits of escapism I got from studying the language helped me get through some really difficult times. Then one day when Azelyn was taking an afternoon writing break house in Germany and I was eating breakfast in my apartment in Missouri, we had a call. Her family was moving to Italy in a couple months and were wondering if I’d like to come for a visit in the middle of the summer. Visiting a country I had been learning the language for and seeing my best friend? Of course, I said yes! What I didn’t realise for weeks was that they had planned a full month for me to live with them. During that month, we went on several adventures throughout Italy and Europe. And I still look back on it with such fondness and awe.
“Old friends, new times,
under pressure, half-hearted rhymes
of times long ago, sung in tales,
melded in dramas, and laughed in gossip
as the politics seep
into the innocence of yesterday,
no longer pale naïveté in the yellow sun,
the face of torment.”
Azelyn and I met during undergrad. We were both determined to finish our bachelor’s degrees as quickly as we could and as a result ended up having nearly every single course together for my two and a half years at that school. Out of 17-18 credit hours, we would have 15 credits together most semesters. We studied in each other’s rooms or the library constantly, we had movie nights, we had tea parties, we ran errands together, and we had critique groups. We were nearly inseparable. Although this poem was probably written while she lived in Italy after completing her first master’s degree, it reminds her more (and me) of times spent in undergrad, although neither of us did much baking in our ovenless dorm rooms.
This is when we grew close, learned each other’s desires, patterns, tells, and pet peeves. It’s when we would drive around in her car with a broken sunroof, listening to music on a glitchy USB, dancing in the creaking car seats with the wind blowing through our hair, and blowing bubbles out the passenger window. It’s when we learned every word to Les Misérables and forced our friends to watch it a few too many times. It’s when we complained about the overly ripe cantaloupe and the impossible to deshell hard-boiled eggs. It’s when we would watch our professor flight
an overhead projector a dragon whilst wearing a tan trench coat and wielding a black and brown umbrella. It’s where we listened and read more poems and books than we could count. And it’s where Azelyn learned to love poetry.
“The single eye,
red from a long night,
now blinking in the dust,
settling into the yellow haze. . .”
The first time I got to see Azelyn in nearly two years was in Venice in the mid afternoon. I had only arrived a few hours before her and had only gotten to drop my belongings off at her family’s new house and grab a light lunch before we went to pick her up at the airport. It was bizarre seeing her outside of Missouri. The next morning we woke too early, just as the sun was rising around 5:30. We sleepily opened the curtains and shutters and talked about what else was left to pack for our nine-day road trip through the southern Alps. Watching the light hit the walls in a red glow and slowly fade into yellow as we rushed to get out the door. I will never forget that first couple weeks in Europe with her. The thirteen-mile hikes, the sore legs, the snow-capped mountains, the castles, the songs, the sleepless nights, the Christmas shoppes, and the Alpine lake picnics with food from Lindl and Aldi. And the best of those memories started with the rising of the sun.
“View from an Airplane”
“Have you ever felt the pulse of the earth?
Like waves in the ocean, a jagged storm,
tumultuous ripples in the powdered pie crust
pulsing beat after beat after beat in the monitor.”
Although this poem is about her flight from Nottingham to Vicenza, it reminds me of our flight from Venice to London towards the end of our month in Italy together. We stared out the windows the majority of the flight, admiring the mountains and valleys far below and talked about the week to come. A week full of walking through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, of eating chips and pasties, of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Les Misérables, of getting lost in Wimbledon, of wandering Piccadilly Circus, and of reading books on the tube. It was a testing week in so many respects, but it is also one of my favourite weeks I’ve had in my entire life. And it started and ended with flights over the Alps.
“I’ve gasped at rows of books,
but never before have I been surrounded
by rows of dead authors.”
This is one of my favourite poems that Azelyn has ever written. There are just too many amazing lines. But also, it’s another of my fondest memories with her. Whilst in London, we went to Westminster Abbey, and I was so unbelievably excited. It had been a dream of mine for years to visit. I wanted to see Poet’s Corner, the memorials and graves of British abolitionists, the monuments and tombs of those I didn’t know about or had forgotten, and the Abbey in general. It was a vastly overwhelming and unexpectedly somber place to behold. The tourists and families bustling about and making quiet jokes and conversation all around us did not reduce the sudden emotional impact of all the important historical figures surrounding me, dead and buried, commemorated in marble or engravings. The fact that I had Azelyn as a guide and support was more helpful and necessary than I even realised at the time. But the depth of importance these people hold to this day and the ever-present existential reality of death and the brevity of life also gave me hope for myself and my loved ones.
“I relish watching the glassblower
tug at the liquid fire and mold it”
A couple days before leaving Italy, we took a day trip to Venice. Just her brother, her, my friend Eric, and me. We wandered the streets without any set plans. We ran into some of Eric’s friends. We ate pizza, dipped our feet in the canals, peeked in the shops, stood outside more churches than I expected to find, chased pigeons, talked about the things that were changing about us when we barely even realized it, and watched the glassblowers and bead vendors. We even stumbled upon one of the most amazing book shops I have ever seen. With gondolas and bathtubs overflowing with books and all the lower shelves kept empty to protect the books from the ever-impending seasonal floods or abnormally high tides. And with a wall and staircase made of books, damaged and compacted over the years, leading to a tiny outlook over a small portion of buildings and canal. As the sun went down, we rushed confusedly to the train station, platform changing at the last minute, to catch our train back. To the reality of the last day together, the last few hours in person for the next few years.
So much has changed in our lives since we visited these places, since these poems were written. But here we are, despite and in spite of everything. Still friends. Still bookworms. Still writers. Until the bitter end.