I met Ann Simon at a writing workshop in Berkeley in late 1997. We were a small band of writing women, and we quickly became a community (which is what usually happens when women write together).
Ann was unlike anyone I’d ever met. A huge smile — and if she wasn’t smiling: big dark eyes that seemed to be taking everything in — probably writing a poem in her head or taking mental notes. She always looked like she’d probably run out of her house in a rush, and I don’t think she ever gave a whit for anything resembling fashion; she usually had paint or some other random stain on her clothes — the remnants of mornings spent playing with the kids she sat for in order to help pay her way through graduate school. Though she was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown, and was getting her doctorate from University of California at Berkeley, and had also won multiple awards for her poetry and prose-poems, she seemed to get the most pleasure out of getting on the floor and playing with kids — sharing giggles and creative play.
And whenever Ann shared her writing in our group, it was like getting a wild and sweet gift; a view into a world long forgotten by all of us grown-ups in the room.
Soon after I moved back east I got a call from Ruth — my writing workshop godmother/friend: Ann had been having recurring headaches and blurry vision, and a trip to the eye doctor revealed a mass behind her eye; later diagnosed as a brain tumor. There were treatments and hope for a while. But then, not. And after about 2 years, Ann died. She was 35.
Two years ago, Ruth, Rhoda, Liz and I — four of the regulars from Ruth’s Women Who Run With Words workshop — got together at Ruth’s new home in rural Massachusetts to celebrate Ann’s birthday. We used flamingo swizzle sticks in our drinks; blew soap bubbles; kept a plush-toy of Ann’s beloved “sprit animal” (the hedgehog) in a place of prominence throughout the weekend, and placed a fake mustache on her photo at our party. We all agreed that she would have loved it.
Ann left behind some amazing work in This Layer of Plush — a book of poetry, and in her partially finished book: The Autobiography of my Vocabulary (which i keep hoping will get published one day). Below is a hint of that brilliance — a piece that appeared in Andrei Codrescu‘s Exquisite Corpse, a Journal of Books & Ideas.
Codrescu said of her writing: “Ann Simon owns a certain distance, from which she sees a paradoxical, funny, sometimes endearingly simple world…Exalted, tragic, and bemused, she registers the objects of her gaze in perfect aphorisms…The presence of beauty suffuses her poetry, an elusive beauty that originates in her ‘default melancholy,’ but is, like Ann, easy ‘to cheer up,’ a sweet poetic gift granted to few. Such a funny, wise, and memorable poet!”
Enough blahblahblahing about Ann. I’ll let her give you a sense of the quirky magic that she was in this wonderful prose poem.
An Unauthorized Glossary of my Goddaughter’s Vocabulary
Ann Veronica Simon
Once when my friend Woozle was outdoors burning trash, his daughter Anna pointed to the exact spot where she wanted him to put an “attic.” Then her small body surged with anger and frustration as he tried to explain that attics only come with houses screwed in beneath. Finally, after much discussion, and persistent attempts at reasoning, he figured out that she meant “hammock.”
“I got car pee on my dress,” Anna said to her parents as they walked through a used car lot after rain. Later, noticing that “car pee” rhymes with “harpy,” I believed I’d stumbled upon material for two-thirds of the perfect limerick.
Five-year-olds wrestle so earnestly with the rules of literal meaning that riddles seem obscenely funny. Yet when I included a joke for Anna as a postscript in an e-mail for her dad (What did the mermaid named Cinderella wear to the ball? Glass flippers) she was unimpressed. Instead of giggling, she spouted her own instructive catalogue of edgy humor:
Why do they call it Coke? Because you can’t cope with it.
Why do they call it Sprite? Because it bites.
Why do they call it bunny? Because it always goes, “Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!”
Why do they call it TV? Because vampires.
Woozle tried to play along, offering, “Why do they call it teriyaki? Because it’s so yucky.”
“I get it, but it’s not funny,” she said sternly, adding, “No more jokes. No jokes . . . Just poop jokes.
Of course I respect her associative leaps and willingness to tread the waters of internal rhyme. But I love best the lawyerly way she clarified that though dad should shut up (basically), if by chance this was the first moment in the history of time when he felt like making a good poop joke, no need to hold back.
As Anna muddled impatiently through her last week of being three, she held tightly to the belief that she’d be able to read any book she opened on her fourth birthday–as if “four” were not a descriptive adjective so much as some sort of license or certification. When the day came she was bewildered as well as disappointed to find that the awkward, uncomprehending feeling of “being three” still stuck to her face and body like a greasy film.
“Handle that carefully, maybe you’d better put it down, it’s fragile.” From many such admonitions, Anna deduced that “fragile” means not “delicate, breakable,” but something more like “deserving special attention, fraught with importance.” She called the thigh bone of a cow her father found while digging in the yard “fragile,” as well as the restaurant-sized egg beater she brought to preschool for show-and-tell.
When Anna’s mom, Livia, said “a case of the bugs” was circulating through preschool, Anna said–in a tone of proverb or admonishment–“If you share other people’s combs and brushes, you might get head lights.” So now I imagine head lights sprouting like antlers from the ears of careless children and can’t stop wondering what the simile “caught like a deer in the head lice” might ever possibly mean.
I don’t know what Anna meant when she said clam shells washed up on the shore were “inspicable.”
When Matt and Woozle and Livia and I unveiled red Jell-O molded in the shape of the entire United States on the Fourth of July, Anna was beside herself with joy and fascination. With hushed politeness she asked to touch it while her parents earnestly pointed out where “on the Jell-O” each of her grandparents lived. Livia carved out Texas to take next door to Mubby, her ailing grandmother, and the Grand Canyon turned up in more or less the right place of its own accord. I had New Mexico. For weeks Anna said “it’s Jell-O!” with fond matter-of-factness every time she saw a weather map on TV.
Opening a hymnal during a power outage, Anna said “Once upon a time it was the 1980s but then there was a big storm so it moved, and now it’s the 1680s.”
At two, Anna’s word for penis was “potty nipple,” a coinage which brilliantly ignores Freud’s habit of defining female anatomy as the absence or diminution of what would exist if the girl was a boy.
Anna’s attachment to a preschool teacher named Sven grew by bounds and squiggles when her dad moved to Wisconsin for nine months to program the guts of fire trucks. A year later, perhaps unrelatedly, she debuted the following joke at a school talent show:
As we parked outside the plant where Woozle worked extracting Y2K compliance from refrigerated trucks, Anna called her mom “unintentionable.” When I asked what this meant, she said, “not allowed in the front door of that building.” When Wooz emerged, we drove to McDonald’s because Anna wanted the teeny Beanie Baby ostrich. (I just wanted to bounce around in the car with all of them for as long as possible.)