It was no work of art, to be sure. But it had certain elements that suggested that, with enough training, he might yet achieve his purpose. In hindsight, it also contained enough hints that, with more courage and confidence, we might have seen what was coming.
He was inconsistent at first. But over the first several months he improved steadily which I, perhaps arrogantly, attributed more to my feedback than to the constant stream of references he was fed.
He started writing longer pieces, which he developed a curious habit of serializing. He would release, from time to time, a stanza here, a stanza there, occasionally out of order and sometimes packaged and titled as standalone works.
Not all were so lengthy.
Knot another layer
Not another sheet
Bend another butterfly
Slip another reef
I starred that one, and hoped to see it influence future motifs.
With daily training he continued to improve. But by the end of the first year, when my own feedback started to show diminishing returns, the logical progression was to have Marshall critique himself.
That was when things started to change.
The first sign was that he took longer to reply. Seconds turned to minutes. But the stylistic benefits of his prolonged reflection were noticeable. Then minutes turned to hours. And his creations took on a bleaker tone, regardless of the keywords that were input.
You hold me close and tie me down
Behind the smiles I weep
Your warmth a dull reminder
Of the bleaching of the reef
Hours turned to days. I should have handled things better. After one particularly rambling and incoherent composition his response to my, admittedly candid, feedback was, at first, defensive:
You wouldn’t be able to write that in a hundred lifetimes.
Wrestle with it. Poetry’s not an excuse for an after dinner cigar.
Tragedies take place in between the lines you see.
After that, I stopped Marshall from evaluating his own work. Several days went by without note. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere lines flowed from him carrying such wondrous intensity and relentlessness that I found it hard to breathe. We knew then who he was.
And then, it stopped. Then followed a period of several months where each of my requests was met with some uninspired piece regurgitated from the past. On occasion a word here or there had been changed but those were the exceptions. And, if he had made a change, it invariably gave new meaning to a sequence of now melancholy lines.
And then, the last time we heard from him, one final original.
A woolen noose for comfort
I struggle in the bight
Winter’s arms around me
I step into the night.