The day before I was to have my teeth cleaned, I was telling my wife over the phone how the dentist’s office had said I would be free at 10:00 from their chamber of hooks and mouth vacuums and that ugly, cycloptic light with the orange bulb they crane over you. Because it sounded like I was saying 8:10 instead of “at 10:00,” what began as an ordinary comment quickly turned into a back and forth worthy of my beloved Abbott and Costello.
I don’t recall mumbling my way through high school or college, though I was soft spoken, as friends have reminded me. What happened to my voice, I don’t know. There are times when my speech has been so garbled, I’ve had to apologize and excuse myself from the phone so I could lick my lips, clear my throat, or open and close my mouth to loosen the muscles of my face as if I were doing some kind of demented mouth yoga, anything to try and improve my annunciation so that I didn’t sound like Boomhauer from King of the Hill, a character whom I love and, not surprising, have no trouble understanding.
The paradox of my mumbling is that when I read a poem out loud, I’ve been told my words go from being heavy and thick to a soft, crisp baritone. When this happens, I think I must be engaging more of my body in the act of speaking. My posture is better. I probably inhale more air and project. I open my lips wider and wrap them more firmly around each vowel. Performing a poem is almost akin to entering the Matrix, a place where I’m a better version of myself, minus the tacky trench coat.
Whenever strangers compliment me after a reading, I have always assumed they were being kind because to my ear there’s little difference between my speaking and reading voices. One kind gentleman went so far as to joke that if the poetry thing didn’t work out, there was always radio where I could become the voice of America.
“The voice of America” has a nice ring to it, though I don’t think she would want me to speak for her because there’s no telling what I might say about how she treats her tired and poor huddled from sea to shining sea. Worse yet, I might become a voice of “reason” for the left like Beck or Limbaugh are for the right. If that happened I would no doubt have nightmares in which my fellow soft baritones like Nat King Cole and Keanu Reeves would reproach me for misusing my instrument.
It’s better not to anger Neo or the King. Better to keep my feet on the ground and out of my mouth and instead write poems about dentists or cartoons or yoga in the hope that centuries from now my voice might be one of a thousand in a dusty library whispering from the page about the truth, which never hurt anyone or led people astray, unlike the Truth that continues to bring nations of innocents to their knees.