At first he thought that one of his poet friends had left it. They were always reading poetry to each other. Cheap wine and poetry that was pretty much the sum of his existence. It was a slim, unpretentious little book, printed on cheap stock, a slim volume of some 60 pages maybe 40 poems in all. The thin cover was a pale blue and it bore the single word—Tantos. Whether Tantos was the name of the volume or the poet he couldn’t tell.
On the inside, the first page repeated the word Tantos in large print and, at the bottom of the page in small print, the words first printing, Starling University Press, and a date in Roman numerals, MMXLVI, that was followed by the book’s ISBN number. Lucky guy, Trevor thought, having a book of poems published by a small press. It was the dream of all the young poets in his circle of aspiring literary wannabes.
The first poem was titled, Sleepless. Trevor was happy to see it was less than a page long. He despised long poems believing that true poetry could not be sustained for more than a few lines. “Glimpses of the eternal” he called them and didn’t think that mere mortals were entitled to more than fleeting looks of pure beauty and those brief looks were reserved only for the world’s most inspired poets.
With no inspiration of his own for a change, Trevor sat down with the book and began reading. His first response, he was ashamed to admit, was a combination of jealousy and envy. Why couldn’t he write like this? The poems were sparkling, original, clever, so much better than the drivel he wrote. Tanto's words soared off the page and filled his mind with music and thrilling images as only the best poetry can. Damn this guy was good. It made Trevor feel like a third rate hack. Why hadn’t he ever heard of this guy? Not only were the poems good, they seemed to speak to him clearly and directly. They put into words ideas he had been trying express through his inadequate, cliche riddled voice.
He read through the little book and then read it again. When his friends came over, his first impulse was to share this marvelous find with them but something told him to hold off and keep it to himself. It wasn’t until several days later that he decoded the roman numerals which he surmised was the date of publication. He ran the M’s and X’s through his computer. He thought he’d made a mistake when the number translated to 2046 so he typed it in again but 2046 came up each time he tried it. 2046? That was what 36 years in the future. What the heck did that mean?
Curiosity aroused, Trevor searched for the book’s author. He Googled Tantos and found that the word referred to a Japanese dagger made for stabbing but not an author by that name. No book by that name came up in a search by title. He Googled Starling University Press and found out that a press by that name existed in North Carolina but ceased publication in 1971. A search through their on-line archives revealed no book or author by that name.
On the big ISBN data base, he entered the books number. From his limited experience with publishing, he knew that every book bore its own unique number assigned to it by its publisher. The Tantos number came up empty. In desperation he called the Starling University Press phone number from the web site. It rang for a long time before someone picked up the phone.
“Hello?” said a frail old woman’s voice, “can I help you?”
“Yes, please. My name is Trevor Howard and I came across a book of poetry published by the Starling University Press and I’m trying to get in touch with the author. I was hoping you could put me in touch with him or her or, at the very least, tell me something about the work.”
“It was my late husband’s business, Mr. Howard but he kept very careful records. If you give me the name and ISBN number, I’ll see what I can find and call you back. But I can tell you right now that we didn’t publish any poetry. There’s no money in it.”
An hour later the old woman called back. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Howard, but Starling never published a book by that name and the number you gave me is entirely bogus. I don’t know if you know it but the ISBN number encodes the publication date and according to the number you gave me, your book won’t be published for another 36 years. I’m sorry sir, but your book is a counterfeit”
Now this was a puzzle. Where did this book come from? Could some God or Muse have handed him a gift. Could these poems actually be his, only written when he was an old man in some distant future? It didn’t seem possible but what other explanation could there be? But what if the poems weren’t his. Would it be stealing if you take something that doesn’t exist? It was a knotty moral problem which would require further thought.
That evening his friends were gathering for their monthly poetry slam at the local coffee shop. He’d have a chance to see what his peers thought of Tanto’s poems. He’d even credit the works to Tanto so no one could accuse him of plagiarizing them. He’d read a couple of poems and see how his friends responded. Where’s the harm in that? Often poets read other poet’s words, it wasn’t a big deal as long as you didn’t claim them as your own.
The monthly poetry slam at the Java Hut drew a lively crowd and there’s nothing in the art world to rival a crowd of starving poets for noisy camaraderie— everyone smoking, jacked up on caffeine and trying to impress one another. Everyone griping about how our material culture chews up its artists and spits them out as trash. Trevor knew everyone and everyone knew him. They’d all been trying to impress each other for years. They were outwardly friendly and supportive but ready to tear each other down the minute their backs were turned.
Trevor knew his poetry wasn’t very highly regarded. His passionate rants were usually met with polite applause and, if he was lucky, a smattering of “all rights.” So expectations were pretty low when he mounted the stage and took the mic.
He read Tanto’s poems in a clear, sure voice. They soared off his tongue and floated through the air filling the house with magic. His reputation took a 360 degree turn that night. Each poem was met with a reverent silence followed by enthusiastic applause. It reflected genuine enthusiasm, so rare for this snarky group. He read a second and a third poem, always crediting Tanto and honestly saying he found them although he didn’t say where.
After the reading Trevor was mobbed by admiring fans. They all wanted to know who this Tanto was. Several people asked him outright if it was a pseudonym and if he was really the author. It was a heady experience and Trevor wanted to say that the poems were his but he didn’t which only heightened the speculation. Poets he respected expressed admiration in the sincerest of terms. Several approached him with tears in their eyes, they were so moved.
A publisher Trevor respected took him aside and said, “That was dynamite stuff...ah...Trevor isn’t it? You should drop this false modesty stuff. Everyone knows it’s your work. You’re not fooling anyone by hiding behind a pseudonym. You might as well own up to it. No one finds poems like that just lying around. They were brilliant. Here’s my card. When you’re ready to come out of the closet and publish, give me a call.”
Trevor was heady with success. He had had his first taste of celebrity and he liked it. All he had to do was assume the ownership of this gift the fates had handed him. Sure the morality was questionable, but it was a gray area It wasn’t like he was trying to fool anyone. For all he knew these were his own words sent to him by his future self.
He made one last effort to find the author of the mysterious collection. He scoured poetry sites and poetry chat rooms looking for any reference to Tantos. He found none. He asked dealers who specialized in rare and out of print books but the answer was always the same: no such person, no such book. Trevor decided to assume that the poems were his. It was a leap into the unknown. It wasn’t honest but, he rationalized, that if he claimed them, they would be his. At first he published a couple of poems under his own name but later assumed the pseudonym of Trevor Tanto, which is the name the world came to know him.
Trevor released a few of the Tanto poems a year to growing acclaim. He sprinkled one or two of them into every new collection. Those were always the poems the critics singled out for praise. His reputation grew and his poetry actually improved as he tried to live up to the high bar set by the Tanto poems. His work grew more focused, his language richer, his ideas more subtle. Trevor Tanto became an important American writer. His poems were studied and widely quoted. His work appeared everywhere. He was widely anthologized and highly praised. He gave readings and taught workshops. Few poets enjoyed more success in their lifetimes than Trevor Tanto.
It wasn’t long before he was recruited by the country’s best English departments. He settled on a position with Princeton University, where he helped shape a whole generation of young poets. He continued to write and publish eventually finding his own strong voice. His poems gradually became part of the culture. He had a huge following. One year the President appointed him poet laureate. Trevor Tanto had come a long way from his poetry slam days.
The decades slipped by in a heady whirl and Trevor, now an old man of 68, was on the verge of retirement. He was considered a grand old man of American letters. His most recent collection of poems was selling well, Princeton was offering him a generous pension. He expected to live out the remainder of his years writing, speaking and playing golf.
He was in his office reading through a pile of student poetry when he nearly choked on his tea. There in the pile was one of the original Tanto poems, one he never published. It was by a student named Richard T. Belkin and the poem was called Sleepless. Word for word it was identical to the poem he first read all those years ago.
Now here was a problem. He called Mr. Belkin into his office for a “consultation”. The young man looked very much like one of the poets who attended the poetry slam at the Java Hut. He had long dark hair, a skinny body and a pair of dark framed eyeglasses on his sensitive face. Young Belkin was awe struck to be in the great poet’s presence and could barely speak.
Trevor put the poem Sleepless on the table and said, “This is very good.” The boy blushed and looked away. “Do you have more poems like it?”
“A few,” the boy managed to say, his voice low, reverential. “I want you to know that your writing has been a tremendous influence on me, sir. I’m honored to have been selected to study under you. If I may say so, you have been my inspiration. I’m even named for you. My middle name is Tanto.”
“I should like very much to see your other efforts,” Trevor said feeling awkward. “You remind me of myself when I was your age.”
“I’ll bring you some more of my work tomorrow,” said the boy.
“I’ll be very interested in seeing it.”
Belkin’s poetry was a revelation. All of the unpublished Tanto poems were there as well as a few that appeared in a long out of print collection of his earliest works. The boy was an extraordinary talent and represented a direct threat to Trevor’s reputation. He read the beautiful words while the eager student squirmed, hoping for a crumb of praise from his idol. Trevor did not know what to do. Should he accuse the boy of plagiarism and ruin his budding career? That would make him the worse sort of hypocrite. Maybe he should show the boy the original Tanto collection and explain how it materialized in his room on that long ago day? Would anyone believe that was even possible? Maybe he should play the generous mentor and encourage the boy’s talent. If he could write so well, so young, just imagine what he could contribute to the world with the right instruction.
In the end, Trevor decided on the latter course. He encouraged the boy to put out a small collection of maybe 30 poems. “I find your work extraordinary,” said Trevor. “Go ahead and publish. I’ll see that your book finds a publisher and gets distributed.”
The young man was besides himself with excitement, “My own slim volume, I’m overcome. How can I thank you?”
In due course the book was made. Published by a small press thanks to a behind the scenes nudge from the famous poet. At first the critics were filled with praise for the new voice calling Belkin Tanto 2 and a fresh new voice in American letters. It didn’t take long before some enterprising scholar found the old poems Trevor had published thirty years before and accused the fresh new voice of plagiarism.
Trevor added his voice to the chorus of condemnation and said in an interview that he deplored plagiarism in any form. Publicly humiliated and utterly confused, Robert Tanto Belkin went home and committed suicide. His first and only book of poetry faded into obscurity. Trevor kept a copy on his shelf. It was found among his effects when he died by his own hand nine years later. He never wrote another word.