Compared to What
“What’s it like, you know, with him?”
the blonde sculptress from Saratoga
asks me, over a glass of fumé blanc
at the Ship’s Table. What can I say?
On the jukebox, Les McCann snaps
his fingers, Eddie Harris saxophones a street-
wise syncopation: Tryin’ to make it real
compared to what? His jazz-funk fusion
buzzes through my brain. Her blue eyes
unblinking through cigarette haze. What world
have I stumbled into? Which one of us
is tonic, which one flatted fifth?
Who’s called you an oracle and given me
a remaindered copy of Advertisements
for Myself? A paperback I’ve watched you
bend in your big hand till the spine
broke, as you went on about the global scope
of Mailer’s nerve. Tryin’ to make it real,
I hum, snatching the bar tab
from the waiter. Lattice-work
of fish nets on the ceiling, I sip wine
that can’t buy my conversation,
watch my own anger flare and flicker
at invisible cues like a school of cod
flash-turning through kelp-tangle.
As Swiss Movement socks it to me
from the sound system and the crowds
at Montreux leap to their feet and cheer,
I veer around the woman’s question.
For Les McCann
“You know what the others will think,”
I tell you, after the first night
you tongue my breasts and part
my thighs with your circumstantial
hands. The others: painters and poets,
all brilliant women who elbow me aside
in the hardware aisles or glare past me
on the check-out lines. At gallery openings
they offer themselves to you
with their eyes, or sashay past,
spilling plates of hors d’oeuvres at your feet,
brushing their hips against yours.
Oh, sorry! they exclaim, and pout-
smile. Their nipples point
through stretch halter tops in Cape Cod’s
February chill, Arctic-blue décolletage. You
glance away, shift your wineglass
from one hand to the other.
What world? Even in that gesture—
fever and mystique.
“Life in the fast lane,”
you joke that night, as we uncoil
ourselves, raw-silk reluctance and private
laughter where our skins cling.
We hold up our interlaced fingers
and compare them. Transparency
or palimpsest? The candle flame wages
a doubtful battle with its reflection,
moon’s rim-shadow, my hand receding
like twilight’s gardenia under yours.
Don’t worry, you say. I’m my own man,
I make my own choice. Whose choice,
indeed. Fire and assent: whose
unacknowledged plea lets you lie here
beside this woman not quite myself
who has opened like a light-struck chrysalis
you’ve stroked from a pine bough?
“You can’t join the throng till you sing your song,”
you tease me one evening as we sip wine
at the A House. The look on your face
should warn me, tip a balance
in my brain. I’ve got the right
to sing the blues, Billie wails
on the sound system. I shrug
and say nothing, to show you
I can take it, my reasons for being there
not about need. We’re young that winter
and old enough: the all-night bar’s
eleventh-hour dancers, toasting our luck,
high on calculated risk and the code
of dares-go-first, the slow-drag
racing of our hearts. Why?
I ask myself, and then
Why not? The woman at the bar
whose flame-colored hair snarls
into coral snakes when she notices us—
she blames me for your silhouette
pressed against mine in the strobe-lit
haze of the dance floor. What
is she thinking as she pushes aside
café tables and strides toward us,
glittering before you in a sequined
chemise that ripples over her breasts
like a waterfall? Her drink fizzes
in its stemmed glass, she lights a cigarette,
smirks at you, blows smoke
in my direction, and stubs it out.
Electric strippers shimmy on
a theatre marquee in my brain.
I ask myself: What have I stolen
from bebop’s lesser gods?
“I fell in love with you the first time I looked into
Them There Eyes,”
I hum, spooning raisins and shredded
coconut into chipped porcelain bowls
from Goodwill, slicing onions and green chilis
for Indian curry I’ve promised you, laughing and wiping
Them There Eyes as they water,
red in the morning as a storm foretold.
Your eyes, when you stop by for coffee,
brighten at the preparations, then
glance away. You hold out an invitation card
with scalloped edges the color of sailors’ warning.
Medusa’s perfume exhales from the paper: a party
to fête the fellowship she’s won.
“Are you going?” I ask. “Of course—everyone’s invited!”
you protest, then stop as I tell you
I have no invitation. “Whose side are you on?”
I snap, your silence so eloquent I ought
to hear the answer, while your eyes
could tell me anything.
They sparkle, they bubble, they’re gonna
get you in a whole lot of trouble,
the song in my brain teases. Do I ask you
not to go? I recall the Jim Crow anecdotes you’ve told me
from your younger years: “Oh! Are you here,
too?” You mocked a blue-eyed socialite’s
shrill of surprise as your second lieutenant’s uniform
eased over to her clique-knot, like a baritone
shadow at the officers’ club. “Are you here—
Too?” You pressed a squeal from that final syllable
with bitter glee. Do I hear the same old song
transposed now to a different key
why you’ve stumbled back
alone from that party at 4 a.m.
and turned in at your own door.
Don’t tell me I must have
slept, my face pressed to the wall
like Thisbe, Pyramus’s fool.
Your footsteps trampled gravity
on the other side. Do I forget
whose world it is? You’ve
earned the right to go anywhere.
What about me? I ask next day,
stepping across bare floorboards
of your studio. Shhh,
you hiss. The whole world
don’t need to know our bidness.
What then? I make no edgy comeback.
I don’t tell you how, under her party’s
blazing windows, I wrote a card
that started, May your prize make you
as happy as it’s made me.
Then propped a champagne bottle
in a gift bag inside her screen door.
Through her gauzy curtains
all the yellow warning signals
flashed Beware, and I walked home
through empty streets, wondering
what it is about you.
After the hush now and the don’t
explain, what it is
Vieux Carré: Before the Storm
The woman she could have been
danced naked at Sky River Rock Fest years ago. Now
she sits in her kitchen, reading
Ghosts Along the Mississippi.
Her man went North. Let the Big House
burn. Oleander and flamefall.
She runs the live oaks’ gauntlet.
Dauphine Street, mule pulling a tourist buggy
drops dead in the heat. Stars collapse
in the brain. That ancient conjure.
She drifts through this city where
men lounging outside the Help Wanted windows
step aside to let her pass. Behind her gray eyes,
slave moss hangs from the family tree.
Boys smoking in doorways watch her move
under watered silk, the slow dissolve
of hemline—hurricane warnings,
danger signals up and down her spine.
She counts shots in the street at night.
In her dreams, blood dries on the drinking
fountain handles. She sweeps the doorstep
with brick dust. A fix against sweat and water—
her man leaning against Doric columns,
sipping bourbon from a Ball jar.
Was he always in love with turning away?
Men who could have been her friends
walk by, staring at the ground.
Can she guess the score they’ve kept,
Vieux Carré: Before the Storm, page 2
the heart’s insistent letters?
The gris-gris bird echoes her only song—
Let your sorrows pass into the Trouble Tree.
Carolyne Wright's most recent book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Poetry 2009. She has nine earlier books and chapbooks of poetry; a ground-breaking anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), which received ten Pushcart Prize nominations; and five award-winning volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Carolyne lived in Chile and traveled in Brazil on a Fulbright Grant; she returned to Brazil in 2018 for an Instituto Sacatar artists residency in Bahia. A Seattle native who teaches for Richard Hugo House as well as conferences and festivals, she has received grants from the NEA, 4Culture, and Seattle's Office of Arts & Culture; and a 2020-2021 Fulbright Scholar Award to Brazil will take her back to Bahia after the CoVid-19 pandemic has abated.