Diann Blakely

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

THE STORY OF THEIR LIVES

 

1. Tuscumbia, Alabama

 

Dense-clustered ivy climbs outside a window

Open as Helen’s mouth: she snatches bread

From Mother’s plate; her dirty fingers spread

The air, demanding butter.  She can’t notice

 

The stars outside, soft and almost fragrant

With Alabama spring, or hear the wind

That lifts the rambling, leafy vine for which

This house is named.  Silent, an aproned servant

 

Brings the stranger into the dining room.

Captain and Mrs. Keller exchange looks

When Boston-Irish Annie starts to speak,

Her accent odd: the garish vowels boom;

 

Her thick-lensed gaze never leaves their daughter.

Helen, too, knows an alien is present

And revolts: her greased fists strike the parent

Who dotes on “this wild, uncouth little creature”

 

And plates crash on the mirrory waxed floor.

A lullaby will calm them both to sleep,

The mother thinks.  How sweetly angels weep.

The captain, who survived the Civil War

 

And still wears shiny buttons stamped “CSA,”

Removes his butter-smeared reading glasses

And cleans them with a napkin.  Disliking chaos,

He starts toward his study, hung with sabers

 

And a Rebel flag.  But Helen charges Annie,

Who spent childhood with whores and pregnant girls

In Tewksbury Almshouse, who dined on gruel

And crusts for years.  Who doesn’t know this story

Of ill fates mastered, of love and miracles,

Although in future tense?  Now Annie slaps

Her shocked new pupil back.  “The greatest step

Will be taken when, the Kellers schooled

 

From all such interference, the little savage

Learns her first lessons in obedience”—

With daily bribes of buttered bread and silk ribbons—

“And finds the yoke easy.”  But tonight’s passage

 

Is slow as ivy’s climb along a trellis

Or the patient, white wing-beats of those angels

Who hover among stars.  The child sniffles

Through matted coils of hair, then smashes

 

Both hands against another window, closed.

(Dear Reader, ivy is no gentle plant

But pulls apart the sturdy granite slabs

Of houses; and once I saw, my own mouth open,

 

A copperhead, its dull head stuck between

Dry stringy fronds: it struck against a window-

Screen behind which a toddler dozed,

Hot fangs caught in the standard-issue twine.)

 

Now Father, Mother, dim-sighted Annie stare

At their own wounded shadows, cracked and shattered,

As broken glass drops to the floors, and clatters,

Blood-stained.  None dare to look away.  None dare.

 

 

 

2. St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

 

The brick abrades her fingers.  What is that smell?

Now she touches a wrought-iron balcony,

Wipes her hand across her mouth.  July is hell

 

In New Orleans: heat and a death-knell

For twins, coffined and dressed identically.

The brick abrades her fingers.  What is that smell,

 

As heavy with rot as the old well

Where boys at home drown litters of puppies,

Wipe their hands across their mouths?  July is hell

 

When strange perfume and faithless love-sweat spill

Across a thousand sheets—o profane city

Whose brick abrades Helen’s fingers.  Those smells

 

Of mud and beer, chicory, the dew on petals

That droop toward the twins’ pale cheeks.  Too blurry

To understand, the words that Annie spells

 

Into Helen’s hand.  Again the death-knell,

And Pupil clutches Teacher, panicky

At the air’s strange pulse, but Annie won’t tell

 

What its vibrations mean.  Their white skirts tail,

Hems mingled on the sidewalk.  Talk to me.

Brick abrades Helen’s fingers.  What is that smell?

She wipes her hand across her mouth.  July is hell.

 

 
 

3. Angelfish

 

“Blindness is an exciting business,” says Mr. Twain,

Helen on his lap.  But what’s more sweetly flagrant

Than hot-breathed courtship from a man so near one’s age?

John Macy knocks over the decanted sherry

To kiss Annie’s moistening hand.  Helen flurries

At Twain’s lips, read the words there, now profane—

“Dear one, I must curse.”  Continuing with talk

His newest pet describes as tobacco-fragrant,

 

He ignores Annie’s moist and much-kissed hand.  “Sixteen

Is the dearest and sweetest of all ages.”  White thatch

Of hair.  White-moustached mouth continuing with talk

Of love—“tears and flapdoodle”—as more decantered sherry

Is fetched and served; John quaffs a glass and, slurring

Words, he asks for Annie’s hand.  But choose between

A man and Helen?  She cuts another hunk of cake.

Her pupil’s laughter jars.  Happy girls, booms Twain,

 

Will forgo hot-breathed courtship with men their own age.

“Dear one, I must curse.”  Continuing with talk

Of girls who sweeten his old age, Twain’s white thatch tickles

Helen, still on his lap.  But what’s more sweetly flagrant

Than kisses on one’s virgin hand?  Sherry-fragrance

Wafts between Annie and John.  More chocolate cake.

“To make a perfect and completed whole, it takes

The two of you.  Exciting business,” says Mr. Twain.

 

 

 

4. Winter Garden Theatre

 

So eagerly she parts her lips

Then turns both cheeks for rouging

While this new friend—Folks, got your tickets?

Advises, for the chilly wings,

 

A warmer shawl.  With greasepaint—

Come hear Miss Helen Keller speak!—

She’ll make the odd-voiced, angel-faced

(O where is, where is Peter?),

 

And still broken-hearted Helen

More ethereally gorgeous

At forty than at sweet sixteen.

Annie’s lungs, ravaged

 

By the TB that’s nested there

Since Tewksbury Almshouse—

And tonight starring Sophie Tucker!—

Have forced her home to rest

 

And brood on loss: Johnny’s gone.

At Captain Keller’s death,

His widow shipped eight trunks to Wrentham—

Who’ll sing your requests—

 

And, piece by piece from her garden

To train New England ivy,

The trellis (“Where is my true love gone?”)

To join her voice with Annie’s:

 

Their Helen mustn’t marry.  But Sophie—

The Last of the Hot Mamas!

Cries “Balderdash,” her kimono

Embroidered with feathers

 

Like the green and blue ones in her hair,

Untied and flapping, as heat

Begins to clank the radiators.

“’Tain’t vanity to want

 

The love of a good man, no matter

What old hens cluck.”  Their shriek:

“Have you been kissing that creature?”

(“O when will he come back?”)

“His name is Peter, and I love him,”

Signed Helen, then began

To pack her trunk for the elopement.

Don’t leave—  She sat till dawn,

 

Her fingers on her lips as now

They rest on Sophie’s. Rehearsed

“I love you”s, otherworldly vowels.

Two acrobats, finished

 

Performing for the night, announce,

Sweat sheening their red tights,

The dog act’s next: Les Princesses

From Par-ee!  Don’t leave your seats!

 

Sophie checks both their faces

In the bulb-starry mirror,

Adds more rouge, which drifts to fleck the lace

Beneath pale Helen’s ears,

 

Fleck the lace like tiny spots

Of blood.  She’d sat till dawn,

Breathed early and unwelcome heat—

And now, the deaf and blind

 

On her face, the stars devoured;

The first birds beat their feathers

Against sprouting trellis bars—

Will speak!  Where was he, O Reader?

 

 
 

5. Westport

 

But Helen’s dreaming of Los Angeles,

The salt winds drift off the still-chilly Sound,

Recalling scents from—the thirties, forties,

 

Pacific breeze and—which hotel’s greens?

Her hands stroked flowers there as Teacher spelled

 

A trembling skein of consonants and vowels:

“Wisteria.” “White jasmine.” That nicked stone angel,

Its stare a lidless blank, looked past dropped towels

 

And trysts then too, as the near-sixty Pupil

 

Looked past her ailing Teacher’s cheek: ivy,

Not jasmine.  The thrice-moved, green-choked trellis . . .

Now half-awake, Helen strokes pale signs

 

On the salt-heavy air.  Who can resist

Inscribing on the present (O, Dear Reader,

 

Read closer, closer!) lines from the past?

And how decades, and their trips, blur:

In which did Chaplin plan that film—the twenties?—

 

With Helen called Deliverance?  The star

 

Would play a disguised prince; his sleeping beauty,

Whose stepmother, still watchful, had read the script—

“A fairy tale revised!”—and, confusedly,

 

Felt his kiss steered to her cheek, not lips.

Her hand now strikes gray braids that coil along

 

Her white nightgown’s lace collar.  Two sherries sipped

At a much-storied club made Helen long

To dance, till Chaplin asked the band for jazz,

 

When she clutched Annie: the shadowed pulse of jungles,

 

Vine-snaked, where she’d been lost.  (Ex-savages,

Dear Reader, fear the hot nostalgic lure

Of clenched and blood-stained fists, of rapine

 

We call desire, its fanged teeth always bared

For alien flesh, mouths wide.)  Miss Sullivan

 

Seemed rattled too: jazz moaned like Tewksbury,

Its wild and daylong chorus of the mad,

The pregnant girls who wept in tangled hair

 

For lives erased by love.  Pale Helen’s hand

 

Clutched Teacher’s in smoke-murky air.  In air

Now present tense and salty, again her hand

Moves to her lips and remembers W-A-T-E-R,

 

The rocking chair, a cake. . . . Dear Reader, spellbound

Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored

 

With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose

This story, to let Helen float away

From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose

 

Her resting place.  A white headstone, engraved

 

With letters etched more deeply than her face,

Almost unlined, except for nail-made welts—

The little savage’s herself.  And less

 

Of her each year.  O Reader, what’s the self?

“For me to marry,” Helen wrote, “would doom

 

A man to marrying a statue, as heaven

Has not equipped me equally.”  She smoothes

The rumpled sheets, knowing love’s bargain;

 

And angels, seeing her white gown, and, too,

 

Those blankly staring eyes, are sure all things

Belong to them, as crowds and her loved two?—

Or three?  Or four?—were sure.  A cherub sings.

 

to Lisa Russ Spaar and Jeanie Thompson

 

 

First published in New World Writing (Summer 2012)

From Los Addresses: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

 

Diann Blakely (June 1, 1957 – August 5, 2014) was an American poet, essayist, editor, and critic. She taught at Belmont University, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, the Watkins Arts Institute, and served as the first poet-in-residence at the Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee. A Robert Frost Fellow at Bread Loaf, she was a Dakin Williams Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She won two Pushcart Prizes and has been anthologized in numerous volumes, including Best American Poetry 2003.

Her first collection, Hurricane Walk, was listed among the year’s ten best by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; her second book, Farewell, My Lovelies, was named a Choice of the Academy of American Poets’ Book Society; and her third volume, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, won the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America as well as the 7th Annual Publication Prize from Elixir Press.  

She was poetry editor at Antioch Review and New World Writing. Her poetry collection Lost Addresses: New & Selected Poems was recently published by Salmon Poetry. Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson is forthcoming from White Pine Press and Each Fugitive Moment: Essays, Memoirs, and Elegies on Lynda Hull is forthcoming from MadHat Press.

 

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