I learn by going where I have to go—Theodore Roethke
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Where's my Home
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“ Close enough to smell the rye” first appeared in Poetry Magazine (online) “I learned to be cunning” Ygradsil (online) “In a place called Ego,” in Where's my Home Premier Poet's Series, Rhode Island, spring 2001, and in Aftertaste Ride the Wind Publishers, Canada, spring 2001.
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Close enough to smell the rye
I met a man at a party. I'm Irish, he told me, and as he drank he told
me that passion is unchristian there. I was close enough to smell the rye
watch the words tumble damp, catch his fingers on my breast.
As the night pulled on, he looked like an old house, all shadows
and I pressed against a window. He was telling me that Paravans
in India are not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed
to cover their upper bodies, to carry umbrellas – not allowed. . .
was what I mainly heard. But what he really meant was that
Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping
into a Paravan's footprint. He was touching me, talking about
untouchability and suddenly the back of my legs went sweaty and
his lips flapped like yam leaves. Dead insects floated round the base
of the candle. Then like traffic freezes passage on a highway, I was sure
I had to go. The Greeks, I know, say you never enter the same
river twice: that returning, like moving on, is coming to another place.
That night the sky was black and thick.
I learned to be cunning
I used to think that a piece of sky was enough to tell me where things stood, what was going to happen; slices of sky between the mountains, parceled into triangles told me what I knew, the way plants shiver when the temperature drops. Predictions came at me the way cold
rushed in late November. I learned to trust like laying a fire: layers of balance, order, weight. Or it wouldn't work. The air between the twigs had to be kept light, not packed, nor blocked. In those years I wanted to learn to love from those who could, but none was ever as good as I
wanted. Sometimes I remember the residue of a smile, the warm place round a man's eyes. Stare as though I'm watching ants climb over a leaf in between the mountains of West Vancouver, where motion seems to settle when the day cools
as the sun drops leaving only streamers. Autumn baffled me then, pumped me with memories I didn't think I had a right to. I learned to be cunning like fabric in a market, twisted from the bolt, edges pegged to overhead wires to catch a shopper's eye.
In a place called Ego
Rushdie's death threat was revoked the last time I was there and the Booker short list was announced. This time I notice crosses twisting freely on wool sweaters, but today a Star of David hangs from a woman's watch. As it catches the light I think of when I took home a tennis ball my father had given me that morning saying bring it back today. I had bounced it in the classroom, broken rules. That teacher had a British way of talking when she marched me into the back room, pulled up my dress and brought the cane down hard many times, on my back. She rolled her words the way I couldn't the way I couldn't keep to her rules. Loyalty clashed with obedience when I was in grade one.
There was sun the last time I was here, and the Labor convention was in Blackpool promising a new Labor and a new Britain. I'm in England again, squeezing into my granddaughter's lives. I watch their bodies grow, think mine never offered me promise, I almost ran out of hope. Went to my high school graduation with a thin boy, drew a number. Don't want those empty times back again. Not for me and not for the little girls.
I drink coffee latté with their mother in a place called Ego, cappuccino streaks the froth, cocoa pocking so the steam can leave showing the difference between young and old. I'm turning things back a ways, as the little girls turn in their chairs, put legs through the posts, let chocolate crumble. Now the headlines ask Has the war in Kosovo really ended? and report that Belgrade is still hiding refugees, but the Royal wedding excites crowds to storm the castle grounds as Sophie becomes a Duchess.
I watch my daughter, think that if you want to understand a woman you must ask about her mother, and I listen carefully. There's unfinished business here. I was told things I was too young to hear, but memories should be kept alive. Remembering seems such a holy thing as I touch her arm and watch her lean over her daughters. I'm still waiting for my mother to draw me home and would tell her throw away your old maps they're useless for knowing me now.