Friday, April 1, 2016

Two Poems by Paulette Roeske

Divine Attention

The Board of Education had its reasons
for sending me across the racial border
into the ramshackle high school
where I would grapple with street gangs
on the turf of remedial English.
On day one in the dust-covered classroom,
shot-out windows admitting jigsaw pieces
of true sky, I learned the meaning of anarchy.
At the first bell, Rat shook up
a bottle of Pepsi and sprayed Weasel,
then someone snatched a tampon from Dee Dee's purse
for a game of catch. In the front row,
with divine attention, Carmen painted
her nails chartreuse. I pounded the textbook
on the desk, a trick I stole from Khrushchev.
Day after day I followed the carefully
prepared script the Board believed would open
closed doors. Diagrammed sentences
marched across the blackboard like stick figures
in a learn-to-draw-me book. While I droned
about the parts of speech, on the bulletin board
they posted the school news -- who bore
what baby, who held up which gas station or
corner store, which gang crossed what line,
who bled from what wound, who was arrested,
who arraigned, who sent up the river,
who checked in at the morgue.

The day a brick crashed through
the last whole window,
I told the class we were lucky
no one was killed and to leave
the glass on the floor.
William, myopic, overweight, a bully,
picked up the biggest shard
and entered the center aisle, testing
the point on his palm. The world
was Fat William, slow-stepping
down the collision course, and me,
adrift beside the small island
of my desk. When he reached the front,
he raised his arms inch
by inch above his head, forty-five
pairs of eyes climbing after him.
Stretched like a victim on the rack,
he paused. Lost in the wavering
pools of his magnified eyes,
I didn't will his hand
away from the soft edges
I call me, nor did I invite it.
As for him, he must have guessed how little
the difference between cutting
me and cutting himself.
With an angry sleight of hand
he brought down the glass
at my feet.

When I wore the black mini-skirt
and black and white striped blouse,
puffed sleeves buttoned to my forearms
like gauntlets, red bow draped at my neck,
Dee Dee said she liked my dress.
From her purse she fished
a well-thumbed copy of Glamour stamped
DO NOT REMOVE. Women -- thin, white,
too happy -- rose from the clutter
of candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs,
action comics, cosmetics swept straight
from the shelf into Dee Dee's purse.
The women summed up her dog-eared
ambition. She tortured her hair
blonde and powdered her face as if
to erase herself. Again she said, "I like
your dress." In the next row, Carmen
added another point to the black star
she was painting on her thumbnail.
Without glancing up, she said, "So? She got
a job. She working." Dee Dee said she wanted
my dress. I imagined myself naked
in front of the class as in those dreams
teachers sometimes have. I imagined her
as me, the red bow in a stranglehold
around her neck.

"Hey, white girl, the name's Rat.
I'm a poet. I'm crazy," he said,
leaping onto my desk, executing
a soft-shoe that broke pencils
and foot-printed the detailed
records required by the State.
"That's Mrs. to you," I said. "You're
no more crazy than I am. And
get off my desk." Barely clearing
Carmen's bowed head, he jumped
from one nailed-down desk
to the next until he reached
the door at the back of the room.
On the school's one reluctant
mimeograph machine, I cranked out
copies of poems signed One Crazy Rat.
Purple smudges bruised every page.
Personally he handed them out
to the thirty students left,
saying, "I'm a poet. I'm famous.
And her? She Mrs. White Girl." He
didn't come back after that day.
Maybe he turned sixteen, maybe
he turned his back at the wrong
time, or maybe he figured that day
was as good as life got and
how much wiser to bow out
with both barrels smoking. Daily
I checked the bulletin board for news.

During the strike the teachers
called me scab and worse, but Weasel
ditched class to guard my car.
I could see him from the window,
lounging on the hood of my Chevy,
rolling joints. By then I had thrown away
the script and spent the days
reinventing my favorite books -- talking up
Kurtz's crimes in the Congo,
ascribing to him tortures borrowed
from the Bible, Dante, and de Sade.
Iago was misunderstood, cried the twelve
who remained, and the Minotaur
merely confused by his odd
combination of hands and hooves.
They warmed to the world where everything
is permitted, believing at last
they could imitate art in their lives.

After school in the girls' john,
alone among the ineradicable
odors of urine, smoke, and lilac cologne,
where lipsticked walls cursed
honkies, pigs, spicks, the fucked-over world,
where cracked plaster leaked roaches
and forgotten books spilled their undecipherable formulas
beside the overflowing toilets,
I abandoned the false metaphor
calling life a blank slate.
For a year I had watched them turn
desecrated page after desecrated page
even though they already knew no idea
is ever whole or pure
and salvation is a profane word.

The Deaf Girl Studies Poetry

The class listens to me
but watches the interpreter
who watches the girl
for whom sight is sound.
I begin with the word
listen. As in “Listen
to the long O’s
accruing like sighs,
the sibilant S’s
in secrets beginning
with she.”
But in her language,
the alphabet
is knuckle and bone,
quick as a fist
or deliberate
as thumb and forefinger
closing to show
“smaller and smaller.”
The hands drop
when I conclude,
“… and then
there was nothing.”
I think about
writing without a pen,
a sailboat becalmed,
the top car rocking
on the shut-down Ferris wheel.
The girl smiles
seconds after
my slight jokes.
Her hands are quiet
when I ask for questions.
Together we travel
the poem’s brighter thread, watch
its beautiful

Paulette Roeske has published four books of poetry: Breathing Under Water, Stormline Press, 1988; The Body Can Ascend No Higher, Illinois Writers, Inc., 1992 (Chapbook); Divine Attention, Louisiana State University Press, 1995; Anvil, Clock & Last, Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Her poems have been published in such periodicals as Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Chariton Review, The Threepenny Review, Poetry Northwest, Indiana Review, Chicago Review, Hawaii Review, and many others. 

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