Diann Blakely

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 pull 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 decantered 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:
On 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 strokes 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 smooths
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.

for Jeanie Thompson

~

Diann Blakely is the author of Hurricane Walk (BOA Editions, 1992), named one of the year’s ten best poet­ry col­lec­tions by the St. Louis Post-DispatchFarewell, My Lovelies (Story Line, 2000), an Academy of American Poets Book Club’s spe­cial fea­ture; and Cities of Flesh and the Dead, win­ner of the Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award (1999) for a man­u­script-in-pro­gress and the 7th annu­al Elixir Book pub­li­ca­tion prize (2008).  A two-timePushcart win­ner and for­mer poet­ry edi­tor at Antioch Review, she is cur­rent­ly at work on Rain in our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson and oth­er poems.