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.
“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?
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-Dispatch; Farewell, 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.