09/27/2021

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.