Two new poems of mine, in a new anthology, “I Come From the World”

I’m thrilled to be part of this new venture–and to have my poem alongside that of fellow Baltimorean and distinguished  poet Baron Wormser!

Read two of my poems , “The Glamorganshire Bible” and “The Kid: Cumberland 1923”–here:

https://icomefromtheworld.org/the-glamorganshire-bible-the-kid-cumberland-1923/

My Mother on My Cousin’s Wedding Day

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Children weren’t invited. That
wasn’t fair. I was thirteen,
had never seen a wedding, except on television.
She opened a small flat box of nylon stockings,
pulled them on gently, fastened them to her girdle.
I watched  her pull the beige lace dress over her head,
shake it down her slender frame, gently push
her  arms through the sleeves.
I zipped the dress closed.

I climbed onto her bed, mesmerized by the lace sheath.
Paid full price too, she murmured.  Coral high heeled pumps,
matching clutch purse, sparkling costume jewelry.
She leaned towards the mirror to put on her lipstick,
coral, like the shoes. From a department store box she
withdrew an ivory hat, broad brimmed in the front,
covered with tulle.

My father waited downstairs in his favorite chair
trying not to sweat in the August heat.
I followed them out the front door, sat
on the porch steps, the concrete hot on my thighs.
The green and white fins of our Chevy disappeared
down the street. She was forty-five. I knew
she’d be the prettiest, best-dressed lady there.

She wore the lace dress again, over and over,
and the coral shoes. But the hat
Stayed in back of the closet for years
till one day the square box went to Goodwill
because nobody wore hats any more.

 

Reprinted from Light:A Journal of Photography and Poetry, January 2017, inaugural issue

For more Baltimore poems, pre-order my forthcoming collection, Baltimore Girls, from Finishing Line Press. You can order from the publisher’s website. Pre-ordering runs now through January 6, 2017. Profits from pre-orders will be divided between  the Mercy High School, Baltimore scholarship fund, and Epiphany School, Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Were Wearing: From Weejuns to Bob Dylan Boots

I was seventeen,  standing in the foyer of Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins. In our ongoing campaign to meet college men, we  had come out on a school night  to Hopkins, to some sort of political meeting, or perhaps a poetry reading. My best friend MJ was with me, and so was our friend Alma, a year behind us in school. My mother had recently taken up knitting again, and she had turned out some fuzzy mohair sweaters. This night, I wore a pink one, loose and fuzzy, over a short dark skirt.

 Whatever event had brought us to the Hopkins campus was finished, and Alma’s very tall, very handsome rosy-cheeked brother was there to take her home. His friend looked short, but only because Bill was so tall, well  over six feet. He wore a navy blue shirt black tie, and jeans. Later, after he and I dated for the second half of my senior year, I came to learn that Bill thought this attire made him look vaguely like a Mafioso, but to me he looked like a Baltimore City police,   uniformed officer, but without the badge. Nobody dressed this way, at least no college guy I’d ever seen in real life.

 Wearing the dark brown skirt and white blouse uniform of Mercy High School meant that I never had to make decisions about buying clothes for school. Coordinated outfits, mostly sweaters and skirts, were absolutely necessary for Sunday Mass, Friday night CYO or going to plays or basketball games at Calvert Hall or Loyola.  The styles were dictated by Seventeen Magazine and the junior fashion boards at Hutzler’s or Stewart’s, the local department stores, which in turn probably received their marching orders from Seventeen and  Glamour . I had carefully assembled a small but workable out-of-school  wardrobe. Though I not yet  persuaded my mother to buy me a pair of Weejuns, I  had a few Villager skirts and sweaters,  the requisite Chesterfield coat with velvet collar, and  a shoulder bag that was the envy of my school friends.  Even on  the coldest winter day, we didn’t wear hats, or hoods. We eschewed scarves. Gloves and the Chesterfield coat were enough for us, no matter how frigid the weather.

 But once I started going with Bill, my preppy style didn’t play so well. He was an actor, which is to say he tread the boards at his all – male college, and sometimes, at  Mount Saint Agnes, its sister school across town. The theater crowd was sophisticated and cool. They had parties at the apartments of people who were at least twenty-five  and  sometimes—amazingly, to me—even older. They might gather around a small television to watch a special  broadcast of Brando in “On the Waterfront” while they drank scotch and smoked Marlboros or Benson and Hedges. One couple, Ray and his lover, were out of the closet–both in their late twenties, both in college, both army veterans. They, too, were in the college theater group.Ray and Fred  lived together in a large studio apartment on Belair Road, in a blue collar neighborhood, where rents were far cheaper than in the student ghetto.

From the time I was fourteen, my mother endured much moaning and crying on my part over my boyfriendless state. “You’re not  fat,” she would say. “You’re fine. Not every boy likes a rail thin girl.” By the time I started going out with Bill, she was so relieved  to see me with an active social life that she never asked for details on where I was going.  And I, in turn was vague. So long as I was home by midnight, I could do as I pleased. She trusted me to make good decisions, she said.

This particular night I wore a wine colored merino wool knot dress because Bill had sent a handwritten note, couriered to me by his sister before homeroom a few mornings earlier. “Kindness of Alma” was written in ornate script in the lower left corner of the envelope, and for the return address  F. J. Talma,   Francois-Joseph Talma, a nineteenth century French actors whose persona Bill had adopted.  In his letter, in florid, formal prose on vellum stationery, he  outlined the schedule for the Saturday night.  He told me the precise time  he would pick me up  and directed me to “wear dark, dark colors.” My mother wouldn’ t hear of my wearing black, so the burgundy wool dress — bought the year before for an afternoon  tea dance at the Naval Academy– would have to do. I laid out  the Chesterfield coat and  Bob Dylan boots.

 “Oh, we’re just going to a play and a cast party after,” I stold my mother. Indeed, there was a play—Genet’s  The Balcony, which I barely understood, and a party afterwards at the home of  a couple in their late twenties  who lived around the corner  from the Northeast Baltimore police headquarters, in the upstairs of a two–family house.  Everyone was older than me, and everyone was drinking. I sipped at a glass of white wine, and found myself watching—not really participating—in a conversation between two Mount St Agnes seniors  and a Jesuit from Loyola,  adviser to the drama club. The girls were tall, blond and sophisticated, and they laughed and chatted and then sang, for the benefit of Father Whatever His Name Was, a parody of a Broadway show tune. I knew the song, “Can Do,” from Guys and Dolls. “Can’t do, can’t do, “ they sang. “The Church says we can’t screw. Can’t do, can’t do.” The priest threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I was shocked. I  tried to show no sign  of even  mild surprise as I  half-smiled and backed away. I  found a sofa to sink into, and looked around the room for Bill. He stood in a far corner near the kitchen, holding court. “So I said to the professor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of pathetic fallacy. Rather, I think Dylan Thomas was…pathetically phallusy!’” Everyone laughed. I looked at at my watch and saw that it was 11:40, and even though my house was only  ten minutes  away, I became anxious.

 I was quiet on the drive home. Bill lit a cigarette and he, too, was silent. His mother’s car, an older model Dodge Dart, had no radio. I felt I had disappointed him, though I‘d tried my best to be the cool and sophisticated intellectual girlfriend I thought he wanted me to be.  He kissed me good night on the front porch. I didn’t ask him in.

 My mother was still awake down in the basement family room. watching an old movie on the black and white television, something with Rita Hayworth. Dad was upstairs  in  bed, long asleep, and Mom was in her pajamas and bathrobe, drinking  ginger ale.

” Didn’t we see this once, at the Northway Theatre,when I was  in fifth grade? ” I asked her. “Remember, it was  a school night. I fell asleep on the ride home, and  you had to tell me  how it ended.”

“Sit down, sweetie,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t that Rita Hayworth a beautiful girl?”

Dancing Girl With Headband

My mother was a born  dancer. Not a hoofer, nor a chorus girl. For most of her working life she was an elementary school teacher. But at heart she was a child of Terpsichore, muse of the dance. And I’m not referring to classical ballet or modern dance, though she clearly saw the value of these, enrolling my sister and me in the Taylor Avenue School of the Dance so we could learn to plié and arabesque with the other little girls. My mother loved any popular dance. But most of all, she loved the Charleston.

 She often told us about the time she won a Charleston contest at St. Rita’s fair, when she was thirteen. The prize was five dollars, and she beat out a dozen other Dundalk girls in the competition. I can only imagine what they danced to—a gramophone with a large horn for sound production? A live band from the local Moose Club or Knights of Columbus, perhaps.  And when my grandmother got wind of the news, either from a neighbor or perhaps from the happy prize winning dancer herself, my mother was whipped and punished, and one can only wonder what happened to that cash prize, likely confiscated. Whether it was jealousy or a sense of propriety that made my grandmother react this way, I  never figured out. More to the point, this episode did not cure my mother of what my grandmother called “making a spectacle of yourself.”

 When my father’s extended family gathered for holiday parties and the topic of dancing came up, my Uncle Bill would talk on about how he and my mother “could really cut up a rug”  back when they were young and running with the same crowd. At weddings, my mother would be the first one  out on the dance floor, though  my father could barely manage a foxtrot because of his bad leg. In the ‘Sixties, she was more than willing to get up and do  the Twist with me or my sister.  When I was in high school, she would watch Shindig! with me and my sister, rising from her chair to Frug or Hully Gully along with the television dancers. We thought this was hilarious, so long as she did not carry on like this in front of our friends.

 But most telling of all was the time my father stayed home with us while my mother went off to one of her state teachers’ conventions, this time at the Alcazar, an old downtown Baltimore ballroom and auditorium. I was  ten, and my sister, six. For weeks our mother had regaled us with stories of the comedy skit that she had helped write, highlighting education issues over  the  previous five decades. To show the changing times, her friend Jessie, one of the principal actors, reached under her chair and selected a new hat, choosing a variety of styles,  from broad-brimmed 1915 chapeau to Jackie Kennedy  pillbox. On the last night of Mother’s convention, our father told us to change into good dresses because he was taking us somewhere special. We’d already eaten, so we knew we weren’t headed for  Howard Johnson’s, our idea of dining out. He was very mysterious, simply mentioning as we headed downtown that we were in for a surprise.

He ushered us up to the balcony of the Alcazar’s auditorium. Onstage, sitting at the head of a conference table was Mother’s friend Jessie Parsons. She bent over to stash the 1915-era hat she had just removed from a large box under her chair and placed a ‘Twenties’ style cloche  on her head. Laughter erupted from the audience. Then, she appeared– our mother, in full flapper regalia—a sparkling shift, feather boa, long ropes of beads, high heels, and a feathered headband around her short coiffure. Charleston music blared from the sound system. And dancing next to her, wearing an old raccoon coat and waving a pennant, was Jessie’s ex-husband Lee. My sister and I bounced up and down in our seats and squealed as we watched our mother kick and strut, while Mr. Parsons executed the Bees Knees step perfectly. Teachers from all over the state rose to their feet, clapping in time to the music.  And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Mother and Mr. Parsons took a bow, to loud applause. My father whisked us out of the auditorium, though we pleaded with him to take us backstage to see our mother. “Did she know we were going to be here?” we asked. Our father just laughed and shook his head. “Your mother sure  is a wonderful dancer,” he said, and then he became quiet.

Perhaps he was remembering a  night many years before, when he was young, able-bodied and athletic. The Great Depression  may have hovered in the background of their romance, but that night they put their  worries aside for a few hours. That was the night he proposed, while they were dancing slow and close  at the Dundalk Post Office Outing, as the little orchestra played on.