Monday, April 20, 2015

April 20th Poem - Oddly American

"Oddly American" first appeared in the literary journal Poet Lore in the summer of 1989 under my maiden name Barbara Smith.


In McDonald’s this afternoon a punch
drunk fighter with a squashed face
shared a table with a woman
perhaps in her late fifties.
She was wearing button earrings,
a white blouse, blue skirt,
perfectly polished shoes,
her Lord &Taylor shopping bag
nestled beside her with its single rose.
The fighter wore dark clothes,
and spoke constantly.
His voice sounded scraped, raw,
and it was difficult for me
to listen to him without wincing.

Sometimes the woman looked away
but only for a moment, then
rested her chin on her joined hands
and leaned forward toward him
the way listening women do.
She looked like actresses
in old movies, ladylike,
lovely, and oddly American.
The fighter’s face had been hurt
so often and so brutally
he no longer resembled himself.
Perhaps once he looked like Vinnie Love,
a boxer I knew when I was sixteen,
his face so beautiful I couldn’t believe
he wanted to be a fighter.

Vinnie took me to a party.
Most of the people were drunk.
An older man, a writer,
beckoned me to join him
in another room. I followed him.
The light was turned out.
He slid his hands along my legs.
The door opened. Vinnie switched
on the light and began
punching the writer.

Later, voices, and the writer asking
that the light be turned off. And while
the fighter in McDonald’s is talking,
at another table a baby is mangling
a handful of French fries.
I’m remembering my dress,
at home - so much blood
I threw it away.
When Vinnie called in the morning,
I didn’t want to talk,
didn’t want to hear his voice.
I spoke but only pretended to listen.

Today I’m thinking of how
the angels fought...They had no wings
but moved as quickly as thought.
They never used their hands
but stunned and kept enemies from them
with sound, the way whales do. In
other occasions, they playfully made
garlands of breath-whispers humans
could not see but felt brushing tenderly.

What did his voice sound like
before it was wounded? Liquid, sure?
Did he have a New York accent
or sound vaguely foreign
as sons of immigrants do?
Which pounding caused
what would never heal?

The woman from Lord & Taylor
did not reach over and touch
the fighter’s hand but I wanted her to.

from Singing Magic by Barbara Alfaro
© Barbara Alfaro

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