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Cameos

by Rita Dove



July, 1925

Lucille among the flamingos
is pregnant; is pained
because she cannot stoop to pluck
the plumpest green tomato
deep on the crusted vine.
Lucille considers
the flamingos, guarding in plastic cheer
the birdbath, parched
and therefore
deserted. In her womb
a dull and husky ache.

If she picks it, Joe will come home
for breakfast tomorrow.
She will slice and dip it
in egg and cornmeal and fry
the tart and poison out.
Sobered by the aroma, he'll show
for sure, and sit down
without a mumbling word.
Inconsiderate, then,

the vine that languishes
so!, and the bath sighing for water
while the diffident flamingos arrange
their torchsong tutus.
She alone
is the blues. Pain drives her blank.
Lucille thinks: I can’t
even see my own feet
.

Lucille lays down
between tomatoes
and the pole-beans: heavenly shade.
From here everything looks
reptilian. The tomato plops
in her outstretched palm. Now
he’ll come
, she thinks,
and it will be a son.
The birdbath hushed
behind a cloud
of canebreak and blossoming flame.


Night

Joe
ain’t studying nobody.
He laughs his own sweet bourbon banner,
he makes it to work on time.
Late night, Joe retreats through
the straw-link-and-bauble curtain
and up to bed. Joe sleeps. Snores
gently as a child after a day of marbles.

Joe
knows somewhere
he had a father
who would have told him
how to act. Mama,
stout as a yellow turnip,
loved to bewail her wild good luck:
Blackfood Injun, tall with
hair like a whip
. Now

to do it
without him
is the problem. To walk into a day
and quietly absorb.
Joe takes after Mama.
Joe’s Mr. Magoo.

Joe
thinks half
dreaming, if he ever finds
a place where he can think,
he’d stop clowning
and drinking and then that wife
of his would quit
sending prayers through the chimney.

Ah,
Lucille.
Those eyes, bright and bitter
as cherry bark, those
coltish shins, those thunderous hips!
No wonder he couldn’t leave
her be, no wonder when she began to show
he packed a fifth and split.

Joe
in funk and sorrow. Joe
in parkbench celibacy, in apostolic
factory rote, in guilt (the brief
astonishment of memory), in grief when
guilt turns monotonous.

He always knew when to go on home.


Birth

(So there you are at last—
a pip, a button in the grass.
The world’s begun
without you.

And no reception but
accumulated time.
Your face hidden but your name
shuddering on air!)


Lake Erie Skyline, 1930

He lunges, waits, then strikes again.
I’ll make them sweat, he thinks
and does a spider dance
as the fireflies shamble past.

The sky dims slowly; the sun
prefers to do its setting
on the other side of town.
This deeper blue smells
soft. The patterns in it
rearrange—he cups

another fly. (He likes to
shake them dizzy
in his hands, like dice, then
throw them out for luck.
They blink on helplessly
than stagger from the sidewalk
up and gone.)

Sometimes the night arrives
with liquor on its breath,
twice-rinsed and chemical.
Or hopped up, sparking
a nervous shimmy. Or
dangerously still, like his mother
standing next to the stove,
a bible verse rousing her pursed lips.

He knows what gin is made from—
berries blue. He knows
that Jesus Saves. (His father
calls it Bitches’ Tea.)

And sisters—so many, their
names fantastic, myriad
as the points of a chandelier:
Corinna, Violet, Mary, Fay,
Suzanna, Kit and Pearl. Each evening
when they came to check
his bed, he held his breath, and still
he smelled the camphor
and hair pomade, saw
foreheads sleek, spitcurl
embellishing a cheek, lips
soft and lashes spiked
with vaseline. He waited
to be blessed.
                                They were
Holy Vessels, mother said:
each had to wait
her Turn. And he, somehow,
was part of the waiting, he was
the Chain. He was, somehow,
his father.

The latest victim won’t
get up—just lies there
in the middle of the walk
illuminating the earth
regular as breath.
He stomps and grinds
his anger in. Pulls
his foot away and yellow
streaks beneath the sole—
eggyolk flame, lurid
smear of sin.

                                Sisters,
laughing, take his shoes away
and bring them scraped
and ordinary
back. Idiots,
he thinks. No wonder
there’s so many of them
.
But he can’t sleep.
All night beneath his bed,
the sun is out.


Depression Years

Pearl
can’t stop eating;
she wants to live!
Those professors
have it backwards:
after fat came merriment,
simply because she was afraid to
face the world, its lukewarm
nonchalance
that generationwise had set
her people in a stupor of
religion and
gambling debts. (Sure, her
mother was an angel
but her daddy was
her man.)

Pearl laughs
a wet red laugh.
Pearl oozes
everywhere. When she was
young, she licked the walls free of chalk; she
ate dust for the minerals.
Now she just
enjoys, and excess
hardens on her like
a shell.
She sheens.

But oh, what
tiny feet! She tipples
down the stairs. She cracks a chair.
The largest baby shoe
is neat. Pearl laughs
when Papa jokes: Why don’t
you grow yourself some feet?

Her mother calls them
devil’s hooves.
Her brother
doesn’t

care.
He has
A Brain; he doesn’t notice.
She gives him of her own
ham hock, plies him with
sweetened yams. Unravels
ratted sweaters, reworks them
into socks. In the lean years
lines his shoes
with newspaper. (Main
thing is, you don’t
miss school
.)

She tells him
it’s the latest style.
He never laughs.
He reads. He
shuts her out.
Pearl thinks
she’ll never marry—
though she’d
like to have
a child.


Homework

  “The Negro and his Song
are inseparable.
If his music is primitive
and if it has much that
is sensuous, this is simply
a part of giving
pleasure, a quality
appealing strongly
to the Negro’s
entire being. Indeed,
his love of rhythms
and melody, his
childish faith
in dreams. . . .”
Shit,
he’ll take Science, most
Exacting Art.
In school when the teacher
makes him lead
the class in song,
he’ll cough straight through.
Better
columns of figures, the thing dissected to the bone.
Better
the clear and incurious drip
of fluid from pipet
to reassuring beaker. 
 
 
“The Negro claps his hands
spontaneously; his feet
move constantly in joyful
anticipation of the drum . . .”
Most of all
he’d like to study
the composition of stars.
 


Graduation, Grammar School

Joe
holds both
fists out, palms
down. Come on boy, guess.

The boy
hesitates. He knows
there’s nothing
in either one.
 
(The game:
Who offers the hand
first, man or woman?
Who first lowers
the eyes? If the hand
is not received, whose
pride is reduced. And
what if both are men?
Or drunk? Or one is
White? The possibilities
are infinite.)

Joe
sees his son
flicker. Although
the air is not a glass,
watches as he puts his lips to
the brim—then turns away, bored.
He is not mine, this son
who ripens, quiet
poison on a
shelf.


Painting the Town

The mirror
in the hall is red.
Pearl
giggles: Pretty
as a freshly painted
barn
. She tugs
a wrinkle down.
Since she’s discovered
men would rather drown
than nibble,
she does just
fine.

She’d like to show
her brother
what it is like to crawl
up the curved walls
of the earth, or
to be that earth—but
he has other plans.
Which is alright. Which is
As It Should Be.
Let the boy reach manhood
anyway he can.


Easter Sunday, 1940

A purity
in sacrifice, a blessedness
in shame
. Lucille
in full regalia, clustered
violets and crucifix.
She shoos
a hornet
back to Purgatory,
rounds the corner, finds
her son in shirtsleeves staring
from the porch into the yard
as if it were the sea.

And suddenly
she doesn’t care.
(Joe, after all, came home.)
She feels as if
she’s on her back
again, and all around her
blushing thicket.


Nightwatch. The Son

 

(Aggressively adult,
they keep their
lives, to which
I am a witness.

At the other end
I orbit, pinpricked
light. I watch.
I float and grieve.)

 

Rita Dove teaches creative writing at Arizona State University. Carnegie Mellon published her The Yellow House on the Corner in 1980 and Museum this year. Mandolin, a sequence of poems, was a chapbook feature in The Ohio Review 28. (1982)


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