This post responds to Cleveland Wall, a poet for whom recitation is part of presentation and who reminded me of an old poem of mine I had written in response to a visual image on a postcard. The image and the poem are below, but what strikes me about recalling the work is that it is one of the few poems I have managed to memorize.
Ms. Wall memorizes much of her work and has presented at performances such as slam poetry events and No River Twice shows [Facebook video link below–you can catch a glimpse of me reading here, too.]
Alas, I have ever and always been terrible at memorization. In Sunday school, my younger sibling earned points for Bible verse memorizing at probably twice my pace. I enjoyed theater but never learned lines well enough to manage more than walk-on roles. Song lyrics came more easily, probably because the music helped cue me to the phrases.
You would think a poet–a versifier!–could commit her own work to memory. But no. Add that to my numerous failings.
I bought the Louis Coulon postcard in 1980 at a New York City stationer’s. What I did not know then (hey, no interwebs) was that Coulon sat for a number of portraits and was a relatively famous postcard subject at the fin de siecle.
Here’s the poem, first published by the estimable Harry Humes in the now-defunct Yarrow: A Journal of Poetry in 1982.
Monsieur Coulon, my grandfather, wore large mustaches and a beard three meters long. He tied it to the bedposts by night to avoid strangulation in his sleep; as it was, he died of fever in 1904, and the beard grew two centimeters more the day after his death. For years I had nightmares, Grandfather silently choking me in the posterbed I’d inherited from his estate. I bobbed my hair before the style became fashionable; Mama said it was scandalous, but the dreams ceased. I left Nievre for Paris and America, to avoid strangulation.
In 1942, I visited Savannah, Georgia, where trees resemble men, their great beards choking ocean breeze. I dream of trees opening gray coffins into a humid night–
I am an old woman, now, and waiting–
the wind is speaking French, Grandfather, it takes my precious breath away!
P.S.–I have updated my P&W directory entry. Check out https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/ann_e_michael