Monday, March 25, 2013

#74: Three Poems by Jeanie Thompson

~This poem was previously published in Southern Women’s Review (2010).

This Day        
 For Peter Fagan                                                                   

Into my hand the stars poured light
            and I knew you,
                                      or so I thought.
There was no way for you to know my world of darkness
            and silence, but you persisted with your
questions, probing my different mind.
                                                            The dog knew
            simply to press all of himself into my palm –
tongue, tail and paw were there even as I tried to touch       
            him lightly as cobwebs.
                                    But you shook language
            in my face and asked me to dance syntax
with you. I followed your lead, dark dancer,
            and if you could have seen what I knew
through this touch, we would have made one great mind!

The night I dressed, took my valise, and quietly
            moved down the stairs guided only by
knowledge of your presence in me, Alabama
            again was a place to fly from.
                                    Alone on my sister’s front porch,
without Teacher, the scent of tea olive lingering, your promise
            faded into morning’s traffic, a rumble from the street
signaling day. 
                        I turned back, letting loss, only loss,
guide me.  Not to be yours,
            Helen, not to be yours, this day.        

~This poem was previously published in PMS (PoemMemoirStory) (2010).

Montgomery, Alabama 1916

I was listening to the trees, waiting
            for a sign of you, the notice of Teacher’s

hand pressing a letter into mine, a letter to be
            read to me from your pen-scratched ink

through her blood and bone motion in my palm.
            I remembered how the trees’ movement

made a language I could translate, their roots
            studying the depths of earth,

their rough bark ungiving, their branches
            moving as if taken

by the river.  The looping root
            against my boot-toe tripped me

but why would I stop listening to this tree,
            overgrown with herself and filled with

her coursing thoughts and murmurs? How
            could I turn away from what she offers?

If you are silent, if I never learn
            one fraction more of your soul’s equation

I know you. From the deep silence of my world
            I feel the tree holding herself still.

I press fingers against the nubbled bark that spells
            an unintelligible line like a book in dreams:

the letter you do not send, the ink that erases
            itself, the fingers that rest curled, cupped

in her palm, a palpable silence breathes.


~This poem previously appeared as “Helen Keller Remembers Peter Fagan, Palm Sunday 1917”  in PMS (PoemMemoirStory) 2010. 

Soliloquy: Palm Sunday, 1917                                

Just tell them, the Lord needs it –
just tell them, it’s a simple task you perform.
Today without you, one I loved, I am as useless as a broken pot.                 

Outside Jerusalem, they went looking today, without Jesus, for a colt.
Could this unbroken animal help them learn?
Just tell them, the Lord needs it.

Cutting palms, they spread the branches for his feet.
I know those feet, and how they make me turn.
Today without you, one I loved, I am as useless as a broken pot.                 

Today we are called to the passion, to believe it –
and even a woman, alone, can claim,
just tell them, the Lord needs it.

I know I was walking with them, spreading sharp
palm fronds for his feet. I was there, hopeless, crying,
Today without you, one I loved, I am useless as a broken pot.

With you there was an island of joy, but here my heart
widens past a world of sorrow. There will be freedom!
Today without you, one I loved, I am as useless as a broken pot.
Just tell them, the Lords needs it.

These three poems were the beginning of a persona poem sequence I started in 2006 about the love affair Helen Keller had in her mid-30’s (1916-1917) that eventually grew to a book length project touching on many more aspects of her world-changing life. In these first poems, I wanted to capture what any woman deeply in love would feel but also attend to the situation of Keller’s deaf-blindness.  Having grown up in the same region of Alabama where she did, and then having lived within a few blocks of where she was abandoned by her lover in Montgomery, I felt a keen identification with her.
            “This Day” chronicles the night she waited for Peter Fagan, the lover who did not come to take her to elope from Montgomery. Keller’s love story is chronicled in the major biographies and other works touching on her life. I imagined details for this poem.
            In “Silence” I am trying to work with the metaphor of silence, not just as loss of physical hearing, but also the silence that she experienced through written and signed communication when she didn’t hear from Peter Fagan. The silence she must’ve experienced seemed particularly poignant to me. My goal in this poem was to portray her grief.
            In “Soliloquy: Palm Sunday, 1917” I imagine Helen receiving solace from the two passages of scripture that are incorporated into the villanelle. When I heard those passages on a Palm Sunday I thought they were appropriate to Helen’s broken heart and how she might’ve reconciled pain by giving her heart to the world through public service.           

Jeanie Thompson has published four collections of poetry, including The Seasons Bear Us (2009) and White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems (2000). Her latest collection, The Myth of Water, poems from the adult life of Helen Keller, is forthcoming. She has held two Artist Fellowships in Literature from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and one from the Louisiana Arts Council. Founding director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, she also teaches in the Spalding University brief-residency MFA Writing Program.

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