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Professor Poetry at UST

CAUTIONARY TALE
by Leslie Adrienne Miller

for Heid Erdrich

My friend believes that people looked
a long time at the way storms took the land,
the magnificent bruising a brutish sky
could give the earth, the green's appalling swift
submission to moister air, the way the wind
could bully or breeze and she is sure

this is how we learned the art of ravishing.
I wish I could agree with her, but I wasn't born
this far north, cannot trust how long it takes
the spring to come. It scares me, how frost
stalks night after night, how every other year,
something fails completely to go on. Gardens thin,

pavements buckle with melt, and rivers going north
forget themselves, sprawl, unlovely, muddy
perfect strangers' beds. And though I don't believe
my friend, I've accepted life alone here, stopped
making my bed, expecting guests. I see how
my cottonwood refuses every year to dress until

the end of May, and autumn too, that one's last
to shed its underthings. The shrubs and hostas
have no shame, frill early, and the trillion tulip
wands too soon bend and quit, but the reluctance
of the trees is almost wise, or simply practiced.
If my friend is right, I cannot lend them human traits,

but take example from them as I drive along the freeway
pushing them with wishes into what they could
become, afraid of what the air has done. Ravished
by the wind and left for dead too many years to count,
those wily silver olives leaf one tight fist at a time,
so late it's hardly worth the bother for such a casual fling,

and when I push unwilling green along in the drafty
copse of my desires, I know it is afraid of something
bigger than not blooming, that my own reluctance
can't be blamed on any silly disappointing past,
but on this very landscape's bad example, dour,
dormant most of every year, all heartless self control.


Photograph of People Dancing in France
by Leslie Adrienne Miller

It's true that you don't know them--nor do I
know what I wanted their movement to say
when I tucked them in an envelope with words

for you. I thought it was my life caught
in a warm night. I believed myself loved
by the wan and delicate man you see dancing

against the drop-off behind them all. But you
can't see that they are on a mountain, that
just beyond the railings is a ravine, abrupt

and studded with thorn, beyond it, a river,
dry bed of stone that, by the time you take
the photo from the envelope, will have filled

with green foam of cold torrents from high
in the Alps. This is France, you think, as you look
at the people dancing, but there is nothing of France

visible save one branch of a tree close enough
to catch in their hair. I could tell you that by the time
you see this picture, the young girl with the long jaw

launching her bared navel at the lens will have bedded
the man you're afraid of losing me to. There is food
on the table, French food, and so more beautiful for that,

green olives in brine, a local cake in paper lace,
sliced tomatoes that look in the flash like flesh
with their red spill of curve and seed. I could tell you

they grew not twenty meters from the table
where you see them, that I picked them one day
with the small woman who bares her breasts

in this photo because she is about to leave us
and doesn't know any other way to say she is sad.
They're alive is all you'll say of the scene, which

is to say you feel you're not. It is November
by the time I've thought to send you the photo,
by the time I feel myself ready to part with the image.

By then, the woman of the manifest breasts has left us,
and the one with the dark eyes who loved her
has darker eyes. Very soon after this dancing stopped,

the man with the hollow cheeks took the girl
of the ripe navel to his bed because he, like you,
is so afraid of dying, he invites it daily, to try him.

The girl's last lover was a boy on heroin in Cairo
with the possible end of them both asleep in his blood,
and now too in the blood of the lover I wanted

to save. Because you are married to a woman
who insists on wearing her dead sister's clothes,
you understand that while I am not in this picture,

I am in this picture. Know that I need never see it again
to see: the incessant knot of the girl's navel is a fist,
an oily wad of sweet-sour girl flesh, a ball of tissue

I twisted and crushed all of that evening, and since.
You refuse to remember her name, or his, because you want
to be my lover again, and the others must be kept

abstract. They were alive you say again, not more,
because the heart is nothing if not a grave. You want me
because your wife holds out her familiar wrist to you

in the terrible sleeve of her dead sister's dress,
because I reach for the gaunt cheek of the man
who worships at the luminous inch of belly on the girl

who lifts her arms from the body of a boy none of us
will ever know in Cairo, the girl, who dead center
in the photo, lifts the potent, mocking extravagance
of her flash-drenched arms, and dances for us all.


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Copyright © 2004 Renee Kelly