August 4, 2009

Ted Gilley

VIRGINIA

Of my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Smith,
I remember imperfectly some details:
his face, perhaps, was paper-white
and his hands delicate as shells,
and that he settled these deep in the pockets
          of a dark topcoat;

that he drove a black Studebaker,
was graduated from a teachers’ college
in the deeper South, that he called me
supercilious and when I asked haughtily
what that meant, told me
          to look it up.

I remember the day we pushed him to the edge.
He was reading to us, and we little swine
were clowning, someone armpit-farting to good effect
when at a sharp silence our pin heads
swivelled and Mr. Smith literally
          threw his book

into the air, where it paused, opening its covers,
then descended, striking him and knocking
his black-framed glasses onto the desk.
His fists opened automatically to catch them,
the blood rushed to the roots
          of his thinning black hair

and his disciplined shoulders shook
inside the dark suit jacket he wore,
the narrow tie a red stain on the white shirt
and Now, I thought, he will really explode,
this baby-faced man who disliked me but praised
          the stories I wrote,

who wrote Excellent! in his fine hand
across the face of the silly fictions I turned in—
who had taped a travel poster to the blackboard one day
and said, Write a story about this—and how
my astonishment lifted me above the groans
          of my classmates

because already I had an idea involving death
and doomed, hung-over fighter pilots who smoked
and the tragic eruption of a volcano
that would finish off whatever I’d begun,
and that in triumph I would write, with a flourish,
          The End,

and wouldn’t that just show them all
that I was not who I appeared to be,
a skinny boy afraid of dogs and the dark,
who read books to exacerbate his fears,
who wanted to be a writer because by doing so
          he could disappear?

Smith rose and told us in a quiet voice
to get our coats and line up,
we were going for a walk—and this
unprecedented prospect of unscheduled
freedom so shocked us that we became
          children again, clumsy

and obedient but watching closely as he turned up
the collar of his dark coat and his face,
like a pale pane of light, became a glass
we pressed our faces against. We walked through
the gleaming, dim hallways toward the doors
          and then into the sunlight

of a bright October afternoon and on
across the tarmac to the bordering woods
where we broke, finally, running like mad
under the trees but circling back again in twos and threes
to where he walked, silent but with purpose
          along the path.

And no child watched that white face
more closely than I, for hadn’t I already begun
to turn the world into words and words into memory
so that I could manage without him?
Hadn’t he called me by my true name
          and made me pay?

Didn’t I walk now as close as I could
without touching his strange silence, and didn’t he ignore me
like the master he was? Wouldn’t I have to walk
deeper into the woods than I could have imagined
in order to come back, today, and raise my hand and say,
          Now I understand?

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008