“How I Became Miss America” by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass


There she is, Burt Parks is singing
and I am weeping as her gleaming teeth shine
through the wide open window of her mouth.
When I grow up, I could be her.
Though I can’t dance or sing
and the girls fool enough to do dramatic
readings never win. But I’ve got time
and tonight my tears are hers
as they fall like sequins down her cheekbones.
I’ve just embraced the first runner-up
who pretends to be happy for me, sheaves of roses cradled,
mink-trimmed cape waltzed over my shoulders.
I’m starting down the runway.
My mother sips her highball.
My father leans back on the grease spot
his wavy hair has rubbed into the sofa.
We’re six miles inland from Atlantic City
in a railroad apartment over Hy-Grade Wines and Liquors.
They worked all week selling Seagram’s and cheap wine
and this is Saturday night. Summer. The windows raised
to catch whatever breeze might be willing to enter.
No one could predict that twenty-five years later
I’d be chanting no more profits off women’s bodies
at the Myth California counter-pageant
where Nikki Craft poured vials of raped women’s blood
on the Civic Center steps, splashing
her ceramic replicas of Barbies:
Miss Used, Miss Directed, and Miss Informed.
And Ann Simonton, former Vogue model, posed as Miss Steak
in a gown sewn from 30 pounds of scalloped bologna
with a hot dog neckline and parsley garnish.
I’d just left my husband and come out as a lesbian.
You can still see my lover on YouTube
marching in a tie and fedora with her poster, Nestlé Kills Babies.
That night we didn’t need a moon.
From the minute my child fell asleep until we collapsed,
exhausted on her waterbed, we made love
as one of Nikki’s statuettes
in a glow-in-the-dark blue gown and tiara,
watched over us, Miss Ogyny
painted in gold across her sash.

from Rattle #40, Summer 2013


Ellen Bass: “There’s something deeper in poetry—poetry is magic. Originally, poets were the priests. The word mattered. Even today in Judaism when the person reading the Torah portion reads aloud, someone stands next to him looking at the text so if he makes an error they correct it, because it can’t go into the air with a mistake, because the sound of the words changes the world. It has an actual impact. And so if the person makes an error—it’s like a spell over a cauldron—the spell won’t work unless it’s correct.” (web)

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