“Scarlet” by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie


The barista’s acne is torrential—
A perfect storm. Whatever potential

She has for beauty has been obscured
By the open wounds that resemble burns.

And yet, as I look closer, I can see
This young woman is quite pretty

Behind her mask. Her eyes are turquoise,
Not some common blue, and her alto voice

Belongs onstage or in the studio.
She makes my coffee and I want to know

Why, in this new age of dermatology,
She suffers this morbid case of acne.

Has she seen the infomercials about creams
And soaps that will make any face clean?

Where doctors and rock stars share laughter
At photos that show the before and after,

And if you want the cure, call this number?
This scarred woman forces me to remember

That my skin was nearly as pocked and razed.
I once counted forty-four zits on my face,

But I was rez-poor and health care was shitty.
I didn’t live in a first world city,

So why does this woman look like this?
She’s uninsured and untreated, I guess,

Like so many others, but her poverty
Has brutally tattooed her. I’m sorry,

But there’s nothing comforting I can say
To a Hester painted with a different “A.”

But, hell, maybe this woman would just scorn
My pretentious allusion to Hawthorne.

She might be an everyday sort of brave,
And possess no want or need to be saved,

Examined, and pitied by the likes of me,
A poet who pays, over tips, and flees.

But then I pause at the door and look back
To see the woman use a fingernail to attack

Her skin. She digs and digs at what wounds her,
Seeking clarity, but nothing will soothe her.

Estranged from the tribe that gives no protection,
What happens to the soul that hates its reflection?

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008


Sherman Alexie: “One morning, when I was sixteen, I was so disgusted by my horrible acne and consumed with self-loathing that I used a heated sewing needle to lance a huge pimple on my chin. I hadn’t thought much about my ritual scarring until I saw the tragically-acned barista in a Seattle coffee shop. I wanted to help her—to get her some friggin’ health insurance—but all I could do is write her a poem.” (web)

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