Teri Youmans Grimm

Writer

Poems

Becoming Lyla Dore - Audio

Magic Lantern

Forget what you know about faded stars,

about curiosities and relics.

This is about magic.

Back when there was such a thing,

my father made a living

as a lanternist. I’d go with him

to The Imperial where between comedy reels

he’d show glass slides of the Taj Mahal

or lovers kissing in a Venetian gondola. Familiar

scenes too and after the flickering black and grey,

unexpected colors glazed the screen and one

could watch a frozen landscape deliquesce into spring,

lilacs move by a perceptible wind, a rabbit disappear

into a hole and the lake reacquainting everyone with blue.

There was a time before I was born,

my father was the whole damn show,

when the magic lantern made the common seem new.

But he was eclipsed by the Kinetoscope,

the Cinematograph, by a world

that seemed to spin only toward new

pleasures. Relegated to sing-a-longs

and advertisements, when my father flashed slides

for trusses, the local dentist, lyrics

to “Shine on Harvest Moon,” well, there was no magic

left then, was there? I was embarrassed

that what he had to offer was no longer desired.

I was at an age to understand desire.

Sitting in a darkened theater with strangers

watching people live on screen, larger than ourselves,

real but not real, and at the same time

to feel someone’s hand brush my own, accidentally or no--

their shoulder press into mine as they shifted in their seat,

breath warm on my neck gave me more than a taste

for intimacy. To be watched like that, to touch and be

touched all at once until the body and the image

of the body fused. In that cavernous stupor

even the way I dreamed was changed forever.

Like the magician’s assistant that disappears

into a cabinet than reappears in another

part of the theater, I left my seat in the dark,

mingled with the dust in the funnel of light and

created myself in my own image on the screen.

Before arc light and electric bulbs, the lantern’s glow

came from an oxygen and hydrogen flame fixed

on a cylinder of lime. Combustible, surely, but the illusion

blazed brighter! To be in limelight is to become incandescent

in the alchemy of dangerous gas and mineral, to smolder

in another’s mind or heart. I would have risked setting

myself on fire, if it meant the world could see me better.

 

But that was before I knew better.

At Kalem’s Headquarters, the Roseland Hotel

Silence held sway over the room

when Mr. Olcott ran that bit of film.

 

I’d nearly forgotten that afternoon,

the day’s work completed, everyone stilled

 

by the swath of May’s suppressing heat.

Sun filled spaces between branches

 

and leaves of the sweet-gum I sat beneath,

eating strawberries from a tin. Henry, knowing

 

there was unused film left in the camera,

turned it on me, quietly, well not on me

 

exactly, but on the light and the way

it presented itself upon me.

 

I wanted to give him something else,

something more than a girl eating beneath

 

a tree, so I looked into the camera and thought

real thoughts. Henry raised his hand to shade

 

the glare from the white sandy path nearby

and I saw him smile at the effect it had.

 

No one paid any attention to us, him

learning how to manipulate light

 

and shadow into feeling. Me, learning

how to take feeling and speak it through

 

a gaze. Later, on that torn canvas screen,

in a room full of people who understood

 

or thought they understood the power

of an image moving, was a moment,

 

recognized by all of us, of what it means

to remember and be remembered.

 

The Devil's Passkey

The shoe poised on the tip

of my toe was a lure. Even

directors important as

Von Stroheim want

to be hunted. You there

(eyeing my ankle,

my nearly exposed foot),

you can dance? I nodded.

And like that I became foreground,

in his second film. The Devil's Passkey

boasted stars who spurned my display

as if they'd only known fullness

their whole lives. But I knew better.

Opportunities are rare as rain

out here, even for beauties

knocking on closed doors

day after day, shoes and skin

coated with dust. Somedays

that dust was the only thing

in our bellies, those of us

who didn't come floating in

on a raft of our father's money

or favors due. So I let my

feet be bathed on film,

my toenails painted— I danced

barefoot on a table then dangled

my legs off the arms of some

actor who flourished me

around like a prize. Later, Von Stroheim

would go over the reels and reels

of footage (so to speak)

and afterwards take me with him

to The Ingress where the beautiful

and newly rich gazed and grazed.

Beneath the table I’d rub my stockinged

foot along his leg and when I stopped

he'd press his leg against mine

and we'd pass the evening rubbing

and pressing while introductions were made

to men who might be inclined to help me.

They handed me their cards like keys. I can open

many doors, they'd say. So many doors...

I have many doors to be opened,

I’d whisper, I may let you enter all of them.

 

Dissipation

Even snakes tremble in this land of trembling

earth, where cloaked in the Okefenokee

 

a man stands on an alligator’s back and prays

it is a dream. His or another’s.

 

He knows a foot lifts off— a heel strays a bit

and the stupefied is supper. The alligator

 

doesn’t move a breath and the man wonders

if he’s sleeping. It doesn’t matter, the hand’s

 

been dealt, an alligator’s eyelids are windows

and the man wears an alligator belt.

 

Frogs’ throated dirge, the whir

and thrum of insects quarrel in

 

the man’s ears, beat his drums until he’s

dizzy. It’s curious, his thoughts don’t run

 

to a wife, grandbabies, what’s left undone.

Instead he thinks of alligators

 

that climb ladders then swoosh belly down

a slide, one after another, glide into a pool

 

at a roadside reptile playground. Eyes

devoid of joy, despite the frolic. Like exotic

 

dancers the man remembers. It’s best

to ignore their gaze, sluggish and bored.

 

Focus on the skin— a smooth, taut belly

beneath your hands is worth something:

 

A sin kept from your snoring wife.

a pair of alligator boots. There is

 

little good in life, the man decides. Bubbles rise

from the snout submerged. As they burst

 

he hears the alligator croon. It’s all

been wasted down to now. The closest you’ll

 

ever get to true. Not a lick

of help here for what ails you.

 

Beneath stars he doesn’t risk looking up to see,

the man’s stomach growls and the man pied

 

didapper wails back its own need.

The man wishes the moon

 

was brighter, that he’d worn a heavier shirt.

He wishes it wasn’t already September,

 

that his knees didn’t hurt so much.

The man wishes and he wishes and he winces and he wishes.

Copyright © 2015-2016 Teri Youmans Grimm. All rights reserved.