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.
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 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.
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.