Three Prose Poems

by Wendy Barker


BELOW THE SALT

Granny’s place before she married. A governess, helping the parlour maid polish silver before the house parties. At one of them, she met Grandfather. Sometimes the mistress let her join the grown-ups for supper, though mostly Granny nibbled buttered toast and a coddled egg upstairs with the children. Later, wife of the Chairman of the Board, she shrank from fancy dinners. From beaded, sequined dresses, from perfume and cleavage. Sent my mother, when she entered her teens, instead. Grandfather escorted her on his proud arm, his stunning daughter, wrapped in silver fox fur and satin, her chocolate brown eyes, creamy skin—almost white as the salt.

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TREADING THE BOARDS

What Great Granny Lilian Graves did before she became respectable. Or what she did after she’d been respectable, after her husband died of drink, leaving her penniless with four little ones. She farmed them out to relatives and went on stage. Ravishing, like Mom’s mother and Mom herself, Great Granny danced, sang, and acted wherever she could. Even in America, in Tombstone, where she held the stage of the Bird Cage Theater with Buffalo Bill Cody, “a charming man,” she once told Mom with a little smile. Where was it she caught Prince Edward’s eye? London? Paris? After he tired of her, he set her up with Mr. Graves, who needed a research assistant. And why not a wife as well? The Bird Cage Theater to the British Museum. Later, widowed, she let my mother visit, served her tea. Mom would sneak up to London on the train, disobeying her mummy who’d tried to keep a daughter from this disgraceful woman who’d abandoned her children for a life of shame. Mom loved Great Granny’s parrot, she told me, a raucous bird who spouted naughty words and made Mom laugh. “When you go out to Hong Kong, my dear,” Great Granny told my nineteen-year-old mother, “You must buy black lace underwear. They do such things exquisitely.”

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THE FAMILY SILVER

My sisters and I agree. Sell much of it. Hardly time to polish it. Two generations back, the hired help kept it all glistening. One friend says she likes it tarnished. The blues, purples—blackened grooves—add more interest. Show it’s been left out in air, show where it’s been.

Unearthed from veins in the earth’s crust. The blasts to shatter it, extract the silver. Ground into powder, leached, baked, formed into bars. Cooled, heated, melted, cooled, hammered, pounded. Soldered.

No stories of the ancestors—further back—who, as hired help themselves, kept some other family’s silver gleaming, tea sets, initialed trays, spoons, gravy boats. But not these pieces.

Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time: The Teaching Poems, received the John Ciardi Prize and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2015. Barker has also published three chapbooks, a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “3 Prose Poems “?

    The origin, drafting of these little prose poems? Unlike most of my poems (that usually go through hundreds of revisions), these three came in a rush, and went through no more than a couple of dozen minor changes. Following a long talk with my sisters about our mother’s extremely unusual—one might even say “bizarre”—British background, I began what has become a new manuscript-in-progress, consisting mostly of prose poems in which I’m essentially asking questions about Mom’s family. She told me many stories, often quite funny, even hilarious, but there were huge gaps. During the conversation with my sisters, we’d agreed we’d sell most of the family silver, but afterward, I realized I wasn’t ready, not ready at all. There were stories in these pieces we’d inherited—stories about Mom’s family, and also stories of how the pieces themselves came to be. The cost of them all.
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