Mary (1901-1991)


In that city of black iron lace and Gullah talk,
sin sashaying in shadow, I see you walk
down Pirate’s Alley, the quick click of your heels
too Episcopal for the tolling of St. Louis’s twelve-tongued bells—
a tea rose in a carnival of azaleas—
white-gloved, sky blue, crisp as your forbearers of East Anglia
yet frankly forgiven in the not quite sultry air
of Easter, taken in by the wide river-mouth patois
of slithering shadows on darkened stairs
in just glimpsed courtyards

and swallowed whole in the black rivers of music,
sirening souls, palaces of jazz-joy, the air thick
with spangled night. A slur of voices
and footfalls on the wet-black streets poised
in mid-summer. Bourbon, Decatur, great
boozy names rolled deep in the throat—
a swill of voices
like the night’s breeze, tropical, luscious.
And yours in the plush garden of wrought-iron chairs
crackling like a voice on the wireless—
matter-of-fact as a boot sole,
yet fluttering, fluting its thrill
of the just-so.

You were my first mother in that city of flowering nights
and sweating patios. Duplicitous, cunning,
sometimes mad as a hatter,
you undermined your own daughter
to hold me in the tight
niche of your charms – there where Lafitte
strode and Napoleon’s death mask
stared ceilingward, I see you flash—
old outlaw in a city of outlaws,
sainted in a city of saints,
“queers,” “reprobates.” You gave me awe
and madness, a taste for all things stained

and fallen.
You were my New Orleans,
your chasteness the flip-side of the stripper’s martyred gaze,
the sagging wistful gays
your courtiers, the wisteria your bloom.
Mary, they called you. Mary of the crossword puzzle and afternoon
tea, Mary of the rocks, Mary of situations,
whose fall from grace – divorced, shunned,
a bastard grandson and a strident, quick-tongued daughter—
was resurrection in a place of flowers

and music, of terraced talk
on the floating hills of passing nights.
I learned to walk,
your hand in my hand, your electric
voice in my ear.
Even over years, your letters came with the same click
and stutter, your “Angel” signature the relic
of some old family joke
I never quite got.

“The Velvet Bulldozer,”
your doctors whispered near your death.
Your shingles punished you for years,
your retinas detached, your hearing failed.
Only your mind kept ticking in its queer act of will.
In the end, you were vituperative and genteel
as any southern belle. Nurses scuttled.
Doctors deferred. But even their regard
could not hold you forever.
You died with a small sigh—

white in a whited field.