At the Movie: Virginia, 1956

By Ellen Bryant Voigt b. 1943
This is how it was:
they had their own churches, their own schools,   
schoolbuses, football teams, bands and majorettes,   
separate restaurants, in all the public places   
their own bathrooms, at the doctor’s   
their own waiting room, in the Tribune
a column for their news, in the village   
a neighborhood called Sugar Hill,   
uneven rows of unresponsive houses   
that took the maids back in each afternoon—
in our homes used the designated door,   
on Trailways sat in the back, and at the movie   
paid at a separate entrance, stayed upstairs.   
Saturdays, a double feature drew the local kids
as the town bulged, families surfacing   
for groceries, medicine and wine,
the black barber, white clerks in the stores—crowds
lined the sidewalks, swirled through the courthouse yard,   
around the stone soldier and the flag,

and still I never saw them on the street.   
It seemed a chivalric code
laced the milk: you’d try not to look
and they would try to be invisible.
Once, on my way to the creek,
I went without permission to the tenants’
log cabin near the barns, and when Aunt Susie
opened the door, a cave yawned, and beyond her square,   
leonine, freckled face, in the hushed interior,   
Joe White lumbered up from the table, six unfolding   
feet of him, dark as a gun-barrel, his head bent   
to clear the chinked rafters, and I caught   
the terrifying smell of sweat and grease,   
smell of the woodstove, nightjar, straw mattress—
This was rural Piedmont, upper south;   
we lived on a farm but not in poverty.
When finally we got our own TV, the evening news   
with its hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan
seemed like another movie—King Solomon’s Mines,
the serial of Atlantis in the sea.
By then I was thirteen,
and no longer went to movies to see movies.   
The downstairs forged its attentions forward,   
toward the lit horizon, but leaning a little   
to one side or the other, arranging the pairs
that would own the county, stores and farms, everything   
but easy passage out of there—
and through my wing-tipped glasses the balcony   
took on a sullen glamor: whenever the film   
sputtered on the reel, when the music died   
and the lights came on, I swiveled my face   
up to where they whooped and swore,   
to the smoky blue haze and that tribe   
of black and brown, licorice, coffee,
taffy, red oak, sweet tea—

wanting to look, not knowing how to see,   
I thought it was a special privilege
to enter the side door, climb the stairs
and scan the even rows below—trained bears   
in a pit, herded by the stringent rule,
while they were free, lounging above us,   
their laughter pelting down on us like trash.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, “At the Movie: Virginia, 1956” from The Lotus Flowers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983). Copyright © 1987 by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Used by permission of the author.

Source: The Lotus Flowers (1987)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt b. 1943

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Youth, Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Coming of Age, Living

Biography

Ellen Bryant Voigt has lived in Vermont for many years; she spent her childhood in rural Virginia, where she grew up on her family’s farm. Her poems traverse the worlds of motherhood, the rural South, family, and music. Her 1995 collection Kyrie: Poems is a book-length sonnet sequence exploring the lives of people affected by the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919. Poet Edward Hirsch wrote of her early book, Claiming Kin (1976), . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Youth, Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Coming of Age, Living

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.