Some Are Dead and Some Are Living

By Colleen J. McElroy b. 1935

ima gonna tattoo me on you for ever

leave my creases inside you creases

1. Senesta

St. Louis evenings spoiling under electric lights
We leaned out the window above the tavern roof.
Her name better than any song on the juke box.
I’d say: Senesta, Look! That one and That.
The sights male and musk: new smells inside some
Teenage fantasy and no one more surprised
Than us when the answer—deep as Wardell’s
Cool bass jazz—floated up through the window
And grabbed us by the scruff.
Left us feeling bad as any tough girl
Worse even—knowing we could never be.
And the lights flickering Bud Bud Budweiser
And the night inching toward dawn
And the two of us hanging forever over the sill.

2. Kay Frances

Led that prairie town around by the nose she did
As if her tar paper house wasn’t built right
On Kansas tracks and kinky hair wasn’t a dead give-away
Even with light skin, grey eyes and all.
She was townie queen and I rose to her summons, floating
With the others from college across double iron rails.
Left me singing: Don’t the moon look lonesome
When passing trains rattled the wallpaper pattern.
And I pretended not to hear the Great Northern
Or Eastern Flyer shaking coffee cups filled with gin
While bidwhist plays danced on the Naugahyde table.
Ice cubes slammed against my teeth like home runs
And mulatto-boned Kay behind a sweet curtsey smile
Watched me play, shivering in the tunnel of sounds.

3. Margaret

No doubt we always thought of leaving
That town reeking of beef on the hoof
The heel and toe of rundown cowboy boots
12th and Vine littered in bad blues.
We said we had plans to cross more lines
Than the packing house bridge separating states.
We wanted to make it big in some place
Where colors meant more than they appeared
And prairies were no more permanent than celluloid.
Now I hear pregnant with baby boys you turned
Almost religious—could have sworn—nearly did
After I skipped town singing: Rocky Raccoon.
I held your voice miles away and that last
Phone call so far so close to my ear.

4. Snow

Behind your back we said it was your attitude
But something more elusive made us marvel
At the stance you took, feet toed out and ready
With the part of you that was hoodlum trapped
In a crazy mix of caprice and avarice.
If there had been tracks down the middle
Of this town, I would have met you crossing
And no matter what, asked whether
I was going the wrong way—Let me guess
You never needed anyone to tell you
It’s tough out here and nobody dared
Call you half-pint even with that gravelly
Voice and nail hard way you don’t touch, your skin
Velvet shadows as we reach and you turn away.

5. Toni Cade

Even when I tell you Seattle rolls up
At midnight you won’t take no for an answer.
Hell, you couldn’t take no for a question.
So we drive miles for the sake of Ethiopian
Cowpeas, kifto and spongy bread served
Under fading posters of drylongso countries.
By word of mouth we stay alive, you say
Out here, you say, justice wears a newspaper hat
A single word in print dissolves whole families.
Over your shoulder, sidama stones rise from a poster.
We talk about moods and shrugs and why paths cross.
It’s the stories, you say, the stories and I watch
You wet your finger in a bowl of rough salt
Lick it clean and say: sometimes even this is sweet.

6. Jennie

Perhaps in your half-sleep world
You are still dancing in the living room
Rug thrown back to the quick kiss
Of your feet on bare wood floors.
Perhaps each visit merely interrupts
A day you remember best wordless
Behind the slow flutter of eyelids.
Perhaps you still guide us half-grown
Girls through hours of etiquette on how
To pour the proper rise of champagne
In water glasses or how right to find
Four leaves on clover growing in gutters.
Perhaps sweet Auntie the moon you taught me
To dream is still lovely and you remember to believe.

7. Fingerprints

Marked by a time when there were sidewalk games
And boundaries of the heart and home, we broke
Rules: don’t cross the tracks, step on the cracks.
What our mothers didn’t know didn’t hurt them.
We grew like Topsy into women, no roads to pave
Our way, no looking back. I’d like to say we never
Attended to skin color, slapping palms for Mary Mack
Pick-up sticks and Jacks. I’d like to say I recall
Your faces clear as the day I tore my seersucker dress
Climbing the fence or took my first kiss under a night
Sky full of fireflies. I need to tell you this:
How memory served up in bits and pieces and yesterdays
Becomes so déjà-vu, I swear I almost see all of you
Standing there in the corner of the room.

Colleen J. McElroy, “Some Are Dead and Some Are Living” from Sleeping with the Moon. Copyright © 2007 by Colleen J. McElroy. Used by permission of University of Illinois Press and the poet.

Source: Sleeping with the Moon (University of Illinois Press, 2007)

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Poet Colleen J. McElroy b. 1935


Subjects Living, Death, Time & Brevity, Relationships, Friends & Enemies, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture, Race & Ethnicity, Gender & Sexuality, Life Choices

 Colleen J. McElroy


Colleen McElroy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a military family that moved often. She earned a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington. McElroy has written short stories, plays, television scripts, and nonfiction; her collections of poetry include Winters without Snow (1979); Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), winner of the American Book Award from the . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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