My Grandmother Plays Emily in Our Town

I
 
I am asking something gone
return: at least one night, her face
 
a girl’s, just twenty, and
to be married in a month,
 
holding the dress’s hem to her lips
as places are called. And I,
 
come along too late to know her
trembling, parting the curtain—
 
let me hear her now
perched on the ladder, recite
 
“But Mama, . . .
am I pretty enough . . . ?”

 
II
 
When Emily marries, ladies in hats
drown out the proper vows
 
—it’s what the play requires;
the everyday over the sacred. Even the set
 
is made of items found in the actors’ garages
so we always see back to the bones.
 
Here my grandmother stands at the altar
with her fictional George
 
and gossip swells in the pews
which are rows of folding chairs.
 
 
III
 
Among the murmuring departed,
in the cemetery,
 
my grandmother takes
her place at the empty plot.
 
She’s the newcomer
who can’t believe she’s dead
 
if the living roam
just on the crest of this hill.
 
My grandmother in white
poplin dress and hair ribbon
 
lifts her arms in despair—
Emily, untouched by the rain.
 
 
IV
 
Tomorrow her face will glow
on the cover of The Shreveport Times—
 
a gorgeous girl demanding her life.
“But oh!” she cries in Emily’s voice,
 
“I can go back there
and live all those days over again . . .”
 
 
V
 
So Emily steps back
into childhood
 
though the wiser dead
have told her don’t—
 
into her mother’s kitchen,
her twelfth birthday, a moment
 
she thought she was happy.
She watches now
 
that life: mother speaking
gruffly, father late to work.
 
Dead Emily kisses the cheek
of the classmate playing her mother—
 
understanding, in that kitchen,
they’d all been blind:
 
they never knew those people
they said they loved.
 
 
VI
 
My grandmother maintains
her grace to the end.
 
She is the queen of the theater;
all of Shreveport melts for her smile.
 
She holds her palms out
to feel the heavy drops as the curtains close,
 
though she knows this rain
is only the sound of rain.

Rachel Richardson, “My Grandmother Plays Emily in Our Town” from Copperhead. Copyright © 2011 by Rachel Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.
Source: Copperhead (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011)
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