The Student

She never spoke, which made her obvious,
the way death makes the air obvious
in an empty chair, the way sky compressed

between bare branches is more gray or blue,
the way a window is more apparent than a wall.
She held her silence to her breast like a worn coat,
smoke, an armful of roses. Her silence
colored the smaller silences that came and went,
that other students stood up and filled in.

I leaned near the window in my office. She sat
on the edge of a chair. Hips rigid, fidgeting
while I made my little speech. February

light pressed its cold back against the glass,
sealing us in. She focused on my lips
as I spoke, as if to study how it's done,
the sheer mechanics of it: orchestration
of jaw and tongue, teeth shifting in tandem,
shaping the air. So I stopped, let her silence

drift over us, let it sift in like smoke or snow,
let its petals settle on my shoulders.
I looked outside to the branches

of a stripped tree, winter starlings
folded in their speckled wings, chilled flames
shuddering at the tips. Students wandered
across campus as if under water, hands and hair
unfurling, their soundless mouths churning—
irate or ecstatic, I couldn't tell—ready to burn

it all down or break into song. When I looked back
her eyes had found the window: tree, students,
birds swimming by, mute in their element.

It was painful to hear the papery rasp
of her folding and unfolding hands, to watch
color smudging her neck and temple, branching
to mist the delicate rim of one ear. I listened
to the air sunder between us, the feverish hush
collapse. I could hear her breath—smoke

rising from ice. I could see what it cost her
to make that leap. What heat it takes
for the body to blossom into speech.

 

Dorianne Laux, "The Student" from Smoke. Copyright © 2000 by Dorianne Laux.  Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.
Source: Smoke (BOA Editions Ltd., 2000)
More Poems by Dorianne Laux