Prose from Poetry Magazine

Smells Like Teen Poetry

Hitting the wrong notes in the high-school band room.
Image of the writer Samantha Irby.

Typical teen drama: pretentiously melancholy protagonist whose conventional beauty is somehow thoroughly masked by basic eyeglass frames pines for class president and/or football prodigy and/or scholastic giant with matinee-idol good looks who just needs to be distracted long enough to notice that this otherwise perfectly attractive, blemish-
free girl holds the key to unlocking both his heart and his boner.

My personal failed attempt at adolescence: too fat to comfortably fit in the largest (read: not that large!) female band uniform, hopeless awkwardness that manifested itself as a torrent of marginally funny jokes blurted at inappropriate times, thick plastic glasses prescribed for nearsightedness and definitely not for fashion, crushing on the first chair sax player, acutely aware that he would rather eat his own shoes than talk to me.

Marjorie and I went to the library during our free period to map out a plan, which is the kind of thing a person on television would do, which is why I thought I should try it. I didn’t know how to talk to boys in a way that wasn’t off-putting, so M offered to be the Cyrano de Bergerac to my fumbling Christian de Neuvillette. I had no idea how to convince someone who pointedly avoided your table in the cafeteria to fall in love with you. I spent a lot of afternoons flipping through all the issues of Seventeen magazine I’d saved so I could keep track of all the things they said I should be doing when I finally woke up one day to discover that my ugly duckling had turned into a beautiful swan overnight.

M suggested I write him a poem. Poems are deep, poems are meaningful, poems are the kind of thing that would set me apart from everyone else who just exchanged numbers or suggested cafés to pretend to like coffee in after school like normal people. I could show him how smart and sophisticated I was; poets are sexy and mysterious. Was I, a person who put pizza rolls in a preheated oven and ate them over the sink, a mysterious person with whom he’d want to have sex?! Possibly! “What rhymes with love?” I asked, picking up a pencil, and she rolled her eyes and snatched it out of my hand.

We decided that instead of writing a Dr. Seuss rhyme I should memorize a poem in French and figure out a way to, oh, you know, 
casually recite it in his presence. This was a dumb idea, because there’s no easy segue from monosyllabic American teenage English to suave recitation of swooning French poetry in the halls of a suburban high school, but I was a dumb kid and that sounded fancy to me so for the next week and a half every day after school we huddled in the corner of the computer lab and I practiced saying “tu as la vie de mon coeur” which loosely translates to “you have the life of my heart” and honestly I would never say something like that as an adult who understands how relationships work so I definitely shouldn’t have said it as a corny, emotionally underdeveloped child.

We read a bunch of translated French poems and this one spoke to me, especially since it mentions scent and one of the biggest factors of my crush was that dude smelled like Drakkar Noir and I thought that shit was intoxicating. Behold:

I wanted to bring you roses this morning;
But I had closed so many in my sash
That the knots were too tight to contain them.

The knots split. The roses blew away.
All blew off to the sea, borne by the wind,
Carried to the water, never to return.

The waves looked red as if inflamed.
Tonight, my dress is still perfumed.
Breathe in the fragrant memory.
— Les roses de Saâdi by Marceline Desbordes-
Valmore, tr. by the Internet

My mission was to loiter in a way that seemed natural near the stacks of woodwind cases in the corner of the band room and find a way to get close enough to ask him if he was into poetry and, even if he said no, repeat the two lines I had committed to memory and practiced for three days, then stand back and wait for him to be dazzled. Before the football game would never work (too much activity, too much jostling of my saxophone neck strap to contend with, too many nerds around to be like “wtf did she just say?” while laughing into their tubas) so I waited until after. Until after a couple hours sweating in my 100% polyester uniform while marching in choreographed formation under a blazing sun with a school-issued chicken sandwich and carton of rapidly curdling milk rocking gently back and forth in my stomach.

He very kindly said, “Hey do you need a hand moving that 
tri-tom?” and I opened my mouth to say, “Hey are you interested in obscure nineteenth-century French poetry?” but instead I vomited, just a little bit, down the front of my jacket. I maybe could have played it off if it hadn’t been yellow or smelled like a toilet but it did so I couldn’t and my only recourse was to turn briskly on my heel and glide step to the nearest bathroom, where I locked myself in a stall and replayed that moment over and over in my head for the next twenty-three years. Emotionally I am still in the girls’ bathroom in the arts wing of my high school, wondering if it’s possible to cringe to death. I still don’t know anything about poetry.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2018

Samantha Irby writes a blog called bitches gotta eat and wrote a book called Meaty (Vintage, 2018).

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In