I have to tell you the story of the night you didn’t want to see me & I was alone. Muhammad Ali died & all I wanted was to tell you what you already knew, like words I took right out of your mouth, how love can get up on the count of nine. I spent the night in a room I rented from a stranger. Fluorescent lights buzzed in the halls of the old asylum, 2 am. An elevator with a cage door, clack of cables in the shaft. All of a sudden I was back in the South of France, Nimes, the landlord chewing on his cigar. I smelled like sex, a rough, blood-stained parchment, smudged with fingerprints. The crowd roared in the arena, Feria de Pentecôte, brass bands marched through the streets, girls in swirling flamenco skirts, & small boys whipped the bulls with straps, running for cover. I followed them down to the Corrida to watch, the only one who remembers, longing so much to tell you, make you my witness. On the sixth floor of the Brooklyn apartment, a man stood in the doorway, lamplight behind his body darkening him into shadow, calling out my name. I was afraid, suddenly, all of it so familiar, because I had been raped before & it felt familiar, like a story I know by heart. In my Brooklyn bed, I straddled the photographs of you spread out on the sheets & wept for what gets ripped inside us, how we pull or push too hard, go too deep in until suddenly someone you want to love or someone you wish would love you back is gone. Maybe you broke them, some bone fractured, & you feel ashamed at your own violence, Come in close & don’t stop hitting, until you snap-to & it dawns on you that this is not the ring, not the place to throw your punches, but by then it’s too late, blood everywhere & no one cheering. I stayed afraid half the night, fear balled like a t-shirt stuffed in my mouth, a clog, a clot. What is the name of this song I sing over & over like a gag? No words left, just a hum deep in the throat like moan. I cross the threshold, back again over the bloody carpet where he pressed my head against the floor, tightening a vice, ears sticky with plasma. Go back now. Follow the trail of blood behind the bull hooked & dragged out by horses. Mediterranean sun beat down, so hot on my hair, your hand caught in the tangled strands of light. A shadow behind the door calls my name & I go in. But where were you when I was afraid? Where did you go? You made promises, I’m here for you & share anything with me, what words are. What’s said should mean something like bond, like scar on your skin, a rare handwritten note, messages tattooed on tobacco papers, rolled & smoked, inhaled into your lungs. I told you everything, all the details of my own assault. But I’m one to talk, saying one thing & doing another, So many vows I just can’t keep. We are cut from the same fragile cloth, a thin garment of language. When you kissed me on the side of my face, did that mean you were giving me your blessing, just to be in your life, which somehow translated for me into being alive? All my flesh measured in your no or yes. I hoped it wasn’t goodbye. I can still feel your five o'clock shadow on my cheek & under my palm when we were in Hank’s Saloon & I drew your ear down to my mouth with my hand on the side of your face, so I could tell you something, & I kept thinking of more things to say. Muhammad Ali is dead. I’m not trying to seduce you, I’m just telling you things I want to remember forever about being alive, the way the blood unspooled out from the wound & pissed its ribbons on the sand, the way the knives shuddered with every heartbeat & thump of that dying beast. The sticky sweetness of life matted in its fur. I have no motive or intention. You had to pry me out by my hair. All I wanted was to sit & listen to you tell me something, because whatever you had to say would be something new & I’d rush right down to the arena & write a poem & plunge my bandelero through the heart of it. Put my dress back over my head, write a quick note to me in the morning & leave it on the bed, I know exactly what I want you to write, tell me you’ll see me soon, tonight-- Tell me you’ll meet me ringside at the fight.
Heather Derr-Smith is the author of three books of poems, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008), and Tongue Screw (Spark Wheel Press, 2016). Her fourth collection, Thrust, won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize at Persea Books and will be published in 2017.