L'esprit de L'escalier

posted May 18, 2010

                      Step toe-first. Steep
           in the descent—a honey-brew of shoulda-
woulda-coulda, Mother’s I always meant to.

Spiral the staircase like a spoon.
           Go deep.Stir.You’ll find a better way.

                      You meant to sound intelligent.In 1989,
           you meant to say albino, not abalone.

You meant to know the words by heart.

           Eighty percent, you might have said,
                      have trouble with the Star-Spangled Banner.

                      Round the stairway’s hole. Reverse
           the world, gleaming yourself a ghostly
yes, yes, you are very Brilliant

speeches escaped you.The sibilance
           would have stunned them.

                      Descend.The past
           has passed, and you rewrite
the better, belated comeback.

Pretend you called him feeble-minded.
           Pretend you remembered your panties.Make believe
                      you kept yourself

                      from gnawing at your lip.
           Reinvention’s wind
uplifts the tails of a shirt you will not wear again.

And the eulogy? What so proudly you hailed
           —so much! so long!—so spilled with adverb.
                      You should have done a tango.

Heather Kirn's nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays, and published by such journals as Prairie Schooner, Florida Review, and Colorado Review. Her poems have appeared most recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and Cincinnati Review. She lives and teaches in Berkeley, California, where she's at work on a memoir about her two years teaching in a west Baltimore high school.

We’ve published two more poems by Kirn: “Hometown Tour after the Base Shuts Down” and “Loser Flare.”