Winslow Homer's Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree

We have a beautiful plaza in this town,
Laid out by a Mexican commandante when the land
Belonged to one man or another, all according to plan–
But all the hundred-year-old trees were planted by women

Not many people I know in this town read poetry;
One hears many stale references to Jack London and Bacchus
But few to the raving ones, the Maenads – perhaps because
Everyone here drinks wine, yet few read between the lines?

I make a habit of always bringing a book
In verse, or a French novel to the read
On autumn afternoons when the yellow Gingko leaves
Fall like golden rain upon the children swinging

Just last week I saw a girl, eighteen if she was a day,
Reading my favorite book of Baudelaire’s prose poems,
(The one called “Twenty Prose Poems by Baudelaire”)
Under the quiet shade of the great Southern Magnolia

And what caught my attention first was the cover,
As hers was a library book, which ruled out
Some possibilities; for example, the book wasn’t a gift
From a friend at a university, a cousin in Paris;

It isn’t a book one finds at a yard sale or flea market
Not something she would’ve discovered snooping
In her mother’s locked trunk of forgotten treasures:
Old love letters and odd trinkets saved from a previous life

It isn’t a book the local bookstore owner on the square
Would have recommended (I know him); he’d freely admit
His taste is more tales of men and irony; he has little interest
In nonsense about the moon’s curse on a green-eyed girl

I wanted to ask the girl if she knew why the French adore Poe, or
What she thought of “Double Chamber” or “Favours of the Moon”
And if she’d read Remembrance of Things Past; but then I stopped,
Remembering this dreamland was made by women.

From across the sandbox, I saw that she had long brown hair
And was narrow around the hips, like I once was,
And was dressed in old jeans, worn sneakers and a sweatshirt
Just fashionable enough not to be noticed at all

When she rose to leave, she pulled the hood over her face;
Familiar trick! To avoid ensnarement in the imagination of a creep,
Fearing he should keep some part of us; she passed, like a phantom
Through the rippling autumn light under falling golden leaves

As she was leaving there were things I wanted to say, such as:
“Stay away from tone-deaf Troubadors who strum for your attention,
Even when you’re trying to read poetry at a bus stop,” or,
“Don’t wear shoes you can’t run fast in – you just never know!”

There were so many things I wanted to tell the girl
As she walked quietly away, under golden leaves, falling, falling
But all I knew to say in French was: “enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.”

Note: “enivrez-vous sans cesse!/De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise” are lines from Baudelaire’s prose poem “Enivrez-Vous” or “Get Drunk.” (City Lights Books)


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