This weekend I'm going to the Kansas City Ballet's performance of Alice in Wonderland. Alice is a family name, and as a writer Alice in Wonderland is pretty much the Bible for how to enter into that subconscious landscape that connects to every reader; how to create that archetypal character that people in another country two hundred years hence are parading around for a cosplay and everyone knows who they are.
Tea with Alice happens to be the name of my first complete book of poetry--biographical and generational poems about my family. It's named after the last poem I wrote for the book right after my grandmother, Alice, passed away. In the poem I talk about the time we went to the ballet together and how one day I would like to take my little girl to the ballet just as she took me.
So when this opportunity came up to see this particular ballet, I felt it was destiny to attend. I'm sure this happens to other poets. We write about what we love, what we hope, what we intend, and then when those things present themselves we have to jump in. Poets are the kind of people who drive five hours to a lavender festival because they just had this feeling it was important. Poets are the kind of people who name their daughters Dorothy, plan to call her dot, and then wear read shoes and polk a dots to the baby's Christening. Poets like tho think about unconnected words are connected and mention it at parties so that everyone laughs at them. So if these things have ever happened to you, you might be a poet too. You connect actions, words, and images as if they were really all the same thing. Butterfly's might look like two pieces of toast flying around looking for strawberry jam-- that kind of thing.
Well here is one of the last revisions of my poem called Tea with Alice in honor of the ballet. This spring again, I will send my poetry book out to be published. You never know. What might happen.
Tea with Alice
It's pretty easy, GG to believe you’re gone.
You went just like you wanted--
You arrived early and stayed late.
Grandpa has been parked out front,
in the station wagon with wings,
honking the horn for you to hurry
I’m glad you are going home--
You told everyone you were going
to New York of all places, but
I figure, you wanted your big apple
pie in the sky.
I buy cheese cake for your wake.
There’s only me here, but the cheese
cake label reads, Father’s Table.
Someone else thinks there's
cheesecake in heaven besides me.
When you said you saw children playing,
heard dogs barking when there were none,
I knew you were getting ready to go.
But why sneak out the back?
You went back to your father and mother,
your sisters in Kansas--most I'd never met.
You kept nothing, you ran all the way home.
Next to you is the headstone for your baby sister,
Was she seven when she died right in front of you
struck by a car near the rail road tracks—
Something you never stopped seeing.
Why did you dash away without goodbye?
Why did you fear death at 99, laugh it off at 100?
Why were your buried alone?
Your soldier’s grave, his white linen
headstone empty where a wife would be?
Or did your fatal mistake make you
a hundred years careful,
a hundred years resistant,
a hundred years sorry not to have
taken your sister’s place?
It’s like you were forever frozen
standing on the edge of the tracks
in that small Kansas town. Forever
staring at your small lost charge.
If only I’d had held her hand tighter
If only I’d left the school house later
If I’d stayed after to ask a question
If only they had stayed after
if she had stayed . . .
And for a hundred years you stayed longer
Didn’t you, GG? 100 years of questions.
But no answer ever brought back the girl
who insisted, absolutely insisted—
you each name the cat two names,
and the baby could pick one too-
Tiger Ray Furry Paws Love
She was the one who made you laugh
when she tucked a glass bottle in her shoes
to make them fit better.
But there was nothing left of that bottle
for Alice to drink. Nothing that would shrink
the pain down to size to make a heart mend.
Coffee—Black, no sugar.
A silly girl,
who ran in traffic
on the way home from school.
I told her not to run.
And oh, how you ran away
to your mother. A mother, who whether
she ever forgave you, in your mind,
could never love you the same
Who could forgive the loss of her daughter
the one you were responsible for.
I was responsible.
Why did you forbid a funeral?
Did you feel her funeral counted for yours?
Were you Humpty Dumpty
who no one could put together again?
Were you half alive forever after?
And now I know how you felt.
I am halved at your secret parting.
You left your seat at this mad tea party.
You stole away before breakfast
and left your tea here, still hot.
And my heart shrieks like the tea kettle
who has been forgotten on the stove
until I am out of water, and my throat
* * *
I have your coat here. It is hot outside--
July hot enough to bend the stalks
of sunflowers. Here is your heavy coat
without your shoulders to hold it up.
This coat took me everywhere I ever went—
dance class, art class, the theatre, the ballet
It bows empty now you are gone.
So I will keep this heavy woolen mantle.
And when I am old and small, I will put it on.
I will hold another dear girl’s
hand in my paper one. I will lead her
to the ballet, we will sit on red velvet,
our faces lit by the light of shell colored satin.
We will hum with the music of an orchestra,
every part in tune. The music will tie the chords
of our hearts back together, mend
the fibers of our being.
I, in your heavy coat, will share
all the threads of my life with her—
I’ll spin out all this old coat’s yarns
to make her a new one until my back
carries only a shawl-full of threads,
until I am spun out . . .
I will grow still smaller,
while she will grow ever larger,
he will stand on legs more powerful
than a ballerina’s, and she will repeat
this pattern, adding her own part,
until all the velvet cushions of the theatres
are worn thin, until there is no one left
Until all hatters close their shops,
and there are no more left to buy.
‘til all the tea is drunk,
and all the seas run dry.