by Joseph Baldwin
He stepped out into the warm, caressing
night, and smiles, remembering music
and slim girls in bright flimsy dresses,
smiling, sweat gleaming on their foreheads.
And then came near fainting with dismay.
It was a judgment on his life,
he feared, that such a night, beloved
of his youth, should now distress him.
Warm, warm, they had been, eight hundred
miles away and fifty years
ago! And careless of all but love songs,
blooming youthful bodies, and hope.
Fans placed here and there gave breaths
of cooling; moments were enough,
then back to the giddy heat and swirl
of dance; linkings raised hopes higher.
Hopes of what? Life to be grasped.
Each other, grasped. Promises;
only implied, but promises,
for all of that; in touch, in glance.
Promises of bright futures;
financially bright, of course; but also
immediate promise given unspoken,
then taken back, as soon as given.
The embrace frankly sexual;
but, by tacit agreement, not that
at all, only social custom,
though shared sweat drenched clothes of each.
And weren’t mothers looking on,
while scantily-clothed daughters clung
to lanky swains, to see that all
was decent, stayed within control?
Years later, why dismay? Distress?
Ah, yes. The memory of shame,
at being an imposter there.
Imposter? Yes. But, in what sense?
Why, simply that all such affairs,
cotillions, balls, “formals,” where
the bright of eye and light of foot
displayed themselves (discreetly and
by custom, but nonetheless displayed
themselves as “eligible”) had ever
been a showing of wares. And also
that one knew it was understood
accepting such hospitality
and exchanging embraces in the formal
figures of the dance meant one
shared in this eligibility,
having “something to offer,” and wasn’t
poor then, nor poor in prospects. Ah, yes:
the cruelty of the social system,
offering such delights, but only
at a price! Better not
to have come at all, as if disguised
as one of them and able, like them,
to repay the piper for the tune.
Hence, the shameful distress. In spite
of knowledge that the sweating girls
of long ago in long bright dresses
were now grandmothers; that, or dead;
and that the dance, the glitter and romance,
was all a form of commerce; dismay
persisted. The shame of being poor,
of having been poor, lasts all one’s life.
Also, the shame of having been
a pretender lasts. But, O! the glowing
girls, the music, and the dance!
Enchantment, then its own excuse.