Cummins, James

United States, (b. 1948)

November 22, 1963

  1. 1
  2. I sat in Miss Reynolds’s biology class
  3. the day we all remember what we were doing.
  4. I seem to recollect dissecting a fetal pig;
  5. but perhaps, like Vardaman, I only conflated
  6. physical and metaphysical horror
  7. in one obliterating flash. More likely,
  8. recalling myself as student and young man,
  9. I sat there quietly, watching the others
  10. poke, carve, discover. But at 1:30,
  11. when the intercom coughed without preamble,
  12. and we listened in growing fear to what
  13. resembled a phone conversation broken into
  14. by mistake (ellipses of questioning; sobs;
  15. once, a loud shout) turn slowly into
  16. the focused statement that went through
  17. each of us like a bullet—that he had, in fact,
  18. been murdered—we all sat up and still
  19. then, the radiant pigs forgotten forever.
  21. 2
  22. Who can explain the oracular impulse?
  23. That day, they told us to “vacate the premises”;
  24. no shoulder to cry on in those spare times; no counsel.
  25. The Phys Ed teachers and the coaches, who would pull boys
  26. from the hallway scrum, and slam their backs against
  27. the walls to make a point, stood there sullen, sour,
  28. as we filed past, silent, not even allowed
  29. to use the phones—but then, who would we have called?
  30. There was a strip mall off the high school lot;
  31. we’d meet there at the bakery before class,
  32. the rich kids in a restaurant nearby.
  33. That day we wandered aimlessly along the storefronts;
  34. what I remember most is our stunned silence.
  35. In a television store I saw
  36. a woman clerk who looked the way
  37. I felt. I blurted out, “We’ll never get past this”—
  38. I could feel the fear distort my voice,
  39. as if I knew. She stared at me, as if I knew.
  41. 3
  42. Miss Reynolds had good bones, as the connoisseurs
  43. of beauty say, but wore so much make-up she seemed
  44. a mannequin or doll. Or Lady Elaine Fairchilde,
  45. on Fred Rogers’ TV show, or Punch’s wife, Judy—
  46. an alabaster reach of flesh in which soft
  47. eyes seemed trapped. I’ve often wondered since
  48. if she were the first transsexual I’d known,
  49. her perfect over-lipsticked lips a truth some
  50. lonely man pined for in his own mirror.
  51. I was fifteen: desire needed no abyss.
  52. Even wrinkled old Mrs. Benedict—
  53. even hoary old Mrs. B.—would writhe beneath me
  54. in my bed at night, while I sucked her ancient
  55. leathery nipples, and groaned aloud.
  56. I wasn’t rich or president;
  57. the Beatles had yet to play on Ed Sullivan;
  58. RFK was still alive, like me.
  59. And everywhere I looked desire fused with death.

© James V. Cummins. The Best American Poetry, (2011).

About the Poet:

James V. Cummins (b. 1948) is a U.S. poet. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in the Midwest, primarily in Cleveland and Indianapolis. He received a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Cummins has been curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection at the University of Cincinnati since 1975, where he is also Professor of English.

Cummins has published three books of poetry and co-authored a fourth book with David Lehman that collects all the sestinas written by the two poets. His individual poems have appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, Partisan Review, Harper’s, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review and others. [DES-03/12]

Additional information:

  • James Cummins fourth book of poetry has been released for 2012. Still Some Cake is full of Cummins’ “brilliant poems” and numinous lunatic and luminous meditations.
  • His books are also available at Barnes and Nobel.

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