Poetry: The Little Death | clivejames.com
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The Little Death

When I played Thisbe in eleventh grade,
Miss Wilhelmina Penrest, up to then
my favourite English teacher, chose
John O'Leary, my own secret Pyramus,
to play the part of Pyramus. I loved      
to study him each afternoon in Study Hall
framed like a print of the daydreaming Keats
in a small gap among the stacks which I had
delicately engineered. He was my first
pair of blue eyes — two pale blue shallow pools   
the lightest shade of late July chlorine.  
He had this pasty Irish skin, this fog
of wiry hair, this empty-headed grin.
Maybe she knew. Though she asked Henry Mersey
to play Wall, almost as keen to have me kiss
the chink his fingers made as I was loath
to do it. And what possessed her to press
Sally Wayne, who shone through acne craters
every time that Henry Mersey like the sun
came in the room, to take the part of Moon?
All this I could forgive. Although she very nearly    
lost my love for good when to play The Lioness
Miss Penrest picked that fizgig Helen Rosemount-Hill.

Rehearsals were a daily agony.
With every sally Henry Mersey made
I'd shrink and Sally Wayne would wax with hope.
And every time I sought John out, there was  
that Helen Rosemount-Hill beneath her heap
of auburn hair, all set to pounce. Between
that and the way that Henry Mersey had
of mercilessly being in the way,
as if he understood things like a god
and not a wall, or else had spent a lifetime
in the office of a wall, immured
to human suffering, and so a god,
a very genius of a wall,
I couldn't get anywhere near John O'Leary.

I did believe things couldn't get any worse  
than having to endure The Lioness
offer to read my part (my part!) with Pyramus.
Poor John, he never was that swift, still tripping
on his lines and cues and props, but did
he have to take her up with such alacrity?  
It burned the way I wished that bloody sword
had it been steel and not collapsible on touch
would burn when every day I plunged it in my breast.  
It didn't help that, all along, as I could tell
from how Miss Penrest flipped the pages
of her book and tapped her fingers with her pen
and fiddled with her glasses on their chain,
I was still falling short of Thisbe.

But I was wrong.  
I still don't know why I went back.
I didn't need my script, I knew my role,
I was already late, it was getting dark,
I hated the smell of that auditorium.
I almost didn't hear the mobbled knocking
from the stage and turn to see the art department's
masterpiece, Old Ninny's tomb, shuddering
like the haunches of a fly-beleaguered cow,
the half unpainted mulberry banging at it
doggedly, the papier-maché trunk beating
its appliqués of bark like an indignant goose.

Next day when Henry Roughcast Wall accosted me
and offered me my book, I talked with him.
When Helen Lioness taught Sally Moon in France
it's called the little death, she paled and fled
in search of Thisbe to whom she confessed
that she had never even gotten to first base.
And when I, Thisbe, held both Pyramus
and John O'Leary limp and clammy in my arms,
and dead, and gazed down on that glist'ning brow,
where I counted eleven pimples and made out
in the corners of his mouth egg evidence,
I thought I could see what I was in for —
the foolish comedy of walls and moons,
the long succession of little deaths —
and I let Thisbe have her head, shaking
her fists, tearing her hair, beating her breast
in a spectacular display of deathless love
until there was no more of that wretched fidgeting.