Royal Street Sutra
May, New Orleans
Though his fingers open
to cup my head
between his hands,
and my ear could be a cockle
in his palm,
smooth like my hips
when he pulls
me to him,
he will not command me.
their calloused ease, will disperse
with the throaty sluice of bourride
in the slurred hilt of a jazz riff,
or as birds rise
in scattered parabola
over cobbled courtyard,
and though I may look
flammable as paper
in his eyes, I am not kindling
as I was at 23, though I am not 23.
Paper does not combust
at altitudes earned
by long walks through thin air,
and it’s there where love
in light made gauzy by fleeting clouds,
that water begins to boil
at a temperature
simple enough to astonish.
Over the Mississippi, sunset melts
like roast marrow spread
on crust of bread,
white myrtles suds the square I cross
as chicory peppers the air ahead.
“Royal Street Sutra” is my letter to a man who invited me to join him for a brief escape to New Orleans. A trip that, in some ways, I’ve yet to return home from.
He’d be working long hours on a cameraman gig, so the days would be mine to explore. Nights would be ours. The mingling of independence and his company sounded great, and I was excited. But I’ll get my own place, I told him. That way, if he wanted some solitude after a long day (or if I did, I reminded myself), one of us could Uber back to our own space. I had in mind a small hotel in the French Quarter where I’d stayed before. Tucked away on Royal Street behind an iron fence wrought to look like stalks of corn, it wasn’t far from the sprawling corporate hotel his employer had booked.
I loved his vibrant personality but his extroverted nature sometimes overpowered the quiet observer in me. And his lifestyle, from what I gathered in our near-constant exchange of phone calls, FaceTime, and letters wouldn’t have fit with my regimented schedule as I taught undergraduate composition and made applications to PhD programs. But in long talks over over the phone, he nudged me to limit my applications to programs near him and he once joked about my skipping the PhD altogether. We could live together.
But I often don’t know exactly what’s plaguing my heart until I sit in the glow of a computer screen to write. New Orleans is made for sensualists, those yoked in smitten pairs, and the ones who go solo, headlong into the city’s revelry. I was sure it would support an ambivalent weekender somewhere in between. So I began this poem.
In New Orleans, music drenches the very air. If I felt like I was caving, I reasoned. I’d go find jazz. There was often a bebop quartet outside Hotel Roosevelt, where a year before, he’d written me a note on hotel letterhead. There were big brass bands on Frenchmen Street and in Jackson Square, and a late afternoon jazz trio in Hotel Monteleone, which has a rotating bar, a metaphor for my dizzying apprehension.
I wrote, and pictured a courtyard on Bienville I often duck into to escape the frenzy of nearby Bourbon Street. As the sun sets behind the balconies that look over the cobblestone patio, the night pulses with possibility that’s different than the expectant promise of morning, and sets a rhythm to boundless prospects of one night. That courtyard has warm feelings of him, too: A few months before he suggested this proposed getaway, I got a text from him in Virginia as I sat there after dark.
I only stayed in my little inn the first night. When we returned to my room after our first night out, we discovered carved into a ceiling brick, “I love VA.” As Virginia natives, we took that graffito and the fun we’d had all evening as good omens. He left in an Uber to make an early morning call, and I joined him later. The trip was a joy from beginning to end. He took pictures of us everywhere.
On our last night, we boarded a ferry at Canal Street and held hands as we crossed the Mississippi River. We watched the French Quarter stretch out in a receding crescent, intending to get one more picture of us together. But buoyed in each other’s company, we reached the landing of Algiers Point without a photo. Less than a year later, I would learn that some news can’t be softened by preparation. Since he died, as always, I write. One poem is meant to be read forward, but also backwards in a reading that reverses the trajectory. Instead of sailing away from New Orleans, he’s arriving, it’s early, and laughing gulls alight the railing by our arms as the river carries us toward the flickering promise of another night.