ON THE RMS QUEEN MARY
I’m exploring the decks, the ship docked in Long Beach since ’67. Same liner Mom sailed in ’39 from England to marry Daddy. Relic of a past the well-heeled now are recreating, “cruise” being the upscale way to travel, like the tour labeled “Alaska’s Glorious Inside Passage in 8 Days,” or the one advertised as “Wonders of the Mekong, 10 Days Down South Asia’s Amazing River.” But the Queen Mary was not designed for this sort of travel, rather to get you from Southampton to New York in less than a week.
Or from one life to another. Within a year Mom had lost her Britishisms, except for her inflections. “Oh, you Americans,” she’d shudder at us daughters, though she carried on with Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The phrase “carry on” holds more weight than hand luggage. All alone on the Queen Mary. Not part of any migration. No soft-bosomed granny, no jocular uncles to keep her afloat in the strange new land. Those glossy first class cabins were kept spotless. Then repainted, reupholstered, refurbished. Not a trace of her.
Before she died, Mom pulled that photo out of the album, tore it to shreds. The one that showed her at seven, naked, posed like a nymph, a statue on the lawn. Grandfather’s insisting she strip in front of the servants and sit like that, her legs folded to one side, her head bent in the opposite direction. His little nymph.
Stilled, in that photo, caught by silver particles, the standard black and white photographic process introduced in 1871. A photo’s final image: metallic silver embedded in a gelatin coating.
“Stills,” we say, stopped action, a single frame of a film. Yet I never knew Mom stilled until she died, her trim body beneath a sheet. Always moving, vacuuming every crumb of dust to be sucked into the guts of the Electrolux, its bag emptied into the garbage and gone. After dinner, Ed Sullivan on TV, her hands working a needle or scissors, her feet joggling, toes wriggling. Daytime, her sewing machine’s roar, her fingers zipping the fabric toward the needle, her foot pressing the pedal, full speed. And driving, always over the limit, as if to say “get me out of here.”
Silver atoms, freed when silver salts meet the light, form an image that’s stable. Once the film’s developed, it’s bathed in a chemical fixer. Clean water clears the fixer from the print, and the latent image becomes permanent.
The story she told me long after I’d moved away: how, when, at thirteen, she asked Granny what she should do about the black hairs spiralling in her armpits, Granny said, “Father can help you with that,” and he did, in the shower, every night, shaving her.
Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time, received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and was published by BkMk Press in 2015. Her fourth chapbook, From the Moon, Earth Is Blue, was also published in 2015, by Wings Press. Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (co-translated with Saranindranath Tagore, Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals (including The Southern Review, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Mid-American Review, Georgia Review, and the Southern Poetry Review) and in many anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships among other awards, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.