Ron Smith

Don’t Know Much About the French I Took
April 23, 2019 Smith Ron

Don’t Know Much About the French I Took
a letter of apology to Miss Buckshaw & Mrs. Dunham

I silently disapproved when they said, “Let’s go French
Miss Buckshaw,” though I do know that I love you
for trying, even with your embarrassing Deep
South pronunciation, to get me to parle français.

I apologize now for my inability to talk turkey here,
for being so in the dark in the City of Light
and for imagining your sour breath and slipping
dentures, your ancient, phlegmy spit. I remember
“Fermet la bouche,” not, I think, ever directed
at mute me. And “Ouvrez vos livres ” comes back
in a Georgia accent, we all said so, even
the tongue-tied. Danny and Becky and Marsha,
the cool kids, made As, I think now, and were
merciless in the halls before and after your class
where I sat in a fog of daydreams and discomfort.
I wonder how many times they’ve been to Paris,
if they were ever able to talk Sartre on the rue
du Whatever. If they are, still, even now,
high-school cool. Miss Richshaw, Miss Buckshot,
you never showed me even a small kindness, but
I suspect you’ll forgive me now for a mouth
full of English and the occasional, inappropriate burst
of desperate Italian. So: Merci, Madam, Merci.

And forgive me, Mrs. Dunham, for saying in class
that my little sister could write this Hemingway crap,
for thinking that “Big Two-Hearted River” was about
camping and could use some Byronic boffing
and Faulknerian flair.
Of course,
I didn’t really say those things out loud,
but I did imply them, preferring showmen
to shell-shocked fishermen. Shelly’s “The Cloud”
and Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon” were my touchstones
in those days. Forgive me for raining on
your professional parade. You were kind to me,
a chronically late, horrifically self-conscious
teenager, said I might be a writer one day. Grazie mille,
and ti prego, perdonami, Mrs. Dunham, Miss Buckshaw.
Rest in peace, wherever you are. I turned out all right,
I guess, in the end—if this is the end.

 

[The title of this poem and part of line 2 come from the song “Wonderful World” recorded by Sam Cooke in 1960.]

Ron Smith, Poet Laureate of Virginia 2014–2016, is the author of four books, including Its Ghostly Workshop and The Humility of the Brutes, both from LSU Press. His poems have appeared in The Nation, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and many other periodicals and anthologies in North America and Europe. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts commissioned him to write ekphrastic poems for its 2018 exhibition “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art.”