The Odor of Memory

(a poem in 4 sections)

A boy, recalling:

We got there in a
state of awe
It was like having traveled
all those years
without knowing it
to arrive in this shaky wagon
full of straw—
the world smelled powerfully
good and there were girls
of every kind but all
the same, with skin.
And breath
they breathed like a disease
almost, some sort of
heavenly, holy disease. We grew red.
That rickety wagon.
How could you learn anything?
Yet everyone thought
we could learn.
The trees
dropped their faces over us. They were
Wheels, machinery, rolled over us,
motorcycles airplanes—wheels
we had to control, get on top of—ride.

A girl, recalling:

We got there in a state
of awe
without knowing it, without
having traveled. We were
trees that had never budded before,
our leaves greening, shedding, falling
like paper
you could draw on, like cloth
you could sew into anything,
we were
so pure were we, in and out of the
hopscotch squares
our hair a river of silver fish.
We floated
without moving, we arrived
in the rickety wagon and the world
smelled masculine—
we were tickled even by the word,
we were moist, we were
open words, we were m’s the s’s could
crawl into, we ached,
we were trees finally budding.

A boy, recalling:

They stood opposite
in the roomful of straw,
grounded like open flowers,
iris, camellias, wavering,
we thought they were only girls, across
the wagonload of straw, they sat
always opposite, across, as if
already filled up with country liquor, we
didn’t know it was sugar-water.
Still, we moved, we were used to
moving, never knowing
limbs, groins, what to do—in olden days
boys wrote poetry
something in us really wanted to write poetry
something we didn’t know
so we moved,
we coiled like rattlers in the straw
and they stood opposite, like calves, then cows.
They were the world. No longer trees.

A girl, recalling:

We came second. So it seemed. Their
moving, their motion, coming first,
because we stood so still, because
we sat still as the close-up
odor of grass,
of straw you could die in, widening
in slow motion, in iris and camellian
ways (so bad) because
we could barely hold our breath
for the budding, while they
across the roomful of straw
moved, snaked, and we, waiting,
like flesh-eating plants,
opened, no, like open water
in our silver cups, opened and closed and
A stable thing is afraid of motion.
We were trunks moving, whirling, turning from
paper to leaves, to grass, to too many things solid
as silver cows,
we were no longer trees.


© 2002 Helen Degen Cohen

Helen Degen Cohen (Halina Degenfisz) is a widely-published poet and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She won First Prize in Stand magazine's worldwide fiction competition for an excerpt from her autobiographical novel, The Edge of the Field. Other honors include two Illinois Arts Council Awards, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, an Indiana Writers Conference award in Poetry, and fellowships to the four major art colonies in the United States.

Ms. Cohen is a graduate of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and, after years traveling to schools throughout the state as part of the Artist in Education program, she returned to teaching (at Roosevelt University) and then to co-editing Rhino magazine. Helen originally co-founded the magazine as well as its adjunct, the Poetry Forum, a monthly drop-in workshop. She can be reached at: Halinka1[AT] (replace [AT] with @).

For more of her work in TheScreamOnline, visit the Talent Index.