Invisible Woman, Dancing

All Hallows Eve, Sweet Briar College, 2003

I came as a ghost to the party,
no costume required, I only had to wear
the brilliant skin, the ruinous eyes,
the body poised in transit, unwriting
the myth of sex. I came as a ghost
to the party, though we pretended
not to notice a palpable hovering
in the interstices of conversations,
a presence so insubstantial
eyes passed through it, hands
reached through air, bodies jostled
on the dance floor and never felt a thing.

Still, some there were haunted,
drawn away from the company,
its clenched knots of desperate clever banter,
to contemplate the thinnest air
as if, despite themselves,
they heard and heeded a ghostly tongue;
their bodies swayed in answer.
Staring into that void they glimpsed themselves,
turned back, shuddering, to the masquerade.

I came as a ghost to the party
against my better judgment
at the persistent, earnest
urging of my friends, as if
a ghost had friends when they hoist 

the flag of whiteness and huddle there
under purity and privilege, surrender—fatal—
the furious, frailer, darker parts
of themselves. Recently they had rallied
to kiss the ass of a black man who had accomplished 
admirable things—though most there had not read 
them or only read a story,
as pleasantly exotic and sweetly soothing
as those wonderful spirituals
about wading in the water and summertime.
So extravagant was their ardor
that I, a member of his tribe,
could not get near him or have one word.
Still, I know he saw me, sitting there, tense, alone,
 before his lecture, unmoored and vanishing
in the cocktail Hell before his dinner—
did not only see, but recognized a kindred ache.
The first and second and third rule of thumb,
the commentator said, is do not scare
the white people. And so we stand apart,
raise no specters of over-educated house
niggers breeding insurrections, mustering
ghost armies of strangers, lepers, freaks,
the wretched of the earth, furious,
innumerable and not afraid to die.

I came as a ghost to the party.
you didn’t wear a costume, someone said.
I came as an activist, I replied,
modeling my black ACLU t-shirt,
Lady Liberty emblazoned down my front,
at my back, a litany of rights. 

I might have said the costume’s in the eye.
You will weave for me a shroud
and I will walk among you like a ghost,
mask of the red death, memento mori.

Blind with pride and rage
(I will ask no one for help), I quit the place,
leave the lake behind, the band’s god-awful
din, the strafing voices—the rent
in the world’s fabric miraculously healed
by my going. The dark deserted road
is unfamiliar, its grade, its curves,
the woods casting shadows from either side,
but any path is right that leads away.
I lose my way, keep going, going,
deeper into the maze, finally turn back.
Returned, the band’s on break;
They’ve put a mix tape in.
I dance like one possessed, furious grace.
When strangers, not of this place,
say a quick goodnight, I run after,
take me with you, I say.

A solid hand upon my solid knee, warm hands
returning the pressure of my warm hand—
two women rescue me, deliver me—
ghost in the machine
once more human girl—home
with promises of brunch and company
they will or will not keep.
No matter. I lock the door
and slide the chain, rest back against 

the frame, breathing relief.
May they all die horribly in a boathouse fire.
The malediction takes me by surprise.
I say it once again with clear intent:
May they all die horribly in a boathouse fire.
These words be kerosene, dry wood, locked doors, a match. 

More by Constance Merritt

A Study in Perspective

I.
Looking at you was the hardest thing.

Taking off my clothes
While you stayed dressed,

II.
Nothing.

III.
My body a knife, my shoulder
Its blade, I cut a path before me.

Or sometimes I’m an apprentice ghost
Unsure in the art of haunting;

No one sees me as I pass.

IV.
No one sees me as I pass
Though someone is always looking,
Translating texts of skin and eyes
As: our lives are whole without her. 

V.
The intention of the taker doesn’t matter;
Shame lies only in not being had,
Pain in too much having.

VI.
If you weren’t older by twenty years,
Superior in race, middle-class
By marriage and sighted,
You couldn’t whisper strip
And then refuse to do the same.

We get away with what we can,
And this poet gives what she gives.

VII.
Historically, it was a woman’s fate, a slave’s:
Submission to a gaze s/he can’t return.

VIII.
I am not you; that’s you and not me.
From a distance the boundaries stay clear,
And fear lies coiled and sleeping in its place.

IX.
Up close, I look at you, give you
My body without its mask of blindness,
Allow you to see me, my eyes
As they work at seeing you.

And not because, as I have said,
I loved you more, or am most good,

Just well-rehearsed as vulnerable.