Sunday Poem

Walking in Paris

I come back to your youth, my Nana,
as if I might clean off
the mad woman you became,
withered and constipated,
howling into your own earphone.
I come, in middle age,
to find you at twenty in high hair and long Victorian skirts
trudging shanks' mare fifteen miles a day in Paris
because you could not afford a carriage.
I have walked sixteen miles today.
I have kept up.

I read your Paris letters of 1890.
Each night I take them to my thin bed
and learn them as an actress learns her lines.
“Dear homefolks” you wrote,
not knowing I would be your last home,
not knowing that I'd peel your life back to its start.
What is so real as walking your streets!
I too have the sore toe you tend with cotton.
In Paris 1980 was yesterday
and 1940 never happened—
the soiled uniform of the Nazi
has been unraveled and reknit and resold.
To be occupied or conquered is nothing—
to remain is all!

Having come this far
I will go farther.
You are my history (that stealer of children)
and I have entered you.

I have deserted my husband and my children,
the Negro issue, the late news and the hot baths.
My room in Paris, no more than a cell,
is crammed with 58 lbs. of books.
They are that is American and forgotten.
I read your letters instead,
putting your words into my life.

Come, old woman,
we will be sisters!
We will price the menus in the small cafes, count francs,
observe the tower where Marie Antoinette awaited he beheading,
kneel by the rose window of Notre Dame,
and let cloudy weather bear us home early
to huddle by the weak stove in Madame's kitchen.
We will set out tomorrow in stout shoes
to buy a muff for our blue fingers.
I take your arms boldly,
each day a new excursion.
Come, my sister,
we are two virgins,
our lives once more perfected
and unused.

by Ann Sexton
from Live or Die
Houghton Mifflin, 1966