The Poet at Seventeen

Michelle Peñaloza


            after Larry Levis


What occurs to me now
is the overwhelming, the open
windows and cigarette smoke

and Nashville's poplared hills.
To go, to drive anywhere.
My father died the year before. 

An 18-wheeler and a sunny morning.
That year, then, one of firsts:
smoking shitty weed

in backseats with boys I kissed
to feel something other than sad.
The first hands other than my own

to touch the softest parts of me;
the first time a boy said,
I thought you would be tight.   

Opryland closed that year.
They built a mall atop
a graveyard of rollercoasters.

I learned to over-schedule:
student council, lacrosse, acting
troupe, AP study group, church camp.

A lifelong comfort
to always have somewhere
to be that wasn't home.

Back then, I spoke to God and tried
to carry my faith like a gold star.
It's hard not to remember in abstractions.

Only, I wanted to empty myself.
To let the wind rush through
the hair I hid behind and lift

from me my mother's prayers,
my need to correct my teachers:
I'm Michelle. Not Marie. Not Elma.

I looked for myself in books;
eyes like mine on the cover
of Mona in the Promised Land

watched me as I fumbled home,
stoned and too much in the wind
to hold my mother's wailing.