Poetry Drawer: School Bus: Fifth Grade: The Day I Got My Timing Down: Kissed-Off: Français Firsts by D. R. James

School Bus

When its arched brow rises
from behind the country hill,
snub-nosed, a grin
for a grill, you remember
you’re in second grade.

There’s Cindy’s old yellow dog
feigning outrage at your passing van,
his bark and lunge petering
to that bored, panting trot.
And there the synod
of grammar schoolers wrestling
lunchboxes into a line,
reinventing the rituals, the
hierarchies, the variations
of elemental courtship.

There the oil-rosy puddles
in rutted gravel,
the soaked toes, knots
of gossiping daffodils, tufts
of too enthusiastic grass,
the bristles smudged in sage and mustard
along the far edge of fields.

When you top the hill
you know you’ll see the bus swing
a backward right in your mirror, right
onto the main road, so
you lean, small-palm
the cracked leatherette,
grasp the memory of cool steel
framing the seat ahead,
all your uncertain world
still straddling the smeared window
slid halfway down.

The same low sun stuns you
when you glance back, forward, run
your times-nines, wheel left
and head for school.

Fifth Grade

As I flew into town
that first time, leaning over
the gull-winged sweep
of the handlebars, the burn in my
pudgy, mad-pumping thighs,
told me I was fast, was
free, was finally entering
the my country ’tis of thee
we’d all been singing,
sweet land of weekend-
playground liberty.
That mile I’d never ridden
was a hundred miles,
the fresh fall breeze speed itself,
as those fat tires
snarled through dunes
of shoulder gravel and
eddies of falling leaves.
When I jumped the curb
onto the school’s front sidewalk
town kids, exotic friends named
Cindy, Billy, Darlene, and Gary,
were already gathered, long
unchaperoned, at ease,
their pre-adolescences already
underway, their slow turn
toward my approach blasé
as I came skidding into
that newest of my old
neighbourhoods of memory.

The Day I Got My Timing Down

It was in that phase of pure
sarcasm, midteens, when guys
work out an awkward stance,

work their pack’s patter
’til they maybe have it. I don’t
really remember the day but

the single-moment wonder of hitting
my first come-back just right
by accident, then their free, true

laughter, my perfect follow-up,
the never looking back. From there
a career: from Senior Class Clown

to smooth talker in any crowd to
flip teacher spinning lit to wordsmith
chiseling chin-up come-backs

to the tin-clad sarcasms
every life dishes out as it
disarms or drops you or

leaves you hanging, slamming
its clanging locker door in your
gullible, stuttering face.


Lord knows I’m a voodoo chil’.

                        —Jimi Hendrix

Until that night a girl
had only kissed me. Not I
a girl. I was fifteen and for

over a year Jimi’d been telling me
he was a voodoo chil’, yeah,
and I wasn’t. No moon

had turned a fire red,
and not one mountain lion
had found me waitin’. Now

I was going with Sue,
at whose Midwest harvest party
I’d do the kissing. Nervous

and showing it, acting
distractedly, voice shaking,
our friends milling, I knew

it was a now-or-never situation,
even though I’d never ever
and didn’t really know. Giddy

and ridiculous, we slid into
the stairwell, out of range
of her parents in the kitchen,

the kids below: the outskirts
of our infinity
… We made eyes.
We made small talk. But all I

could think about was making
my move. (If only I’d had a
Venus witch’s ring.) Then inching

my arm and small-talking her
a little more, I aimed my face
and kissed her! And oh, Lord,

the gypsy was right: amazing
and no big deal at once. So we
kissed again (Lord knows I

felt no pain) and for three months
flew on as make-out fiends until
she dropped me for my best friend

at her party for my sixteen-and-
been-kissed birthday. And I fell
downright dea-ea-ead

Français Firsts

             —for Priscilla

After all your dainty tales from la rue
du Tel-ou-Tel, so many elegant snippets
de la Rive Comme Ci, Comme Ça—Oui,
I am forever sheepish I never made it

to Par-ee (sauf une gare on the outskirts,
eurailing toward Luxembourg, which was
all but fermé for the Halloween weekend).
But though now you could easily keep me

down on any farm, France in swah-sohn-canz?
Oh là là! —my version of the proverbial
semester abroad, and where un nouveau me
must’ve definitively begun. Par exemple,

near Nice, absorbing the glowing Côte d’Azur
then tour-busing by Monaco for Menton,
out one route en corniche and back another,
long before my paltry français could surface

fast enough to prattle with my teacher’s kids.
But un début—and it would take me only four
more largely lonely months to pass myself off
as a less evident américain, with at least

a decent accent to show for it, my being
the yoghurt-eating, knows-little sophisticate
I’d become. It would be two decades before
Starbucks blitzed very many Midwest cities,

so old Grenoble’s where the cafés and bistros,
wines finer than Boone’s Farm, addicted me
to a fresh perspective, to une idée de moi-même
transcending tackle football, college fraternity,

and culture as country rock. Granted, all
the exotic side-trips did make a difference:
that disorienting week in Warsaw (still
dictatorial), those goose-steppers in Chopin’s

park; the overnighter (avec les trois femmes!)
to Italy; Geneva on weekends; Christmas
on the Bodensee (which made me certain I’d
learn German for my Überlingen girlfriend

before Italian for those gorgeous Florentines.)
But en France? So seul? And working steadily
on the concept of an inner life? It was la
première fois that I knew I knew abnormally

nothing—and that I no longer wanted to. On
the vigntième floor of my international dorm,
some inside switch had somehow gotten flipped.
Souddainement, ancient history was interesting,

the future a matter for my contemplation, my
ignorance a currency I hoped to leave behind,
exchanged for novels in two languages and grand
prospects for actually using my mind. By winter

I could’ve stayed on through spring. And by spring,
back home again and left to reconnoitre, I began
that retrospective cataloguing that deepens
one’s appreciation—such as how a shy, petite

‘teep’ from Japon and a bold, femme noire from
La Côte d’Ivoire could intersect via moi via anglais;
or how tinny, small-car traffic is more romantic
in memory; or how geraniums are la plus rouges

à Chambéry, a few blues uniquely Mediterranean,
and no whites colder than novembre over Mont Blanc.
Or how some French are rich, canadien, but also
poor, arabe, c’est à dire, algérien. And how

my world seemed now to be le monde.

D. R. James’s latest of ten collections are Mobius Trip and Flip Requiem (Dos Madres Press, 2021, 2020), and his prose and poems have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies and journals. Recently retired from college teaching, James lives with his wife in the woods near Saugatuck, Michigan, USA.

Leave a Reply