WLU poet R. T. Smith


ALPHABET  by R. T. Smith

In the sewing room
the mail-order Singer
with its chrome-rimmed
wheel and gleaming needle
was turned under
to make a desk while
mother started dinner.

I faced west where
the window shimmered.
For an hour I rehearsed
my letters, spelling
everything visible —
zipper and scissors,
thimbles and spools.
The oval mirror made
the wallpaper zinnias
flower still further,
and a mantel clock
held the minutes back.

The Eagle pencil
in my cramped hand
scratched fishhook j
or an l like a needle.
Late sunlight glazed
the holly leaves silver
beyond the peeling sill.
While I squinted hard
at the Blue Horse paper,
the twilight world
held perfectly still.

When I had finished,
each curve and flourish
set in disciplined rows,
fresh tea with ice
appeared at my elbow,
the yellow c of lemon
in the tumbler’s perfect o,
and if mother had praise
for what I had done,
I would shine all evening
bright as a straight pin,
while the new moon
with its careless serifs
cleared the trees and rose.

R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University and edits Shenandoah.  His most recent book of poems is The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor.  This summer Mississippi Quarterly will feature an interview with him, along with a sequence of new poems.  About “Alphabet” he says, “This scene comes from childhood memory and adult invention.  ‘Zinnias’?  I’m not sure, but the brands of pencil and paper are accurate, and the regimen of the closed sewing machine as desk.  I’ve always loved that seraph/serif double entendre, and I finally found a place to inscribe it.  The poem appeared in my collection Messenger in 2001,” and I suppose it’s about discovering the magic in written language, the power to summon even the moon.



recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.