David Kirby

David Kirby is the author or co-author of twenty-one books, most notably his volumes of poetry, My Twentieth Century and The House of Blue Light which was published in LSU Press's Southern Messenger Poets series in 2000. His next book of poems, The Ha-Ha, will appear this fall.

Our Associate Poetry Editor, Dan Albergotti has prepared the following feature, including five poems — Mr. Andrews, A Really Good Story, Dear Derrida, James Dickey’s Dream, and Heat Lightning — and, by way of introducing you to Mr. Kirby's work and concerns, an interview, The Travelling Word File. We hope you'll enjoy.


I’d been hired by Sears to install appliances,
            but since I was just a 20-year-old college kid
working for the summer,
            the supervisor assigned me to Mr. Andrews,
who was older, shorter, and angrier than I was.
            Mr. Andrews’ uniform always looked freshly pressed
and somehow never got wrinkled
            during those long, humid Louisiana afternoons.
And his hair, which was as black as anthracite,
            always seemed carefully combed,
though I never saw him touch it.
            But my uniform tended to be baggy and wrinkled;
my hair flopped in my face, which was the style then;
            and I tended to chatter about myself,
the girls I dated, and the movies I’d seen,
            blah blah blah, while Mr. Andrews drove the truck out,
did his part on the installations, handled the paperwork,
            and drove us back, all in a smoldering silence.

He could also drink scalding hot coffee
            as though it were ice water:
we’d stop at the Toddle House
            and he would turn off the ignition
and jump out of the truck and slam the door
            while I was still asking if he thought it would rain
and if I should roll up my window;
            by the time I got inside,
he’d have already ordered two coffees,
            and when they came, he’d drink his in one big gulp,
whirl around on the stool,
            scatter some change on the counter,
and be outside while I was still blowing on mine
            and trying to get at least a couple of sips in me
before I had to put the cup down and run after him
            and hurl myself into the already-moving truck
as it crunched across the oyster shells
            in the Toddle House parking lot.

Because it was summer,
            we spent most of our time installing air conditioners,
and Mr. Andrews always made sure that I carried
            the end with the compressor in it,
which accounts for about two-thirds of a unit’s weight,
            though I said this didn’t bother me
because I figured the extra work was good exercise
            and would add muscle to my skinny frame,
a concept Mr. Andrews thought asinine,
            as he did most of my ideas.
Besides, what were a few extra pounds to me?
            We both knew I was working for Sears just that one summer
before I went back to college and the pretty girls I dated
            and my look-alike friends and my promising
and well-compensated if still somewhat indefinite future,
            which was the real reason why Mr. Andrews and I
could have never gotten along anyway,
            even if we’d had anything in common, which we didn’t.

Once we delivered a riding mower to a customer
            who’d either been drinking or just awakened from a nap.
We ran the mower down the ramp and onto the customer’s carport;
            Mr. Andrews removed all the packing material
and fooled with the choke and turned some switches
            and then he motioned for me to go ahead, try her out.
I’d never ridden a power mower before,
            but I could see that it had an on switch,
three gears, F, N, and R, and a brake pedal
            the size of a dictionary; how difficult could it be?
I started the mower up, threw it into F,
            and shot forward across the carport,
almost smashing into the wall
            before I decided to take it out of gear.
But I missed N and went all the way to R
            and shot backward, almost hitting Mr. Andrews
and the customer, who came to life suddenly
            and shouted, “Whoa, now!”

In my panic I forgot all about the big brake pedal
            and rammed it into F again and shot forward
and then into R and went back and forth
            maybe a dozen times in a noisy, gear-grinding frenzy
while the customer ran alongside shouting,
            “Whoa, now! Whoa, now!” and Mr. Andrews looked on
with his usual studied contempt until finally
            he reached over and turned off the ignition
and the mower coasted to a halt.
            Falling back on my college-boy glibness,
I said something about having given the machine
            a thorough check and now the customer
shouldn’t have any problem with it,
            but I didn’t fool anyone, least of all Mr. Andrews,
who finished the day without saying a word to me,
            although, since that’s what he always did,
there really wasn’t that much difference
            between this particular day and any other.

Besides the ACs and the occasional power mower,
            we had another job, one that had nothing to do
with installing appliances
            and that still seems strange to me
despite all the time that has passed since those days.
            It was to repossess wigs:
it seems that a lot of young women
            had put something down on a Sears wig
but then couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up the payments,
            so Mr. Andrews and I would be sent around
to retrieve the merchandise:
            we’d install a couple of air conditioners
in the morning before it got too hot,
            grab a quick coffee at the Toddle House
or maybe lunch at Vince’s Bar and Grill,
            where, despite our differences,
we both had the same thing every day—
            two cheeseburgers “all the way” and two Barq’s root beers

drive out to wherever the delinquent wig owner lived,
            and pull the truck into the front yard,
whereupon Mr. Andrews would leap out, bound up
            to the door of the little ramshackle house or trailer,
go inside, and emerge what always seemed like
            a few seconds later with a wig box under his arm,
trailed by some miserable-looking single mother
            and a couple of unwashed kids.
I never heard what Mr. Andrews said
            to these resentful and disappointed women,
if he said anything at all,
            and just assumed they knew he was there for the wig,
so back it went into the box in silence
            and then out the door
with this little pissed-off-looking guy
            who jumped back in his stupid truck
where his doofus assistant sat with a big stupid grin
            on his stupid face as if to say, No hard feelings.

Mr. Andrews spoke to me exactly twice that summer,
            unless he said something during one of my frequent naps,
which I doubt. The first time was when we were installing an AC
            in a house that had maybe six young men living in it,
five of whom were acting nervous and polite
            the way people do when the guys from Sears are there.
But the sixth man, who was heavily tanned
            and wore nothing but a leopard-skin bikini
and thick eye makeup, kept sort of prancing around me
            and making dancers’ gestures and groaning passionately,
while the other men alternately left the room
            to muffle their laughter and came back in
to see what new outrage their campy friend was up to.
            I just smiled and tried to heave the compressor end
of the AC into place while Mr. Andrews rode the whole thing out
            in his customary, that is to say, silent manner.
But when we got down the road a mile or so, he said,
            “I bet those old boys know how to lick a dick.”

The only other time he said anything to me
            was when we were installing a washer-dryer combo
at the Kappa Kappa Gamma house on the LSU campus.
            The sorority girls were going to class,
and as they streamed past us
            with their teased and lacquered hair
and their flawless skin and their little trim figures
            and their happy, big-mouthed laughter,
Mr. Andrews watched them for a while and then said,
            “I wouldn’t mind being stationed in these barracks,”
which was a bigger deal than I’m making it sound,
            not only because the summer was nearly over
and it was only the second thing he’d said to me the whole time
            but because he actually smiled as he said it.
When I turned in my uniform, the supervisor asked
            if I thought I’d be interested
in the Sears manager trainee program, and I said no,
            I didn’t think I wanted to be anybody’s boss.

from My Twentieth Century (Orchises Press, 1999). Reprinted with the permission of the author.


Alex Weiss, the guy who books bands, walks into the cafe
           where I am eating with my son Ian and says, David,
and I say, Alex, and Ian says, Who’s that,
                      and I say, that’s Alex Weiss, the guy who books bands,
but what I don’t say is that Alex is a hero of mine,

because one day I had stopped at the corner of Monroe
           and Call behind a carload of morons in baseball caps,
and Alex starts to walk across the street in front
                      of them and when he gets even with the front bumper
of their car, the head moron hits the horn

just to make Alex jump, which he does, though
           to my amazement he sort of twists in mid-air
like a ninja and lands facing the morons
                      and shoots them one of the most excellent cobs
I have ever seen, a cob being what we called a bird

in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when I was a boy
           and a term my son Ian and I use in our private language
and which refers to, not the slipshod limp-finger
                      arrangements you often see these days,
           but the classical configuration of steely middle digit

and the two on either side tightly curled
           in rock-hard scrotal perfection, a menacing,
                      up-the-poop-chute ideogram of eye-popping rage,
and that’s exactly the kind of cob Alex Weiss is pitching

these morons, only it’s even better than that,
           because while he is doing his mid-air ninja twist,
he’s waving his arms around like a bodybuilder
                      getting ready to strike a pose and when he lands,
his extended arm is pointing the way God’s does

when he’s jump-starting Adam on the ceiling
           of the Sistine Chapel, only Alex Weiss’s arm ends
in this excellent cob he’s made, and his whole body
                      is quivering slightly with the tension of the pose,
as in Got it, nailed it, bite this, you dirtbags,

and the morons are clawing their cheeks with rage,
           they can’t believe a skinny guy like that
is cobbing them off right in the middle of Monroe Street,
                      and their car is rocking up and down as they fight
each other for the door handles so they can get out

and murder Alex Weiss, the guy who books bands,
           but just then the light changes and I see my chance
to get in on the tail end of the fun, so I hit my horn
                      and lean out the window and say Hey, get that shitcan
out of the road, and the morons scream and beat their hands

against their heads in impotent fury, and the driver
           flips a . . . bird at me as Alex Weiss steps off as though
nothing’s happened and goes his way, probably to meet
                      some band he’s booked. Now maybe two years later
I see Alex and this girl in line in front of me

at the East End Deli, and I say, Alex, and he says, David,
           and I say, You know, Alex, you’re a hero of mine,
and he says, Hmmm?, and I tell this story, and the girl
                      is going, Alexxx! partly in reproof but partly proudly,
and Alex is saying, I don’t remember this,

and the girl is going, Alexxxxx! and Alex is saying,
           I don’t remember any of this at all,
but it happened, guaranteed—I’m not saying I don’t lie,
                      but I don’t lie in these poems. The only thing is,
do I want to tell Ian this story, because at 16

he has already got his man’s body and is starting
           to get ideas about what a man does and what it means
to be a man and all that bio-philosophical horseshit
                      boys have to go through before they realize
that none of it makes any difference anyway,

and I certainly don’t want to suggest that
           he ought to go around answering every provocation
every baboon offers him, because, in circumstances
                      that would have to be only very slightly different,
those morons might well have boiled out of that car

and grabbed Alex Weiss and yanked him to pieces
           and scattered his parts all over downtown Tallahassee.
On the other hand, it’s a really good story,
                      and Ian’s head seems to be screwed on the right way,
so I go ahead and tell him, and, predictably,

he almost chokes on his andouille and crawfish pizza,
           saying, Really, Dad, really, auk-hargh-hrssh-hargle,
and just then our protagonist comes back through
                      the cafe where we are eating and says,
David, and I say, Alex, and off he goes down the street,

and I go back to my veggie muffaletta thinking
           how nice it is from an aesthetic standpoint
for Alex Weiss to be, not some linebacker,
                      but the guy who books bands and is skinny to boot,
because what would be the point if he too

had been a big dumb-ass? And just then I remember
           that when Ian was four or five, I used to read him
fairy tales, and the one he always wanted to hear
                      was the story of Thumbling, the child of a poor peasant
who says to his wife, How sad it is

that we have no children! With us all is so quiet,
           and in other houses it is noisy and lively,
and his wife sighs and says, Yes, even if we had
                      only one, and it were only as big as a thumb,
I should be quite satisfied, and we would still

love it with all our hearts. When the little guy
           comes along, he has all sorts of adventures
and even makes a lot of money for his parents
                      because he is “a wise and nimble creature,
and everything he did turned out well,” and not only

did this become Ian’s favorite story, but when
           I got to his favorite line, he’d say, Read that again,
and I’d say, he was a wise and nimble creature,
                      and everything he did turned out well, and Ian
would suck his thumb and smile and look off dreamily,

and I could tell he was thinking of the many benefits
           of being wise and nimble when he grew up
and all the fun he’d have and the rewards.
                      That’s a good story, too, isn’t it?
David and Goliath, the tailor who killed seven

with one blow . . . they’re all good stories.
           Nothing like a good story.
Once a coach said, Is your boy smart?
                      and I said I think so, and the coach said,
Good, then he won’t have to be tough,

which is not true, because, after all, an aphorism
           doesn’t have to be right, just sound right.
I’d say be smart first and then only as tough as need be—
                      you know, we really need every good story
we can lay our hands on.

from My Twentieth Century. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


                     My new grad-school roommates and I are attending
           our first real lecture, which has gone okay,
we guess, since none of us understands it,
                     when one of our professors rises,
a somewhat prissy fellow
           with a mild speech impediment,
and says he takes issue with the speaker’s tone,
                     which he characterizes as one of “sar, sar,”
and here he raises his voice a little,
          “sar, sar, sar,” and wipes his mouth

with a handkerchief, “sar,” and turns red
                     and screams, “sar, sar, sar—DAMN EET!—sarcasm!”
The four of us look at each other
           as if to say, Hmmmm, nothing like this
at the cow colleges we went to!
                     After that, whenever we’d spill our coffee
or get a sock stuck in the vacuum cleaner,
                     we’d look at the mess ruefully
           and say, “da, da, da—SARCASM!—damn eet!”

                     Our lives were pretty tightly sealed,
           and if we weren’t in class or the library,
either we spent our time in wordplay
                     or cooking: what with girlfriends
and passersby, we always had a pot
           of water boiling on the back of the stove
(It’s like you’re ready to deliver babies,
                     somebody said once), either for spaghetti
or sausages, though one evening Chris,
           the English student from England, came by

for a sausage supper, and after he left,
                     we ran up on the roof to pelt him
with water balloons, though when we did,
           he fell down as though he’d been shot,
and one of us said, Jeez, what’s wrong
                     with Chris, and somebody else said,
You know, Chris eats nothing but sausage,
                     and a third party said, Hmmmm,
           maybe we ought to vary our diet a little.

                     And that was our life: school, the boiled messes
           we made on that stove, and hanging around
that crummy apartment talking about,
                     I don’t know, Dr. Mueller’s arm,
I guess, which hung uselessly
           by his side for reasons no one
fathomed—polio, maybe, or some
                     other childhood disease—though Paul
said he thought it was made of wood.
           Can’t be made of wood, said Michael,

you can see his hand at the end
                     of it, to which Paul replied,
Yeah, but you can have a wooden arm
           and a real hand, can’t you?
And that was what our life was like,
                     because mainly we just sat around
and speculated like crazy while
                     the snow piled up outside,
           so much so that by the time spring came,

                     I’d had it, so I moved out of there and in with Grant
           and Brian and Poor Tom, who were philosophy
students but also genuine bad asses,
                     believe it or not, because at that time
you more or less had to be an existentialist,
           i.e., tough, and not a deconstructionist,
which was a few years down the road yet
                     and which would have left everyone
paralyzed, since all texts
           eventually cancel themselves out.

Of the new roomies, I hit it off best
                     with Grant, who became one of the big-brother
types I seemed to be looking for at that period in my life,
           and in fact he rescued me
on more than one occasion, such as the time I was talking
                     to a local girl outside a bar
called Jazz City and her three brothers
                     decided to “teach me a lesson” and would have
           if Grant hadn’t punched one of them

                     across the hood of a parked car, or the night
           he and I were in this other place where
a biker gang called Quantrill’s Raiders
                     hung out and into which wandered
a well-dressed couple so unaware
           of their surroundings that they asked the bartender
to please make them some hot toddies,
                     which set everybody to laughing,
only the Quantrills decided we were laughing at them
           and jumped up to “teach us a lesson”

and would have, too, if Grant had not thrown
                     a table at them and dragged me
out of there to dive behind some garbage cans
           and choke on our own laughter
while the drunk, fucked-up bikers howled
                     and swore and punched each other since they
couldn’t punch us. All this was therapy,
                     I figured, since grad school was stressful enough
           to send three people I knew to the clinic

                     with barbiturate overdoses (two made it,
           one didn’t), and I’m not even listing here
all the divorces I know of that were directly
                     attributable to that constant pressure
to be the best, be publishable, hireable,
           lovable, that came from professors and sweethearts
and parents but mainly from ourselves,
                     as though each of us were two people,
a good and capable slave, on the one hand,
           and, on the other, a psychotic master

who either locked us up with our pots
                     of boiling water or sent us out to dance
with the devil in the streets of Baltimore.
           That year magi appeared from the east:
Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov,
                     Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida
brought their Saussurean strategies
                     to the Hopkins conference on “The Language
           of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,”

                     where they told us that all language
           is code and thus separate from reality,
and therefore everything
                     is a text as long as there is nothing
more than this half-conscious
           linguistic interplay between perceiver
and perceived, which is another way
                     of saying that language is the only reality
or at least the only one that counts.
           As different as these thinkers are,

each was telling us that there is no us:
                     that cultural structures
or the media or Western thought
           or the unconscious mind
or economic systems make us
                     what we are or what we seem to be, since,
in fact, we are not, which isn’t such bad news,
                     if you think about it, because it means
           we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.

                     Derrida and company make it impossible
           for anyone today to read a book
as they had before, but we didn’t know that then.
                     Grant didn’t, that’s for sure;
four years later, he put a gun in his mouth
           and blew the back of his skull off,
and sometimes it makes me sad
                     when I think of how long it takes
for new ideas to catch on, because,
           yeah, deconstruction might have saved us.

from The House of Blue Light (LSU Press, 2000). Reprinted with the permission of the author.


           The usual little cloud of asterisks and pound signs
                     and exclamation marks is buzzing and fizzing over my head
           as I try to figure out how to start my writing day,
and just then the phone rings, and it’s Michael Skube,
                     the book editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
           and he wants me to write an “appreciation”
of the life and work of the late James Dickey,
                     and I say, “I didn’t know Dickey was dead,”

           and Michael says, “He isn’t” (and, in fact, won’t be
                     for another three years), “it’s just that
           we like to have these things on file so that,
when the inevitable occurs, we’re ready,”
                     although, and my slow start this morning notwithstanding,
           I have a lot on my beer coaster at this time
in my life, so I hem and haw a bit, and Michael says,
                     “That’s okay, I’ve got another poet I can use,”

           only this other poet turns out to be somebody
                     who got drunk at my house a couple of years before
           and made fun of my CD collection, as though I not only
chose the title of Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers
                     but also somehow fancied myself a swingin’ (i.e., not)
           hepcat when I am actually no cooler or un- than anyone else,
so I say, “Wait a minute, Michael, maybe I’m not as busy
                     as I think,” and so I get started on my day after all,

           except that two or three hours into it,
                     I’m calling Michael back and saying I’m not only
           tangling up my tenses by pretending a living man is dead
but also giving myself a major case of the creeps
                     since I know Dickey is probably looking out a window,
           in Columbia, SC and thinking happily about some poem
he’d written or some deer he’d shot, and here I am
                     writing phrases like “Dickey’s greatest achievement was,”

           so we talk a bit, and I fuss some more, and finally
                     Michael tries to lighten the mood by saying, “Listen,
           usually we pay on publication, but this time I’ll pay
on receipt so you won’t be sitting there hoping
                     Dickey dies and then feeling as though you killed him
           when he does,” so I go back to work and finish the piece
and let it sit for a day or two and “give it a haircut” and file it
                     and get paid and then forget about it for three years,

           until last week, that is, when I read that Dickey
                     has died and say to Barbara, “I killed James Dickey,”
           and she says, “Actually, you gave him a little more life,”
and I think, hmmm, that’s why we marry these smart women,
                     and I go back and read what I’d written earlier,
           and it’s not too bad, but only because it uses
all these great self-descriptions of Dickey’s,
                     like the one from the 1990 interview where he says

           he had an “assumed personality” like Hemingway’s,
                     a “big, strong, hard drinking, hard fighting” persona
           that hides the “timid, cowardly” Dickey, the aesthete
who felt at home with authors like Oscar Wilde
                     and Henry James, but then I think, nah, not Henry,
           because I’d just read that, late in life,
James agreed to visit three Cambridge University men,
                     even though he had never met any of them,

           and that afterwards the novelist wrote a glowing
                     thank-you note, even though he’d cut short his stay
           because one of his hosts kept supplying missing words
whenever James paused to fumble for one, as he was wont to do,
                     so that instead of reproving his new friend or bearing
           the intrusion in silence, James preserved everyone’s pleasure
by leaving earlier than planned, and I asked myself,
                     Would Dickey have done this? and the answer is,

                No, he sure-God would have punched somebody right square
           in the face instead! Amiability, power,
self-effacement: that’s morality in James’s world,
                    whereas in Dickey’s it’s combat and archery and holding
                     your liquor and taking a punch—handling yourself
           like a man, in other words, even if you’ve been raped
up the ass by a bunch of perverted incestuous hillbillies,
                     which standard is rather far removed from the one

           represented by, say, a character like Adam Verver
                     in The Golden Bowl, a good old man whose selfless love
           of others, combined with economic power,
material conservatism, and exquisite taste, is not only
                     the touchstone for Jamesian behavior but also the ideal
           out of which perhaps all books, all art should flow,
though to say that makes me think of the remark
                     Jane Smiley made about how much better it would be

           if American literature had sprung from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
                     instead of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
           and Roy Blount, Jr.’s reply that that’s like saying
it would be better for people to come from heaven
                     than from sex. To put it another way, there are
           no Henry James or Harriet Beecher Stowe impersonators,
though there are plenty of impersonators of Mark Twain
                     and even James Dickey, including me, who saw him

           almost not give a reading here in Tallahassee in 1972,
                     when he came out on stage wobbly-drunk,
           read two poems, thanked everybody for being so nice,
and got halfway to the wing before somebody barked,
                     “Get back out here and read!” which he did magnificently
           and with great sound effects: wolf cries,
the sound of one hunter calling to another in a dark wood,
                     the ssssssssk! of an arrow finding its target.

           He went on for a good forty minutes, seemingly as sober
                     as the rest of us, and when the applause died down,
           said, “Thuh maan of words . . . has no words!”
which is pretty bombastic, but then that’s James Dickey.
                     I was hoping for an invitation to the reception,
           but I was only a new assistant professor
and not fit company for the deans and vice presidents
                     who bore Mr. Dickey away to the country club,

           where, I heard later, he sat drinking all evening
                     and grabbing at every skirt that went past,
           which is typical of the stories you hear about him
that are often pretty horrendous, even though
                     they got a little less so as the years went by
           and then no worse than what you’d hear about other people
and then milder still and then downright tame
                     as he began his long decline and started living more

           in the world of thought than the one of tangible reality,
                     as, for instance, when he had the dream he told a friend
           about just before he died, in which he was playing
high-school football again and scored three touchdowns
                     and ended up with the prettiest girl in the school
           and said to her, “This is the most beautiful day
of my life; too bad it’s only a dream,”
                     and she said, “Yes, but in the dream it’s real.”

           Henry James said of immortality that if you want it,
                     then that’s as good as believing in it,
           because while it’s terrible knowing you’re going to die,
maybe it’s wonderful, too, as you say goodbye
                     to the hard days, the ones that leave you so tired
           you can’t even remember your name, and you go into
the dream instead, and you’re a hero there,
                     and everybody loves you again, and in the dream it’s real.

from The House of Blue Light. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


           The cab pulls up in front of our new apartment
on the Ile St-Louis to the unmistakable sounds
                     of the rite amoureux filling the courtyard,
the woman crying, “Uh, uh, uh, ah oui, AH OUI, AH OUI!”
           as I try to count out the money to the taxi driver

           and go, “Okay, ninety, a hundred, a hundred, dammit,”
and him going, “Just start over,” and me going, “Eighty,
                      eighty-five, uh, eighty, eighty-five,”
and the driver finally waving me off impatiently
           and taking the bills out of my hands one at a time

           and holding them up, saying, “See, a hundred francs.
And ten for a tip, okay?” and me saying, “Okay!” to him
                      and then, to Barbara as we drag the suitcases
up the stairs, “Did you hear that woman having
           that huge orgasm?” and Barbara saying, “Or faking it.”

           In the months that we lived in that apartment
we were never even sure who the Ah Oui Girl was,
                      though we narrowed down the list
of candidates to this one sort of blondish person
           in her twenties who usually looked seriously

           out of sorts, figuring surely anybody that grumpy
has the ability to turn on a dime and become
                      une vraie tigresse, as I once heard a guy
on the métro describe his own girlfriend.
           But mainly we were having one terrific time in Paris:

           so many fabulous restaurants! We didn’t know
what everything was, yet we ate it anyway, all of it,
                      from aiguillette and bourride
to loup au fenouil and méchoui to potiron and sandre
           and tourteaux, grilledbroiledboiledroastedfried.

           And that was before cheese and dessert.
And opera and dance and concerts and plays—
                      we saw Racine’s Phèdre three times, in fact,
once in English and once as a one-man show and then again
           with a full cast, only in French this time.

           The best part about being in Paris, though,
was that I could spend all this time with Barbara,
                      walking along and talking or just sitting
at a little table over an armagnac or a coffee
           and saying nothing, and we went out every night,

           and sometimes, as we crossed the courtyard on our way
back in, we’d hear the Ah Oui Girl—that was
                      Barbara’s name for her, the Ah Oui Girl—
and her boyfriend going at it,
           and often in the last days of summer

           there were flashes of what some people call
heat lightning, which is just other people’s real lightning:
                      we see it, but it’s so far away
that we can’t hear the thunder, and we turn our palm up,
           but we can’t feel the rain,

           yet it’s so hot out there, so we tell ourselves
the lightning is caused by heat, i.e., by something
                      it isn’t caused by at all.
One night we came in and these huge bolts were flashing
           silently high over the ancient crenellations

           and cries of “ah oui, ah oui, AH OUI!”
were bouncing off the courtyard walls;
                      we’d had maybe a little too much
to drink, and as we headed toward our staircase,
           Barbara said, “They’re going at it again!”

           just a little too loudly, and they stopped for a moment,
but by the time we got upstairs,
                      they’d started afresh, and we opened the windows
and listened to them for a while—
           listened to her, I mean—and then made love ourselves.

           Quietly, though. I would have been embarrassed
for either of us to make noise like the Ah Oui Girl,
                      though I envied her enthusiasm
and wished I could relax and just let myself go more
           and not be so, uh, obsessive about everything.

           I wanted to be more like her, even though
I didn’t know who she was—I mean, I knew who she was
                      when I could hear her, but only then.
Once Barbara suggested that since we’d never identified her
conclusively, maybe she didn’t exist,

           that maybe her boyfriend was an Ah Oui Guy,
a countertenor who did her voice so that everyone
                      would think he was a great lover, a kind of fourth-
arrondissement Norman Bates with sex on his mind,
           not stabbing Janet Leigh to death.

           Another reason I was glad to be in Paris
was because at last I was able to read as much
                      as I wanted to, and Barbara, too,
and since I was intensely interested in a woman
           both bookish and beautiful and saw reading

           as one more connection to her, in fact, saw it
as indispensable to love, I wondered if the Ah Oui Girl
                      was bookish as well or if she and her boyfriend
went at it with sheer animal passion, if theirs was just
           pure screaming brainless hormonal wall-socket sex,

           and one chilly night just before we leave I take a walk
and come in to the sounds of the Ah Oui Girl having
                      her usual carefree good time, and Barbara says,
“Did you hear the Ah Oui Girl and her boyfriend?”
           and as I get in bed I say, “I heard the Ah Oui Girl,”

           and the next thing I know, the sun is coming up
and I’m going out to get the mail, and when I turn around,
                      I bump into somebody and say “Pardon,”
and it’s the Ah Oui Girl, and I say, “Bonjour, mademoiselle,”
           and she scowls, and I think, Um, maybe that’s not her.

from The House of Blue Light. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. A Johns Hopkins Ph.D., he is the recipient of five Florida State teaching awards.