Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring Break and Story Corps: Coming Attraction!


It's wild to remember that this -- or something like it -- was my everyday experience twenty-five years ago. Just writing that makes me feel so old. How can this be? I don't even have grey hair! At the Peace Corps and Africa conference this weekend, I am bound to be confronted by old friends as well as a few former demons. My time in Niger ended with a bicycle accident --- for medical reasons I was flown out of Niger just shy of my two year commitment.

However, this weekend I am focused on remembering the positive aspects of my two years teaching, traveling,  and learning about life in a way I never could if I had stayed home. The poem below is what (I think) I will be reading this Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, WI. Ironically, this week is also my spring break. The poem explores the multiple meanings behind an evening in Agadez, Niger that I shared with two other Volunteers and three Fulani Wodaabe men.

Spring Break

          Republic of Niger

It's a universal business that's brought them here,
into the night outside Agadez, into the ragged trimmings of light.

Past lean-tos of plaited mats, past fires that flare in an unfamiliar code
we follow these Wodaabe men — excited, raw nerved, enthralled.

What do they make of les Mademoiselles Américaine folded in dresses
as formless as millet sacks, skin the color of crusted goat cheese?

Do they mock Belinda's rosary of facts on Nigerien venereal disease,
laugh at Beverly's blue inked notes: A Chat with Nomadic Chiefs?

Lives away from the cas de passage, from the signposts and streets
of a set geography, we've been invited for tea and mangoes —

to breathe in the wood smoke that will linger on our clothes,
mix with the unmistakable sweet hum of the body.

Along the bench one of us, one of them, our heads bent back
to hoard the sky as the stars throw themselves into arcs

of persistent flight. Dari stretches his elegant limbs
and I discover fingertips on my thigh, an arm nestled against my ribs.

The men know the art of insinuation, know how to penetrate a woman
with their eyes, hold her beyond the palm of conversation,

no deception save desire. My thumbs hook into the edge of my sleeves,
but I'm just along for the view —  for the desert scent of truck exhaust and jasmine,

hibiscus with a tinge of extremity. Il n'y as pas d'etoiles chez vous? Dari asks
lifting his lashes to a bottle of Visine. His lipstick glistening, gold make-up

marking the rise of high boned cheeks.  Conversation fades
and I admire my date's slim hips, his winged shoulders,

poised, inviting. But too much memory offends. To him this is nothing new,
only a chance to see if it's true that Peace Corps girls will do for you presque tout.

Their offer it seems almost impolite to refuse, nous sommes trois et  trois,
but that's what I and Belinda and Beverly choose — we say no to pleasure,

to pairing off behind sand dunes. Say no to foreign hand-
stitched robes, to anything we wouldn't know how to undo.

From The Cartographer's Tongue, Poems of the World, White Pine Press, NY


The other very cool part of the weekend is that I will be joining Niger RPCV Jim Delehanty in a Story Corps Booth on Friday morning. Jim and I will meet for the first time since 1985 to interview each other about our Peace Corps experiences. How cool is that? I get to be part of history in a concrete way. The pressure is on to remember something profound from that time --- to remember specific students, or friends or just the smell of the air -- the different tastes. How everything was a mystery -- and still is. 


Here is more about Story Corps:



Our mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.  Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our broadcasts on public radio and the web.   Check it out!

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful poem, Susan; and how great that you're participating in Story Corps.

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  2. Very cool. Congrats. Hope we get to hear it soon.

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  3. Loved this - I have many ex-Peace Corps friends. So wonderful how the connections are maintained over years and years. Thanks for sharing, Nic

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