Jeanne Wagner

Elegy for a Winding Staircase

My Soul. I summon to the ancient winding stair...
                        — William Butler Yeats

His manic phase began
the day he bought the Escher lithograph,
the one with the drunken perspective, with ghost-like figures
body-wrapped in muslin, mounting stairways right side up
and upside down,
families balancing sideways on balconies,
as if each world
comes with a gyroscope of its own.

He said the day he bought the picture
was the happiest day of his life,
the gallery owner sleekly androgynous,
with swept-back hair and an air-hostess smile.
He felt he was flying—or at least buying a ticket to fly,
Samarkand or the Isles of Scilly,
but it was Union Street, he was in his mid-forties
and lately giving way to too much bliss;

to a tendency to find a latent stairway
in every room,
to caress a shoulder to touch its vestigial wing.
He told me he grew up in a house with a spectacular staircase,
like a movie set of a Tudor mansion,
the balcony so wide troubadours could have played
for them while they dined.

As a child, he’d sit on that balcony,
gazing up at the ceiling,
at the bare beams overhead, the air warm and sweet
as a wood stove,
his body expanding like a loaf beginning to rise.

I only saw the lithograph once; it looked small
and flat in his hands.
When rotated, everything seemed right side up for a second.
“Like life,” he said.

Later that year the euphoria began to fade.
Season of the Fall, we called it.
The summer he invited all his friends to the cottage,
its wooden staircase
winding down to the riverbank, where he fell,
if not gracefully, then with a certain élan—
as if his body were playing a drunken
arpeggio on the stairs.

His face looking almost joyous, then,
like the first night we met,
when he asked me to run with him
so we crossed the street to the park, running all out,
the way children do, dissolving
into their own motion,
his dress pants flaring around his ankles,
my sandals held in one hand,
the other raising my skirt above my knees.

We ran as if we’d been loosened, then lifted,
as if our bodies could climb on air.
We only stopped when we came to the edge of the grass,
where there were no stairs—
or there were, and we didn’t see them.

Epistemology of the Fall

When I was a child my father talked to me about Life,
like the Devil some might say,
when he tempted Eve with knowledge of good and evil,
so by the time I was twelve I knew
the gist of Freud,
knew about the Marquis de Sade
about voyeurism and castrati, hermaphrodites
and transvestites.
Still too young to know my own desires,
I knew about dressing up,
about the brag of clothes, the fib of make-up.
The history of camouflage.
He’d go on about men who pilgrimaged to the Mardi Gras
or headlined at Finocchio’s,
how some would sing and sway and move their hips,
silk and silver lamé
unfurling from their outstretched arms
like the plumage of exotic birds
who turn their backs and flaunt their bright-ringed eyes,
beguiling as chimeras, as seeing the class butterfly,
lone specimen,
crack out of his stale pupa
and pump up his wings like a pool toy.
This was years before they called it Coming
out of the Closet,

years when I’d watch my mother
after she undressed at night, her real body emerging
from the bedroom closet,
leaving the woman she’d been behind.
The one in the starched sundress,
with tightly permed hair and pale buffed nails.
Her name meaning Gift of God.
She’d sweep out in a peach nightgown,
her long arms bare,
satin Charmeuse draped over the soft pouch
of her belly,
stretched from our births,
reminding me now of those Renaissance paintings
where you see a swollen mound
above Eve’s pudenda,
as if there’s already another inside her,
and she’s being punished for the sin
of not knowing only gods
are allowed to be more than one thing.

Jeanne Wagner’s poems have appeared in Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review, Southern Review and Shenandoah. She has four chapbooks and three full-length collections: The Zen Piano-Mover, winner of the Stevens Manuscript Prize from NFSPS Press, 2004; In the Body of Our Lives from Sixteen Rivers Press, 2011; and Everything Turns Into Something Else from Grayson Press, 2020.

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