The Call

by R.C. James
Third Place, September 2013
Judged by Robert Sward

In a quiet reversal
the beautiful Chinese primary teacher
asked me for my phone number
after I’d finished a half hour of
visiting native English speaker class
and was packing up to leave.

I immediately began anticipating her call;
by evening we’d married
and were expecting twins,
one American and one Chinese.
I was sure she’d call within the week,
that we’d stroll through town
her hand edging toward mine
and to end up firmly clasping confidence.

Then, our first meal together
in someplace of her choice,
where Chinese was more Chinese than Ming.
I, of course, impressed her
with my near mastery of chop sticks.
When She asked where I’d learned.
I told her Chinatown, New York City.
She asked me about the food there.
I said ‘nothing like this,’
affirming the rightness of everything,
of us, her eyes, her effect
on everything dormant in me for years
that I brought to her in a package
she was unwrapping slowly,
sensuously, without wiles,
pretense, anxiety or insistence.

She’d had the paper off
and the box unsealed
with her first request for my number
and now my soul was looking
for some protective wrapping
as it had not been this exposed
since the first pink sweater,
leaning elm tree days
of my 12 year old romantic emergence
with the blond haired, soft-voiced girl
who had captured me.
This was countries
and many yearnings away
from those blushing, sweaty
hand-holding days
of Saturday matinee
Doublemint aroma’d kisses,
Elvis’s first romp through
pubescent girls’ swooning psyches
and YMCA dance nervousness.

This, on the other side of the world,
was another beginning, another start.
As we left the restaurant
she asked me if I liked China
and I could only say
‘China contains something
I am beginning to love.’
She asked what that something was,
and I felt as unable to answer
as I had been unable to seize
anything like the moment
back there under the elm tree.

I said I’d found it
but there was a long way
between finding something
and calling it your own.
She said, ‘I know that feeling,
I’m still looking for what might be mine,
but there is one thing I’m sure of,
I think we’re both searching
in the right place.’
‘You mean China?’ I asked.
She answered with four fingers
to her heart.

She hasn’t called;
it’s been weeks.

Admirable working with narrative, though I believe THE CALL could use some judicious editing. I like the poem, but can't help thinking, "less is more, less is more!" The poem tries to cover too much ground. Still, I found myself engaged in the "story" and the author's self-deprecating, tongue in cheek humor is welcome.

For all its length (a page and a half, single spaced!) I don't feel we get very much sense of the object of the poet's fantasy. There's much more info about the author and his fantasy romances, romantic reminiscences... that is, too much about what's gone before, and not enough about what's going on in the present moment. Too much of the poet's inner "meanderings" and not enough about the front and center object of his affection, the "beautiful Chinese primary teacher."

If the poet is so struck by this woman, why not make more of an effort to describe her, to "evoke" a sense of her beauty and her personality? What is it that makes the teacher so beautiful that he fantasizes about her in this way?

Again, I like the poem, don't get me wrong, but I respect and take the author seriously enough to say 1) I'm drawn into the piece by the offhandedness of the narrative and the jaunty humor; 2) my primary reservation is that the poet's narcissism and sustained focus on himself, works to the detriment of the matter at hand, i.e., the Chinese teacher who has excited his romantic interest; and, 3) apart from being an engaging anecdote it falls short of delivering what, for this reader, is the narrative promise.

The last two lines, "She hasn't called; / it's been weeks." could be cut without harm to the poem. --Robert Sward