March 5, 2017

Three Poems by Jan Ball: "Play Street for the Needy," "Suspended for Smoking," and "Upstate New York Defined"

Jan Ball started seriously writing poetry and submitting it for publication in 1998.
Since then, she's had 220 poems accepted or published in the U.S., Canada,
India and England. Her poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Calyx, Connecticut Review, Main Street Rag, Nimrod, Phoebe and many other journals. She has two chapbooks, Accompanying
Spouse (2011) and Chapter of Faults (2014),  published by Finishing Line Press and available on Amazon. She is a member of The Poetry Club of Chicago. She is a former Franciscan nun and is married with two children.

Play Street for the Needy

That late sixties summer in New Haven,
a few months after I left the convent
when 25,000 other nuns left, too (I later
learned), three of us took our first flight
to Connecticut: Judy, formerly Sister
John Ann, Sara, a second grade teacher
at my last convent appointment, and me,
my hair grown out, in a beehive, an external
manifestation in lacquer and swirls
of my mind after seven years as a nun.

Tall Larry set up a volleyball net on the closed-
off street we were hired to pied-piper-attract
the neighborhood children to, draw them away
from more sinister past-times. When not playing
volleyball, we rested on the local prostitute’s
steps as men discreetly lined up to the left
of us on pay-day mornings. I had to apologize
to her when I slapped her son because he
repeatedly kicked my leg during rounds
of ring around the rosie.

Jerry, the handsome episcopal seminarian
from Yale Divinity School where we’d been
invited for discussion groups by the assistant
pastor, Tom, who was doing a P.h.D. there
and lived upstairs (he and his wife generously
cooked for us a few times), tried to seduce one
of us (it turned out he would have preferred
Sara) by bringing us a pineapple, behavior
alien to our association with Catholic priests ,
and the Southern Black man I slow-danced
with at a church social drove past the parish
house where we were staying over and over
again in an old, gray Chevy with his friends
until we got Tom to ask that he stop hooting,
“Hey, babe, woo-woo!”

A portly Indian exchange teacher with
a receding hairline, also from Yale Divinity,
asked me to a curry dinner in his apartment.
I wore my new green corduroy suit that I
would later wear for passport photos. He
put his arm around me on the couch until I
started reminiscing about the convent then
he compulsively pulled at the buttons and
button-holes on his tweed jacket and changed
to psychologist mode. We ate the delicious
cauliflower curry in coconut gravy he’d
prepared, chatting for hours with strange
Indian music in the background. I had
a good time.

Meanwhile, little Sherilee, on the play street,
split her forearm on a sharp stone when she
fell on the asphalt playing red rover so we
wrapped her arm in a towel and rushed her
to the ER of the local hospital in our supervisor,
Wayne’s car, and waited there until twilight
when interns finally stitched the gash. We
brought her to her house across from
the prostitute’s where many people were
gathered for a prayer meeting, but we were
not invited in after we tapped on the screen
door even though Wayne was ethnically

Judy and I finally realized that blonde Sara
was connecting with Wayne when we heard
about them making out at a movie we were all
supposed to be supervising. After the adolescents
at the movie booed them, Sara decided she’d lost
respect so said she’d have to leave the street
supervision work early (you could change your
flights easier then), but before she left, Sara
convinced Judy and me to steal something
from the local A & P. Sara stole a pack of Kents;
Judy stole a banana and I stole a bottle of ketchup,
hiding it in my woven straw purse like so much
I hid then but remember now.

Suspended for Smoking

Sister Anselma smells the Salem
Menthol on her breath as soon as
she hands the room pass back so
winces like she’s stepped in “dog
dirt” (as good Catholic girls used to
call it) then tells her as sternly as
a high school basketball referee,
“Take this note and all your books
to Sister Beatrix’s office immediately.”

At the office, it’s not as bad as she
thought it would be: she waits to see
the principal, (you know how to spell
principal because the principal is your
pal as distinct from principle which
is the other one like principle on
money that is lent, l-e at the end) and
in this case it’s true because Sr. Beatrix
only says, “Diane, we suspended Mark
O’Brien last week for smoking so I’ll
have to suspend you, too. Just go home
for the remaining twenty minutes
of the school day and you can walk
over to the convent with your parents
to see me at 5:00, then return to classes

As soon as her father comes home
from work at four o’clock as regularly
as the St. Benedict church bells, she
approaches him tearfully while he is
in his closet changing out of his red
plaid work shirt. It is his birthday so
Grandma and Aunt Barb are bringing
his favorite lemon meringue pie to have
after dinner, but he says calmly, “We
can fit this in,” without the usual sarcasm
that stings like the stripped compound
catalpa tree stems our friends used to
whip each other with as children.
On the other hand, Mother, ordinarily
as comforting as a second blanket on
a cold winter night, screeches like
her pet parakeet, Perry (after Perry
Como), “How could you shame
our family like this, especially on
your father’s birthday!” She says:
“I don’t know,” and she never will.

Upstate New York Defined

Tonight our didactic waiter in Rosario’s
tells us that Rochester is not Upstate New
York but what is upstate if not snow
when our winters there could only have
been more brutal in the Arctic-the snow
accumulating against the garage doors
like fused stalagmites and the adolescents
living with us--our daughter and her red--
haired friend, who we took in when she
told us that her step-father beat her with
a clothes hanger (our daughter had already
called social services), both of the girls
shoveling snow away from the garage
doors with adolescent vigor so we could
hopefully get the Audi out to go to Wegmans
for a prepared chicken as the snow relentlessly
piled half-way up the upstairs windows
like inverted shades-obliterating the pool
house, Karen and Bethany laughing
as joyously as kookaburras, exhilarated
as they shifted shovelfuls of snow into
the red radio flyer wagon then dumped
on the other side of the driveway.

Meanwhile, I holed up in the living room
submerged in Proust in front of the glowing
vermont wood stove never able to understand
the dynamic interactions: the hormone
shoveled snow, the girl we took in who put
her jeans in the drier so they’d be skin tight,
then had to recline on the bed to zip them,
and our daughter who laughed through
all the storms.

© Jan Ball

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