Rita Dove

The Great Palace of Versailles

Nothing nastier than a white person!
She mutters as she irons alterations
in the backroom of Charlotte’s Dress Shoppe.   
The steam rising from a cranberry wool   
comes alive with perspiration
and stale Evening of Paris.
Swamp she born from, swamp
she swallow, swamp she got to sink again.

The iron shoves gently
into a gusset, waits until
the puckers bloom away. Beyond   
the curtain, the white girls are all
wearing shoulder pads to make their faces   
delicate. That laugh would be Autumn,   
tossing her hair in imitation of Bacall.

Beulah had read in the library
how French ladies at court would tuck   
their fans in a sleeve
and walk in the gardens for air. Swaying   
among lilies, lifting shy layers of silk,   
they dropped excrement as daintily   
as handkerchieves. Against all rules

she had saved the lining from a botched coat   
to face last year’s gray skirt. She knows   
whenever she lifts a knee
she flashes crimson. That seems legitimate;   
but in the book she had read
how the cavaliere amused themselves
wearing powder and perfume and spraying
yellow borders knee-high on the stucco   
of the Orangerie.

A hanger clatters
in the front of the shoppe.
Beulah remembers how
even Autumn could lean into a settee
with her ankles crossed, sighing
I need a man who’ll protect me
while smoking her cigarette down to the very end.