When the student is ready, the teacher will appear

in the form of a banister
in an old house you have only two months to make into
a home. You will sand down each spindle to painful
nakedness, sanding off so much skin from your own hands
that all week the nerves tickle into a panic
every time you touch your clothes.

Then there is the primer,
caustic scent you'll be reading in your sleep
long after the woodwork's been coated, sealed in.
The spindles each shaped like
androgynous women, hips flaring out until binding
their impulse to excess back in, like bottles
inside which a genie might hide.

Rubbing these bottles, already you knew
that nothing so great as a genie would appear,
though the wish got you through the first spindle
or two. The teacher's appearance
is flatter than that: a stray carpet nail on the sixth step
the clawtooth can't pull, one of these for every dozen
that come out as easy as rotted-through molars.

And then there's your partner in all of this, off
in another room fitting a new chandelier.
The Shop-Vac's an elephant sucking up sawdust,
screws, bits of your skin, so now you can't hear him
coaxing the fixtures, the way he coaxed you
into being here, with him, and learning
these lessons all over again.


Ellen McGrath Smith