Poem of the Week | July 06, 2020

This week’s poem of the week is the 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning “The Lucie Odes,” by Heather Treseler.

The Lucie Odes        

For Lucie Nell Beaudet (1960-2018)                                                

I’d known you six years before you told me
how your first husband pimped you out—
used the cash to buy a fried-chicken franchise


along a rural highway in Alabama. How you
slept under the counter where you cashiered
wings and thighs. How you rinsed, out back,


and spread baby powder across a bath towel
to soak up the tumid August sweat, keep off
skittering roaches. For the rest of your life


you had nothing to do with chicken. Mixed,
in memory, with the smell of strange men’s
semen. How you dreaded what came despite


rough-shod precaution. How you stole from
the till, dollar at a time, until you had enough
for a bus to the clinic. I picture you there alone,


benumbed, draped and gauzed in a steel theater,
vowing never to seek what had been siphoned.
How, after, he hunted you with a shotgun


not to get you back but to put the narrow shape
of you under his dirty boot, under carmine soil.
He called you darling pay-dirt, his working girl,


and promised broken knees; a bullet in each
palm; a tongue ribboned; and your eyes gored—
in primitive backwoods punishment and burial.


Twenty-seven bucks got you as far as St. Louis,
once the gambol of young Thomas Stearns Eliot,
an indoor creature, his double hernia delicately


trussed as he daydreamed his mahogany future
staring into the glass of Prufrock’s Furniture,
plotting revenge against the failure of his flesh.


You heard, on the radio, that Eliot was the great
poet from St. Louis, so you bought his Quartets,
recited the liturgical lines as you washed floors


nightly at the medical school. There, you met
Dr. Fischer, famed neuroanatomist, fugitive
of Kristallnacht, who insisted on cleaning his


own lab to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. He saw
your mop and asked your name. Within a week,
you’d offered to work for free if he would train


you in pathology, and to his surprise you loved
perfusing tissue, fixing slides, teasing disease
into blooms of legible color. You did not flinch


at gutted cadavers or dank shit of euthanized
chimps. Neither of you spoke of a past, of men
mechanized in murder who killed off a sister,


or the dark knives in a drunk mother’s slurry
kitchen. Both of you, schooled in subterfuge,
took temporary refuge in never looking back.


Author’s Note

I wrote “The Lucie Odes” in the ten months following the death of a woman I loved. I took, as models, poems by Adrienne Rich, Frank Bidart, Michael S. Harper, and Dana Levin, who, in their unflinching intimacy, also attend to the person as a historical subject, as what Charles Olson termed a “complex of occasions.” When I met Lucie Beaudet at Washington University in 2007, she had survived almost unspeakable violence to become a respected professional, an electron microscopist employed by the medical school. She had received her training from the late Dr. Vernon Fischer of St. Louis University, himself a childhood survivor of the Shoah, who, childless, regarded Lucie as his daughter. 

What Lucie had experienced of rural poverty and extreme violence she transmuted into a life lived with independence, clarity, and intellectual hunger. She buttressed her knowledge of the world with Dante and Melville, evolutionary biology and political history. While there is no way to sing a beloved back into being, to summon presence from absence or transcendence from nonbelief, the poem was a way to continue a conversation that spanned a decade and to confirm her life as she had departed from it: clear-sighted and alone.