The Inviolate

Carolyn, New Orleans
seems so far away…tonight 

the valley’s lights
keep a planetary distance…there is 

only the shallow
comfort of gestures left 

like dropping
more ice in the gin knowing, as it melts, 

that I will fail
to make you feel I understand: how 

quickly that city
can collapse; how, as you walk 

on the waterfront,
the buildings fall into piles 

of plywood left
by workmen—hiding black water; 

and how the beam
scanning them is not a lighthouse’s  

but a cop’s flashlight
scattering shadows. It is in this split 

second that you are
or are not saved. What’s strange is the indifference

I felt walking back through
the French Quarter, thinking of nothing, nothing 

but the narrow streets
and how the sky was oil-colored like a bay 

where cigarette butts float
in their dense constellations 

Nothing I saw
that night could be deciphered, although 

I knew the balconies’
black, twisted scripts must say something 

about death—after all,
there were the flowers. And I remember 

how a whore 
behind the flowers seemed to wave, which made no sense 

since we were neither
meeting nor leaving. I think her dark 

arm moved like a branch—
simply because she was so uncertain. 

If there are times
we can take comfort in denial, this was one: 

I heard my steps
continue… And if there are times 

a woman has no defense
but her own mind, you must have 

denied, too,
for a while, what your body couldn’t. 

Even though long after
the body healed, your mind would still remember 

Waking covered
by his shadow, which was like not waking 

at all. And I know,
sometimes, in this total terror 

the mind is free
to imagine itself calmly above violence, 

the way the raw
light of dawn hovered over you hours later. 

It wasn’t being draped
over the stranger’s lap on the chipped steps 

of a row house
you remember, or the blue towels pressed 

to your wounds,
but the others quickly glancing away 

as if you were
a truer piéta. You must have known, 

then, death
is just like women watching from the windows 

before turning
away. There’s so little, finally, to say 

about these events
which are and are not the same, except I’m afraid 

of what you saw:
that compassion and words do not matter— 

that what lasts
beyond them is the reality of workmen leaving 

with black lunch boxes
at 5 am, as wives watch a few minutes 

from the windows—
and that all I can do is watch lights rest 

in the valley, as if 
they had crossed some great distance, and yet 

failed—like so many
planets, after burning through layers 

of mystery, arriving
nearer us, but pale. Without orbit. Smaller 

than we’d expected
as if, in the longer struggle of becoming accessible 

to us, they were stilled. 


Ann Snodgrass recieved degrees from the University of Iowa (B.A.), Johns Hopkins University (M.A.), and University of Utah (Ph.D.). She has taught literature, writing, and women’s studies courses at several universities both here and abroad. Her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in dozens of journals, including: PARIS REVIEW; PARTISIAN REVIEW; NEW REPUBLIC; APR; POETRY; HARVARD REVIEW; NEW LETTERS; GRAND STREET & TRIQUARTERLY. She’s published two volumes of poetry (Portal & Fields Across Which No Birds Fly); a chapbook (NO DESCRIPTION OF THE WORLD); two volumes of translation from the Italian (The Hippopotamus & Three Stations); and a collection of critical essays (Knowing Noise). She’s received awards from the Academy of American Poets; Center for Book Arts; Chester H. Jones Foundation; the Fulbright Foundation; and the PEN American Center for her work.