The Perfect Curtsy

by Alice Owens Johnson

At the cotillion they wait, the gloved whispering gallery,
hands poised as the first is let out of the gate.

She’s been trained to kneel,
rustling silk attention to this courtly descent.

Now she’s a white palace of nerves.
So much depends on this crumpling gesture.

What if blooms,
diverts her mind to a time when

she saw her feet turn green
in a shoe store X-ray machine.

Her bones luminous
with youth and dimestore hope.

Clicking spotlights glare
a burning moon on the floor.

Under the dome
she’s harnessed in light.

Knees crack, ankles wobble.
In three counts, descent’s begun

followed by ascension.
Hollow applause.

In 1601 Pocohantas made such a
curtsy to the Queen.

But first she cart-wheeled nude,
for the benefit of the British army.

Alice Owens Johnson grew up in New Orleans and has lived in France, England, Italy, and Mexico. Her work has been published in the following anthologies: O. Henry Collection of Short Stories, I Thought My Father Was God, Paul Auster, ed., and Alice Redux: Stories about Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll. “Saturday’s Child” won first prize and was published by the literary magazine, The Crucible. Alice won first prize in the Tennessee Writers’ Alliance for her short story “A Soft Tread,” published in the online magazine Maypop. Her work has also appeared in The Lyricist, Pembroke Magazine and The Guilford Review. Most recently she received Honorable Mention and publication in Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets.

About The Perfect Curtsy—When someone asks me where I am from, I always say New Orleans although I’ve lived in many wonderful and exotic places. Growing up in that city, for a young girl, meant having something called “savoir faire.” To me that translated into where to stow my elbow-length leather gloves at a Mardi Gras ball. But to my parents it meant a curtsy during “the debutante season.” I took lessons for this event; each instruction left me feeling like I’d visited a foot binder. As “the night” came closer, I became more paralyzed with the fear of falling under a bright white spot light in front of hundreds of people. The poem, “The Perfect Curtsy,” explores the crazy thoughts I had before, during and after this grueling event. This poem is part of a poetry collection recently completed about my life in New Orleans entitled The Weight of Lace. I have also completed a novel about growing up in New Orleans in the 50’s entitled Life Below Sea Level.