James Kimbrell’s poems have appeared in anthologies including the Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, his most recent collection is Smote (Sarabande Books). He teaches in the English Department at Florida State University.
“It doesn’t matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about
transparency, simplicity and making an earnest attempt.”
M.B., Baryshnikov at Work, 1978.
Because he finally appeared during my shift
and I could see him beyond my prep window
and the cold display and the cash register
sitting at the four-top with Jessica Lange
and their daughter, Alexsandra, I made an earnest
attempt to slice the sunflower wheat bread
with disinterested grace, to keep the crust
unbroken before layering the smoked meat
with lettuce, mayo, avocado, and three strips
of applewood bacon, then cutting
the whole into halves, perfect tooth-picked
gourmet doppelgangers of abundance and,
one hoped, restraint. Fingers hooked in my
apron collar, I watched as this table of three
who represented a ridiculously large share
of Earth’s talent and beauty were served
their sandwiches, or as I liked to think of them,
their edible sculptures. I did not walk out
to the forbidden gleaming customer area
to introduce myself, a fan, an aspiring poet,
a dish-washer and slicer of serious bread.
I was not the Baryshnikov of poetry.
I was not even the Baryshnikov of sandwiches.
And a family deserves to eat in peace, and I
deserved to watch them, or I didn’t, but watched
anyway, though not ostentatiously. It wasn’t
easy to slice a fresh round of focaccia
when I wanted to set forth in my hair-net
and scream “Michail! Michail! I’m so happy
you got free from nasty old Russia where a 5’5” male
could never dance the lead!” In my salty halo,
in my cloud of bread steam, I recalled
childhood visions of an airborne jeté
over pool halls and pine-tops, the water tower
a train set figurine in the air beneath me.
Of course, like most boys in Mississippi
I was herded decidedly away from ballet
toward football, hunting. I wonder, how many
poets are would-be dancers? Name one
good poem that doesn’t long for escape.
After they finished, napkins on plates,
Barynshnikov’s crumbs were everyday crumbs.
Nor was the silverware infected with
greatness. Such are the mysteries of genius
and mastication. The oven bell rang, as did
the order bell and the dish bell, all the bells
that said the meal is ready, and the cake. Still,
with damp cloth and dish bucket, I volunteered
and took my time clearing their table.