The Very Stuff

by Stephen Beal

The titles of these poems are numbers that identify shades of cotton embroidery floss manufactured by Dollfus, Mieg Company (DMC), Paris France.


Okay, all right, I confess:
I would dress as a woman to wear this red.
I would put it all on, wig and makeup and padding,
lingerie and nylons and three-inch heels,
just to enter a room in this red.
And knock them dead.

I tell you, this color smacks of sacrifice,
all the way back to entrails in the Roman sun,
and all the way forward to the film "Ménage"
in which Gerard Depardieu ends up in drag, for love:
for love of the color, this bright ruby red,
and for love of all the men undone when I stroll in,
a gardenia in my ash-blonde hair,
a cigarette in a holder in my gloved hand,
a smile of triumph on my glossy lips
because I have succeeded in wearing more of this red than
   any man is ever allowed to wear red, red all the way
   from my shoulders to my knees,
and because I am splendid in this splendid rig.

Oh yes, they will all cluster round me,
offering to light my cigarette, offering to smoke my cigarette,
   offering to transport the heavy holder to my lips,
offering to fetch me a daiquiri, a diamond bracelet, a fortune in
   securities, the Empire State Building in my name,
these solicitous swains played by Clark Gable and
   William Holden and Laurence Olivier,
these hesitant shyguys played by Humphrey Bogart and
   Gary Cooper and Harpo Marx (who regards me like a
   transfixed sheep),
these Roman emperors played by Claude Rains and
   Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Louis Calhern,
each one willing to go the limit to accompany me through life,
each one representing a match made in heaven which,
by the end of the evening, I am forced to decline --

having fallen in love myself with Marlene Dietrich --
whose long red nails are longer and redder than mine,
whose glossy red lips are glossier and redder than mine,
whose will to succeed will not be quenched, not for love,
not for lust, not for the gardenia from my hair,
Dietrich in her railroad flat the next evening calling in
   the 1950's cops to arrest me for a deviant,
then swinging out the door in my red dress! to cook up crimes
   with Richard Widmark in a nightclub where the ceiling is low and
   the lights are dim and Dietrich, still in my red dress!,
   gets up to sing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" while
   back at the precinct house I am trying to explain to
   Sergeants Murphy and O'Brien what love for a color
   can do to a guy.

WHEREUPON, it being the night of the Policeman's Ball, and
   Murphy and O'Brien being dateless,
we speed to Lowdown Lou's where the cops arrest
   Dietrich and Widmark for theft of my red dress,
   after which I wear it to the ball and dance all night with
   Pat and Mike, Pat's gardenia in my hair, Mike's gardenia
   on my wrist, and on my legs stockings I have stripped
   from Dietrich, black Schiaparellis with a clock on each
   calf in the shape of a dagger, and on my bosom a diamond
   Cupid's arrow that Widmark stole from Tiffany.

Oh yes, this red turns any man into a femme fatale, and any
   woman, too,
so Watch Out, World:
498 is the red that can make
an utter fool of you.


I have to admit I'm suspicious of this color.
Wary, even though I've come to use it a lot.
For one thing, if my daughter were going to the prom,
I would not select this fuchsia for her gown.
On the other hand, she might.

I mean, here we are, the kind of folks
who button up the house by ten,
having guaranteed
   that the dog has been walked
   that the cat has come in
   that the African violets have been watered
   that the basement lights are off.
And all the while we are doing our duty,
tucking in the little ones and saying our prayers,
3607 is out at the roadhouse
dancing the Monkey with a man named Earl!

What do you do with a color like this?
Lock her up?
Take away her ankle bracelet?
Make her enroll in data-entry?
No, you old stuffed shirt, just let her be,
soaring on her wings of neon
to the lipstick chorus line.

©1996 by Stephen Beal

Stephen Beal was born and for the most part raised in Evanston, Illinois. During World War II he lived with his family in Pittsburgh, a city that serves as the setting for many of his poems. A 1960 graduate of Williams College who did graduate work at Oxford, Beal is the author of five nonfiction books. His needlepoint canvases have been exhibited around the world and figure in many private collections.

"3607" and "498" are reprinted with permission from The Very Stuff: Poems on color, thread, and the habits of women, published by Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado.

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