The Secret of Backs
For the past two years, I’ve gone twice a week to the local hospital’s “Center for Rehabilitation and Wellness” pool for a water aerobics class. I’m starting my third year, and have seen a lot of different women come and go. Yes, they’re mostly women, mostly menopausal or older, mostly plumper than they’d probably like, mostly gorgeous when they abandon their self-consciousness, forget their chronic pains in the buoyancy of the water, and move in ways they haven’t thought about in years—skipping, hopscotch, cross-country skiing.
Every once in a while, I see one of them fully dressed, walking a half-filled cart down the aisle at Kroger or carrying a loaded tray past my table at Panera. I don’t always recognize them at first, but sometimes, as they pass, I look back and remember where I’ve seen them.
I was re-reading a book of poems by Dorianne Laux that I’d first read in 2011 because I recently found a used copy, and this one stood out to me, on re-reading:
The Secret of Backs
Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.
The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim seams worried to white threads.
And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.
And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.
And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,
broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.
And the spiral near the top of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy—as if the first breach
swirled each filament away from that startled center.
Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.
And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.
Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.
I know that I should apply what I think about the appearance of the other menopausal women in the class to myself, but it’s not easy. I like this poem because it suggests that the one thing anyone can do is to turn her back and keep skipping or hop-scotching, not to get ahead, but to be able to stay in the same place for longer.