Carolyn Benson

Gerwin's poetry appears in journals including Paterson
Literary Review, Lips, Calyx, The American Voice in
Poetry: The Legacy of Williams, Whitman
, and Ginsberg,
U.S. 1 Worksheets, Caduceus
, and online in Cutthroat,
and yourdailypoem.com. Her memoir Sugar and Sand
earned finalist designation for the 2010 Paterson
Poetry Prize. She earned 2008, 2009, and 2010 Allen
Ginsberg Poetry Awards honorable mentions. She
spent her freshman year (1957-58) at Smith College
and received her A.B. from Goucher College and an M.A.
from NYU's Gallatin School thirty-five years later. She
lives in Morristown, NJ, with her husband Dr. Kenneth
Gerwin. They are parents of two daughters and
grandparents of three boys and a girl.


 

 

 

The Lost Friend

I saw her photo
in The New York Times,
my freshman friend from Smith,
raven-haired Montreal girl who
taught me to sing O Canada
as we walked to class
along Paradise Pond,
the crew team chants
a rhythmic counterpoint.

She'd softened my woe at Smith,
my terror when I felt my housemother
reject me from the first handshake,
was it because I hadn't gone
to boarding school?
Because I was a girl from Paterson,
a girl whose father hauled furniture
to feed his family, to educate me?
A girl who'd never donned virgin white
to make her debut on the arms of a
Harvard man at The Plaza?
A homesick girl.

This leggy Canadian wanted out as well,
that's what she shared in our long-ago life,
but her father prevailed, don't be a quitter,
he told her, finish what you start.
And she did.

And I didn't.
From the moment I arrived at that bucolic
Berkshire sanctuary, where compulsory
chapel allowed coughing sisters to share
the Asian flu as Sputnik orbited overhead,
sadness captured my core.

Maybe because my dorm,
overlooking the pond—where
a classmate chose Paradise,
hanging herself from one of
New England's colonial trees—
was the only campus house
with no showers, instead offering
ancient foot-claw bathtubs where
rinsing hair under arching spigots
mapped daily head bumps.

Maybe I was ill prepared
for academic rigor,
one pole-thin professor,
she of the itchy wool stockings,
telling me you'll never be able to write,
using her red pen to cross out
every page in my exam blue book.
Could have been the humiliation
of standing stark naked while
gym teachers snapped my
posture picture, then prescribed
a semester of Basic Motor Skills
—step whirl together step whirl together—
to help me stand erect.

When the dorm cook reported me,
told the housemother that I lied
about my Thanksgiving destination
when she saw me hug my friend
as her train left for the north while mine
headed south to home, I decided to leave
Smith at the end of the year, to take
my improved posture and an
extra fifteen pounds elsewhere.

My beautiful friend with the perfect
oval face stayed to finish what she started
and we lost touch, though I spotted her
once when we were in our twenties
at Saks Fifth, I in Manhattan dress-up,
she in baggy beatnik black, her face
powdered a death white, raccoon-lined
eyes searing me, I beaming elation
at finding her after a dozen years,
she puzzled by my elation.

My freshman friend from Smith,
my buttress in the gloom of youth,
died in May, the same week I gained
another year, her obituary listing a host
of those who loved her and a lifetime
of coaxing energy into wilting flowers and
stray animals, her face frozen in a photo
that could have been taken freshman year
when we bleated O Canada as we walked
along the grassy shore of Paradise Pond
for all the girls to hear.




 

Carolyn Benson