Kate Daniels is the author of three volumes of poetry, including The Niobe Poems and Four Testimonies: Poems. Her first volume, The White Wave was awarded the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry.Her MFA is from Columbia University. Her poems have been anthologized in a number of publications and have appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Critical Quarterly, and The Southern Review. She has also edited a volume of poems by Muriel Rukeyser and co-edited a book about Robert Bly: Of Solitude and Silence. Her fourth collection of poetry, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, will appear in October from LSU Press.
It was a birthday gift from my husband who remembered,
I suspect, those luscious, toe-sucking days of our early lust.
Now, a hard decade into parenting and home ownership,
those tentacular extensions of our mutual pleasure
had surrendered their erotic glow, and grown mundane
as garden stones displaced beneath the blankets of our bed.
On the divergent altars of comfort and high fashion,
I had sacrificed their beauty in the tiny coffins
of ancient, archless sneakers and size six, four-inch
slingback heels, the ones my husband loved to watch me in,
tottering swaybacked across the restaurant floor, a little tight
from the wine, my ass compensating for the extra height
by sashaying its heart-shaped halves more heavily than usual.
Perhaps it was for him, then, hoping to revive that long neglected
garden of our early love, that I ascended a seat so elevated
it seemed a throne, on the morning of my 50th birthday,
at Womanly Illusions: A Day Spa for Modern Women. Gingerly,
I thrust my feet into the waiting hands (so warm and soft!)
of the white-garbed girl who crouched beneath me—a gesture
so unconsciously imperious I cringed inside to do it. Behind my eyes
flickered tiny images of my mother on her knees, scrubbing floors
in empty offices, evenings after work for extra pay. Whole legions
of my family crowded in behind her: some of them also on their knees
in torn jeans and dirty aprons, in the garish colors of the easy-launder
polyester uniforms of the service class. Some of them were cudgeled
by the bastards who pocketed the profits of their labors. And some
had turned to cudgelling, themselves, whipping without satisfaction
or self-understanding those they claimed to love. Yet here I was
with my sympathy for the workers, my love of Marx, my hatred
and fear of the bourgeoisie, the robber barons, the planter class,
all kings and queens, the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcoses, the Richard
Nixons and George Bushes of the world. Here I was, swooning
(not too strong a word) at the pricey ministrations directed at my feet.
Despite myself, I let go of the past and succumbed to pleasure.
I could feel my consciousness slipping. Then the gate was torn
from its hinges and the workers surged through. Suddenly,
they were lying down on the job! Stripping off their coveralls
and safety goggles, untying the leather laces of their steel-toed
safety boots, and giving up their rage in the long, slow flush
of warmth and pressure swooshing up my body from heel to head.
Then there was an internal collapsing. A long-unactivated part
of me unwound helplessly and manifested as a full-size tantric sob
inhabiting my body. Calmly, the girl gathered up my feet. Undaunted
by their ugliness, she held them tenderly as nursing infants,
lifted them to her breasts, massaging and caressing
while she looked them over. After awhile, she was somewhat less
gentle: perhaps she held them then as the sous chef charged
with murdering the baby quail hardens himself for the task ahead.
She gasped a little, horrified, I imagined, by the thick rinds of calluses,
the cracked and blackened nails, the custard-colored orbs of dead skin
she would have to overcome. I think I even heard her moan—alarmed
by the extensive renovation that lay ahead, or anguished at my sacrifice:
my desecration of the gift of soft and polished feminine feet.
Behind my closed eyes, my mother was up off her knees,
and moving back in time, becoming younger. Now
she was tottering and mincing along in cheap, post-war stilettos
on her way to labor in the typing pool. At the end of a long day,
her feet cramped and pulsing, she’d pry them off, and drop them
with a groan. My poor old dogs, she’d moan, her Liverpudlian tones
just right for the image she’d composed. Now, my old dogs
were guiltily reborn as a pair of pampered lap-dogs in a pedicurist’s palms.
The soul moves when the soul moves, the Ancients all admonished.
Just so, enlightenment comes as it will, when it will, as unembarrassed
by squalor as unmoved by glamour. Thus, when my battered feet
were plunged inside a bowl of melted paraffin, and left
to bubble there deliciously, something ratcheted into place.
The moment shaped itself into a needle, and there I hung:
impaled on the epiphany. A massive ur-sound, subterranean
and private as a fart, emerged unbidden from my throat …
All this corporeality keeps conjuring my mother. She’s back,
cuddled in the center curve of the 1950’s gold-flecked sofa
beside my father. Her nylon-stocking-ed feet are in his lap.
He’s turning up his cuffs. A well-known rule is that my father
is the only one allowed to touch my mother’s feet. We don’t
know why. I see him starting to massage them both,
uncrimping her toes, and threading his fingers in between
to excavate the sweaty, fragrant nits of hidden grime.
Now, he is kneading her swollen soles until she groans
and leans back, closing her eyes, as relaxed and somehow open
as if she’s lying there alone. Eventually, the faintly damp
and private odor of my mother’s tired feet is released into the air.
And that is where I am—mentally stranded in a perverse version
of the primal scene, starring my father’s hands on my mother’s feet,
my own feet stunned by an underwater orgasm in the foot bath’s
gurgling whirpool—when a voice plucks me from my pleasures.
“You want razor?” my pedicurist asks. She’s holding up the rasp,
displaying above a clean white towel, the two-sided shaver
with which she will trim corns and prune back calluses
in her search for the beauty I’ve abandoned.
Yes! I say to her. I want the razor! Use it to remove
all that separates me from the simple pleasures.
Shave off the rage of the workers, the fear of the victims,
The shame of the survivors. Prune back my lost eros,
and train it to survive in a small container, confined
and stunted as a bonsai tree. Mow down the scourge
of oedipal envy that still carries a bite. Wrap it up
in a white towel and take it away with the gray-tinged nits
of curling skin shaved from the calluses rimming my heels,
and just let me lie here blissfully for awhile, enjoying
my first pedicure, transported back to those glorious moments
just after birth, half a century ago, when my mother
must have held me close all morning long, marveling
at my brand new beauty, inventorying my fingers, counting
my toes, and clasping tight in both her hands the twin
unspoiled beauties of my two perfect feet.
Excerpted from A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, coming in October from LSU Press: Southern Messenger Series. Copyright (c) 2010 by Kate Daniels. All rights reserved.