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Sholeh Wolpé reads her poem "The Prince".


Poem: The Prince
Author: Sholeh Wolpé
Book: Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press

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My name is Sholeh Wolpe.  I'm going to read "The Prince".  It's about when I was a teenager at a boarding school in the UK and it's about the immigration experience.  

The Prince

The night of the dance I wore
an ankle-length caftan, hiding
my body beneath its airy flow, flat
shoes not to be too tall,
and my roommate's lipstick,
brighter than orange juice.

He was a prince who could have picked
any of the boarding school girls--
Suzie with one eye blue,
full-breasted Victoria,
or the girl from India with a waist
slender as a drumstick tree.

But the sixteen-year-old Saudi royal
asked me for the first dance, then the second,
then for the rest of the night, as boys and girls
disappeared into dark corners while
chaperones dozed off in the hall
nipping Hennessy from tiny silver flasks.

My prince was shy, but not too shy
to slowly drop his hand and squeeze,
his lips on mine, the knife
in his pocket on my groin.

On the ride back the girls taunted me,
Camel driver's virgin, imitated my accent

singing, Don't touch the merchandise,
mocked me for pushing away the fetching prince
so hard he fell on his ass and twisted his wrist.
What did he do?  Stick his finger up your...?

That night I packed my bag, slipped out
just as the sun exhaled its first breath into night,
took the first Eastbourne rail to London.
I hid beneath a beat-up hat, collar pulled up,
and by the time the headmaster was informed, 
called the police and my anxious parents overseas,
I was at my clueless cousin's boarding house nibbling
baklava, drinking hot tea from a chipped cup.

I shivered beside a coin-operated heater, ate
fish and chips on yesterday's newspaper and read
Neruda, Farrokhzad, for a week, Tolstoy, and Austen.
Quietly I thanked my father for giving me time
to strengthen the sinew that held my heart.

It rained and I didn't go out, avoided my big-boned
cousin with her roto-rooter tongue and the nose
of our grandmother who could smell anything
rotting inside the heart. I turned the cracked mirror
in my room towards the wall.  Someone 
had scribbled "HELP" on the back.

The rose-splattered wallpaper looked scrubbed
with day-old coffee.  The lone sofa sagged
with the weight of absent occupants the way
my lips still felt the heaviness of that first kiss.

In the end what mattered, I learned, 
were the smallest blessings:
the milk-sweetened tea on the miracle
of scalding water from the ancient bathtub faucet.
What counted were my widowed cousin
holding her own in a foreign land,
and the grit to say no
to what is hurled--words, glances, bullets, all.