PORTRAIT OF THE CLUMSY LEARNING HOW TO DANCE
“Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles
are the same.” – Martha Graham
In a room, at night, with the woman I trust, I can be
anything. Forget windows. Forget the lamp’s light
& how it can be guided to form a perfect circle.
Forget the clothes I haven’t washed lumped stinking
in the corner & the way an onlooker is only one
struck by the stark appearance of a life that isn’t his.
Forget rhythm. Forget all you were told about history.
I am a boy & I am a body. When she says extend
your leg outward, I become a heron, a hero, a heroine
balancing atop the bloom of water – another word
for world. When she says balance, I try first
to imagine myself as a feeling caught on her
tongue, a night in that mist of becoming, where all light
seems to be going away but is only just travelling
a longer distance to arrive, bringing with it a basket
of oranges, as if to say I’m sorry for being so late. I balance
on her tongue the same way I balance on the floor –
shakily, wearing nothing but my underwear,
only skin & sinew teetering. What I am trying to say is
I want to be spoken & I want to be spoken to.
She sits cross-legged on the bed & stifles the first sound
of a laugh. Is it too much to ask for the sound of forever
to be the sound of a lip curling upward? It is possible
to be afraid & still be in love, to balance on one foot
when you haven’t balanced before, to stare for so long
at someone else that you invent new words made up
of only vowels & the softest consonants. Everyone
has lilacs for eyes. Dancing is hard. I can be anything
when I am given the space to fail. The laughter is real now.
I am a twirl spent of its grace. A pirouette staggered
for the viewing. A leap with no hang time. Overcome
by gravity. In the corner of the middle school dance floor.
No, I’m not hiding. Yes, I am sometimes made
more joyful by embarrassment. All at once the color
of roses. I am the lopsided mess of a child’s self portrait.
I am an oval. I am a lump. I am the too-long, forever
short journey of someone dying. I am longing
to be held. I am laughing, too. I am reaching for her body.
Good, she says, you’re a natural. The night pours in like a liquid,
a friend you haven’t seen in years. There is a moon
& it sometimes feels so much closer than we know it is.
On those nights, it’s best to believe in promises.
Like how I promise it is possible to fail & still find beauty
in the bent limb – almost breaking – but not yet. Like how
it is possible to laugh & cry at the same time, to invent
words with no prior meaning, to surrender & feel safe.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series
New York City. He is the author of two collaborative chapbooks as well as the books Blood on Blood
(Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (forthcoming 2017, CCM). He edits for
Full Stop, works as an afterschool director in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in