At six, she joined a beauty pageant in
her neighborhood: excited, keen, and girly.
At face value, she learned, she couldn’t win.
Or place. Or show. It helped to find out early.
Her dad thought gender should determine chores.
She vacuumed, did the dishes, set the table.
When older, his two sons would work outdoors.
Meanwhile, she’d mow the lawn till they were able.
Considered shy and bookish at fourteen,
as she played cards with boys, one ventured to say
“You look like a queen.” She asked “What kind of queen?”
with a teasing smile. He phoned her the same day.
Short, working-class, Italian, Catholic—what
did she perceive in him to win her heart?
her father fumed. She saw what he did not:
a kindred spirit, funny, warm, and smart.
Cast in a play in high school—what a thrill!
To seem more like a girl of ten, she chose
to braid her hair, skip rope, and sound more shrill.
She eyed her C-cups. What to do with those?
Allowed to watch no films that weren’t PG,
she’d name one, then attend an R instead.
She studied film reviews. Ironically,
nobody cared about which books she read.
Why did she love to cook and entertain?
The parties that she threw won her no friends
or invitations, yet they weren’t in vain:
sometimes the means are dearer than the ends.
At her first job, as a lifeguard, she was fired.
The manager alleged she stared into space
instead of watching the swimmers. Then he hired
his girlfriend’s younger sister in her place.
Why did his girls excel? her father wondered.
His sons’ grades, in comparison, were weak.
In retrospect he saw where he had blundered:
too often he had let his daughters speak.
The judges of the Latin competition
required that entrants use a pseudonym.
As Samuel Miller, she won with her submission.
Would she have won if she were not a him?
Browsing through After Dark, she’d never seen
such gorgeous shots of men she liked so well.
But then she realized the magazine
was targeting an all-male clientele.
In grad school, she and her boyfriend shared a flat.
One of his male professors, known to screw
his female students, held a party at
his home and told him, “Bring your mistress, too.”
Because she had few friends at school, she tended
to wander lost in thought most of the time.
One day a snarling passerby demanded,
“What are you smiling at?” Was that a crime?
“Love the hair, hate the face!” a frat boy called
as she passed by the frat house. Walking on,
she pictured him years later, fat and bald,
wondering where his privilege had gone.
She joked to a classmate, of a poem they’d read,
“Shelley’s ‘Alastor’ sounds like a wet dream.”
Next day in class, her jaw dropped when he said
the same thing. Live and learn in academe.
She showed a classicist her verse translation.
Should she do more? He told her not to try.
And yet he praised her work with admiration
to others, she learned decades later. Why?
Susan McLean is an English professor at Southwest Minnesota State University. Her light verse has appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, The New Verse News, Mezzo Cammin, Measure, and elsewhere. She has also published her translations of over 500 of Martial’s satirical Latin poems in Selected Epigrams (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014)