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Spelling Down

By Ellen McGrath Smith

I wanted bad to advance to Washington, D. C.
I wanted to be anyone but me.
The nun who had trained me for the spelling bee
needed a ride, and I was so worried all the way across town
that my dad would start swearing in front of her,
I couldn't really think straight, so when
I got to the tie-breaking round with a Central Catholic boy
in an argyle sweater, I nearly tripped on the way to the mic.

"Hoo-ist," the word-distributor announced.
I couldn't hear, could never hear, so I asked him to repeat.
"Hoo-ist," he said again. I took a stab at it and spelled it
H-U-I-S-T, and the man in the toupee shook his head
and turned to Chip, who whipped out, "Whist.
W-H-I-S-T. Whist." He smiled before the judge said yes,
because of course that was the word--whist! whist!--
what on earth had I been thinking?

It was quiet as we drove over the West End Bridge.
I couldn't wait to drop off Sister Simon
so I wouldn't have to simmer in the back seat
with my mother, both of us praying he wouldn't break into
his grating vernacular. "She spells a lot better than me,"
he told Sister. "But all I write is police reports,
and spelling don't matter." She cocked her head
as if he were discoursing on John of the Cross.

Now I stand above the city. There's a murky line
where two rivers form the Ohio, as if at first
reluctant to be mixed. And where my father's gone
might just as well be called the delta. I see him now,
in red-black light, a pen in his mouth, clipboard on his lap,
asking his partner if "domestic" is spelled with a "ck";
the guy in the back puts his face against the cage
and says, "no dickhead, P-I-G. You get that down?"

Added: Friday, July 3, 2015  /  From Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Used with permission. This poem is one in a series of poems published in July of 2015 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, tentatively titled Nobody's Jackknife, will be published this fall by the West End Press. 

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