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Promise and Conundrum
By Barbara L. McBee

From the bayou to the gulf
To the island of New York
Highlights and Jack and Jill
Saddle shoes and ghillies
And private schools
Will you dance with me?
Paper bag hue is best, so they say
Marry a doctor

Silky hair and the
White Dress and opera length gloves
Two three four two three four
Follow the square
Would you waltz with me?
Don’t lift your pinky yet
Only sherry please always sherry
Secrets stick to you like crème fraiche
On honeydew and cucumber sandwiches
She crossed her legs
At the ankles, straightening her voluminous pleated skirt
Her shoes so shiny she saw herself
Paper bag fresh big legged available for
The extended white gloved hand

Will you dance with me?

The fence was pulled down
From the divided cemetery

The oak trees united after death presided over
Debutantes and cucumbers
And winding staircases
With acres and acres passed down
That fried oysters on Friday
With sweet tea during cribbage and croquet
The heritage of victory and longing
Strove until that moment
After the sherry and the mourning beads
Having known the prejudice that
Cucumbers and white dresses did not solve
But reminded us of elegance and grandeur and hope
The rustle of hard creased petticoats and sweaty palms
That took each step as mothers squinted in pride and strategy
My handkerchiefs are monogrammed, are yours?
Would you like to dance?
Darlings dressed in silk and chiffon and pearls
Cleavage tucked in
Ankles turned perfectly
Backs hoisted up at attention
As they come into view
One two three
One two three
May I take your hand
But secrets stick like pomme d’amour dipped in red glaze
That may crack your molars
Secrets whispered in corners
Whispered among the plans and the dynasties
While the white chiffon briefly hides
The scars and the ache
She crossed her legs at the ankles
Fluffed her crisp chiffon and silk
Patted her careful coiffure in gloved hands
He went through careful motions
Tucked up in tails with
A crisp waistcoat and gleaming shoes
Under scrutiny on this fine morning
And his mother straightens his bowtie like
The plans she made
She straightens his bowtie like
The plans she made
Confident in their success but
Secrets crack open
Stick to you like caramel on a sweaty day
Like crème fraiche melting on
Honeydew and pecan pie in the
Lazy humidity
May I have this Dance?


Barbara L. McBee
Commissioned by the Goodman Theatre, in collaboration with
The Poetry Foundation, in relation to their production of The Nacirema Society, for their 23/24 season
August 2023


ABOUT Play on words: Poetry

the nacirema society

A “laugh-out-loud” (Broadway World) “hilarious comedy” (Arts ATL) from nationally renowned playwright, poet and NY Times best-selling author Pearl Cleage.


ABOUT the poet


A Chicago-based published writer and storyteller for more than three decades, Barbara L. McBee is a Goodman teaching artist and a former bureau chief, news director, reporter, editor and public relations liaison for the Three Tenors. Recent performances include All the Sex I’ve Ever Had (Museum of Contemporary Art), Fillet of Solo (Lifeline Theatre), This Much is True, (GeNarrations, Goodman Theatre), InterGens (Goodman Theatre) and Theatre on the Lake. A piece of her work was included in a Yoko Ono 2019 exhibit in Montreal and Leipzig. Her books include From a Place to Behold: Goodman Collection and The Art of Making Stone Love Stone: Poetry Collection.