“Tango Lesson” – Lisa Richter

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    El Jaleo (1882) 

          John Singer Sargent

                   _________

Tango Lesson

After a history lesson, crash course in Buenos Aires
a hundred years before our time, we begin

at last. You gently place my arm over yours, my hand
on your shoulder, our bodies distant enough 

to have an invisible body between us – this is open embrace,
you explain, abrazo abierto. We dare not dance in abrazo cerrado,

where our chests would nearly touch – I’m not single-
minded enough about learning these moves to unlock

what I fear might spill out, should I let myself fall
into your hazelnut voice – so rich and deep I might never

emerge from it. You teach me the new skill of following,
though your lead feels less like control and more

like stewardship, carving swans of negative space
that stretch their graceful necks along the diagonals 

of our bodies. We’re in a conversation of pauses
and advances. I step too soon, but you are eminently patient,

your large hand over mine, poised mid-air, a paper crane
mid-flight. As you shift your weight from side to side,

I wait, trying to sense which way we are going,
and for a moment, I have the chance to look at you not

looking at me, your calm grey eyes fixed above my head.
On the small of my back, your warm hand –

a breathing orchid, cupped flame. 

                                                    Lisa Richter 

             ____________

                                         for, especially, Tonyia

the clash of cultures is exposed to the light
here as a tango dancer teaches an English-
speaking novice how to dance 

there is no evident metre in the verse, the
poem is in prose, contained within terse, 
two-lined stanzas which act as constraints
on the forward flow, however ever fluidly 
continuous, like tenutos in music, where  
the note is held, dramatically, before a 
return to the original rhythm

but slowly this prose develops its own
irresistible rhythms, an abandonment 
to the metre of the whole, a languid 
surrender to the pulse and propulsion 
of the dance, and becomes, despite 
its, ahem, flat feet, a poem

the very vocalic construction of  
Romantic languages, abrazo abierto
for instance, or abrazo cerrado, 
propelled by vowels for their forward 
motion, in imitation of the heartbeat,  
preclude in natives unfamiliarity with 
cadence, the tango is already in their 
blood, the teacher here ineluctably 
lives, breathes, hir ethnic identity

Anglo-Saxons and Teutons excel, 
rather, at political science and 
philosophy, more sober, cerebral 
preoccupations, suppressing 
gutturally in their glut of gurgled
consonantsthe more carnal 
allure or, from a primmer
perspective, temptations, of the 
senses

which Romantic poetsincidentally
pointedly sought out in the seductive
rhythms of the Mediterranean, much 
as this very student succumbs to the 
breathing orchid’the cupped flame 
of this tantalizing tango

Richard

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