Anne-Marie Levine

With Sophie

The Sophie I knew
heard that I like snails.
So she bought a bunch at the Star Market
or she caught them in the garden
I’m not sure which,
she didn’t get them from one of those French cans,
I know that.
And I thought she cooked them in brine for three days
but that’s not how you do it,
it’s much more complicated.
She must have washed them several times
to clean the dirt from the shells,
removed the diaphragm with the point of a small knife,
and soaked the snails in vinegar, flour and rock salt.
She would have soaked them for two hours
to make them disgorge their viscous slime.
Then she would have washed them again in running water
to remove all the mucous substances from the shells,
and brought them to a boil very slowly,
carefully lifting the scum
produced by the remainder of the mucous substances.
Then she must have boiled them eight more minutes,
drained and cooled them, and covered them
with equal parts of white wine and water;
thick rings of carrots and onions,
sliced shallots, cloves of garlic,
a bouquet garni and a few peppercorns.
She would have cooked them at a slow boil
for three hours or so, and when the snails were cooked,
she would have removed them from their shells
and immediately cut off the cloaca,
the black end of the helix.
Then you’re supposed to wash the shells
in warm water, drain them, and set them on a rack to dry.
But she probably didn’t do that
because she served us each a bunch of snails
on a plain white plate, a dinner plate,
and she laid them out before us without the ritual,
no shells or indented dishes,
no special utensils, snail forks or holders.
A shocking sight, those bare-chested snails,
a real surprise, no, a confrontation.
“You want snails?” she seemed to be saying,
“Here are snails.”

I’m telling you because I’m upset.
The announcement upset me, the announcement of her death,
coming as it did in the mail,
looking like the announcement of a marriage
or a birth, not an invitation to a memorial service
at Our Lady of the Signs Russian Orthodox Cathedral
on Ninety-Third Street, that’s where it was,
in the church with the divided staircase
and the choirs, male choirs with bass voices
that sound like an ocean, like waves,
the same choirs that sang for George Balanchine
when he died.
That was her heritage, antiphonal choirs,
Sophie Dobzhansky, daughter of Theodosius,
and in the invitation it was combined with her husband’s:
“Reception at the Knickerbocker Club,” it said,
that’s what Mike’s invitation said.

The Sophie I knew
roasted a suckling pig for us once,
stuffed it with breadcrumbs and parsley of course,
shallots and garlic,
the grated peel of a lemon and an orange
and the juices of both.
Well-beaten eggs, pepper and nutmeg too.
There was some special occasion and she invited us
but I couldn’t eat the animal.
There were about two inches of fat
under the crisp browned skin
and I couldn’t eat it.
When I was little I couldn’t swallow fat,
I would have vomited. Now that I’m grown
I can eat fat if I have to but not two inches.
I kept cutting small pieces and hiding them
under the mashed potaoes.
The pig had an apple in its mouth and it looked great
if you like that sort of thing, which I don’t
(I’m not crazy about snails without the shells either)
but Sophie tried everything once.
I’m sure there was nothing edible she had not cooked.
She had a vegetable garden
and an edible flower garden,
and the last book she published
was an Aztec cookbook.

I’m telling you because I’m upset.
First Jackie and then Sophie.
You know how everyone remembers where they were
when John F. Kennedy was shot.
Well, I was with Sophie in New Haven.
We spent a few days together while our husbands
attended a conference, something about archeology.
I don’t remember what we did
(we must have played with the kids)
except that I read Fanny Hill.
Every night I’d go to bed and turn myself on
reading Fanny Hill.
It was my first erotic novel,
the first one it was legal to read,
and the first I’d ever read.
My first dirty book and my first assassination.
With Sophie in New Haven.

The Sophie I knew
said ho-hum when she was bored
but she wasn’t bored that week.
I’m telling you because I’m upset.
I don’t want her gone,
I don’t want Mike to be alone,
I don’t want my memories to float.
Sophie! Send me a postcard,
say ho-hum for me.
Call and invite me to visit.

Published in Bus Ride to a Blue Movie, 2003, Pearl Editions, Long Beach CA
And as a chapbook, With Sophie, Peapod Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1999