A Woman’s Shoe

They are moving the bones
in Santiago, making way
for the new.

The open

graves of the poor are holes
in the earth, utilitarian and simple,
the perfect shape

for a body,

nothing more.

Yet in one there is

a woman’s shoe.

A black high-heel,
a platform sole.

It’s a shoe
to stand tall in,
to make her hips swing,
her back arch, her breasts
push against her blouse.
It’s the kind of shoe

a woman wears

to please a man.

It makes you think

of cigarettes and lipstick,

the sound of heels climbing the stairs
after dark, the flare of a match,
a button falling to the floor.
You can feel the leather
on your own foot

the weight

on your instep, the high arch.
You wore shoes like that
fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago a woman
walked to meet a man.
Her shoes made their own sound
on the ground. She floated
high above them

so tall

she knew they could take her anywhere,
even here

where a woman is built
from the ground up—
starting with one shoe,
a black high heel,
an open toe

Questions and Answers

About “A Woman’s Shoe”

Most of the time I’d have trouble explaining where a poem comes from or what inspired it. I wrote this one after visiting the main cemetery in Santiago, Chile. In May 1986, I’d gone there with three other Canadian poets who’d been invited by the Santiago Writers’ Union to read poetry and discuss poetics. General Pinochet, the tyrant who overthrew Salvador Allende and his government, was still in power, and there was a real sense of danger on the streets. At the cemetery, we walked down the aisles between the tombs, searching for the grave of the great poet Pablo Neruda. His gravesite was hard to find and was plain and simple, perhaps because he had been a supporter of Allende and a critic of the General and the coup. After leaving flowers in tribute to him, we walked to the ourskirts of the walled cemetery where the poor had been buried. Because they were poor even in death, their graves were being dug up to make way for those who could pay for plots. In one of the open holes in the ground, I saw a woman’s shoe. Even in death, the woman who had worn the shoe had been displaced. The shoe was not practical. It was the kind a woman would wear to go to a party or meet a man. I began to imagine what her life might have been like. For me, she stood for much of the sadness I’d encountered in Chile, for the lives that had been rubbed out by a brutal regime, for those who had gone through torture and terror.

I wrote the poem shortly after I returned home to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It started with the image, with what I had seen, and went from there. As with most of my poems, I worked through about twenty drafts and then set it aside for a few months and went back to it. Often, when I leave a poem for long enough, I can be a tough editor and pare it down until the essence of the experience remains. I want to make sure that every word counts and that it is the right one.

This poem “A Woman’s Shoe” originally appeared in Shaping Texts. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 119 (Winter 1988): 54-55.

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