Suzanne Noguere

Night School

Milltown, New Jersey, 1920

I. Léonie

In class they called me La Petite Basquaise,
little sister to Félix and Gabrielle,
though I was older. "English will be a breeze
for those of you already bilingual,"
the teacher said. That meant us and the Bretons.
"Léonie, why don't you begin?" So I read
"All the pe-o-ple of Amer—" That's when
the class went wild, hooting, and someone cried
"All the pay-o-ple of Constantinople!"
"Class, quiet down! Léonie, you pronounce
it pee' ple as in stee' ple, a church steeple,"
the teacher said, smiling, as if that made sense.
Then she pretended not to hear me say,
"What is the o doing there anyway?"

II. Gabrielle

I felt so lucky that it wasn't me
setting off the men from Michelin.
I was always all work and modesty
when one of them would stop by my machine,
expecting me to know how to flirt.
Lucky too that Léonie looked relaxed
because she could really avenge a hurt:
coquette one minute and gendarme the next.
I stole a glance at Louis Canaff, who
had asked to walk me home. His laughter rang
as loud as anyone's in the whole to-do.
You'd think they never got things wrong!
It was English roulette four nights a week.
It wasn't easy learning how to speak.

III. Félix

Their ridicule was more than I could bear,
and my blushing worse than Léonie's flub.
These were the guys who'd plagued Joseph Noguère
about his baby boy Robert—"Is Rub-
ber well?" "Did Rubber keep you up?"—until
he switched his middle name to his first.
For this we sold our oxen, said farewell,
and left our mountains? Oh, my heart could burst
with longing to be home, not at sixteen
cutting sheets of tire rubber, yoked
to the metal drum to mold them on—
driven by day and then at evening mocked.
If only I could hide my face. It burned.
So much for night school. I never returned.

Interview at the Milliner's

Milltown, New Jersey, 1920
Claire Tyler Meets Léonie Amestoy


We had another answer to the ad
for milliner's assistant, and just for fun
we made a bet what fault the boss would find
this time: handling a hat by its brim
or looking blank when she said maline.
Little did we guess! In walked a midget—
who barely spoke a word of English! Strike One!
Strike Two! We tried hard not to stare
but she was scarcely head-and-shoulders higher
than our cutting tables and ironing boards,
and we were all working in the one big room.
Mrs. Lane had one of those swivel chairs
whose height you could adjust and rolled it over.

"Tell me about your millinery skills,"
she said, and we all hushed to hear the answer.
"So much expérience faisant les chapeaux."
"Hats with pheasant feathers?" Mrs. Lane puzzled.
"Pardonnez-moi, Madame, I mean making hats."
Mrs. Lane tried again: "Do you work with wire?"
"Yes, if you please," she said, and so it went,
the conversation was all start and stop
like notching a curved seam in snippets.

The woman was young like us but stout
with the tiny feet of a Chinese empress—
in Queen Anne heels! She wore a pretty dress
and a summer hat over her short dark curls.
Mrs. Lane gestured toward it. Off it came
and as the boss revolved it in the light
we could see how sheer the fabric was,
the way it took its shape from clever seaming
and how the edges of its split upturned brim
overlapped sideways at a jaunty angle.

"I made it moi-même, Madame," the woman said,
pulling two more from an embroidered bag.
One was a navy wool, and Mrs. Lane
looked almost wistful at its decoration:
six little coils of the navy wool
sewn just off-center as a floral spray.
Then, rising, she took our best picture hat—
cream with a sweeping brim and crimson ribbon—
off its stand. "Can you make this?" she asked.

The woman nodded, "Ah, quel beau chapeau!"
holding it up by the base of its crown,
then looking around as if to give some proof.
Mrs. Lane gestured "Follow me" and led her
to what we called The Station, where we kept
all of our supplies except for fabric.
There Frenchie chose two spools of wire (one
medium-weight and one fine for tying),
pencil and paper, a tape measure, chalk,
and our smallest pair of wire nippers,
which Mrs. Lane helped carry to a table.

Crazy with curiosity, we all
wanted to crowd round but were too polite to.
The little lady gave us a brave smile
that faded to a frown of concentration.
I would have been a nervous wreck myself
doing a public demonstration, but
her hands were steady as she spun a length
of wire from the reel, passing it between
her thumb and index finger to make it straight.
Then she measured with the tape so fast
at first I didn't see it was reversed—
the back side with the centimeter marks.
Then snip! and the head ring was cut and tied.
Then snip! and the crown ring was nestled in.
Then snip! and the brim surrounded them both
like three concentric ripples on a pond.
Then snip-snip-snip-snip and four brace wires
hoisted the crown ring up, then snip-snip-snip-snip
and four more made the frame secure.
I took a breath and the brim was wired on.

It wasn't as if we couldn't do it too,
but to see it done so swift, so well,
as if it weren't work was something else.
"Maline?" Frenchie asked, and I almost burst
out laughing. Mrs. Lane just waved her hand,
dismissing any need to add the fabric.
"Come with me," she said, and they sat together
as Mrs. Lane wrote down what day to come
and how much money she'd be paid each week.
The radiance that lit up Frenchie's face
was something that I'd never seen before,
like looking at her soul; it made me think
how seldom we are joyous in this life.
The boss then introduced her to us, "Girls,
we have a new colleague who will start next week.
This is Miss Lay-o-nie Am-e-stoy from France."
"And Milltown," the little lady said with pride,
and we all laughed and clapped. Then it was lunchtime
and you know we gabbed more than we ate!


The first hat Frenchie trimmed was sold right off:
a black velvet toque with a black dotted veil
and an airy bow of that very net.
Trimming had always been the boss's job
but she'd been noticing the doodads that
gave a special touch to Frenchie's look:
the little cluster of red satin berries
she fixed to her dress with a silver pin,
the zipper pull she'd covered with a tassel,
passementerie this and soutache that,
enchanting things that you must see in France.

And the boss was trying to solve a problem too,
for, fast as Frenchie was, she slowed us down—
all because the boss refused to let
her use the kettle by herself: it was
too high, too easy for her to get burned.
That meant one of us had to drop our work
and hold hers to the spout to steam out fullness
whenever she happened to get to that step.
Not a path to popularity!
But I watched out for her, and I watched her too,
hoping to catch her making a new cockade.

That's how I happened to see her slip
a piece of paper down her blouse one day.
We were all sitting at our big work table,
three across from three with Mrs. Lane
at one end and Frenchie at the other,
so they each had a perfect view of whose
head was up, whose down, and I could tell
that Frenchie didn't want anyone to see.
You know I paid attention after that!
I'd see…or almost see…her do it again:
scribble on a scrap of paper and stuff
it in her bosom; and I knew it wasn't
the calculations for a custom hat.

The weeks were going fast. Come late November
we'd all be laid off till spring, so it
was now or never to find out what was what.
As we were leaving work one night I said,
"I think you're working for the B.O.I.!"
"Huh?" (You see how her English was improving!)
"The Bureau of Investigation!
I know you're hiding things inside your blouse.
You're telling secrets that you overhear!"
She flashed a glance at me and said, "Oh sure,
I meet the big shots and I spill the beans."
"Come on," I said. "I want to know." By then
we were best friends and I thought she'd tell me.

She buttoned up her coat before she spoke.
"Well, it's a secret but not the kind you think.
It's all the words I don't know what they mean.
I write them down when everyone is talking
and then at home when I undress at night,
the pieces of paper fall to the floor.

I look the words up in my dictionary—
for some of them I really have to hunt!"

Then for just a moment I saw her as
a miniature figure in a snow globe where
bits of paper fluttered down like flakes
and she was sitting in a lamplight's glow,
intent on making sense of what she'd heard,
opening the book that opened up each word.


Suzanne Noguere is the author of a book of poems, Whirling Round the Sun (Midmarch Arts Press), as well as two natural history children's books. She co-wrote the novel The Stone House, A Blues Legend with James V. Hatch. Their stage adaptation of that work, the musical play Klub Ka, The Blues Legend, has been performed at the University of Iowa, La MaMa in New York City, and the University of Maryland. She has also collaborated with artist Miriam Adams on the 30-piece art/poetry series Leaf Lines. Suzanne has received the "Discovery"/The Nation Prize, a Poetry Society of America award, and the University of Iowa Partnership in the Arts Award. She works as a copy editor in New York City. www.suzannenoguere.com.


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The most recent addition to The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline is Rosa Newmarch by Jean L. Kreiling.

Marie Ponsot was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Celebration of the Timeline reaching 75 essays, Lincoln Center, Fordham University (Sponsored by Fordham's Curran Center) Friday, October 20th, 2017.

Charlotte Innes is the recipient of the 2018 Mezzo Cammin Scholarship to the Poetry by the Sea conference.

Rachael Gorchov: Recently I completed a body of work that focused on the landscapes that define suburban office and industrial complexes, contemplating their subtle relationships with the history of landscape painting. When looking at these places I saw English landscape gardens – orchestrated nature that gave way to picturesque landscape painting. I documented my subjects onsite by drawing their reflections in a Claude Glass, a convex black mirror popularized as an observation device in the 18th century. This tool appealed to me for how its skews and bulges its reflection, making my work highly subjective from the start. I then constructed paintings in the studio based on these drawings. The three-dimensional nature of my paintings further emphasized the forced perspective in my initial drawings and required viewers to explore the paintings much like they might explore a physical space by moving around, crouching and craning their necks.

Irregular versions of geometric forms such as cubes, parabolic curves, cones and triangles comprised the dimensional shapes of these pieces and eventually gave way to my working nearly exclusively on concave surfaces and ‘rocks with cast shadows.’ I settled on these structures for a few reasons. When a viewer stands directly in front of the concave works, irregular half-spheres with the convex side attached to the wall, the paintings fill their peripheral vision for an immersive experience. The rocks and shadows, amorphous objects paired with adhesive-backed prints, are reminiscent of portals and geologic abrasions. They invite viewers to question if the dimensional form is emerging from or entering into another space. Like in other works, these pieces frame the physical space the artworks inhabit.

In 2016, I visited Europe where I recognized parallels between the interiors of Renaissance spaces and my own paintings, such as the power that foreshortening possesses in its ability to collapse and intensify space in cathedrals– similar to my Claude Glass works. This experience coincided with a visit to an exhibition in Vienna featuring renderings of synagogues that once stood in the city. This piqued an interest in contemplating architectural space in my work and prompted me to consider architectural language in my own Jewish cultural heritage. I then began a series of tondos, a Renaissance term for circular artworks, of European Jewish architecture.

Beginning with paintings and mixed-media, in these works I build a photographic image that engages the space wherever it is installed, becoming part of the architecture. I arrived at the tondo format through my own history of making non-rectangular paintings, and appreciate its relationship to reliefs and rose windows found in synagogues and cathedrals. In gathering source imagery, I rely heavily on documentation – photographs and engravings as most of these buildings have been destroyed. I contemplate the collective memory images of architectural space can reveal. In this spirit, this work depicts layered environments where scale, color and depth shift ambiguously, revealing experiential space.

I consistently begin works by looking at a particular subject because of an art historical or personal association, and then through a process of extracting details from their surroundings using an accumulation of marks, color and a tactility, I sacrifice specificity of form and place, ultimately revealing a specificity of experience as my subject.

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