Light and Simple, Like Marco Polo

by Denise Miller

Marco? Polo!

Marco?            Polo!

Marco?             Silence.

I didn’t fall into the call and response of the game that my new friends and their nieces played in the swimming pool of the house in Kalamazoo where my girlfriend and I rented the upstairs. At least not as easily as I fell into other decidedly Midwest games like Euchre. While I could quickly pick up such intricacies as Jacks can take anything, depending on their color, which is solely based on the card turned up or the card chosen, or that Ace No Face and Farmer’s Hand can result in a re-deal, but only if established at the start of the game, I failed to pick up on the simple question-and-answer that had been adeptly mimicked by my friends before me. So when Tania coached me by saying, “Denise, when someone says 'Marco,' you say 'Polo,'" all I could say was “Really? That’s a game?”

I was adamant that there had to be more to it. After all, these women were thirtysomethings who should have been able to find a more interesting game or some conversation to toss around. And in my defense, even though I had technically grown up in the Midwest, I had grown up in the East and South of it, in a village that hugged the curves of the Ohio River Valley. There, we made ramps out of scrap pieces of board, lit them on fire and jumped over them with our skateboards, or we played two-hand touch football; suckers walk, of course. And if we wanted to swim, we had to trek the five-or-so miles to the local swimming pool because our parents were too young and too high and too preoccupied with trying to lose themselves in the bottom of whiskey bottles to drop us off at the water’s edge. Not to mention my anti-manifest destiny, anti-Columbusing twentysomething self saw no fun in building a game around this colonizer.

So I dropped the Polo just like I dropped many things that were not completely intellectual or completely physical in those years when I needed to exhaust my mind and my body in order to escape them. But when I looked across the water and saw the disappointment in my girlfriend’s face at my silence, I felt the size of her sadness sink to the bottom of my stomach, weighted by her wish that I could just keep things light and simple sometimes. If she knew how much I yearned for the simplicity of calling for something and being met with what I asked for, of calling for someone and being met with their soft voice, she would understand. They all would.

But I knew they couldn’t comprehend, because my Midwest and their Midwest, although not separated by any other border than the historically contested one that made the great city of Toledo ours, could not have been more distant than the East that Polo was trying to explore. My East was a Silk Road of curious peculiarities to them; and so I often found myself at parties sitting cross-legged in the center of friends' living rooms or in the fourth seat at the Euchre table, recounting the days my sister, great grandmother, and I would walk “uptown” to the A&P to get vegetables to pair with 'coon for dinner, or mornings of trudging to attend school in the same building as that of six generations of my ancestors, or running to the back of the coach's pickup truck with glove in hand on game days to make sure I got a good seat along the side of the bed so that I could lean into the curves of the two lanes and two tracks that would take us to playing fields in the towns nearby.  To them, the East and South Midwest that my legs were always moving through was foreign, but simple, and I kept it to those light details. Because I could never figure out how to explain that my sister and I lived with my great grandmother because my mother had died at twenty-one and my father, that same age, couldn’t raise two baby girls without bruising them.

How could I explain that my father’s mother had a scanner and that every time it would scream an address or an incident, she’d rush us to the car to chase the ambulance, fire truck, or police car to make sure that the people in uniform weren’t restraining, or the vehicles weren’t carrying, the belligerent, broken or dead bodies of her sons?

How could I explain that at seven years old, I learned to clean weed, roll joints, and mix drinks for the mothers, aunts, uncles, fathers and grandfathers in my family, all of whom would abuse each other and some of whom who would also abuse me, my sister, my cousin, and every other cousin that came before and after me in the 1970s and 80s?

How could I explain that in my Midwest, what had been done to my body and what my body had witnessed had been less light and simple and more...injury? How could I, without illuminating all of the scratches, bruises, and breaks that brought me here to this moment of dropping Polo! to the bottom of the pool like some stone, clarify how difficult it is to play a game, even the simplest, with such injury? How could I explain to them that when they said Marco? I wanted to reply Polo!; that in that moment, I wanted to believe in the surety of call and response, of sound and echo, of calling for myself and hearing and feeling my body, and lightly and simply answer? In that moment, this is how I wanted the game to go:  

Denise?  Denise!

Denise?        Denise!

Denise?             Denise! 

Because how could I explain to them that I wasn’t calling for the light and simple of Marco? Polo? I was calling instead for the full weight of my body to meet me.

Denise Miller is a professor, poet and mixed media artist whose publications include poems in Dunes Review, African American Review and Blackberry: A Magazine. She’s the 2015 Willow Books Emerging Poet, an AROHO Waves Discussion Fellowship awardee, a finalist for the Barbara Deming Money for Women Fund, and a Hedgebrook Fellow. Her full-length poetry book, Core, was released from Willow Books in November 2015 and has been nominated for a 2015 American Book Award and a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Additionally, one of her poems from a collection in progress has also been nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. Miller has also been recently named the Fall 2016 Willow Books Writer In Residence in conjunction with the Carr Center Detroit and the NEH and an American Antiquarian Society William Randolph Hearst fellow. Her newest chapbook Ligatures 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Selection was just released from Rattle. Her poem, Dear Spectators has been nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. More of her work can be found at