“This is How I Remember Her” by Blas Falconer
I am spending the morning with the poetry of Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, who died in May of this year.` Born and raised in Los Angeles, Claire received her B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University, an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Virginia, her M.A. in literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. A full-time instructor at Houston Community College, she lived with her husband, Raj, a scientist specializing in HIV/AIDS research at Baylor College of Medicine; their young daughter, Vidya; and their three cats. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Shadow Mountain and Bear, Diamonds, and Crane.
Both poetry collections intimately address the experiences of first-, second-, and third- generation Japanese Americans in the 20th century. Specifically, the poems revisit the internment camps of World War II and, among other subjects, ensuing and often more subtle expressions of xenophobia. Of Claire and her poetry, Kimiko Hahn writes, “she draws us into a personal history that happens to be a part of American history and subsequent reparations. Here is a socially-conscious writer whose issues of war and passion bring us back and then forward again.” This is how I remember her and her poems.
Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot
This is a poem with missing details,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
sand crystals falling with powder and shale,
where silence and shame make adults insane.
This is about a midnight of searchlights,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
of syrup on rice and a cook’s big fight.
This is the night of Manzanar’s riot.
This is about a midnight of searchlights,
a swift moon and a voice shouting, Quiet!
where the revolving searchlight is the moon.
This is the night of Manzanar’s riot,
windstorm of people, rifle powder fumes,
children wiping their eyes clean of debris,
where the revolving searchlight is the moon,
and children line still to use the latrines.
This is a poem with missing details,
children wiping their eyes clean of debris—
sand crystals falling with powder and shale.
Claire and I met in graduate school at the University of Houston. Petite in size, but large in spirit, she was not one to be pushed around. She was exceptionally smart with a clear and distinct perspective of the world, one she seemed to trust intuitively, wholly. She doled out love and fierceness best with her unique sense of humor. Once, she brought a voodoo doll to poetry workshop. When she perceived that our discussions were becoming less than constructive, she placed the doll on the seminar table in front of her, gently reminding us why we were there, reminding us to respect one another, regardless of our differences.
A couple of years ago, Brenda Hillman encouraged a group of poets to let what makes each of us uniquely us be reflected in the poems, to not let those quirks be buffed out in revision. In regard to both subject matter and style, Claire knew this all along. I’m reminded, reading her poems, how much of Claire came through in her work. Her personality seems embedded somehow in the lines and the way that she approached the historical, the collective.
I remember times I wanted you to die—
when you hit Mama
with your slippers, threw
fish knives at our brother,
locked yourself in the bathroom
and swallowed pills.
Sister, I’ll call you sister
because I never liked your real name
Where are you taking me?
Coffee and books.
The Novel Café
is open until 2 a.m.
Inside, we talk over
ice cubes and espresso.
I sip lemon water again.
the last crumb pebble
from a strawberry biscuit.
Downstairs, you flip through
Crime and Punishment. I browse through
Matisse and Edvard Munich.
I place the Red Odalisque
next to Anne Sexton,
The Scream near Robert Lowell.
At home, you warm
your flat fingernails against
a cup of hot chocolate, get up,
go to your room wearing
an oxygen mask. I clutch
a crumpled picture
of you, Sister, tugging my hair
as we huddled together
on cushions, in red and blue
kimonos. In the morning
I grind Jamaican coffee.
You appear with braided hair
and desert wildflowers.
I rename the sky after you,
I name the tears of our childhood,
As I raise two young boys, I see more clearly than ever how we are all imprinted with our own personalities, our own interests and perspectives, and this was so obviously true with Claire. Claire was Claire all the way through, and the poems demonstrate her spirit: wise and passionate. These days, with xenophobia and denial and fear on the rise throughout the country and the world, when our lives depend on the brave speaking out, reminding us where all of this might lead, we need Claire and her voice more than ever.
Origins of an Impulse
I can’t tell you how it happened, just that
it happened after wet concrete, a shade
more salmon than pink. Brown ants
hurried with the current claiming bread
crumbs. It happened after the seeds of
interest spilled through me, after the garden
unfurled its roots, I learned to tie shoelaces
and spell “sand,” “glass,” “sage,” “tar,”
“paper,” “apple,” and “orchard,” after
my cousin died, never aged. It happened
after my sister and I stood on the left side
of the plaque, after a dusty breeze flinging
sand in our eyes and hair blew our coarse
strands to and fro in mid-air, messing up
our parts, our usually straight hair. It happened
after the sand irritated, tickled the unbaked
spaces between our toes, our feet pressed
into the foam of our flip-flops. It happened
after my mother gave me a typewriter, sky
and light blue, some ink ribbon. I wrote
how much I loved her. It happened after
our neighbor poisoned our dogs, mailed
postcards calling us “Shits” and “Japs,”
after one dog died. I wanted to dig its body
from the ground. It happened in grade school
when classmates said I had the nose of a gorilla;
in high school, when a classmate pressed
her nose with her hand, mocked the flatness
of mine. I gave up yellow, my favorite color,
started a lifelong love of lavender, wrote of
my mother’s face in my face, staring at me,
her disdain when I dyed my hair red. It happened
with the anger of an electric typewriter, a dark
screened computer during college. It happened
when I saw my mother’s face in my face,
when I saw her face in my niece’s face
It happened with love, the impulse to write.
Hahn, Kimiko. Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, Claire. “Amber Falls.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way
——-. “Origins of an Impulse.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
——-. “Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
“This is How I Remember Her” by Blas Falconer
I want to be a boy, you tell the man
who analyzes you. Free of desire.
He nods, light flashing
off his thin gold spectacles.
No one called the singing boys
castrati to their face. So evirato,
meaning one unmanned,
musico: one making music.
Boys aren’t free
of desire, of course—
Though not by ordinary means—
fingers pressing keyboard, lips
against a cold silver mouthpiece.
No, the singer’s body turned
to supple balsam, stretched
over the years until it forms
that frame beloved by engineers—
strength, endurance, range—
You uncross your legs, recross:
left over right. Beneath you
the vintage leather cushion sinks.
It’s the idea that they aren’t
until those clear, adolescent ribs
ascend like arches in a nave, not merely
the idea of being holy, no—
* * *
the blood and the meat. Only then
is the sacrifice complete.
Out the window a crane lifts;
the man says, waving—
all this construction.
It seems appropriate, you say.
Only then will the whole frame sing.
Become a building large enough
to contain the singer’s longing—
all his longing, all our own—
But no, what you told him
what you want
is to feel everything, desire
as the scarlet tape beneath
the plastic, what you want is
not the package unwrapped,
solid in your hands, but
pleasure in the pulling, gently
ripping off the plastic.
enough to let us watch him
grow transparent: liquid, dim
in the dusk as a cool glass bowl.
And who are we to question, we
who bend our ears to listen?
* * *
Violare, you tell the man
who analyzes you,
is a beautiful word
despite its meaning.
Unlike victim, unlike vulnerable.
Castration was never, strictly speaking, desirable. Or legal. But beauty made the mutilation worthwhile, vital even, since God couldn’t exactly sing to Himself. Money made it prudent. So castrati trained to sing like angels performed His masses, played the parts of both men and women—lovers, heroes, villains—in the candelabraed courts of kings and queens. Got rich like rock stars. Were beloved.
I fell in love with the castrato known only as “the boy” (“Il Ragazzo”) at first, then as Farinelli, when I fell in love with the music of his friend” Domenico Scarlatti. A late sonata, I remember, recorded on piano: needle-like precision, needle-brilliant colors in the hoop. What I can tell you is it jumped. He jumped. Off the tracks into unrelenting dirt, showing us a glimpse of his mind, that private dark plummet of the mind we hide from
ourselves, from others, every day. Then up again: into perfect sun, the remorseless summer green of trees.
* * *
You’ve been abused, he says slowly,
taking care to look into your eyes.
Mind (your mind)
jumps, a slapped animal. Blink,
I hate that word,
I don’t want to think of myself
as a victim. A tight smile.
* * *
Snap as the bridge
slips from its perfect,
upright posture, tumbling
through the empty
wooden torso, little dowel
whose only duty is
to echo (are we doomed
to echo?) every wave that
slaps it through your hungry violin—
one thing making
another sing, because there is
no music without violence,
no sound without a chain.
And when the tumbling stops?
In your hands a newly
An endless loop, each slim sonata—split in half, a repeat at the double bar. You return to the beginning, but not näively, there’s no return without an echo of the first time. Older, sweeter sometimes, a darkening wooden cask.
* * *
[ Farinelli, born Carlo Broschi, a child in Naples,
city of cathedrals, opera, castrati ]
No one speaks the words. Silent at the table,
four of us now, a new boy clearing dishes,
first the plates—the ones Father bought in London—
then the knives and forks. The big clock strikes ten,
still Mother doesn’t say, Carlo, time for bed.
Riccardo at the head of the table—
barely a week since Father passed away—
sitting high and black as a graveyard gate,
Sofie twisting day-old daisies in her lap.
The estate, Riccardo says. Decisions.
Mother creasing her black lace handkerchief.
A pair of bankers, he begins slowly,
Brothers. They have heard of Carlo’s talents.
The large fruit bowl remains on the table,
Father’s favorite—a pair of ladies dancing,
fingers hidden in their fluttering sleeves—
two oranges huddled inside it, mute.
They believe his debut would be brilliant.
At the origin of Narrative,
Roland Barthes writes in S/Z,
Sometimes you hear the frozen river split
and yet you step onto the ice—I ask,
When can it be done, this thing? Can it be soon?
Mother staring deep into her handkerchief,
as if there is an answer there, a stitch
she can unravel with the needle’s tip.
No one makes us plunge into the river:
we walk because there is no standing still.
Then Riccardo, O you whom I adore,
how you turned to me and, smiling, said:
Little brother, let it be as you wish.
I will call on the brothers Farinello.
* * *
Desire in the text
beneath the text—
Barthes writes about a tale by Balzac,
a castrato singer parading
as a woman, baffling
as the object of desire.
(You can only tell
this tale through indirection.)
Rain. Rain. A few drops cling to the window,
drop without a sound to the sill. Wet wind
blowing in: it barely touches me. Please,
let no one touch me. Just this bed, this bandage
wrapped around my shattered mast like a sail,
the nightshirt I refuse to let them change.
Mother’s footsteps in the hall. Then her head
bent over like the Virgin. Prayers. A candle.
We’re sailing, I’m sure of it—I’m seasick,
gagging again and again into a basin—
a hand wipes my head with a cold wet towel.
* * *
To produce narrative, however,
desire must vary, must enter into a system
of equivalents and metonymies. . .
I am winding through a stonewalled garden.
Someone mowed the grass. The clover’s headless,
dew soaks my feet, my night shirt is too thin—
If only I can find the door I’ll find him
sitting on the bench he loved, composing,
whole again: Father in the shade of a tree.
A ritornello, son. You will sing it soon.
He lifts up the manuscript, freshly inked—
a simple tune, andante. Just a scale
branching out like a tree designed to branch,
until it doesn’t, snapped without a reason.
Silence in the cooling air. Now it’s dusk.
Father looking up at me from shadows:
Son, what are you holding in your fist?
You’re used to thinking of yourself
as strong. Sit-ups, pull-ups, runs—
discipline your muscles, rid
your body of itself.
In the mirror everything looks the same.
One lock of hair, still damp, slides down my head.
Push it back. We must be perfect, he and I,
perfectly natural, calm, and gracious.
I move my lips: he smiles back instantly,
as if he’s worried I will find him out,
crying and clinging to the post of his bed.
Everything looks the same, I whisper to him.
My voice. Nothing will happen to my voice.
He is silent. In the glassy depths of his eyes
a flash—something silver twitching—a fish?
Tiny, iridescent. Fire in the pool.
* * *
You have always wanted
to be strong—
not one who needs.
Twilight: Mother spoons honey in my tea.
Alone in my room, one window open.
You’re just a boy, she says.
Though we both know
that’s the point—this hole we’ll never speak of,
my softness like a fruit. When all the other
glass bells smash, only I will stay unbroken.
A boy. Always a boy. Il Ragazzo.
Vitula. Viol. Violino.
Violare. Violentus. Violentia.
Origin and History of Violence, reads the header.
You’ve visited this page 3 times.
* * *
Last night you dreamed again
about your father—
You had him by the wrists:
above your head, the way you’d catch
a snake, one hand beneath his
fighting hard to not get bitten (you’ve worked so hard to not get bitten), other hand wrestling with the slick, elusive tail— Violins: Violence No shared root for these words,but isn’t it interesting that the Japanese counter (cho) for violins includes scissors, oargun and rickshaw? As in, give me a cho of violins. And some guns.
* * *Vitulare—to sing or rejoice—is related to
vitula, deity of victory and thanksgiving and Roman festivals, giving us the root for
both fiddle and violin. Vitula (also calf), because calf guts were used for violin strings.Morning: he has left the bed. Your chest feels likebatting in a pillow, no upholstery,no fringe. Behind the wall,water splashes the bathtub tiles,
your husband’s whistling— Mahler-something, each spacebetween his cheerfully constructednotes absolute. Yes,your father hurt you. Loved,in fact, to hurt youso all the hurt could flee the burningforests in his body, slither out toenter yours, renewed—he could see for a moment thenshapes he couldn’t bear to watch alone,a man bending down in the dark toblow out a crown of birthday candlesThen everything would be sweet again.You could eat the cake because sweet is what your body craved.What you couldn’t hold, you didn’t.
* * *Violare sounds a lot like vitulare, but it means to violate, to wrong. In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includesviolations of pre-existing duty, that loss includes claims for liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.Standing in the shower, you feel a lumpon your scalp, behind the ear.How did it get there? Can’t remember, but that feeling—something swollen, buriedbeneath your dripping hair—is familiar. Almost comforting.Like a picture that you’ve seena thousand times on a billboard appearing on your phone screen—crisp, so crisp. You remember little things: his white Hanes undershirt, fingers small and meticulous, working the potato peeler— swivel of those long, jack-o’-lantern-orange strips
* * *he scraped from the carrot falling, julienned, on the open paper.
How they soaked the newsprint.Shit-like offspring—that was his favorite curse for you in Korean.It had a satisfying ring:dactyl plus a trochee; five hard consonants.Some days it was dog offspring. When he was feeling, say,less creative, just bad offspring. Done trying whatever names he had for you, he’d pick up the bleeding newspaper, dump the peels into the trashcan— tap tap against the molded plastic. Flick the last few strips with his pearly nail tip.
* * *Quote from Marcus Aurelius, Book II of the Meditations:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I will deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like thisbecause they can’t tell good from evil.”Tell yourself what curesis the power of discrimination: spotting colors in the dark, singing in the shower.If you know you were wronged, who was wrong,well, shouldn’t you be okay? Sound from a violin (what we call music) is the product of a chain of fine aggressions and reactions: draw the bow slung with stiff white horsehair (only horses that have lived in cold weather countries) across four strings (sheep-gut core wound in silver or aluminum), start a tremor in the bridge carved from unbleached maple beneath the strings, sending ripples to the soundpost (spruce) lodged upright inside the belly—
* * *You feel fat and sad. Is this because of him, what he did to you (to you)? Is that the right preposition? You want to smash something. Thumbnail digging into nail bed, your hands slack on the wheel. What have you smashed, ever?Standing over you: he. The hand (or is it fist?)slamming the side of (whyare you recalling this?) the head. Yours.Face turned. There is no clarity,I’m done with you! no single instant—
* * *only reel, only the girl going down, getting up, go-ing down: endless loop, bad audio.A few seconds. —Make the soundpost ring. That’s what it’s built for: flood on flood of quick vibrations. Make it tremble, make it echo every note you play, transmit like a good little messenger every wave to the silent forests of the body, out again through two holes in the belly’s surface, called f-holes. As in the italic letter f, since only holes release music from an instrument. As in forte, fine, fuck.
* * *Do you remember how many times he did that to you? Through you. There was a thin blue tarp. Or you wished it—between (protecting, screening, shielding) him and you. He against, on top of (only a minute, only a few times, he probably didn’t mean it) you. Wished for something more than air.Don’t you feel mad at him? (You remember
feeling plastic.)There was no penetration there wasa tarp, thank God, it was you holding upa sky made of plastic.
* * *You want to smash something. Instead, you sing along to the radio— On the long way down,
Oh oh oh, oh oh oh— feel the seizing in your gut, how it tightens then lets go. Stop for the school bus flashing red. Tick-tock, tick-tock.Marcus continues: “But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognizedthat the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but thesame mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.” (Emphasis added)
* * *O beauty of the bathroom, patience of the door that shields her from the brittle house of him. O mirror in the cabinet never filled with medicine, bulbs in the fixture always electric. O head a ball of playdough abandoned on the blacktop in the pouring summer rain, water in the holes dug by a pencil. O trace for which she searches half in horror, half in vain, of her father’s latest handprint—proof of what the fire did, what beams of the cathedral look like burned. O camera, are you getting this? Take the roof off this house, spot the hallway to the narrow master bathroom where he sits. Show us the newspaper: pages falling open on his knees with a sound like a fan clicking shut or clicking open, sooty wings of an angel neither good nor evil, just a messenger. O beauty of believing in the sweet independence of things: coldness of the washcloth lifted to her head, water in the sink, pacing of her mother in the kitchen. O sanity in thinking even she (little weakling thing) could at this moment, if she chose to, simply hate him. I won my appeal.
When I read reversed,
I jumped up in my empty office, yelling “Suck it, Judge ________!”
I rejoiced and sang, I’d never felt so victorious.
* * *“No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.” O Marcus.
francine j. harris is the author of allegiance (2012), a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and play dead (2016). She won the 2014 Boston Review Annual Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in many journals, including McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Poetry, Meridian, Indiana Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Boston Review. She was a 2008 Cave Canem fellow, and was awarded a NEA fellowship in 2015. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
FWR: The “pink pigs” poems from your book Play Dead started as a personal essay for Tran(s)tudies. At what point did you decide to turn that essay into poems? Are the headers and footers in the poems a relic from the original essay, or were they something that came out as you worked on the poems?
fjh: I think it may have been the other way around. The poem began as a poem, and I used it in an essay I wrote for Tran(s)tudies; the essay was about code switching and I used it in this part where I was talking about speaking back to people that I grew up with, in kind of an indirect way into my writing. I can’t answer the question about ‘who you’re talking to in your poems or in writing in general’, but there are moments where talking back to folks that I couldn’t have certain conversations with. And in the essay, I believe I was talking back to some of the girls I grew up with and it was an example of one of those internal conversations turning into a piece. This piece was an amalgamation of a few specific people.
Actually when I wrote it, I had been reading Donald Barthelme; he has these little short narratives through dialogue and it just triggered something as I was reading it… But after I wrote it I realized that I was reaching even further back in terms of influence. It wasn’t exactly Barthelme who was triggering that voice, but Gayl Jones, who in the novel Eva’s Man has this very particular way of men and women talking, or not talking. There is a way in which their dialogue says and doesn’t say lots of things about consent and passiveness, and about things happening under the surface. I think all that stuff was playing into that, and when I originally wrote it, it was all one long piece but that didn’t quite work in the book, so I pulled it apart and let it intersperse throughout the whole collection.
FWR: Throughout the whole manuscript, there is this feeling that there’s this conversation happening between the past and present or imagined present and imagined past.
fjh: When you say imagined, what do you mean?
FWR: Looking back upon events that have happened, one tends to recreate them, but in that recreation they’re never quite the same as they were.
fjh: I think what I like about that conversation is that I don’t think it’s that idealistic, though. There’s just as much failure in that conversation as there might have been, or would have been, or was, in the relationships themselves. I think art allows a different kind of failure, a failure that can be productive. But I think, partly that’s what I gathered or what inspired me from Gayl Jones, that these imagined conversations are not any more romantic than the original. It just sits differently in the psyche, manifests differently. Does that make sense?
FWR: It does, and it speaks a little bit to that tension in the form and structure of your poems: between who is speaking, or when there’s an attempt to say or an inability to say. Is that fair?
fjh: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I’m definitely one of those poets who began writing because I didn’t know how to talk. I still don’t know how to talk. A lot of times I say things wrong, all the time. Ha! I think sometimes if I could just stop talking, and just do poems, everyone might be better off. Ha!
FWR: When you’re writing, do you see the poem ahead of time? For example, in “kara, you wild.andIdon’tknow” or “tatterdemalion,” were those the shapes you wanted because of the tension that you wanted that syntax to create? Or was it only through the playing through different forms that you realized that that’s the form you were hoping for?
fjh: I think that started– I get a lot of questions about this– I think I’ve realized, I don’t write towards visual structure. I’m interested in it, but maybe only in revision. I appreciate visual structure on the page. It’s not like I look at it and think it’s gratuitous or that I don’t find beauty in it, but I don’t think I come to it for that reason. It’s always something I’m thinking about in hindsight. So in answer to your question, no, I have no idea what shape it’s supposed to take.
I draw a little bit and sometimes if I’m drawing, I think, “what if this was text that looked this way?” I’ve tried that and it hardly ever works. It’s usually very forced. But I think because I do appreciate things visually, it’s become an editing point for me. It’s become a fun way to edit things. So those boxes, I started making those boxes and I didn’t know why I was making them, but it seemed to make sense because that’s what Kara Walker in “Cut”, which is an illustration she has of a girl figure with these really slashed off wrists, and so it just kind of made sense. But I was just doodling, and then I realized that this has a kind of resonance considering who I’m talking about and what I’m talking about in the poem. I guess I play with [visual structure] and if I like it, I’ll keep it.
FWR: Do you have a favorite poem to teach? How do you open up that conversation?
fjh: Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery… The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.
The thing that– I hear it like dinging. This is the thing this time around that jumps.
FWR: Who or what is inspiring you right now? If you could recommend one piece of art to anyone in this world, who might it be?
fjh: You know, it’s funny when you asked me this question, I had a weird moment, because I think the question you actually asked me was, ‘is there an artwork or a poem that you would share with anybody?’ and the first thing I thought was, ‘what I’m supposed to say is if there’s a piece of art I could give to someone like Trump that would somehow change him, what would it be?’
I was thinking about the artworks that I like, thinking, would it make a difference for Trump to walk through a gallery of any of those artists, or would that matter? Would it make a difference for someone to read Dawn Lundy Martin into his ear while he slept? But I had this moment where I realized how personally I view art. I’m kind of selfish about it. I don’t want to share anything with someone I have so little respect for. So if I were to show art to someone, it wouldn’t be for the thought of changing them, it would be for the thought of giving them something.
Sometimes I just gather things to show friends at appropriate occasions. I was going to tell you about this artist I’ve just found, whose work I really love, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, just because I was so excited about her art and her process, and it is the kind of thing I would want to share just, over a moment, over coffee. That’s how I think of sharing artwork, not as changing the world.
Davenport, Iowa. If you can believe it. Of all the dive bars in all the world, that’s where I
saw my first drag show. I was 19. And there was this queen there —Ginger Snaps.
She was a pointer-sister. She really served up the fantasy.
I said to myself,
that looks like a lot of fucking fun.
It took seven years until I saw her in the mirror.
She’s an instrument I made.
I become her
when I put on her eyelashes.
My body language changes,
my whole posture changes,
an action, a movement, a gesture, a pose.
I don’t want to become a woman. I want to be
a catalyst. Write that down.
You asked earlier, where desire figures for the crowd.
They all want to be changed—their mood,
their night, their rut. Call it escape, or release, the transaction is simple:
when I serve realness, I deliver what is true of a fantasy.
And if you ask me that’s the dregs of any request, whether it’s for a joke or a blowjob—
we don’t want the fantasy exactly, we want that little act of mercy that assures us the fantasy
Late August the galley blooms
fruit flies, smoke-winged & garnet-eyed, circling the soft caves
of over-sweet summer fruit: pear & blueberry, clingstone
peach. Each night I pray resurrection
but am deceived. Faith is not feast
but desire, not beauty of the table but what drags us starving
there – what was buried inside
the sweetness, inside
the plum’s bruised heart: larvae, pearling. Saint dear
of my difficult hunger:
rise me up
ISADORE—THERE IS A DOOR SOMEWHERE
paused in the breath of a thousand
horses where we wait for light
to catch our arms, bodies into nets,
golden sea flecked with ravens’
wings. Dear, I want to fly as quick as I can
into a canyon, leap hard into your
eyelids—how they never formed
enough to open—I will wait, still.
In this dream we circle you
in prayer and open any body willing
to be demolished in your name.
FRANCINE IMAGINES A JURY OF TWELVE WOMEN AT HER FUNERAL
Francine tastes the first words at sunrise, splits the verdict between them: her accuser at one end of the table, her Father at the other. I have guns of forgiveness for both of them, she writes. To Francine, forgiveness is a weapon for the last day she will be alive. To slice the throats of my accusers with kindness, a warm waterlike love washing us slick, she writes, in artichoke blood.
HOW BEGINNINGS ARE MADE
How the hay hobbled on
the mule-backs toward ice
caps covered with the unborn
on blankets beneath the one
star, beating-hearth, mother,
her snow watch, warming—
how before-children wanted
to see the one who loved
their bodies until she broke
herself open—how, off course,
mules moved holy hay, making
prints, perfect O’s, hooves
above the tree-line, to feed
the birth-sick their sight, source.
Enter: kim kardashian body
If you know nothing else about Kim Kardashian,
you know that she is an actual woman, a physical body:
5 feet 2 inches, 130 pounds, 38-26-42, 34D
Kim Kardashian is queen of her self-made kingdom
Kim Kardashian’s Entire Body Is Naked in These Paper Photos
Kim Kardashian’s Body Evolution
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and her already infamous body-ody-ody
Kim Kardashian has basically made a career
out of her bodacious curves—
Why your post-baby body isn’t like Kim Kardashian’s
If you believe in God, you might be one of those people
who thinks that Kim Kardashian’s body is evidence
of his existence
Kim Kardashian Reveals She Was 20 Pounds Thinner in 2009
I got so huge & it felt like someone had taken over my body.
Amazon.com: Kim Kardashian Signature Body Mist for Women
Honeysuckle, Jacaranda Wood, Vanilla, Tonka Bean, Orange Blossom, Musk
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And Now, Let’s Let Tina Fey Have the Last Word on Kim Kardashian
Kim Kardashian Didn’t Always Love Her Body
Kim Kardashian Says She Used to Pray
“Hurry. What matters is to be inside the prayer of your body.”
The story wants to devour a girl. Her hands,
two groping accidents that forget
to cover her face. All will recognize
her face, but for now here is the room
she grew up in—
here are her favorite books. Open the blinds.
The sun will strip her body apart. Unbuckle
the spine from its latches, legs
wide, wider & asking what is holy?
So the camera goes & the girl knows no one
will ever love her again. The breasts make
a seam with the body, which casts
an unfamiliar light. It isn’t vanity
that eats her alive & the room
echoes that tell-tale. She wants it
says the forsythia on the blanket, reaching their bright
yellow tongues toward her knees.
We’re losing her say the dresses. I can’t watch, the mirror.
It’s cold in here her heart says as she switches
positions on the mattress which cries
she used to use this bed for sleep.
I met the Pastores at Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor two days after we landed. To my surprise the church was a room, a room, inside The Hyatt a few blocks from our house. Was I the only one appalled by its lack of holiness? Did Mami wave her estrato like a flag of entitlement and walk out? She hugged and kissed and called this lady hermana and that señor hermano like this was totally her salsa and I was exaggerating. Painful to watch. Mami sensing my discomfort mentioned a youth group, people my age learning about Dios. Clearly this was all a mistake.
When we got there three fat women in matching navy suits ran to greet us, introducing themselves as Ujieres, mi niña, Dios te bendiga. A low cemented arch with three palm trees to each side where a sign for the South Florida Beauty Convention hanged on the side. And then: the room that pretended to be a church. Talk about being colonized by the wrong people, the wise Spanish understood it took Gothic fear to believe and follow Dios. For starters the churches in Bogotá were old, like centuries old, gothic, tall with vitrales, and colossal images of the Virgen de la Caridad, Virgen de Chiquinquirá, Virgen del Carmen, bleeding tears on the baby, the backdrop of the altar a nailed Jesús de Nazareth face contorted—did I mention homeboy also bled?—showing you he died for you, sinner. During the weekly school mass whenever I searched for spiritual or moral guidance the image of the bleeding, good-looking bearded son of God shook me into my senses: stop fake-kissing your Salserín posters Francisca, he died for you. And although my religious skepticism started at the age of 11 when I began falling asleep during mass, stealing my tías’ cigarettes and rubbing myself on the edge of the bed, the imposing thorn crown bleeding for all of us had created a fear so deep I found myself praying unconsciously after each said sin.
But enough of the past already. Mami always says you gotta look into the futuro, el pasado está enterrado, we sold it, buried it and bought new flowery bedspreads at Walmart instead. And now Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo awaited with its baby blue walls, four rows of folding chairs and a passageway in the middle. A mustard yellow carpet that resembled Mami’s favorite blouse which tied in a perfect silk bow and hadn’t been worn since her farewell party at the insurance company. Bibles secured in armpits. Everyone blessing their hermano, declaring in the name of Jesús, gloria a Dios for Sutanito’s new job at Seven-Eleven, and beware of Satanás when your children curse at you.
Women kneeled at the center. Others painfully hummed songs as a young man began drumming beats, their faces obviously demanding attention because as everyone could clearly decipher from the tightness of their fists, the hermanas suffered.
They couldn’t be serious, but they were.
I remember the awkward embarrassment, an urge to tell everyone to please turn it down a notch. Amazed at the lack of shame in blasting Christian rock and singing to it while people watched—normal gringos peeked from time to time, entertained by the free Spanish spectacle happening right at their hotel. People are watching you, I wanted to say. But at that moment all they cared about was proving to each other who was Jesús’ #1 Fan, and to be honest it was a tough call. So instead of snapping I actually yearned for the mournful, silent quality of Catholic mass. The Ave Marías, the bells, the Latin phrases nobody understands, all of us girls in uniform passing notes during the evangelio. The imposing holiness of the priest, his robe—the Pastor wore black pants and a dark blue shirt that made him look more waiter than godly.
Mami explained the Christian logic of such circo to me later: you can praise el Señor anywhere, because He is everywhere and He is watching you, sinner. It’s about a direct relationship with Jesús and Dios, no intermediaries, no fake images to praise. What about La Virgen? Na-ha, no Virgen. Dios mío. Fifteen years lighting candles to the Virgen, waiting anxiously for rosaries to end, fifteen years with a Virgencita around my neck that protected me of all mal since my baptism. And now, suddenly, the Virgen and I faded into the background.
Mami introduced me to the Pastora inside an arch of blue balloons framing the stage. A sign—lead singer works at Kinko’s— covered half of the end wall with a rainbow reading ARCOIRIS DE AMOR. On the left two huge speakers. Big party speakers because this was a party para alabar a Cristo. A Jesús party. Someone whispered to me: Jesucristoooo.
La verga, I told Mami.
Grosera. Okey, here don’t be grosera.
Half of the people were thick women with hair done in highlights, fake red nails, kissing each other’s cheeks with tired eyes while some mumbled things in English with an air of superiority. Clarita! Como ha aprendido inglés, mire a la gringa. Children wailed, chanted. One of them colored a dove black, the bird breaking the lightning sky. Why black Marcelita? Aren’t you Jesús’ little princess? It should be baby blue. It should be white. Holy spirit is pure mi amor, a ver. Young girls in white sheer gowns shook tambourines, held hands, eyes shut letting out a siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh to the heavens. Above, the heavens, three colossal ceiling fans going whoosh whoosh whoosh and at the back table a man alone in headphones. I asked Mami and Mami asked tía Milagros and tía Milagros responded that it is the Biblical Translation Center, for the gringos. This is a real time translation Spanish to English with headphones. Oooooooh. See how good? Even the gringos come here. Tía Milagros pointed to a giant white man with tiny spectacles seated in the first row wearing headphones hunched over a bible. Mami was super excited about the church’s inclusivity. Of course Mami couldn’t stand the gamines outside of Catholic mass asking for money or Lucia’s close friend a moreno from Barranquilla, of course not. But gringos, she’s been super excited about. I pitied the yanqui man a little. Why in the world would a gringo come to this church? Don’t they have their own?
People jumped to touch me, asked all kinds of questions. Lady in yellow dress and with enormous cleavage (Marcela, later barred from stealing the diezmo), Mamita are you Myriam’s daughter? Xiomara mira, this is Myriam’s daughter. No way, you don’t look anything like her! I held you when you were this big.
This is exciting, I thought, very exciting. Is it different from what you had in mind? Is it different from The Promised Life? Is it different from the yellow-haired blue-eyed heaven of boys and girls in Saved by the Bell wanting to be your friends? Cachaco, please, I wouldn’t have conjured up this place in my head in a million gazillion years (and I grew up in Bogotá during the 90s).
You come with me to the youth group, nena.
Mami sat in the first row, next to the bald Pastor and his terrible mustache while Xiomara with her gelled curls escorted me to the room next door.
Xiomara’s infomercial voice made the walk a sort of limbo, stuck inside a television screen. Down the hallway men in shirts, gelled hair, smiling out of some sort of obligation, handing me their sweaty palms. Free embraces that I never asked for. Lots of arms around me chanting in unison Dios te bendiga! Dios te bendiga! Dios te bendiga! But I thought, I’ll meet some people there, right? I couldn’t imagine young people going there out of mere will and a light sense of hope let me breathe deeply one last time. And there taped in gold on top of a rainbow read: Jóvenes en Cristo.
Here’s a little something for you, mi reina: All these colombianos migrate out of their país de mierda to the Land of Freedom, in this case Miami, to better themselves, to flee the “violence” or whatever, seek peace, or, really, to brag they’re living in the freaking U.S of A and hello credit card, and hello cell phone and car I can’t afford, and hello hanging out in a room at the Hyatt with the same motherfuckers you ran from. Like, they couldn’t have done that in Bogotá? Barranquilla? Or Valledupar? My second reaction to the room-church was a terrible disappointment. This. Is. It? Whaaa? More on that later.
Now, what I saw behind that door had been inconceivable before (cachaco, Bogotá in the 90s, remember). Never in my life would I have thought young people could be… so… soulless. Depressed? Yes. Hijosdeputa? Yes. Killers? Yes. I’d been robbed by young boys on the streets before, kids barely over 5 years old sniffing boxer, sleeping next to their knives. Junkies? Yes—Catholic school for them daughters of coqueros. But a state of mind robbed completely of humanness, fifteen-year olds humming like a machine, and brought to life through the stupid repetition of prayer: hijos de Dios.
Inside everyone around the circle lifted their hands in a let’s-slap-some-high-fives gesture. Disgusting, I thought. I didn’t want to touch everyone’s hands but Wilson the youth leader, who we’ll call Young Mulatongo, grabbed me by the elbow and skipped around the circle holding out my arm. Are these people blind? I’m punk. I’m an artist. I fight bitches on the street. Once in the middle of la 82 I spat on this girl for calling me a chirri (I did run right after. But still).
But where could I run? The condescending smiles. Two girls in matching shiny flip-flops held tambourines fake smiling and only barely touching my hand with their fingertips. Okay mi vida do it for your mother who worked her costeña butt off to get that visa and who is ecstatic to be in this church (no one could shut her up about it months before we moved here), and if you just behave today maybe later she’ll forget all about it and you’ll be able to stay at the townhouse and think of ways of not killing yourself yet. Cool.
The Young Mulatongo shook his finger in front of me.
Eeee-cume niña, hellooo. We’re down by three people tonight we need to increment our Sacred Outreach Efforts.
Some of them yawned. Others swayed their arms to the baby blue ceiling. Everyone was instructed to bring a friend and share their Life Changing Testimony. Then in came a young morena from Barranquilla in one of those sheer white gowns, waving off the Young Mulatongo but flirting with him, passing out pamphlets with light exploding from grey clouds.
Okey, pelaos, this is how it’s going down. I want all you lazy disque followers of Jesús to get that culo moving or else we’re buried, me están oyendo? Tonight go home and think of that friend, that lonely ugly child with the Metallica shirt next to you in English math Spanish government class that is in desperate need of saving. You know the kind. Yes? And you bring that ugly, godless child next week and here we will strip him of that shirt and he will smell of pachouli and we’ll deal with Dios and he will be one of his soldiers are we all full cleaaaaar pelaos?
They all went wild, cheering, throwing pillows in the air, bibles flew. Girl is a preacher. This girl has my attention. And just like that, that ugly Barranquillera and her authority, and her pimples demanding with no respect whatsoever that we—that I—do exactly as she said.