don’t be shy. I know you have been watching me as you would a salmon tailing up the river—I
recognize that white glint in your eye. Don’t hide—come closer to me with your awkward,
lovely gait, and nuzzle my ears with a low growl; come and feel slowly, with your sharp bear
claw, a woman’s tender spine reverberate. It is all right, I like you warm-blooded. I’m sure such
gentle heat can’t compare to any winter coat. So stir before solitude floods your skin and don’t
go hibernating, leaving me awake, searching for your
stars at the sea,
(I see you don’t dare hug my shoulders. You fear denting bone, but you underestimate me.
Underneath this spring dress dappled with grass sap, I keep a thousand layers of skin petals, and
over it, an amphibian film of toxic spit. Though surely, if handled well, medicinal—like
everything else in this world. Press your finger-claw through my hand, convince yourself that
I’m not made of glass—see how we are both omnivores of rugged meat. No need to hold back
Coach Mac told us
as we sweltered on the sideline
and the freshmen practiced tackling
how the heat drove snakes
into the cool steel tubes
on his father’s construction sites in Burma,
taipans coiled inside the rifled hollows,
vipers slunk down the silvery lengths;
how when the chatting workers
tipped the tubes upright
the snake inside would slide out, puddle
below the rim, confounded
by the brightness of the world;
how a dart, two lunging pricks
could end a man where he loafed,
slouching on one leg,
sipping shwe yin aye and asking the score
of the White Angels match;
how they called them five-step kraits
because the forklift operator
was dead before the sixth;
how after that day, his father
made him stay in the foreman’s tent
and the workers only picked up tubes
in pairs—one crouched, ready to lift,
one gripping a shovel at the other lip,
poised to thrust down,
sever skin and spine.
—Thing to get
a rich interior life.
I understand this
I’ve gotten intimate
about my wreck. Everyone’s
about sex, but
what about his body, prone,
on the bathroom floor?
Wouldn’t sleep in our bed
out of guilt—maybe
a need to be alone
with suffering. I
lay singly but didn’t
talk about it. That ritual which has
What was inside me
was not yet
barrenness, but your basic
but weedy, weeds ripe
for the yanking out—
a tract of fertile metaphor.
—Stinging nettle, bristly
oxtongue, panic grass /
How should I fill my days
now that I’m admitting
I’ve got nothing?
Look into the world,
the world suggests. Forget
the obvious comparisons
between plants and
clouds spill over a real place
But who cares
what you call the outside
if the inside is shorn clear—
wanted: a width, a girth. vessel me, burden me, break me into bearing:
take this sluice to be swollen, worn, heavy in gait, o
give me a heft to hold, his or her own I am, owing surrender:
the deed to a bastard house I lost—
there is no one to ask to bear with me
our unborn. who is our? it takes a plural to produce
the thing that’s gone— what we?
who were you anyway?
Say hi to California for me. Say hi to lovely weather.
I hear your movie is a good one. Your movie is a winner.
Say good morning to the good girl beside you. Say hello
to good decisions. The bread and the toast it becomes.
The sweet unction of jam and the dull knife that spreads it.
There are ratings for content and there are ratings
for effectiveness. Give this breakfast a thumbs-up, give this
daily bread an M for Mature. You are no longer the man
who wakes in his own sick. You are a clean and gleaming
example of the benefits of benefits, the outcome of income.
Hello car, hello driveway, my goodness it’s been
forever since we gridlocked together, since we were caught
in a pattern and sidelined. Hello burning vehicle. Hello
tire smoke. Use your turn signal when passing. Politeness
is a virtue is a virtuous man. LA is a town and LA is a set
piece for noir and incest. I hear you bought all
the orange groves. I hear you’re a pipeline and a girl
with a fresh nose job goodbye goodbye. You inhale
and she inhales the good day the good idea
and the smog isn’t smog it’s potential.
WHO SAYS SORRY
The habit of sealing up sweetness,
of saving but never
tasting, isn’t lost
when the drones disperse,
and the queen
is left to starve.
These uncapped frames
with ready-made cells
say there are six sides
to every argument
and there are six arguments
for abandoning your home,
but each can be built
upon and expanded.
Even when the chemicals
in our body smooth and the horizon blues
there’s still a synapse
or two that crackles
that prefers the look
of honey in a jar
left to darken unopened,
the comb floating
like a ruin.
EVEN THE NEWS
When Napoleon wrote
to Josephine, “Am returning in three days. Don’t wash,”
he wanted her
concentrated, the sweet and the rank
in the crevices
of her underarms, the accumulations
dabbed over days
in negotiation with the stiffer perfume of her crotch,
which we call musk, which we describe as animalic,
acknowledging our flirtation
with the fecal and fecund,
the way we sniff, wrinkle our noses, and sniff again.
this aroma we’ve hunted musk deer, killed muskrats,
dried organs, ground them, tinctured the grains
and then anointed
our bodies with the complex
scent that attracts and repels
Napoleon couldn’t know
this battlefield missive
would be passed on and repeated
in varying shades of admiration and disgust,
or that one day he’d be a synonym for a man
overcompensating. He was of average height for the period.
Upon Napoleon’s death,
the attending doctor cut off the corpse’s penis
and gave it to a priest in Corsica
like a relic,
which, improperly preserved, shrank
and thinned to a leather shoelace,
redolent of sandalwood,
tying us together
by what repels and binds.
Tomorrow there will be a better tomorrow
if we go to bed early if we say our prayers
there will be a cessation to this still weather
but not a tornado. Tomorrow the sprinklers
will click against the drought
during appointed times and the small pines
will stand stranded in red clay.
The bubble skylights of Walmart will aim
their security cameras to the heavens.
There will be cleanups on aisles five and six.
There will be returns. The hideous apings of sex
from our neighbors carrying across the asphalt
are not like our hideous apings of sex spilling over
the window frames. Ours call the world into new focus.
Tomorrow we will make promises. We will say our prayers.
We will go to a church recognized suitably Christian.
A hat will be passed though no one wears hats anymore.
If our prayers have answers they aren’t these children
bicycling in aimless circles in the parking lot, singing
the song of the summer. Someone like you. Someone like you.
The number of nights I’ve spent alone crowd
the grass like fallen green apples. They are years
spotted, bruised, and wasting. Not a spell or a season,
but a lifetime—a good life with a brick house,
libraries, a surprise party for my thirty-third
birthday, leather boots, Fela Kuti, and mercy dressed
in my mother’s terry cloth robe. I forget
the three meals I’ve eaten most days. Another
hunger gnaws at my restlessness.
Beside you, I am a ring or a moon, or you
are a ring or a moon. Or we are one planet
with moonlike names for the places our bodies
have yet to touch: Sea of Clouds, Sea of Ex-loves,
Sea of Rib Cage, Sea of Seas of Patience, Sea of Long
Islands, Sea of Ohio, Sea that has Become Known.
Awake, I recall the choreography—my arm
numb, turning to one side. Last night
you dreamt of saddled horses from a carousel
gorging on autumn apples. You say there was plenty,
and I believe you. I make my body a long neck
to reach for your face. The first time we kissed
was on a street corner waiting for the light
to change. We stepped from the curb
and rowed the air with our sleek bones,
the bones you hold me with now
in the almost-dawn. Inches from us
in a puddle on the floor is a flannel shirt—
the one she said brought out your eyes.
A touch is enough to let me know
you have not forgotten her. Forgiven her.
I wear a gown that ties in the back; this is how
I am sure I am sick. The nurse can’t be more
than a few years older than I, smiling
as if we’re friends while I grip closed
the gape of my frock. Laying down
on the narrow carriage, I think
it’s a bit like a grotesque sleepover,
me in my nightdress and the nurse
telling jokes, fetching me a blanket
to throw over my knees. I think
these things because I am young
enough to have slumber parties,
still young enough to feel entitled
to ease. And the nurse waves
to a technician behind the glass—a boy,
I mean a man—who coolly asks
what I’d like to listen to, the way a boy does
on a date, scanning the car radio,
or at a party where he knows everyone
will sing along, but I say nothing
as I slide in, arms by my side
as if I were slipping into the sleeve of a sleeping bag
and it were simply my friends whispering
in the next room, trying not to disturb me.
Deneb in the Swan; Altair in the Eagle; Vega in the Lyre—he brought home a woman
at three in the morning and told me to get out of bed and go sit on the front porch.
I listened to her having an orgasm—
a chord, a jazz chord: three thirds on top of the root.
It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not—it’s feeling.
Vega, in the Lyre of Orpheus, a double-double that looks like two stars but is four,
two and two. Diminished or augmented. The sheets were stained in the morning when I was
let back in the house. So I bought my own mattress and put it in another room. Lyric: one
strum over four strings vibrating simultaneously. One afternoon I took a walk
down the street to buy a half gallon of milk. When I came home I found him
with a new woman. Both were naked in my bed, on my mattress,
under my covers in my room that was separate from his. Of the first magnitude
or brighter or darker.
I disagree with you about the nature of love
and by extension about art or rather
the role of form in art for while abstraction
can delight the senses it is not sustainable
or repeatable and what humans need is more
like a glass of water not only upon waking
but one at lunchtime and one later on
in the evening repeating like a clock
that doesn’t need winding but ticks along
uninspired unexploding with no mystery at all
that is simply there in its place so I suppose
I also disagree with you about life and its
purpose I mean can you imagine if breath
or pulse were to have an ecstatic epiphany no
there is no ecstasy no explosion no light
piercing darkness once and for all but just
this steady lighting of the lamps of progress
and of moving on and yes it’s predictable
and that’s not only its chief characteristic
but its crowning virtue so make your art
in form that iterates generally and gently
rather than in spasms that hate themselves
and in doing so you will find the love that
plods dully on and it will bear that weight
in you of course I say all this and want
to mean it but in fact I live in urgent sadness
The 1970’s were full of firsts for many people. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Raul Castro became the first Latino to hold the office of Governor in the great State of Arizona. My mother, Anita Ortiz, became the first in her proud, Hispanic family to marry an Anglo. Thomas Gordon, my father, became the first in his Anglo family to marry a divorced, single mother of non-European descent, although they were fond of describing her as “Spanish.” Thomas and Anita then went on to have me, their first child together, but not their first child. My half-brother, Luis, was my mother’s first.
Shortly after my birth, my mother returned to work and started attending college. While school was in session for my mom and brother, my dad’s mother watched me during the day. Until I started attending school myself, this is where I spent half of my life. My father’s family lived across the city and a world away.
My grandparent’s white ranch house sat on a little over an acre, nestled between old orange groves. Set far back from the street, the long drive stretched out lazily next to the neat rows and rows of trees that hid the neighbors’ houses. Out behind the drive and the garage was the back acreage, where my grandparents always kept a couple head of cattle and let the neighbors’ horses graze.
The little ranch had a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat. Every morning that I was there, my grandmother would give my grandfather a lunch packed in a shiny metal lunchbox, a thermos full of coffee, and a kiss. In the morning, he always smelled like a combination of mustache wax and aftershave, his wavy, grey hair neatly parted and combed. He would walk out the door, off to his job of designing jet and rocket fuel, with a pen and mechanical pencil in his front pocket, his keys, and a pack of Camel cigarettes in his hand. In this house, everyone spoke English without an accent or a brogue and the breeze carried with it the sweet smell orange of blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Summers in Arizona could give the Devil heat rash. My mom drove a 1973 AMC Hornet, which had a special setting on the air conditioner for “desert climates.” This did nothing to prevent crayons from melting into the floor mats, vinyl records from warping, or the big metal seat belt buckles from branding us while we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. My brother and I would threaten to report my folks for child abuse if they tried to drive us across town during the summer. So, if my parents ever needed a sitter in the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summertime, we stayed with someone from my mom’s large extended family, all of whom seemed to live within a five-mile radius of us. It was within this tight circle that I spend the other half of my childhood.
When I went to my grandparent’s house, the routine was always the same. My mother walked me up to the house. The adults exchanged pleasantries. My mother told my grandmother when she could expect her to return. My mother gave me a kiss and I waves goodbye from the back porch.
With my mother’s family, it was a crapshoot. We’d drive up to one of the aunts’ houses; my brother and I tumbled out of the car like excited puppies, tripping over ourselves to get to the house and out of the sun. We’d knock on the door and if someone answered, we’d turn, wave to our parent and go inside. As soon as we passed the threshold, they’d back out of the drive. There were no arrangements made, no pick up times discussed. If the door opened, we went inside. If not, we trudged back to the idling car, reluctantly got back in, drove a couple blocks in any direction, and repeated the process. The first house we usually hit was my Tia Gloria’s house.
Gloria was my mother’s oldest sister. She and my uncle Hector had five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to just a few years older than Luis. All seven of them lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the barrio. Their back yard was home to an old pickup that had wood running boards that creaked and moaned when you stepped on them, and a handful of wiry chickens that left their eggs all over the yard including in bed of the truck. Two mutts named Frito and Lay protected the chickens from cats and hawks and other poachers, but mostly they slept in the shade under the truck.
In this house, accents came and went, thicken and soften depending on the audience, the mood, or the weather. Some spoke Spanish heavily peppered with English, other English sprinkled with Spanish phrases and slang.
Here the air was heavy with the sticky, sweet smell of cooked citrus juice coming from the big brick processing plant that made the syrup for Squirt soda at the end of the street. Any noise coming from the plant was drown out by kids laughing, dogs barking, music playing, and people talking to each other over fences and through the open windows and screen doors. The only time the noise subsided was when everyone headed inside for dinner.
By the time the Ortega family settled in for a meal around their Formica and metal table, my Tia Gloria and my cousin Sofia had been cooking for forever. It was amazing to watch those two women gracefully glide and spin around each other in that tiny kitchen. Even the food seemed to be a part of the dance, somehow popping, bubbling, and sizzling in time to the Tito or Celia Cruz songs coming from the radio that sat on top of the fridge.
I so wanted to be a part of the culinary ballet, not knowing that I was witnessing was a finely choreographed performance, honed over years of practice. When I rushed in and begged to help, I did nothing but throw them off their steps. As a five year old, they banished me from the kitchen, ordering me to go play. But I didn’t. I perched on the arm of the couch, so I still had a clear view of their dance, and sulked.
Tio Hector came home from working at one of the farms that used to surround the Valley and found me pouting in his living room. Every day for the better part of a week, he walked in the door, kiss me on the top of my depressed little head, and ask “¿Que pasa, mijita?”
“Nada,” I responded, trying to look as dejected as possible.
“I’m not allowed to help. I’m too little.”
“Then go play.”
“It’s too hot.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder as if he understood the troubles weighing down my soul, and he headed to the shower to wash off the bits and pieces of his day that stuck to him. But after a few days, he’d had enough.
“¿Quieres ayudarme?” he asked me.
I paused before I responded to his invitation to help. I hoped that it didn’t involve standing in the backyard, waiting to fetch tools or beer while he worked on that ancient truck. But, even that was better than doing nothing.
“Si, como no.” I finally answered.
Every day after he came home and showered, he worked with me so I could master my new responsibilities. The first day I watched.
“Mira, mijita,” he began. “Take one of the papeles and lay it like this.”
He laid the tiny rectangular sheet of paper on the coffee table in front of us. He sat on the sofa and I knelt on the floor between his bare feet, both of us facing the table. He hunched over me, so that the paper and his hands were directly in front of me. As I watched, I could smell the Ivory soap on his freshly scrubbed skin. He grabbed a pinch of what looked like pencil shavings from a pouch, and laid them in a neat little row on the edge of the paper.
“Mira, only this much. No mas or it falls out.” He put my index finger over the row.
“See, only as wide as your finger,” he instructed. Then he nimbly rolled it into a tight little tube with his leathered and calloused fingers. He picked it up and held it out at my eye level.
“Pick it up like this. Okay? With the edge of the paper facing up so you can lick it like an envelope.” I turned to watch him quickly swipe his tongue along the edge.
“Not too much vavas. You don’t want to make it wet.” He continued his lesson. “Okay, this is important. Gently run your finger over the edge to press it down. Remember, gently, just to get paper to stay down. Don’t pinch it or mush it.”
We practiced that way every evening for days. The first cigarette, I watched. The second, we did together, his sun baked farm hands guiding mine, still baby pink. The third, did on my own. By the end of the week, I graduated. From there on, it was my job to have three cigarettes waiting for Tio Hector. After he got home and showered, I went in the backyard with him and looked for any eggs the chickens may have hidden while he smoked the first cigarette. When he was done, we washed up for dinner. I never saw him smoke the other two. He saved them for just before bed and right after breakfast the next day.
One day my mom came earlier than usual to pick us up.
“Hola,” she called as she walked through the door. Tia Gloria and Sofia paused just long enough to stick their heads out from the kitchen, returned the greeting, and returned to cooking.
“Monica, go find Luis and tell him it’s time to go,” my mom ordered.
“Just a second,” I said as I brought a tightly rolled cigarette up to my lips and licked the edge.
She just stood there, dumbfounded, and watched me as I smoothed the paper down and set the cigarette next to the other one I had finished just before she walked in the door.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Making cigarettes for Tio Hector,” I proudly stated. “He taught me.”
“It’s true,” Tio Hector said, his voice coming from behind my mother, which made her jumped a little. He was beaming at me, his pride nearly matching my own. My mother’s face did not mirror ours.
“I don’t think she should be doing that, Hector.” She sounded worried. My heart sank. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy too, but I knew enough that it worried me. However, my uncle didn’t stop smiling at me even for a second.
“Why?” he asked.
I watched her struggle for an answer. Then, after what seemed like an extremely long time, she finally offered something up.
“Well, it doesn’t seem right that she knows how to roll cigarettes but she can’t even tie her own shoes yet.” I watched both my mom and tio’s faces.
“Maybe she should learn how to do that first,” she offered.
“¡Aye, mija!” Tio Hector exclaimed dramatically putting his hands over his heart and rolling his eyes. “You don’t know how to tie your shoes?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not quite understanding why this was a big deal. The flip-flops and sandals that I wore during the summer didn’t have laces to tie. Tio Hector smiled down at me and put his hand out. I smiled back and handed him his three neatly rolled smokes.
“That’s fine,” my Tio Hector said to my mother. As I stood and started to follow her out the door, Tio Hector asked me, “Where’s my hug?” As I hugged him, he lifted me up, kissed me on the cheek, and softly said, “Gracias, muñeca.”
The next day, all of my family descended on our house for my brother’s birthday. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were older, filled with what my dad called “blue collar families”, and had tidy yards with a bike or skateboard strewn under a tree or on the sidewalk. And almost all of them had swimming pools.
Our swimming pool was ancient and the plaster would peel layers of skin from your feet. But it was ours and in the summer, we practically lived in it. We were also the only ones in the family on either side with a pool. So everyone showed up any time there was an excuse to use it, like my brother’s birthday.
I loved it when my Grandpa Gordon would come over to swim. He taught me how to swim like a frog and side scissor kick. He’d throw coins into the deep end, and my brother and I would see how many we could grab before we had to come up for air. When we got tired, my grandpa and I would share an inner tube or raft, and just float around until it was time to eat.
After my grandfather had shared a second piece of cake with me, he was sitting on the pool deck, smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to him and picked up his pack of Camels.
“How many are in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Let’s look on the package.”
I examined the box until I found the number.
“20!” I exclaimed. “Wow. It would take a long time to make all those.”
“They have machines that do it really fast,” my grandpa assured me as I handed him his pack.
My mom was walking around the patio and pool deck collecting plates and glasses. She called me over to help carry the stuff she’d gathered.
“Don’t talk to Grandma and Grandpa Gordon about cigarettes. Okay?” she said quietly. She had that same look on her face as before, as if we were going to get in trouble.
“Why?” I asked, all my concern punctuating my question.
“Well, it’s just not good manners, I guess.” She said, her eyes hopeful that I would either understand or just leave it there.
“Is it bad?” I asked and heard her let out an exacerbated sigh.
“No, not bad. It’s just not polite.”
The whole next week at the Ortega house, after Tio Hector came home, I learned to tie shoes. He taught me as patiently and methodically as he had before. He brought out every shoe his kids owned and set them out on the floor in front of the TV. I practiced, while he washed up. If I knotted up one shoe, which I inevitably did, I just moved on to the next one. By the end of the week, when our mother came to get us, I eagerly showed off my new skill.
After that, I went back to rolling cigarettes. It took a few days for my mom to catch on that I had started production again. But when she saw the three cigarettes waiting for my uncle on the coffee table, the look returned to her face.
“I don’t think Monica should make cigarettes anymore,” she announced as Tio Hector walked into the living room.
His thick black hair was still wet from his shower and he had slicked it back. He looked like Ricky Ricardo in cuffed blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of a suit.
“¿Por que?” he asked. His voice sounded like he was tired of this conversation before it began.
“It’s just not right,” she began and looked up to see how even that much of the objection registered with him. He just looked at her and then at me, waiting to hear more.
“The tobacco is full of chemicals and nasty stuff,” she continued. “She shouldn’t be touching it. What if it turns her fingers brown?”
Tio Hector smirked at the idea. Then he looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not the problem,” he decided. “What’s wrong?”
My mom flushed, took a deep breath, and then blurted out, “White kids don’t roll cigarettes.” She took another deep breath. “What are the Gordons going to say when they find out their granddaughter is rolling cigarettes?”
Although she said everything very calmly and quietly, she looked embarrassed and guilty.
“I think they have machines that make cigarettes,” I offered, trying to help. However, this only made her more upset. Tio Hector went over to her, gently wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for a minute.
“Calmate,” I heard him tell her. “Esta bien.”
He stepped back and swept her hair away from her face with his finger. “You can’t avoid it, Anita,” he said. “She’s going to brown up sooner or later, and not because of the tobacco. I promise you, they will love her either way.”
She sighed and the redness that showed up in big angry blotches on her cheeks and neck began to fade. Tio Hector pulled her close again until I heard her say, that he was right and she was sorry. As we drove home, Luis kept asking why no one was talking and what was wrong. I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what happened or how to explain it. So, we were quiet.
The next time I went to the Ortega house, there was a little box wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper and tied with a bright piece of yarn sitting out on the coffee table.
“Mija, that’s for you,” Tia Gloria told me. “Pero, escuchame. Don’t open it until Hector comes home.”
All day I was drawn to the little, neat package. I ran my finger over the fuzzy yarn until I accidentally untied it. Luckily, I could tie it again, but I couldn’t remember if I needed to double knot it or not. I did anyway, just to be safe. I held it up to my ear and shook it, then quickly set it back down. Finally, Tia Gloria took it away and put it on the kitchen counter because I was driving her crazy. That day I drank a gallon and a half of water just so I had an excuse to go into the kitchen and see if it was still there.
After what seemed like ages, Tio Hector came home. I asked if I could open the gift as soon as he walked in the door.
“Just wait until I take my shower,” he instructed.
“Hector!” Tia Gloria yelled from the other room. “Don’t be mean. Let la niña open it!”
I ran to retrieve it from the counter and hustled back to sit next to Tio Hector on the couch. As I peeled away the paper, the glossy box underneath showed a picture of a toy I’d never seen before. In my experience, boxes were reused a lot, so you couldn’t trust the picture on the outside. I quickly opened it to find the same curious toy I had seen on the box. I looked up at my Tio Hector and said thanks but with a question mark hanging on the end.
“It’s a machine,” he took it in his hands and examined it. “A machine that rolls cigarettes for you, like you said.”
He handed it back to me and pulled the instructions out of the discarded box. For the next few days, we learned how to use my new rolling machine. It stayed at the Ortega’s house and I used it every day that I was there, although we never spoke of cigarettes again.
When the pastor spits
while sputtering any
variation of God’s name.
When the swing of preacher’s
head streams sweat into the pews.
capture both spit and sweat
in the elder mothers’ hats.
Use it either as holy water
or anointing oil.)
When you realize the song
on the organ has looped.
When someone says catch
the spirit, as if the altar
is lined with bear traps.
When the AC gives out
when you realize
it was never on.
When sister Bernice’s baby
cries to see mother shuffle
feet like stomping a snake.
When sister Ruth steps on
your new white Nikes.
When the youth minister
runs out the front door.
There are casualties in faith
If you become drunk
on the wine of sweat
and singing and prophecy
enough that the red
text of Gospels bleeds
indistinguishable from black,
from the white space,
from the thick air. Run
Shout to the Lord.
Sing to Him a new song.
PSALM FOR GOING DOWN
Is this not praise? To relearn
speech with thighs
pressed to each ear, practice
the shapes of each soundless
letter against opening of flesh.
Is this how Adam formed
the first alphabet? Was this
the origin of speaking
in tongues? Jesus, I know you
too would open your mouth
and men would rise, would speak
into an opening and
a man would come
forth. I am resurrected
at each little death. I will not
deny the evidence of spirit,
a tongue of fire
descending onto head
A man told me there was nothing he would rather keep noticing—and he pointed to the spaces between palm fronds, chinks of turquoise and a few clouds. Just now, into this recollection, wanders an egg on a green dish.
On library card stock I have written either Distant Noise or Distant Nurse. The former, with its taint of oxymoron, suggests the story of an enchanted chain-saw marooned on a desert island. The latter evokes the severe hair and pointed chin of a person from my past.
Into our lives comes a small cat, scratching at the screen door, its expression weary and disillusioned. Oh come in, we say, and we give it a little saucer of milk, which it laps up. Then it begins to talk to us in our own language. It is full of complaints concerning the economy, the world energy situation and life on this planet, the great mystery being that we weren’t consulted, we are helpless pawns of the universe, yadda-yadda. In other words, not only a smart cat, but a phenomenally bitter cat.
MOUSE CHOIR, AN OPERA
1. Today a mouse choir will perform for us Verdi’s la donna e mobile, which means woman is fickle.
2. The mice with their weak chins and strong noses have ferreted out our desires which are otherwise secret.
3. Kafka had a habit of incorporating mice into fiction.
4. Our desires are not so extraordinary, claims Rigoletto, a grotesque dwarf.
5. Adorable in bonnets and knee socks, they approach the stage like a band of 3 year olds, uncertain of what is required, bewildered…
6. Kafka had a habit of visiting prostitutes.
7. Verdi began an affair with a soprano “at the twilight of her career.”
8. They assemble in a pool of greyness.
9. There was, for example, one called Josephine, a soulful queen.
10. woman is fickle woman is fickle they will soon sing, but they know not what they sing.
11. We, on the other hand, with our hidden desires, our secret yearnings…
12. How we long to be placed in another era, among a new crop of mice!
13. Before singing, it is customary to squeak a little
14. as if pumping the air out of a room.
THE CORPSE AND ITS ADMIRERS
The coffin is grey with gold curlicues at the corners, at each of the four corners, although we only see two from where we are sitting with our mother. Each curlicue of a golden color has a shiny ring of silver around it and then some dots. The dots are very small.
The oak casket is very big. It is 10 feet. Maybe it is 20 feet. The feet of the corpse jut up from it since it is a shallow casket. Picture a pork chop in a crepe pan and that is how the body looks in the casket: jutting up, the nose pointed and white, the feet in their brown cordovans.
Our mother is crying. She is fishing around in her patent leather purse while crying and her face is very red and ugly. Picture a wadded up piece of cloth soaked in bloody nose damage and you will get the feeling of her face. In her patent leather purse are the following items: sunglasses, a movie ticket stub from The Paradine Case starring
Gregory Peck who falls in love with an imprisoned woman, Kleenex, lifesavers, both of which are in blue and white packages.
For a murderess, the Paradine woman is exceptionally well-dressed.
The purse of our mother has a gold clasp shaped like a fish.
Also there is some change at the bottom and some flakes of tobacco, given that our mother is trying to quit smoking cigarettes.
We are embarrassed at the noises our mother makes when she weeps. Picture a siren interrupted by a braying sheep and also a coughing giant and you will have some idea how she sounds.
I myself am sewing a sleeve on a blouse.
The corpse does nothing. This is its advantage. There is a fly on the casket, resting languidly on one of the blond oak lintels. In a bad mood.
Now, my sister whispers, he will have no more bad moods.
I myself nod wisely, the blouse which is of a silky and thus slippery material slithers around on my little lap.
Yes, I say. I have only 10 stitches to go. Maybe 20. Then I will sew a little something onto my sister’s head who has begged me for some time to do this.
The corpse’s nose is long and white-tipped. From here we can only imagine the soft flare of the nostrils. Or maybe it is a hard flare. We can vaguely recall the teeth, yellow from the smoking of Pall Malls.
My mother who has given up smoking now removes a black veil from her purse. 10 feet long. Or 20 feet. Very long, it unfolds and unfolds, it seems this unfolding will go on forever, my sister Razor whispers to me, and soon we are covered in it, like insects trapped in a spider’s web.
My mother is bald and so is my sister. Once, at her request, I stitched the words WEIRD ZONE onto my mother’s scalp.
My father, who is dead, is not a skinhead but a corpse.
My mother covers us with her veil, still weeping, still shuddering under the veil but now we are part of that shuddering since, beneath the spider web veil, my sister, my mother and I make one shape.
We are thus part of the shape of my mother.
My father is crying in his casket but his tears are the tears of corpses which go inward and keep the body from thawing and melting away.
The blouse is made of vinyl (I think) and has little rubber buttons. I am sewing the sleeve, I just realized, in the wrong place.
Inside the coffin my father is sneezing. My mother reaches into her purse. Once more she reaches into it and this time removes a half dozen tacos which she divides among us. Then salsa and little plates of rice. Then spoons.
My father, when alive, was not a stitcher. He was not an eater. He had his moods which hammered themselves into our tumbling home, into our mother’s makeshift spirit. He was not a weeper.
No thank you, I tell our mother. Even so, I cannot seem to work up an appetite. The corpse is still sneezing and weeping, more copiously now: picture a jackhammer drilling into a human brain and you will have some idea of the racket which is beginning to assert itself into the air surrounding the coffin.
Perhaps he has allergies, my sister whispers.
All the while I am stitching the sleeve on the blouse—and it is going much, much better now, thanks for asking, creating a neat little seam in the shape of scythe. I am trying to think of a prayer to say for my father’s soul and the effort to do so makes me recall several moments: jumping rope, my father at one end, laughing with his mouth full; or driving over the bridge, my father saying he was frightened and so could not look; or singing for him at a large party and his face beaming and beaming. Hard to believe a face so white and frozen could have beamed so warmly or that in the cave of his arm we had felt so protected. Nevertheless.
The Paradine woman, a master of duplicity, manages to destroy Gregory Peck who she hates for luring her lover (Louis Jordan) into suicide. His career over, his love unrequited and disdained, he returns to his nice wife (Ann Todd) who comforts him like a mother.
Not that our own mother is all that comforting. She distributes tacos from her voluminous purse and now she is chewing loudly. So many noises in this room! My mother chewing and swallowing, my father weeping and sneezing, my sister whispering, and I am making the sound of she who stitches a sleeve onto a blouse and who will soon stitch a little something onto the scalp of my sister.
The great moral lesson of The Paradine Case is that we should not trust attractive foreigners, no matter how beautifully dressed. Another way of saying this is that we must stay within our familiar realm and not venture forth. Don’t flirt with danger. Be safe. Or for me, a stitch in time saves nine.
Now that the father is dead, our lives will surely change. He who had been our armor, our jailer. He who stabbed us with his words and then caressed us. We who were stabbed, then caressed, defended and incarcerated. We may have murdered him, too.
At some point it occurs to me that we are all everything, that nothing separates us. Picture a parade of ants going toward a picnic arranged on a red-and-white checked tablecloth and then picture a foot coming down. We are all things. The ants, the picnic and the foot.