ELEGY FOR FALLEN PALMS
–after Hurricane Irma
I learn the facts about what we’ve lost:
palm trees don’t form annual rings.
You’d find their age in the Bible or Quran, old as Oil
Palm, Fan Palm, or Windmill Palm:
I learn these descendants of a common line.
Assyrians believed the sign of eternal life
was a palm beside a stream, but what if the men
who poison rivers are always the last to drink?
Yellowed fronds mean too much rain.
It’s hard to start over after a great change,
but if they’re not cut for tables or sold as seeds,
palms can outlive a home. And I’m so tired
of Midwesterners in boat shoes
who tweet, Why would anyone live there?
from their Puritanical woods that expire
in annual gray. Because people who reside
in paradise deserve to suffer sometimes—
oh, but they’ll vacation here! It’s unnatural for you to live
where you’re supposed to unwind. Queen Palm,
Wild Date Palm, Sugar Palm or Wine:
I learn the five hands of palmistry.
My hand is a Wood Hand, its knuckles thick
and fingers long, my mind stubborn and heart
often wrong. What scares me most is the idea
of deep time, or everwhen—which is a breath
away from evergreen—though not at all the same.
The Earth remembers our sins, for time is not
a tree trunk pushing forward but the wheel
within that churns and scars,
like how when I was thirteen the junior high
librarian stopped me in the hallway and insisted,
But your family was in the basement once the tornado hit
your house, and I had to shake my head, no.
How teens drove to my neighborhood, parked
next to the Red Cross. They wanted to see roots
gutted from soil, brick chimney that smashed a car.
They brought popcorn for themselves.
And I’m not easy to move to tears, but still I cried
for the maples and oaks that fell in my backyard.
What I mean is, trees take the wind
to spare the walls. Bottle Palm, Spindle Palm—
in a garden on Mauritius there grows
the Loneliest Palm, single specimen
of a single species, most solitary of any kingdom.
It’s enclosed in a box of metal wire,
a dot on a dot on a map of the world that’s strewn
with broken palms. I learn flowers once glowed
on this last palm in the colors of white
and cream. Humans tried to intervene.
It hasn’t bloomed in years.
I ALWAYS WANTED TO SAVE THE RAINFOREST
but now I live in a rainforest
and the thing I can’t save
is me. Let’s get to that later on.
A rainforest should be studied
in fours: emergent layer, canopy,
understory, forest floor. Self-watering.
Oldest ecosystem. My doctor explains
that the brain speaks to gland hormones
which speak to the ovaries
which speak to the uterus—or something
along those lines. I try to write
it down as fast as my hand can move.
An osprey flies above me with a fish
caught in its talons. The fish still looks
me in the eye. What is it they say
about a bird of prey overhead?
I’m afraid to Google my fortune.
I know I sound paranoid, but the rainforest
is a cutthroat environment.
One must innovate
in order to survive. They tell me
nine vials of blood is less
than it seems, but if my bad
numbers are from stress, I plan
to sue Paul Ryan for damages.
Just don’t write about
climate change! The word
cervix is polarizing, and no one wants
to hear about your pelvic floor,
complex though it may be.
What is it they say about women
and our bodies? Sometimes we feel
an unconscious reflex to guard
ourselves against a world hell-
bent on taking everything away.
And sometimes when I sleep
I wake up to teeth
that no longer fit in my jaw
or hips that ache from aggressive
curling into a creature of the soil.
The forest floor is the most intricate
layer of the four. Light can’t reach
me forever. What is it they say
about sympathetic overload? I have
my students write a research paper
in which there’s a solution
for every problem. I ask them why
did I structure the assignment
this way, and they don’t know
enough about despair to answer.
I could list all those who poison
and seize, but the rainforest works
to rebalance the numbers. My God.
Do women and rainforests
have to do everything?
I don’t live in a real rainforest.
It’s just a forest that’s humid,
dark, and tropical, so dense
I could find my way inside
and you might never see me return.
“Teo, Teo, Teo,” Álvaro sings into the phone. “You’re not going to believe what I did today. Even after I tell you you’re still not going to believe it.” His voice is all keyed up, like he’s calling to tell me it’s my turn to collect on la tanda.
Chingao, I think. Now what?
“You remember Lupe? Chick with the green eyes, used to live over on Flamenco?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You think so, güey? Don’t even try that shit with me, Tadeo! You know exactly who I’m talking about. You lusted after her for literally years of your life.”
“So what about her, güey?”
“What about her? What about her? Just that she lives in Campestre. And her hijo de papi husband had a new dishwasher delivered this morning. And because he was at work and couldn’t let the delivery guy in himself, he left the key at the guardhouse Left it, as a matter of fact, in the filthy brown hand of one Álvaro Hernán Rodriguez Mendoza.”
“How come you’re just now telling me she lives in Campestre, culero?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The poooint,” he says slowly and emphatically, like Father Juan when he’s about to crack a joke and wants to make sure the congregation’s listening, “is that right at this moment I happen to be holding a copy of your girl Lupe’s patio key that nobody but you and me even knows exists. Sometimes,” he finishes expansively, “life is too beautiful to be believed.” He takes a hard drag off his cigarette, then adds, “You’re welcome.”
“Piss off,” I say. I imagine him sitting in the guardhouse, the white shirt of his uniform all wilted in the heat, greasy smudges around his lips, and his fingertips stained Dorito-orange. Then, because these are our last few weeks together, I add, “And thanks,” before I hang up.
In point of fact, Álvaro was wrong about one thing. It was never lust with Lupe. It went deeper than that, so deep that when she married her rich lawyer and got the hell out of Tepeyac, I was glad. I felt nothing but happiness for her. You don’t envy the angels.
Later, when Álvaro brings over the key, I pat him on the head and tell him what a good boy he’s been.
“Chinga tu madre,” he grins, his silver tooth gleaming under the naked lightbulb.
“Sit down,” I tell him. “Want a cheve?” I’ve already bought the beers; they’re waiting, cold and golden, in the fridge.
“Need you ask?”
I spit through the bars of the rusty front gate into the patch of sand where the sidewalk’s broken. My chair creaks grudgingly when I stand up. One day, I think, this thing is going to fall to pieces when someone sits on it. I step onto the cement block and through the open doorway of the kitchen.
By the time the beer’s converted itself into a humming tingle that stretches its way outward from my stomach to my limbs, I’ve got it all worked out: what the key means, why fate brought it to me. Muñeca watches, her ears up, eyes shifting from me to Álvaro. I swear, sometimes it’s like she’s reading my mind. I look away.
When we’re alone again I turn off the patio light and slide down onto the cool concrete floor beside her. For an instant an image leaps into my mind: the bloody, moaning ball of fur I pulled from a tangle of barbed wire up at the goat farm. You saved her life, the vet said, once he’d finished sewing her back together.
“Muñeca,” I whisper, my eyes closed. I push my face against her neck and breathe in the close, doggy smell of her flesh. “It’s our lucky day, chica.”
For two weeks I wear the key on a red string around my neck, right over my heart. Then, on October 28th, I light a candle for Saint Jude and call Álvaro.
“Today,” I tell him.
It’s like slicing warm butter: Álvaro in his uniform, official, unassailable. The silent house and patio. We’re in and out before you can say Campestre. In Tepeyac there would have been forty witnesses, but los riquillos like their space. They want to feel like they live in the middle of a fucking forest.
When it’s over, Álvaro throws an arm around my shoulder and pats his wallet pocket. “I got the cheves tonight, güey.”
I want to say something, to thank him—for this, and for everything—but my throat’s too tight to speak.
I wait two more weeks, then, when I know she’ll be home alone, I put on my best pair of jeans and stuff my curls under a cap. Not a baseball cap, mind you, a golf cap—I found the thing for thirty pesos in el mercado, probably once belonged to a rich old gringo. It’s like a limp animal on top of my head, but at least I don’t look like me. I even put on Tío Eugenio’s reading glasses, but the ground tilts under me, so I take them back off. Not that Lupe would know me if I went as myself. Those luscious green eyes have never lit on me, even for a split second. But I figure it’s better not to take chances.
I take out the sheet I typed up at the ciber on Avenida Cinco de Mayo last night. I’ve got it on an old clipboard of Tío Eugenio’s, with a clean manila folder stuck behind to cover the mess of stray ink marks and Wite-Out.
“Buenos días, señorita,” I say in a crisp, professional voice when she comes to the door. “I’m with the Purina company, research division, and I’d like to ask you a few questions this morning, for marketing purposes. It won’t take two minutes of your time.”
She looks hesitant but pulls the door shut behind her and comes down the stone steps. She’s plumper now than when I saw her last, but it becomes her, like a rounding off of sharp corners. She moistens her lips with her tongue and I get a glimpse of her straight white teeth, so perfect it hurts me. The only thing between us now are the wrought-iron bars of the gate. Her cool green eyes rest on me, expectant.
I clear my throat. “Do you have any pets?” I read from the paper.
“One dog,” I repeat as I write. “Age?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ve only had her a couple of weeks.”
I look up. “Is that right?”
“Did you buy or adopt from the perrera?”
“Neither,” she says, and I can see that it’s a story she’s told before, a story she enjoys telling. “She came to us. I came home one afternoon and here she was, in the patio. It was the strangest thing. She’s too big to fit through the bars, and I don’t see how anyone could have lowered her in over the wall. The neighbors didn’t see anyone. It was like, a miracle.”
“A miracle,” I repeat. I have to fight the temptation to reach through the bars and rub my hand along the milky skin of her jawline.
“Well, I had just been telling my husband that I wanted a dog.”
“No kidding,” I laugh.
“And it was the feast day of Saint Jude.”
“Saint Jude, huh? Hopeless cases.” I scratch the back of my head, under the cap. “Maybe the dog needed you.”
“That’s what I think, too,” she says, and the look she gives me is something I’d like to hang on a red string and keep next to my heart until I die.
“Well, I only have one more question. Are you familiar with these?” I pull a bag of dog treats from my backpack. Muñeca’s favorites.
I pass the bag to her through the bars. “Here’s a free sample for you. I think your dog—what’s her name?”
“I think Gema will love them.”
“Thanks.” She stretches her hand out, so close to me that I can make out every pale star in the constellation of freckles on her arm.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s the big bag, the 70 peso one. She sets it down at her feet.
“So… that’s it,” I tell her, slipping the clipboard into my backpack. “As a matter of fact, you’re my last survey… ever. In a couple of days I’m leaving for el norte, going to make my way in the big wide world.”
“That sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale,” she says.
“Yeah, it does.” Then I laugh. “I guess that makes me one of the pigs.”
She laughs too. “Well, you’d better build your house out of bricks then.”
“I’ll do that,” I tell her. “Good luck to you and Gema.”
I walk the long way back, along the malecón, where the water’s so clear and rippled it looks pixelated. When I get home I’ll empty my backpack and pack a couple of changes of clothes and my birth certificate, sealed in a zip-loc bag so it won’t get wet. I’ll write a letter to the great-uncle who gave me a home after my mother died, and a second one, to Álvaro—things I could never say in person. Finally, I’ll count out the money for the coyote who’s going to take me, like old Charon in reverse, to a new life. I’ll be like Lupe, who made it from Tepeyac to Campestre. She’s a border-crosser too.
“Gema,” I say aloud, savoring the feel of the syllables in my mouth. Gema. Lupe’s gem. With a sudden whoop, I snatch off the golf cap and throw it, frisbee-like, into the malecón. For as long as I can see it, it floats there, on top of the water, as if that was exactly what it was made to do.
What’s that story about the blackbird
visiting a man, or, more accurately,
his depression? Making him recognize it,
I mean. It was often like that
with birds, reminding you of your flightlessness.
It was like that, then more so, then only that.
I’m doing as much as I can these days
despite thinking about what ails me—
going on walks, slipping into bathroom stalls
with strange men who become not-so-strange
when they pull down their pants—without wanting more
from absence, if a thing can even be considered absent
not having been there to begin with.
If not a blackbird, something that was blackened
by blackness, with an animal understanding,
was in his room. Above. It had wings. No, it didn’t.
My father taught me feet are something to care for, cradle.
He never talks about anything else. I remind people
my Dad’s age too much of hot, sticky, high green foliage
flapping in their faces, or steam rising up from
the rice paddies the platoons waded through
all morning, crossing in the open, barrels loaded, sighted,
ready for a fight. Yellow. Roses. That is what they sent home
to their wives to dry in glass vases. My face is a big yellow moon
rising in their nightmares, my face a howling monkey,
a ripe watermelon rind, grinning back at them.
Or perhaps it’s my hair that troubles them: black braid
bouncing up and down with the rocking, with the movements
of the swing. Whose hand can make its own shape on my skin?
My skin will turn to crisp brown under any sun. My eyes
will holster any loaded rifle. My father is an ant moving
through the tall grass, boots filling with mud and muck. He
never talks about anything else. He’s the slap of the wind
hitting my face. His yellow balloon silence is what fills
the room, but I’m the hot air taking up the space
in-between his ribcage. Did he ever pull any trigger?
Sear metal into someone else’s flesh? Will someone ever
ask what freedom means to me? I know how to sip
strong tea, place the cup back on the saucer, blood
dripping down its sides pooling onto the painted saucer.
There is a man you will learn
to call uncle. He will teach you
the answer to many questions
is land bridge. There will be truth
in what he says. He will call you
something other than your name
no matter what your name is.
No matter what your name is
you might not like it. It is likely
you will have lots of hair,
likely in places you would not
expect. I have always tried
to play up my love
for bears so even body fat seems
tribute to mothers who kill
to protect their young. I hope
I would do the same. Let us
see what happens. Whatever happens,
most of us feel we were born
too late but really there are
no good old days. Some days
there will be only swallowed silence
and sobbing: the world is
not always kind and rarely makes sense
so when the sun goes down
we will sing our songs and talk
about morning. Mountain ranges
rise from valleys and forests
make them look green, but mountains are
mostly gray underneath, stone
we will sometimes climb simply
to stand on top of. Sometimes
at sunset it looks like mountain
and cloud are the same. When it does
please sit with me and watch.
Lakes are best for swimming
and rivers for fishing but oceans
wash away feelings you cannot find
names for. No matter what,
drying your feet of cold water
will make them feel better
than you can imagine,
especially after a day spent
walking uneven ground. Reaching
the end of days, it is common
to ask, “Why are we here? Where
are we going? How do we get there?”
There are lots of answers.
You will have to find most of them
yourself. It will involve lots
of walking on uneven ground.
It might involve trying
to walk across water. You could do
worse than wet feet. There will be
sobbing and silence, unkindness,
love, and laughter. You could do
lots worse. You could do lots. Do lots.
I used to call boys
after my parents
my lethal friend Meredith
to phone Patrick or Michael
and ask what they were wearing.
One boy, Joey,
for me, for hours,
while I lay with the phone tucked
like a pillow
against my red-hot ear.
I called my mother from college
nightly to try and detect
how drunk she might be,
whether or not she loved me
more from longing.
One blizzard, she let me
watch When a Stranger Calls, the sick
moment when the police at last
call Carol Kane back,
cry the call is coming
from inside the house.
Ted Kennedy called
Mary Jo Kopechne
baby and sugar lips, likely
the same names he used
on his wife because
bad love is always
lazy. That night,
the police stayed
uncalled. I’ve called
twice: once when I saw
a drunk I thought was dead
on 14th Street, once from the floor
of a seaside B&B
after you’d held your boot
so hard against my throat the tread
left behind its diamonds. The cops
could’ve dusted my neck
like dirt. When you
called me from
the seaside jail, you said baby
they’re recording us
which I much later understood
as a plea
not to incriminate you further.
I can’t remember
what I did say
instead, I can’t remember
how I responded
when either dispatcher
asked flatly what
is your emergency. On TV,
in these recordings,
the caller is always
upset. When Watson
answered the first phone call,
Bell didn’t celebrate,
instead he beckoned
his friend, said come here I need you.
~after Jamaal May
My father’s voice after the cancer
has spread. A flip phone. A flag.
George Bush’s hands, as he pauses
his vacation briefly for thoughts and prayers.
My body next to the potted plant
after my father throws the wooden chair.
A cheaply made chair. A small stack
of clothes. A birthday card.
Milvirtha Hendricks under the American
flag 5 days after Hurricane Katrina.
Her face from the crease
made in her
obituary photo as we use
the newspaper to eat crawfish.
The wrinkles in her forehead.
through a broken levee.
My uncle’s hands
retaping the attic windows
after the flood water rises.
My cousins sleeping
in the attic because
no neighbor has a rescue boat.
Black people in distress.
They lay prostrate and call it
prayer. The blankets on my cousins’
shoulders days later, when rescued.
The National Guard’s smile as he carries
the neighbor’s dog from the flooded
living room. The dog’s body around
an upside down flag.
ON THE ONE HAND, IN THE OTHER
Sometimes when you are born from an abundance of love
you, yourself, do not know the proper ways in which to love.
Your house guests are always at odds with your house ghosts.
The stairwell constantly littered with tin cans and lynched cats.
Obvious death threats, but from the guests or the ghosts
you have yet to determine. Soon the people in your life
will become too real to write about. Making poetry a suitable
space only for your strangers. The woman at the cemetery
missed by seconds, whose lipstick kisses are still fresh
on the marble stone next to your grandfather’s. The girl
met in group therapy whose dealer, named Temple, blesses every
batch of shrooms he sells. You’ve folded these phantoms into
talismans, time and time again. Still, each year presents itself
like a small tight coin. A fountain of fish you’ve mistaken for silver.
Here is the beautiful lie: there is nothing ugly about surviving.
This life will ask you more than once to make the choice
between starfish or worm. One animal growing
back what was lost, the other learning to live without.
Seconds before the storm, and all
that’s left outside are the horses
tied to their posts. When the floods
recede will we line up the dead
in neat rows, the way we did
in Ypres? The last children
are leaving their homes now.
Soon only loose fur, aglets without
laces, shores of nothing more
than the dismantled spines
of jellyfish. Riddance swelling
among the barren fruit flies, their
kingdom of peels and pits.
The girls will swat, no use. Pierce
their tongues instead. Their fathers
well toward retiring now, if only
those jack asses in office. It is
now legal to hunt boar by hot air
balloon so it should reason we too
were once abused animals
scratching at doors while
water rose over us. Haven’t
we all hid from the rainbow
giant in the sky who wants us
dead by rifle. Who’s to say
any one of us hasn’t already died,
isn’t right now covered
by white linens, puddles of Stallions
with the whole weight of ourselves
piled atop our own limbs, leaving
cracks in the metal soles. It is natural
for disasters to beget more disaster.
If you haven’t already, set fire
to something while it’s raining.
The juxtaposition will feel
like an orgasm followed by a small
god, as you watch the flames meet
each drop. Not sure, when you inhale
if you are breathing in smoke or steam.
True, it’s always difficult to have a body. But think of all
the nice things we can wear. That yeast can develop
in the mouth, is no reason to stop inching ourselves
away from death. Toward fancy tailored suits. Mints
on the pillow. No need to be anything but, the comedian
at the fashion show, if you can’t say anything nice, say
“I’m not convinced you exist. But there’s a lovely
fragrance in the air.” So what you can’t give blood
because of mad cow, you don’t even have it. Just exposed
once. The mad came close, you took a tennis racket
to its face. Country-club-finest. How about a real world
example of pain that doesn’t belong to you? How about
the depth of a lake unmoved by the presence of stones? Ample
evidence suggests that nothing sans dark can do
good. Gandhi would sleep naked side by side his niece.
A test of temptation. He never was, tempted.
You wonder about the girl. Was she able to sleep any
of those nights? All your bruises happen without you noticing.
If your spouse kills you, do the caretakers know better
than to bury you in your wedding ring? This doesn’t apply
to your bruises specifically, but you feel it should still be asked.
Back in the body, they are cleaning the church bells.
How else to sound the angels, how else to prepare fear
for a feast? Chiffon on every guest, iced over every cake.
More than once, your throat has become a funhouse
tunnel where the ground stays still but the walls spin
and spin. This too will pass. You wonder about the girl.
Never mind the girl. She doesn’t belong to you.
I’ve crawled in the deep
grooves of man’s thumbprint –
My crescent roll smile peaking
up over their canyon begging
to be devoured. Be nice
Mama said, be welcoming –
His hand up my skirt,
he wore me
like a secret trophy
behind the glass case
of his pupils. I scrape
my remains into a velvet abyss
of another plane to exist,
to hide from how he grabbed me
too, how men imprint on all of us
invisible ink –
A finger here, a thumb between
our lips, whole hands
over our whole face. Pull out
the black light and watch
our bodies glow. We are the sea
of fireflies you ignore by day
but when we float in the heavy night air
you grab your mason jar, scoop up our light,
close the lid, and screw it on tight.
ON BEING EMPTY
I am a cicada husk clinging
crisp & dry & stuck
in his bed,
his heaving chest
on my back –
A silhouette of a body
with meat inside. My pumping
pulse must find a new skin to reside
in. Between finger and thumb
I am weightless. I am the lack
of friction found in still legs,
void of desire I crumble
in his palm, my chirp in the night
chorus is over,
the song of my limbs
a cadence for the coming light –
I am the moment you miss
when you blink. I am silent.
I watch him escape.
No can’t you hear
I can hear your brothers in the hall
tennis shoes on linoleum
your tongue a pillow
Suffocating me now
No I was waiting the water
stain on your ceiling is a
mushroom cloud I dive in to
and you’re out of me and pulling my straps
up after you tell me
I can go now
bare feet on linoleum
Laughter is close, even if it’s
just the schadenfreude
of middle-school girls,
their juicy, eye-rolling, malicious
down the street (like a tiny pink slug
in a pigeon’s beak), hotting up
the air—why pretend
you can’t hear? Laughter,
the only eternity
that’s real. Laughter
and its toothy
lift off, even
when toxic. “Save me”
is what’s written
on the faces of so many
“save me” & “fuck you.”
So the ancient Tibetan masters
teach, focused as they are
both by the attar of sage burning
and the wailing of toddlers
by a septic tank—
a thousand years dead,
but still dreaming
they’re fast asleep
in their boyhood beds.
~for Will Brown
because you were beautiful and black with lips like pin cushions
and just as soft because you were made to be pierced
to be torn apart to be a mooring for desire and how else
could I touch you could I unwrap your figure pull the meat
from parchment how else could I devour
christ how could I help but love and want you
want you begging at my feet want you bound splayed for pleasure
who wouldn’t want to pleasure you and if not pleasure
then provoke and if not provoke then to watch you writhe
watch you dance at the stake my wanton messiah my sweet
and tender love how could I look on the curve of your neck
the muscles’ ripple the veins’ throb beneath the skin
without itching for the noose and because I wanted
to be near you and the world demanded I give in return
and because I couldn’t give you joy and it’d hurt too much to give you peace
and because all I had for you was a wound a love mark dark
as the valleys of the moon and because who wouldn’t give anything
to be near you to watch the sweat gather and glisten like diamonds
to study the pink of your gums as you cry out for mercy
to watch you swell and open to bathe in the heat radiating from your bones
like the halo of a long suffering saint how could I not breathe
you in your flesh fast becoming incense becoming a thick holy smoke
how could I not pass across your form almost daring
to lean down to kiss