A child in your province
in the throes of war,
soldiers rounding up men
from the neighborhood
and shooting them against
the school fence; or sticking
their bayonets into babies
and pigs. This is the stuff
of old black-and-white
movies, of telenovelas—
except it’s all true. How
did you cross that endless
grid of paddies, those
years of steamed rice
and snails fished out
with the ends of safety
pins? Where did you learn
to hold your back so straight,
to cut and sew a perfect
princess seam? I have just
a handful of pictures where
your neck is the most elegant
thing against the landscape,
where drape after drape
of cloth clings to you
or bravely flies as a flag
does in its own country.
Tell me, what was it
that laid you so low,
that spun the wheel
again all the way
to the other side?

In college, teaching a lesson on coherence
and consistency, my literature professor held up

a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down and asked:
Is it better to have an impossible probability

or a probable impossibility? I suppose she meant
if these rabbits who have names and have formed

societies in this book suddenly begin acting
as merely rabbits instead of planning expeditions

into the unknown because something in the wind
tells them to fear for their safety— would it not

violate expectations the author has already given us
from the outset? Similarly, does it seem impossible

to keep placing our hopes in things that feel
like they could never happen in this life,

such as everything estranged and at war coming
together in peace and mutual cooperation— factions,

faiths, political parties, countries, obstinate
relatives? But someone has to make those leaps, do

whatever it takes for as long as it takes even if
the outcome is failure or looks like nothing at all.

Up to the office, where we sat, and I had some high words with Sir W. Batten about canvas, wherein I opposed him and all his experience, about seams in the middle, and the profit of having many breadths and narrow, which I opposed to good purpose, to the rejecting of the whole business. At noon home to dinner, and thence took my wife by coach, and she to my Lady Sandwich to see her. I to Tom Trice, to discourse about my father’s giving over his administration to my brother, and thence to Sir R. Bernard, and there received 19l. in money, and took up my father’s bond of 21l., that is 40l., in part of Piggot’s 209l. due to us, which 40l. he pays for 7 roods of meadow in Portholme. Thence to my wife, and carried her to the Old Bayly, and there we were led to the Quest House, by the church, where all the kindred were by themselves at the buriall of my uncle Fenner; but, Lord! what a pitiful rout of people there was of them, but very good service and great company the whole was. And so anon to church, and a good sermon, and so home, having for ease put my 19l. into W. Joyce’s hand, where I left it. So to supper and to bed, being in a little pain from some cold got last night lying without anything upon my feet.

I had some experience
the breadth of the whole meadow

and we were all kin at the burial
my hole my hand my feet


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 26 May 1664.

I was told: it happens in more
instances than you could know,
to more people than you

can imagine. That we are not
the first to have in our family
a long-held cache of secrets.

I found out a little
about mine when I was helping
sort my father’s documents

the year after his
retirement. He was old
and ailing by then, no longer

able to take the long
walks he used to enjoy, no
longer able to relish what

former pleasure he used to get
from food and drink— meals
for the most part prepared

by the woman I’d thought
all those years was my aunt,
beloved to all in our extended

household, and famous to the whole
neighborhood and beyond for her skill
in the kitchen: piquant fish and

meat stews, molasses and coconut-
glazed kankanen and cookies,
the fruitcakes studded with nuts

and glazed fruit she made each Christmas
and also sold. As it turns out, the rumors
I’d heard sometimes in childhood

were true: that I was in fact her
biological child, though it was
her older sister who raised me

as her own and that I called mother.
As for my father, he was who he was,
as photographs will show: I have

the unmistakable shape of his brow,
the same way of smiling while apparently
not smiling, the way we pursed our lips

the same. But I don’t know how the two
women truly regarded him, though now
in hindsight finally I can understand

the currents of tension that prickled
up and down my arms and on my nape,
the feelings of being pulled this way and that

in allegiance, all through my childhood
years. I never knew until I found a letter
in faded blue ink, written by a relative,

tucked in a rubber-banded stack of legal
pads, dated the year after I was born—
There, at last I was named her child.

And there I knew that I’d been taken in, and she
as well. Before I went to preschool, she’d been
the one to watch me in the afternoons

as I napped, while she ironed
and folded clothes in a little room
in my parents’ house. She had a suitor:

the man she stole out to see
sometimes with me in tow, the one she
eventually married, and that she must have

also secretly invited into our house
those afternoons she was left there to do
the housework. And while it’s true none of them

can corroborate what I say here,
and this is mostly a story told from my
own point of view, I will never forget

how when she left momentarily— perhaps
to use the bathroom? perhaps to make
some food?— I felt the fingers

of the man she’d marry and that I’d never
in my life be able to call uncle, slide

cold beneath my clothes to dig and probe
between my legs. I was four the first time
this happened; it happened more than once,

until I was six. They married, went away
for a few years to live in a one-room shack
at the edge of the city, where her husband

had found work as janitor in a small
public school. But they came back to live
on the ground floor of our split-

level bungalow because her sister
was heartbroken at the poor conditions
in which they lived. She had three

children from that union, and she
took care of them even as she continued
to serve upstairs, especially in the kitchen:

most meals, and then in later years, the laundry
—as her older sister, the mother known to all
the world and to me, decided she’d go back

to school, be active in civic groups, look
to ways she could have a career outside
of the home; in my opinion, she quite

detested housework. It’s almost like the two
sisters were two shadow sides of mother: one
scrubbing clothes in a basin on the stoop

till her hands grew raw, taking a basket
every day to market, cooking and cleaning,
and doing it all over again day after day;

the other, getting up to put on makeup
and smart clothes, attending meetings
of the Women’s or Soroptimist Clubs

or going around the city passing out
brochures on family planning to women
in community centers, attending

parties and concerts and shows
with my father and with me…
And they had their little dances

of vitriol and forgiveness, days
and nights of cruel silence as well
as falling into each others’ arms.

They spoke of each other to me
in alternating accents of hardness
and of yielding. But I don’t know

to this day what love meant for one
or the other or the three; whether I
might have been viewed as constant,

living reminder of an incident of truth,
or of sin— whether what they did to and for
each other was the wages they imagined

thereafter must be paid for some moment that came
loose from the tapestry and that they’d dared
to touch instead of leaving alone.

Took physique betimes and to sleep, then up, it working all the morning. At noon dined, and in the afternoon in my chamber spending two or three hours to look over some unpleasant letters and things of trouble to answer my father in, about Tom’s business and others, that vexed me, but I did go through it and by that means eased my mind very much. This afternoon also came Tom and Charles Pepys by my sending for, and received of me 40l. in part towards their 70l. legacy of my uncle’s.
Spent the evening talking with my wife, and so to bed.

time to sleep
the work I spend hours in

my father and others
go through my mind

and I receive their legacy
of evening


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 25 May 1664.

In other languages
there are words for those brief
and evanescent moments that fade
in between and in and out of joy
or grief; for the first warm drink
you could have on the first day
of the season as well as the sudden
urge to shed one’s clothes and dance
in warm summer rain. And there are words
for the hundred kinds of moss that sleep
on forest floors without heed of what
passes through the centuries,
for the feeling that comes over you
and makes you want to stay indoors
and do nothing but make a cave of your body,
sheltered in sheets… So I want to know
where there is language for this feeling
of being hollowed out from the inside,
of the heart aching to find the fix,
the cure, for what ails the one
who does not know from what spell
she stands transfixed in rain or sun.

black-and-white photo of clouds and trees reflected in a basin of water

 

It will stay light late tonight, the days lengthen…
Today’s living soundtrack fades and retreats,
and the trees, surprised not to see the night,
are still awake in the pale evening, dreaming.

The chestnut trees spread their fragrance
far and wide on this heavy air replete with gold
– we dare not move or toy with this tender air
for fear of stirring up more sleeping scents.

Distant rumblings reach us from the town…
The cloak of dust on a scarcely quivering tree
flies up, disturbed by every little breeze, only
to fall back gently on the peaceful paths below.

This is the same familiar road, the one
we’ve seen and walked so often, every day,
and yet something in this life has changed –
never again will our souls be as they are tonight.

 

Il fera longtemps clair ce soir

Il fera longtemps clair ce soir, les jours allongent,
La rumeur du jour vif se disperse et s’enfuit,
Et les arbres, surpris de ne pas voir la nuit,
Demeurent éveillés dans le soir blanc, et songent…

Les marronniers, sur l’air plein d’or et de lourdeur,
Répandent leurs parfums et semblent les étendre ;
On n’ose pas marcher ni remuer l’air tendre
De peur de déranger le sommeil des odeurs.

De lointains roulements arrivent de la ville…
La poussière, qu’un peu de brise soulevait,
Quittant l’arbre mouvant et las qu’elle revêt,
Redescend doucement sur les chemins tranquilles.

Nous avons tous les jours l’habitude de voir
Cette route si simple et si souvent suivie,
Et pourtant quelque chose est changé dans la vie,
Nous n’aurons plus jamais notre âme de ce soir…

 

Again from her first collection, Le Coeur innombrable / The Uncountable Heart (1901). More translations of Anna de Noailles on Via Negativa are here, here, and here.

Up and to the office, where Sir J. Minnes and I sat all the morning, and after dinner thither again, and all the afternoon hard at the office till night, and so tired home to supper and to bed.
This day I heard that my uncle Fenner is dead, which makes me a little sad, to see with what speed a great many of my friends are gone, and more, I fear, for my father’s sake, are going.

all the morning
all the tired dead
make me eat one more fear


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 24 May 1664.

Up and to the office, where Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten, and myself met and did business, we being in a mighty hurry. The King is gone down with the Duke and a great crew this morning by break of day to Chatham. Towards noon I and my wife by water to Woolwich, leaving my wife at Mr. Falconer’s, and Mr. Hater and I with some officers of the yard on board to see several ships how ready they are. Then to Mr. Falconer’s to a good dinner, having myself carried them a vessel of sturgeon and a Lamprey pie, and then to the Yarde again, and among other things did at Mr. Ackworth’s obtain a demonstration of his being a knave; but I did not discover it, till it be a little more seasonable. So back to the Ropeyard and took my wife and Mr. Hater back, it raining mighty hard of a sudden, but we with the tilt kept ourselves dry. So to Deptford, did some business there; but, Lord! to see how in both places the King’s business, if ever it should come to a warr, is likely to be done, there not being a man that looks or speaks like a man that will take pains, or use any forecast to serve the King, at which I am heartily troubled. So home, it raining terribly, but we still dry, and at the office late discoursing with Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten, who like a couple of sots receive all I say but to little purpose. So late home to supper and to bed.

this break in the rain
not in any forecast

heart raining still
like a sot


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 23 May 1664.

What would you not
take with you if you needed

to go away? What would you keep?
A photograph, one dark blanket

embroidered with tiny seeds that mimic
the flowering of stars? A broken teacup,

your heart a sieve brought repeatedly
to the mouth of the sea— If only

you could remember what it’s like
to taste yourself in a basin

of shy leaves that pull away
at the slightest touch,

what the clean unlined sky was like
before you started to write

in order not to forget, before it filled
with rain and wings and glyphs.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Nation of immigrants.