Today is four parts mulch, one part roots negotiating
with one part water. Or: too much earth, too much
gravity, too many regrets packed away in jars or pickling
in the cellar. I’ve envied air plants in their miniature
clay pots, suspended by slender cords of leather. They lean
so slightly on close to nothing. They even thrive. Did I
ever feel like them, seemingly unperturbed by the imminence
of early passing? The blue half life bright and moldering
away in its dish; carnival masks pleating into their base
of sequins and glue. I think I will miss me too when I
am gone. Let’s open the tins of escargot someone left
in the back of the pantry, and eat them with buttered toast.
So many things others call trivial can give such glorious
pleasure: a sliver of soap; a whole spoonful of chocolate.
How to live in time, how to have it acknowledge the gold-
brown body you press into its hull? Consult a rune, fortunes
slipped into a shell— You will need to make an important
decision this year; or Change is soon coming. But when
is the future’s bony finger not scratching at the window,
or bending back the stalks of wheat as if to make a path
for the unseen’s passing? It’s hard not to grieve for all
the slow sifting above. But rising at dawn, I marvel
at the sky’s coloring: saffron of a mango’s cheek, velvety
peach. Fruit out of season. Or a dry tremor of wings
unhinging in the canopy. Sometimes the moon remains visible,
blade of dented silver poking through the branches. Tiny
forms affix themselves to the substrate where the sea
rises through a network of roots, no longer negotiating.
Insinuation of impostor against their bonafides.
Insinuation of time as imponderable longing for salt
and rice and fish, and many other things I can’t dream,
and so can’t name. The idea of gods always wanting
a taste: first or last. In tide pools, every octopus
is related to the squid. I could live as well in rocks
and caves. Wherever I find myself, I learn to become
my own infinite ecosystem. When they call me dog, I bare
my fangs. I nose at the sky, where I am the brightest star.
When I am stripped from the stalk before I’ve even had
a chance to flower, like buds of the Flinders rose I
allow to be embalmed in brine. Always, it comes down
to the question of how to live in time, how to have it
acknowledge the gold-brown body you press into its hull.
They look at me like someone tamed out of the wilderness:
burned out of foreign villages made from thatch, unbathed
and stuttering amid the ruins. How did I come to learn
their geometry, take their measure, provide blueprints
for their progeny’s future? A friend once advised, as we
tended the copy machine: work quietly at your perfection,
for they resent being shown up. That was decades ago;
now, she’s both physician and COO. Even so, the self-
important person gasping for breath in the ER insists
that he be seen by “a real doctor.” In classrooms where I
have stood under fluorescent lights, marker in hand before
the whiteboard, I’m the one who points out: woman, not
a women; could have, not could of; in spite, not despite,
of. Insinuation of impostor against their bonafides.
Are we the kind of people you think we are: law-abiding,
peace-loving, generally not rocking the boat, wanting the same
kinds of opportunities afforded others, speaking such perfect
English learned on the way here— Aren’t we more than lumpia-
and-pancit-eating, more than karaoke-mic-wielding, more
than are-you-a-nurse or are-you-a-doctor, are-you-a-mail-order-
bride or the wife of the Oklahoma bomber; more than the crazy
boxer or the woman with three thousand pairs of shoes; more than
the madman’s boast of how he can rape and kill or cause to be killed
outside of the law; more than the Italian designer’s killer, more
than the maids in Hong Kong who sleep on a makeshift pallet
wedged between refrigerator and stove— Aren’t we the islands
you ceded then annexed after a staged war; that you ordered
turned into a howling wilderness, tamed, then plundered?
From curiosity, from unwarranted discipline,
or pressing need— I’ve learned that I too have
the right to speak and ask; and more, expect. That this,
too, is my due. Our second landlord came to check on
“the facilities,” moving from room to room, talking about
the previous tenant, a lady (white) who lived alone but was
“extremely fastidious” about cleanliness. I looked straight
at him but did not then know how to retort, did not say,
Why did we have to scour a quarter inch of dust and oily
residue from the top of the fridge and behind each radiator
if the previous tenant was really all he made her out to be?
When our rent check was late because of a postal holiday, he
sent someone to tape a warning on our door: as though we’d
broken the law, just by being “the kind of people” we were.
Without interruption on the surface, our biases work
like invisible engines driving what we do. When you
visited for the first time, alighting from the plane,
you smiled then whispered nervously: I hear there are
many blacks here? Having grown up where we did, far east
in a country that used to be a colony of the one where I
now make my home, I understood this wasn’t something
seeded from cruelty, but rather from an idea we were taught
before we even learned to think: how beauty was everything
white and blond, everything unlike our brown selves
parroting See Jane run! and Look, Dick, look!— their picket
fence and buttoned cardigans alien and fascinating as the two
yellow braids Jennifer Moser wore in grade school. I touched
them out of curiosity: for which I was promptly disciplined.
I watched you but never learned to sew facing
and interfacing, while understanding how two
pieces cut from the same fabric could still pull
away from each other, though forcibly joined
at the seam— Just like how you were aways careful
to match the colors of every outfit, finish with scent
and lipstick and jewelry; while I chafed at mohair
twin sets and pantyhose. I’m past your age when you
decided on the dresses of my wedding entourage: yards
of lace and chiffon, pearls. Now I grow increasingly
comfortable wearing jeans to work, though I’ll top them
with a clean-lined jacket, a sweater in fine wool.
Something to do with warp and weft, how to make two
biases work, without visibly interrupting the surface.
What does it mean when someone is speaking,
not asking, yet the sounds they make seem to curl
harmlessly upward like a question mark? I’ve an old
fear of looking too hard beneath the blunt ends of things
—something might break open at last. For a long time
I carried my agate carapace in pieces, proof of
another form, proof of having once been seen, before
something was taken. After, it dangled from my waist
in a sling bag. I wanted to piece them back together:
with red and yellow seeds, an eye-shaped amulet.
I know it’s sometimes hard to tell from looking
what I used to be. There are faint finger marks
going down the middle of the spine, as if to stopper
holes in a flute. That’s how I learned not all
undoing means yes, or I agreed to this. For a long
time it hurt to put the voice back in the throat.
“The capitals of the world are burning.” ~ Li-young Lee
In fact, she doesn’t mind the quiet after everyone has left. Doesn’t want to turn the TV on. Picks up the paper flung at the doorstep at 5, and promptly tosses it in the recycling bin. The quality of silence is different at different points of the day, or of the year. At midmorning in spring, like a film that’s just beginning to settle on the surface of milk as it cools in a cup; or in summer, the barest crinkle of plastic protecting the furniture, as one shifts one’s thighs. Later at night in autumn, like the smooth insides of a pear after the knife has sliced it in half. She listens to how the air cycles, warm puffs of heat coming through the vents. It’s nice sometimes to just press one’s spine to the wooden floor. But of course none of this lasts. In the next room someone is turning dials to listen to the radio— people marching in the streets of Warsaw, sounds and cries in a different tongue. Mixed all together like that, it’s impossible to distinguish young from old, who might have been invoking the name of God while trampling women underfoot. Elsewhere, in a little southern town, the walls and floor of a church have been painted over, all in white. The report describes white chairs with gold lettering, one for each of the dead; just one red rose on each chair. A halo of perfection over the site of carnage. She can’t understand why none of the reverence which goes into these acts of memorializing is ever given before people are maimed, burned, beheaded, shot.
And in Babelplatz square,
underground: empty white shelves.
20,000 books once burned there.
In response to Via Negativa: Sylvanian.