Six Questions

* Who are you and whom do you love?

When I find out the truth about my birth,
I already have two children of my own. 


* What do you remember about the earth?

I am six and the terrible grandmother has come to live
with us. She smells of tobacco and the green eucalyptus-
mint Valda pastilles she is always popping into her mouth 
from a tin hidden in her robe pocket. A game I like to play 
with some of the neighborhood kids involves taking turns 
putting Necco wafers in each other's mouths while intoning 
"The body of Christ." We are careful not to bite down 
so as not to cause the body of Christ to bleed. Then 
we walk around the grassy perimeter of the truck yard 
pretending we are floating, until the candy has melted 
and our tongues turn lime green, orange, or pink.  


* How will you begin?

A book about mountains, and roads carved into them by hand.
A book made of animal offerings suspended in the trees.
A book about salt blocks left in the valley for deer.


* Describe a morning you woke without fear.

I am in third grade. I am standing in the bathroom in front
of the mirror, swiveling the tiny little bit of bone that's been
lodged for as long as I can remember in my upper gum, 
right above a front tooth, back and forth. When it finally 
comes loose, I hold it between my index finger and thumb. 


* Tell me what you know about dismemberment.

When I first come across the word "debridement," I pronounce
the middle vowel as a long ī. As in bride. Because one of my daughters
is taking a Women's Studies course on sex and marriage, I try to recall 
what I learned at her age about such things. It was a time when feminine
products were unwieldy things: a bulk of cotton wrapped with gauze, 
safety-pinned to the crotch of underwear. Mostly, my mother told me 
to behave while handing me a copy of On Becoming A Woman, a book 
written and published in 1951 by a male doctor. The cover depicted 
a brunette with what might have been described as a becoming 
flush on her cheeks, walking past two young men in suits. 
The one sitting on a bench has two-tone saddle shoes on his feet. 
The other, standing, sports a bow tie. Both of them are obviously 
looking her up and down. Checking her out. She is definitely aware. 


[Note: as a lead-in to the 12-year anniversary Sunday, 
20 November 2022, of my writing at least a poem a day, 
I decided to use Bhanu Kapil's famous "12 Questions" 
as a prompt. There are the first six. My students in Advanced 
Poetry Workshop and I have been using it too, also because 
one of our course texts this semesteer was Chen Chen's 
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency
he also uses "12 Questions" for a number of poems in his new book.]

Poem with Crabs and Revised History and Social Science Standards

You're wrong: evolution isn't something that stopped
happening sometime in the past—If it helps, think  

more of those moving walkways you see at airport 
terminals, with people standing on the right who seem

perfectly content to let themselves be borne 
along at a steady rate, while others who want 

to move faster than the conveyor belt stride through 
on the left so the plane doesn't leave without 

them. Then there are those who eye change 
with suspicion; or worse, insist on a story 

they might have pickled or slapped together 
along the way: for instance, the statewide mandate

to teach schoolchildren that Native Americans 
were "the first immigrants" to this nation. 

That one is plainly a lie even Magellan or Columbus 
would see right through—after all, didn't they 

want to be the first? Maybe a better subject for study 
is the evolution of crabs, which excites scientists

no end because apparently, they have evolved 
at least five times over the last 250 million years, 

sometimes losing crabby features, sometimes gaining 
newly interesting ones. Why some are small as a pea 

and others wear the face of doomed Samurai 
warriors on their backs is still a mystery. 

Some are true or carcinized crabs, which 
makes it sound like they might have served 

jail time.  There are forward-moving crabs and 
crabs that only walk sideways; crabs that swim 

and others that live in the mud. Crabs with giant 
claws become shell-crushing predators 

in an ecological arms race. You can tell the false 
crabs by counting how many pairs of walking legs

they have: three instead of four, with a miniature, 
sorely undeveloped-looking pair in the rear. 
 

Physics Library

Today, a library and lounge in a building
next to a pond and fountain were dedicated

to the late father of a writer friend. His father
was a Physics professor in the university 

where I teach. When he started teaching, 
I must have been five years old; at that age,

the most urgent thing was either the itchy 
sweater I was always made to wear, or how 

my kindergarten teacher wouldn't let me go
to the bathroom until recess. But in the new

library, we stood in the space where students
will work on formulae or equations, next to six 

mahogany bookcases. They're filled with books 
like The Theory of Everything, The Quest to Explain 

All Reality, Theoretical Mechanics of Particles 
and Continua, or The Geometry of Spacetime.

Old colleagues and students stepped up with 
stories—one said she wanted so badly to drop

the course; then was glad the professor wouldn't 
let her. And I thought, this is what it can mean 

for a life to connect.  Right under the ceiling, 
hundreds of wires all different colors ran through 

the corridors, each with a different purpose. Circuits
were laid for heat, mechanics, light, electricity, 

magnetism. And there must have been someone 
in your life who once pointed out the chalk-white

stars, explained the shape and motion of bodies; 
the energy of wind, the mysteries of water. 


~ for Michael Khandelwal

Becoming the Ancestor

Can you imagine others who'll come
         after you (if it were possible, meaning, 
if the world you know wouldn't have
         ended yet), sorting through photos 
on thumb drives or in the Cloud, piecing
        together parts of stories they heard second- 
or third-hand? Perhaps the one you took outside 
        your first apartment, standing in front of your first 
car (a blue compact sedan) with the key in one hand 
        and the loan  agreement in the other, wondering 
if you should've smiled when the agent at the dealership
       boomed Congratulations! doesn't this make you 
feel more American now? and wondering if you 
       should have told him your naturalization 
ceremony was two months down the road? 
      Perhaps, that first Christmas when you and your
husband went back and forth about going out 
     for a real tree, and then when you finally decided,
it was too late and there was no more to be had
     from any of the lots nearby? Will they notice
that in some of the pictures taken in more 
      recent summers, your hair has gotten visibly
thinner at the top? The panoramic view 
      makes the living room wider and the kitchen
somehow more cozy. There's the hand-me-down
     piano that took five people to carry across
the threshold. There's the counter perennially
     piled with books out of place next to a bowl
of fruit, where on holidays or celebrations you'd 
     lay out a food offering for the ancestors.

Dressing for the End of the World

            According to recent reports, it's nine years before 
climate crises reach their tipping point. Apocalypse is on
           everyone's minds, everyone's lips, everyone's playlist. 
Grate the cheese coarse or fine, you know it comes from cows.
           In stores across the UK, activists take milk from shelves,
kick bottles across the floor after pouring out the contents—
          melodrama of protest to turn meat-eaters and -producers
off their predisposition as carnivores. Couldn't that have
          quenched the thirst of children in refugee camps, 
served a purpose other than such lofty waste? What are we
          under obligation to do, what could we even do? Today, #World-
WarIII was trending (again) after missiles blew up grain facilities.
          You can make up stories if you want, but everyone's tired. Tired of
Zooming, tired of the virtual, of arguments over what it means to use
          -x in Filipinx or Latinx or other gendered words for people.
Vintage clothing stores have popped up everywhere—
            thrifting's become not only trendy but a way to cut waste,
reduce emissions and water consumption. Just look up the rate of
           pollution caused by fast fashion. Upstate last summer, I 
nabbed a Marimekko dress for $2 and was as happy as a
          legit fashionista might be...  I'm not digressing. All this is
 just to say I've been wavering on a more daily basis between
         heartache and fear of the inevitable: looming mortality,
fuse boxes shorting in the night while we sleep, the will I
        drafted ten years ago, mostly listing my emotional assets—
but then, suddenly, I want a fedora and a faux fur jacket.
          

Unmothering

           When my oldest child was nearly two and still 
breastfeeding, the women in my family tried to convince me 
           it was time to wean; to put a stop to breasts filling up 

and engorging, then as if on cue leaking at her slightest
          whimper. Fig-shaped and tapered, these bowls
flooded ducts with their milky sap—oh how this liquid

         laminated the lips, the throat that bore it through  
the body's silo like waterfalls of grain. I was offered   
        what they called a remedy: stroke the juice of red  

chilies on the dark ring around each nipple like a wound, 
         introduce the sour burn of a first repulsion— but how 
could I bear it? It's said a parent's duty goes beyond feeding

        and rearing, beyond lining the nest so an otherwise 
unnatural world might somehow feel warm as that womb 
       of first remembrance. When we say nature takes its course,

we mean what happens will take its place among the sign-
         posts of a life with no  need for any intervention. Faster
than seasons fruit and shatter, time takes the horns again

          and steers them. In the end, I am the one straining  
to hear a word, aching for the clutch of need once fastened  
         to my breast as if it could never bear such cleaving.

Tell me

everything— the child says. Meaning, every  
           story from the past, that drafty old mansion
whose damp corridors she never walked
            but whose general outline she glimpses
like a shape tissued in fog. Now it is
            a ruin, of course. Sometimes, at dinner
or driving somewhere in the car, parts
            surface— The alcove where I lay on a high 
bed,  sheets up to my neck; the sewing room
            where the mothers sat with pins in their mouths
and thimbles on their fingers. Rooms filled with 
           cigar smoke and trays of highball glasses, 
amber-colored liquid that burned my curious 
           throat when I crept out of my room to see 
what grownups did after I'd gone to bed. I know
           what she wants, because I want it too—
every keyhole through which I might 
           squint, every shade shielding the bulbs
that flickered a certain way in the corners;
           every broom closet a hiding place,  
every tiled bathroom wall against which a girl 
           could be thrust and made to press 
her outline. Every pull cord to flood
          these spaces with indelible light.    

Sums

                 "One must dare to be happy." ~ Gertrude Stein


Night = enchantment = migration

of folded-wing shadows? Night = space

between rain and tornado watch = mudslicked

forecast? A bird repeats its long syllables 

somewhere out of sight.  It says 

                                                                        it is tired

of being heartsick for days and just wants to slip

inside the moon's eclipsing. Can you understand

how even a moment of suspension softens

some of the boundedness of time? Night =

the breathing mechanism of waves = the bolus

of dead tissue lifted 

                                  clean from my mother's thigh.

Night = the ceiling above her = the pink light

she washes in on waking.  Sometimes I dream 

that night = a road cloaked in fog = me turning 

around to see I am the one pushing to move 

beyond. Night = I am sorry

                             for such thoughts = small  

maps of moss. I touch my fingers to their  

insistences, their coiled flags of green rebuke. 

Wound With No Easy Translation

"...& take everyone through the wound of it."
                                                                  ~ Chen Chen


My body is the sudden drop into darkness 
             at the end of daylight saving time; 
is the summer of power-washing mold  
            from the walls, and the unsettling pain of  
posterior deltoids; is the night it heard the green 
          mourning cries of crickets in the field, and a chorus 
of frogs answering; is the city that comes into view
          as a bus rounds a curve, but only as a faded
outline of lights. My heart is the terror that entered
         one side; and how it left, bereft, on the other. My love
is only as round as a new potato pulled up from soil,
         only as glamorous as a seahorse's skull—I know
nothing about how they came to be what they are,
         only the mystery of their presence in the world.