Mise-en-scène

"...the newly dead must pass through 
a halfway house run by angels. In this
place of transit, the migrants must
choose one event from their lives
that the angels will make into a movie,
starring the migrants themselves.
Heaven is this short film, played
on an endless loop."
~ Viet Thanh Nguyen



No one leaving for the airport at dawn
as if surreptitiously, while the child
is sleeping. Instead, they walk
hand in hand, following a path

dusted by moths. No one leveling
the mountains or cutting down
all the trees. Nothing
that needs to be paid by

installment, or with gold
extracted from someone's mouth.
No one hiding under the house until
the creditors go away.

No one having to endlessly correct
grammar, our names, our being
here. A window not taped
with plastic in winter.

No disappearing into the surf, no
walking barefoot into the snow.
No pills in vials, no asking
when anything will end.

The white daylily opens its throat

in the middle of the sympathy bouquet 

and sends out its pungent note.
The roses and carnations can't compete,

but they would rather smell like vanilla
or melted crayons. I read somewhere

that perfume was invented in order to mask
the smell of bodies that couldn't bathe

every day or didn't want to. I wish
I didn't have to taste the cocktail

of acid and bile that swirls around
my insides when I'm driven

to the apex of anxiety, but I haven't
learned to pretend disinterest.

The flowers are a composition that means
we're beautiful because we're going

to perish. They're paper-white, eggshell-
white, ivory beginning to yellow. And

even after they're gone I smell their
sorrowful musk in my hair, on my fingers.

Trials

Why does the king in the story
keep plodding back and forth

through the graveyard, a talking
corpse with Scheherazade ambitions

clinging to his back, threatening
to explode his head if he doesn't

respond to the riddle at the end
of every tale it tells? Why

didn't he refuse the invitation
to undertake such a task in the first

place? The girl in the story
who sits on the ground in a dirty

skirt, patiently picking each
numbered grain of wheat, ordered

to collect all of them by sun-
down; and the one who stole a taste

of the gods' ambrosia and nectar
condemned to bend forever toward water

receding from his thirst, to reach
for fruit rising away from his out-

stretched hunger. Whatever keeps
returning to test us in life,

we're told, are lessons we haven't
learned. But whose hand behind

the screen writes the riddles, takes
pleasure instructing stage attendants

to turn off the sprinkler system or
raise the branches with pulleys? Who

dresses a body of questions in decaying
flesh and suspends it from the trees?





Dear future, sometimes I see you

  
in the brief instance before my beloved

wakes, or when, looking into the hallway
mirror there is a fleeting oval of light.

We were taught not to desire
knowledge of you, for like time, you are

a mystery only God is supposed to know
how to unravel. At midnight, rain

drums on the roof and lightning flicks
its many tongues across the blinds.

In childhood, I used to think the night
sky was a dark ocean wanting to spill

over its rim. Dear future, you are coming
toward all of us; in fact, you are almost

here. Daily I address you and bribe
you with prayer; I pay what I can

toward hope of some kindly fate
whose price might be beyond my reach.

Plenty

~ in memoriam, Aurora Villaseñor Igloria

Say your mother is eyeing the last
piece of bread on the table:

instead of asking for it, she
might say Don't you want the last

pan de leche?
That way, if you
or anyone else wants it,

you could have it, and her little
longing might be tucked away.

Or say there is just so much rice
in the pot: so your grandparents

sing the praises of the smoky
and brittle crust at the bottom,

how it crumbles like a cracker
or a golden lattice. They'll say

What a lifetime of eating our fill
of the world
: mangos and sugar apples,

doughnuts and sponge cakes---so much
plenty, they don't need to be reminded.






Bespoke

 
The man who builds furniture
comes to measure the space
where my father wants a glass
paneled cabinet and hutch:
so high, with drawer pulls
and knobs in the shape of
seahorses. In our town,
everything anyone might want
could be copied for a price---
imitation being the highest
form of flattery. So we have
a chandelier with teardrop
facets and copper wires;
a kitchen floor inlaid
with crazy-cut tile.
The cabinet will hold
plates, crystal footed ice
cream dishes, punch bowls
with scallops and serrated
edges made from the same
materials as the craftsman's
one artificial eye.




The Moment that Comes After Was Once the Future

It will follow you 
as you walk with your hand
in your mother's down the hill,
the pines towering in mid-
afternoon heat, their spires

waiting to be lit
later by the darker fire
shed by the sun going down:
that sense of the future
just waiting to pounce

on the moment
like the breath of a dog
snarling at your heels as you
pass the gate to which
its owner has tied it.

It's only a simple
errand: maybe to bring back
butter and a loaf of bread.
But she has put on a clean
dress, a pair of black

sling-back pumps, sprayed
a scent along her wrists
and neckline: something
like Jean Patou or Chanel
No. 5. Coming back, you look

in the window of every store.
She nods and smiles at the Indian
shopkeepers, Mr. Bheroomull,
Mr. Assandas; and the Chinese
manager of the dry goods

store. They bow back.
There are glass shelves
in the front with alarm
clocks and wristwatches
you need to wind every day

so they keep the correct
time. There are notions and
bolts of cloth in every color.
And the dog still chafes at his
chain as you make your way home.

Independence

Early summer: such signs of labor
meaning the cycles begin again--

the earnest attempt to beat back
all sudden proliferation of green

bladed things. A woman breaks off
a sprig of confederate jasmine

and offers it to me: as if I need
more evidence the girl is back, back

from her tenure in the depths. We tie
a bandana around the bottom of our faces

and watch as trucks drive around
the block, spraying chemicals for

mosquitoes. In the canopy of the fig
whose limbs we trimmed in spring,

I stretch a hand up to feel for nubs
that will still grow heavy with sugar.


Wire Mother, Cloth Mother

In a famous experiment, the infant monkey
taken from its biological mother is given

a choice of two surrogates—a wire mother,
or one rigged of rubber and terry cloth.

Wire mother has the bottle dispensing milk,
and cloth mother has nothing but its soft,

nubby surface. It's easy to predict
the ways this story will be told;

so clear that the organizing principle here
is one assigning maternality to certain

traits assumed to naturally reside
in a female that has given birth to young.

If the mother, still anxious and groggy
from labor and lack of sleep, at first

pushes the tiny, rooting mouth away,
does it necessarily mean she'll have

no love to give? Years ago, preparing
to leave my children in the care of

relatives so I could go to graduate
school in America, I was called

selfish, self-centered. Even the man
on my fellowship interview committee

took one look at my information
and said, But you're a mother! as if

that should settle anything and every-
thing. Another colleague said, Mark

my words. It may not show now, but
there'll be an effect on them
. Meaning

something like those infant rhesus
monkeys after being left with a wire

surrogate: some stared at the ceiling
or circled their cage; some engaged

in self-mutilation or even wasted
away and died, after refusing to eat.  

1969

 

We don't own a TV yet
so my father accepts the invitation
of his cousin the former mayor
to come to his house one
street away and view the moon
landing. At school, in Science class,
all the teachers can talk about
is the first humans who will set foot
on the moon--- The weightlessness
in space, the heavy suits
the astronauts need to wear, topped
by a bubble through which they'll breathe
bottled air. I can't imagine how
much fuel they used to push
spacecraft into the atmosphere.
All the adults in the room
clink glasses as if at a wedding
when they hear one step for a man, one
giant leap for mankind.
But what I'll
remember most is the landscape
pockmarked with boulders and craters;
the magnificent desolation of that
Sea of Tranquility.