"...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.
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.
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?
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.
~ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.