- after “Persephone” (2015) by Judith Schaechter
Here, it isn’t winter yet, though the spiked
leaf of the holly is its herald. Among the dry
rattle-pods and hairless weeds, a single
blood-red stem sends its network of roots
into the earth, a system interrupted
by cells of dormant seeds: crimson
and indigo, ending in the hollow where
she is trapped or where, depending on how
you’d like to retell her story, she prepares
to break through that ceiling. She’s not
too far away from the surface: it looks
as though she only needs to give one last
firm push with her left foot against a ledge
of rock in her enclosure, and she might stand,
clearing the blurry border between above
and below with a shower of soil and loamy
gravel. Except now she must do it alone:
the mother is nowhere in the picture, and
neither is the infamous lord of her abduction.
Only one insistent flower tethers her to
this world, and neither of them lets go.
That spring, when I shared space
in a cramped AirBnB RV trailer
with one of my daughters,
I couldn't remember taking off
the intricate beaded necklace
I'd brought to wear
at a conference, though I remember
putting it on that last morning.
But when we went our separate
ways, she flying off to North
Carolina and me back to Virginia,
I couldn't find any trace of it
in my purse or in my luggage.
For a moment, but only just,
I thought about e-mailing
the owner to ask her
to help me look for it. But
if I couldn't remember if I
still had it on when we returned,
then couldn't it be anywhere?
I could sigh about how much
it had cost, how women in South
Africa threaded each bead to make
such striking geometric shapes.
But I thought of Bishop's door
keys, her mother's watch, her
rivers, homes, and continents;
a quake, a storm swirling its spiked
coronet over the Pacific. There's
disaster, then there is disaster.
(with a line from Dilruba Ahmed)
with tenderness and then
with fierce intensity,
the myths of childhood
merge with those
of older age. the bed
sheets wet with effluvia
and vegetable matter,
the windows streaked
in the yellow glow,
the widow moves from one
streetlamp to another,
like a spider looking
to jump on an electric
current in the air.
Nobody said it would be easy.
Nobody said you can take it
all back because you're tired
or you find out it doesn't work.
Nobody said your heart could fill
like a reservoir and then
go bone dry the next day.
Nobody can give you what you want
that you can't find in a swirled
tulip on the foam of an expensive
coffee, or in the lay-away folds
of a heavy winter coat. So what
do you do with the screen that sticks
between the window and the wind,
with the suitcase's broken zipper
and the pile of neatly folded
underclothes? Nobody told you
an orange moon means nothing
good could ever be coming
your way. Nobody said a coin
or a button couldn't be used
as a piece in chess or monopoly,
that a regular microphone
couldn't double for karaoke
as long as you can find
song lyrics on your phone.
Today I wear the round
beaded earrings with fringed
golden tassels my eldest
daughter got for me, made
by women who live in Lake Sebu,
famous for the T'boli weave
they make called t'nalak—
stripped abacá bark, organically
dyed of bark and leaves, each
ripply panel the equivalent
of a chapter from a dream.
I wonder what pattern
I could pull from my own
dreams, especially if
I've forgotten about them
as soon as I open my eyes.
I think everyone should be
given a chance to make something
tangible from a dream at least
once: a recipe dictated in
a dream, a dress with glorious
detail they've only ever seen
in a dream. A mural or
collage in which wild-
flowers open their mouths
like a choir to sing the most
unforgettable songs never
heard by the human ear.
My husband loves the part in Les Misérables
when a man pinned under the wheels of a cart
is begging for help, but no one in that busy
marketplace moves to rescue him except
for the ex-convict Jean Valjean AKA Mayor
Madeleine. Valjean crawls beneath the cart
and with nearly superhuman strength lifts it
to free the man. In my opinion this counts
as a deadlift, which according to all
the dictionaries I've consulted
literally means the lifting of a dead
weight from the ground, oftentimes from
a squatting position. Javert, the town's
police inspector, is instantly reminded
of the only man he's ever seen do such
a thing— a prisoner who can't quite shuck
his thieving habits and is on the lam again
soon after his release. Then there's the stone
that archaeologists unearthed from ancient
times in Olympia, Greece, with a handprint
on it and the inscription "Bybon, son of Phola,
lifted me over his head with one hand." I don't
know anything else about Bybon, but this week I read
on social media a story about a seven-year-old boy
of Filipino and Hmong ancestry who's training
to deadlift three times his weight; he says he
owes his strength to his favorite food, lumpia.
When I tell this story to a new poet friend,
he thinks I'm talking about the cumbia, a dance
originating in Panama or Colombia, in which
partners step back then front, front then back,
while rhythmically swaying hips and arms to mild
percussion. To dance passably well you can't
drag your feet around like stones, so there's that
to be said about a kind of similarity to what
the weightlifter aims to do: hoist a weight even
for a few clean seconds, in seeming defiance of
the gravity that keeps wanting to take us down
to our usual abject position in mud and muck.
So we want to wrap our hands around the merest
gleam of silver, to use our body as both boulder
and lever until it comes loose in one smooth move.
You know the story: a child pulls
off the legs of a spider or some
other insect, one by one, then
commands it to walk. In the end,
he concludes that without the means
to walk, one becomes deaf. Trail
of unmoving bodies on the windowsill:
after which the child loses interest
or moves on to a new experiment
involving wings and melted tallow.
I am not trying to say we are incapable
of violence. I am not trying to say
we haven't had dreams in which
our arms windmill until they find
a physical target, until the last
husk is surrendered as tax. Friends ask
how can you be so serene, listening
as an animal is slaughtered in the pit;
watching as blood pours from the slit
throat, as the knife scores the belly
until the creamy white lining yields
to inspection. Someone plunges
an arm into the cavity to bring
paired astrolabes to light: branched
lungs, streaked kidneys. These
can be hung in the trees, like
dark beads of a chandelier.
The loop that held
the chain. The coded
combination. The golden
hoop that used to be
one of a pair of earrings.
The cup for a mis-matched
saucer. The correct version
of your given name. The heat,
the door to the furnace.
The sign that you were seen.
In the viewfinder the road with a stripe
down the middle leads to a red barn
against a very blue sky in the distance.
The eye doctor clicks one lens after another
into place, and asks which combination
gives the clearest view of the scene.
While picking new lenses out of a tray,
she starts talking about her morning,
how in the middle of driving her two
daughters to school, one of them discovers
she's left her homework and binder at home
and pleads for her to turn around. Would
you do that, she asks me. Would you give
in even after you've told them time
and again it's their responsibility
to make sure they have everything
they need before we leave the house?
I'm not sure how to reply. What if
the kid gets points taken off and
can't make it up with extra credit?
Instead I think of how I have gone back
to bring my daughters what they've called
about, frantic or in panic in their need.
Have I been too soft, too sacrificing?
The barn on the screen isn't really
red, but closer to brown. There aren't
any turns or four-way stops on the road,
no traffic lights, no geese or crossing
deer to make the landscape even mildly
interesting. Again, I read lines
of letters diminishing in size, until
I come to a row that looks like a trail
of evenly spaced ants. I want to say
I've seen skies crosshatched with
wheeling birds—a murmuration. Unlike
the ancient Romans who thought the shapes
they made were augurs from the gods,
I can't predict what comes next
or say with certainty how a moment
connects to something that came before.
Tell a story, says the writer giving
a lecture, about the first time you think
you might be falling in love. Remember
the smallest details: the waft of tobacco
from the neighbor's porch where he sits
and reads all afternoon through evening,
hidden behind a waterfall of pothos
spilling from a hanging pot. Ceylon
creeper, silver vine, also called
devil's ivy because it is almost
impossible to kill and it stays green
even when kept in the dark. Remember
this and the rusted green of the garden
gate, the way your hand hesitated
before you rang the doorbell, waiting
to see if the boy that walked you home
would do something: push a strand
of hair away from your cheek, move
closer to brush his lips against it...
But nothing will happen here because you
already know this is a town where
everything gets broadcast to the four
winds before it has even happened,
a town where behind every window drape
there is at least one pair of eyes
surveilling the immediate landscape.
Perhaps it is the way imminent action
gets suspended; perhaps it is because all
stories of beginning are full of awkward
silences and hesitation. More than the color
of his eyes or hair or the texture of his
smile, you'll recall more clearly the dark
red spears of bandera española by the gate,
its flowers thrust open in fulfillment.