Cicada Chorus

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Summer. Avenues fill 
      with ragas plucked across 
the washboard of their abdomens,

      sustained vibration 
multiplied by tymbals. They come
      from wintering inside the ground, 

trailing these labyrinths
      of low sound. Bulbs of grief 
grow long-stalked then break

      upon the first stony edge.
The husk: tearable as paper
      though it kept you for years.

Belles Lettres

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Consider the leaves of the young
lime tree 
          which drop by the handful
in heat after being assaulted by rain;
and consider 
             the idiom of moths depositing
eggs in the crevices of plants
in order for the worms 
                       to multiply among
the green. If it is so much work
to stay alive
              how much harder is it to writhe
free of this palimpsest in order to become
a shade 
        in the underworld? The air
at sundown, caul still humid
from the fire we burn
                       inside us:
each one wanting to write just one 
more beautiful book. 
  

 

America

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

~ after Kathleen Graber

America, you were the cousin who joined
a beauty contest the year before her visa
application cleared so she could be a nurse
somewhere in Rochester, NJ; she didn't think
a roll of sheepskin inked with her name
and St. Louis University would be enough.
Soon after, she sent pictures of the doctor
she would marry. America, we like to think
there might have been love and not just 
the green card; we hear they're still 
together in their dotage. America, you were 
another cousin slowly dying from cancer, 
alone in an apartment in Maryland. 
I knew her only by name and the photographs 
she sent: her stylish bob, her cigarettes 
and drugstore-bought dark glasses. The patent 
leather Mary Janes she sent one Christmas, 
the walking doll with flaxen hair, white 
lace bib and pinafore, the vacant 
eyes that opened and closed (and give me
nightmares even now). And you were 
a certain smell before we even began 
to understand what you really were—synthetic 
and abnormally clean, like Chlorox or Windex
with a bottom note of soda left open in the sun. 
It wafted up from a box that took two months
to ship from your flank or your hip 
or armpit: wherever it was people like us 
found neighborhoods where they could rent
walkups whose stairwells overflowed 
with steam from rice pots. America,
we can shine and scrub your floors
without a Hoover or a Roomba, then punch
holes in the bottoms of fruit 
cocktail cans so we can grow bird 
chillies and tomatoes on the veranda. 
We let a dentist in our old hometown pull
out all our teeth so you wouldn't get
the chance to do it and charge us
triple. There is a fish we like to eat
whose belly is soft and sweet and full
of fat; but every bone in its body 
is a tree that bristles with more than
a dozen spears. Like you, America— 
if we're not careful, we could choke 
on even the smallest mouthful.
  
 

    

Memory from When I Didn’t Know Birth Mother from Adoptive Mother

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
The first time was when I confessed
to doing something I guess I shouldn't 

have done: drawing 2 clumsy shapes 
with a blue BIC ball pen on a lampshade. 

I was trying to imitate the repeating print 
of Mondrian-like squares, thinking they 

would blend in so nicely. Another time 
was when I stomped my feet, refusing 

to play the piano for her friends 
who'd come to visit over tea. I know 

there were many more times but none
as startling as the first when she hissed,

Do you want me to return you to where you
came from? I was only in second grade but knew 

vaguely how babies were born. I stared 
at the space where a tiny belt cinched pleats

around the tiny waist she was so proud of. 
I couldn't understand what that kind 

of return might mean; or if I'd shrink 
bit by bit until there would be nothing.  

Rune

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
"Love means you breathe in two countries."
                       ~ Naomi Shihab Nye


I have very few pictures from there
         but now and then I look through them 
to see how light falls like a wound 
         refusing to heal. Sometimes I think
sepia must be the color of love: 
         that means the length of a breath 
quickening the distance between this 
         moment and all the ones in which 
we haven't yet made our lives harder 
         than a rusk of bread to crumble
in a cup of coffee. Now, I find
         an insomnia of stars buried in
the flesh of fruit. I pick at the white
         pith that spreads like a net
across a globe I can hold in my hand.
         But is it always going to be  
too late? A month before you were born, 
         I walked the hills by myself 
in a heavy sweater, watching my breath write
         unreadable letters in the air. I still
can't figure out whether they spelled time or
         estrangement or anchor; or were merely 
random shapes of a future refusing to be read.     

Those Who Stayed

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
         When the city fell  
around us: sounds like breaking  
crystal and buildings 
                      imploding into ash,
followed by staccato
of helicopters. 
                Airlift 
was a word passed from mouth
to mouth, 
          runner gaining ground. 
And yet, where could we go in a field
bounded 
        by aftershock and lightning 
strike, our mouths stuffed
with sawdust? How
                  could we leave
the stones that marked the birth-
place of our bodies 
                    and where 
we went to sleep at night? 
If you want to learn 
                     our history,
walk among the rows of our dead, neat
as books shelved in a library
                              guarded
by the arms of cypress and pine,
end-papered in moss.

Choropleth

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
To describe a future that isn't
coy anymore about showing its face,  

we need to begin the massive labor
of corrections. Once, monks

and their acolytes sat at long 
tables in the scriptorium, day 

after day extracting bright 
minerals from plants and insect 

bodies, tracking silverpoint across 
vellum plates, dipping the ends 

of brushes into wells of goldleaf. 
Now we begin to dismantle elaborate 

overlays of luster, grand networks 
of erroneous facts. Magellan, 

whose name was given to those dark-
blue straits across the Tierra 

del Fuego, did not circumnavigate 
the earth; the honor must go 

to his Filipino interpreter Enrique. 
Columbus did not discover the Americas:

hundreds of nations were in place 
before he crowed about finding rhubarb 

and cinnamon and a thousand other 
things of value, before he laid down 

a trade route for cotton and silver 
and slaves, as many as they shall order 

to be shipped and who will be from 
the idolaters. Peer into mirrors 

and see villages decimated by fire, 
valleys from which creatures fled

toward forests of glinting knives.  
From smoke, collect precious blood. 

We can't stop until our cities gleam
with the shine of our stolen names.   

Poem as Limping Concordance

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Go, they said.
We'll help take care 
     of the children.

That first winter, I buy
padlocks, a flashlight, a disposable 
             camera at the drugstore

so I can take snapshots of the snow
on the way to campus. Don't 
                            go out

with damp hair, I'm told;
or they'll snap like brittle
                       icicles in cold

air. Before I find an apartment
shared with other 
             grad students, 

I make my first calls from public
phones in lobbies. I clutch 
                         a paper 

bag of coins
in one hand and listen
for 
    the warning tone.

The day of departure  
loops in my mind: my mother
and two 
      older daughters

rising before dawn to board
a cab for the airport;
we all 
       decide it will be 

a mercy to leave the youngest, 
still asleep, with our katulong.
What words 
           did we say exactly

and what sort of embrace ::
before the doors sealed themselves
in place
       between us.

Year after year
and it is a decade :: then
two :: then three.
              You make 

a litany
of what I've missed for which
there never will 
                 be a good

enough answer. I can tell you
about the blur of nights 
but not about 
               the sounds of longing 

I'm told escape my lips in sleep. 
I could tell you that my life,
narrowing more
               toward that cold museum 

bend, will never amass adequate
redress :: this body and its relics 
incapable of righting
        all the scales.

US Soldiers Pose with the Bodies of Moro Insurgents

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Philippines, March 7, 1906

 
                          
From the archives—
a photograph taken on the crater
rim of Mount Dajo
after assault 

              272 men of the 6th 
Infantry     211 men of the 4th Cavalry 
68 men of the 28th Artillery Battery
51 Sulu Constabulary   110 men of the 19th
Infantry and 6 sailors from 
the gunboat Pampanga

                    In the foreground 
a child's foot 
rests on the brow of another  
                              A body away

could that be his sister
Her dark hair still 
neat in its ponytail
                                 
                      A whole
village in the ditch— Softness
of homespun garments their tattered
elegy  

              A pale breast and smudged
throat tilts toward the sky like some
marble goddess defaced

                         I cannot look 
at the white men standing above them
with their officious hats 

                        Their cocked 
knees and overheated guns

Each one's the crooked bow of elbows
Each one's the nonchalance of war

                This is the Bud Dajo massacre
where more than 900 Muslim Filipinos
were killed
             
             defending a settlement
where they'd retreated to plant
rice and potatoes
weave
       mats from forest fronds

18 Americans lost
their lives 
              For every white 
soldier here a calculus
of 50 native bodies


Some Flowers Open Only at Night

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
White-throated bud, pinched 
tight in the morning: an exploded 
whorl at dusk. 

Or, every consequence 
often begins in understatement.

Or, is its own 
pursuit of something
to call an aftermath.

We want to assign cause 
or blame: stain on the white napkin 
made by a mouth that can't stop 
eating too much red fruit.

Singed air above a pit
where bodies burn down
to only their elements of bone
and ash. 

One can buy sorrow more cheaply
than wine or bread. Trading it
is a different story.