Poem with ghosts and breasts and whales and milk

“…the search for lightness [is] a reaction to the weight of living. ~ Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In these parts there’s a famous hotel called The Cavalier,
where it’s said the ghosts of old soldiers walk the halls
at night, and the piano in the ballroom croons jazz
tunes to itself. From any of the rooms you can hear
the sound of the ocean. One summer on the beach there,
I had what’s called a wardrobe malfunction in the upper
part of my strapless swimsuit. We’ve all heard the story
about how the bra was supposedly first designed
by an engineer
, which was synonymous for man;
which is almost like saying someone thought an egg works
the same way as an airplane. The earliest corsets were made
of whalebone— Who knew that the ribcage of a grey-
blue whale capable of staying underwater for up to two
hours, could be used to take just about all the breath
out of young women who fainted a lot from being laced up
in those stays? At a cafe one time, I overheard
a teenage girl tell her mother she hated wearing bras.
She said, I am going to take it off right here, right
now, and slip it out from under my sweater!

Those underwires do hurt like crazy— couldn’t we
have a garment of support made of something supple
and sweet, like the skin that forms on the surface
of milk when heated? I can’t count how many times
I’ve read in the news about animals whose throats
have been caught in those rubber rings that go around
the necks of six-packs of soda or beer. I’m rarely
in the wine section of the grocery, though you
might find me in front of the bin of “exotic” fruit,
mourning the prickly pear or cherimoya turning brown
and soft, one part of me also curious, wondering
if I should buy it for FOMO. I can think of any
number of books in which a fruit has been compared
to a woman and her parts. Actually, rather than a skin
of milk, I’d love to have a tunic made of light.
What would that look like, apart from the obvious?
I’d never want to hang it up on the handle of an unused
exercise bike or on the antlered coat rack we inherited
from an uncle who liked to hunt. Doesn’t a cupful of warm
milk equate to certain ideas of childhood, a time
when the body was smooth and without extra hair and bumps?
I can’t stop putting milk now into this poem, though I’ve
always been lactose intolerant. I mean, how is it possible
my breasts have produced milk, regardless? When I
was breastfeeding each of my four daughters in turn,
I craved mussels, clams, and gingery chicken broth.
Did Eve have cravings in pregnancy? Then did she crave
chocolate and jalapeño chips and beer in menopause?
Go get some chocolate now, my brain tells me;
not the milk kind, but the darkest. The kind
that leaves a satisfying stain on your hands,
your teeth, the cuffs of your good white shirt.
Or that blood stew your elders laughingly called
chocolate meat, spooned on a bed of hot white rice.

In winter

A child when grown is to thatch 
a roof over his old parents' heads,
is to weave a shawl across the thin
skin holding in their shoulders. 
A child is to stay ghost-like and serve
in the final years leading to their deaths.
In winter, rare sight of a wading bird
anchored against the frozen tide
by one bent leg--- She is an ideogram
of go and stay, sweet water and salt.
I can't read the current that swirls
underneath the cold surface.

During an earthquake, my father dies

I love the upturned hand nestled inside 
      a psalm; can't hate the smell 
of a body still clinging to its corpse. 
      It takes two days before a coffin 
can be found-- in the meantime he lies
      on an unmade bed, formal in
repose, dressed in his best suit,
      good silk tie and polished shoes.
Aftershocks rattle the windowpanes, send
      piano octaves across the floor.
Tremors around the base of trees unearth
      small bones and lost mosaics
of tile. On the third day, a hummingbird 
      flies through the porch slats;
its wings, bright as wounds, move faster
      than sight, trying to break the spell.

Hypothesis of one possible fate

~ "One eye sees, the other feels." (Paul Klee)

We threw down sticks to shape 
a rune and counted numbers

burned into six-sided cubes 
of bone. Adding them up, 

we looked for guidance
from stars that were 

no longer there, except for
telegrams of light they tried

to send from out of their
aftermath. We asked

how long we have to live
inside this temple of war;

how many more weeks 
we'll wander without

food or sleep or shade. On one side
of a wall, willows droop with names

of missing children. On the other, flares 
sputter; flies hover over fetid pools of rain. 


Sisters: An arrangement

youth might return                   to their bodies 
a peach flush                 a glow in their cheeks 

they don't fight               for the love of a man
anymore                     they're tender with each 

other                       poison under wet tongues

women have come                   and gone they know    
in the same bed                     they lie with fingers

entwined when one dies           the other is hollow

whose face remains         who dreams who slips away
hair loosened               they used to keep each other's

rings and garments            pulse and jealous fire                 
secrets                                    breathing inside  


~ after Armando Valero, “

My love sings to me 
      clothed as if ready to leave  
in the morning for war, as if  
     the boat on which we ride  
did not go both forward 
      and back to a shore we  
only think we can abandon.  
      And the sea is a rough beast
whose waters we are always
      trying to carve into scales,
whose rhythms we are always
      trying to match to the pulse
in our wrists. My love, she
      with a brave blue banner
emblazoned with the sign
      of a creature who might live
on land and water and air.
      My love, with no provisions
other than rebellious song
      he pushes into the wind:
what foolishness to dress
      in the purest linen and a jacket
sewn of summer’s extravagant
      blooms. But what else, what else
could we do under this slate-blue sky. 


In response to Via Negativa: In Winter.

House Call

"...a fur of experience
rose over us like amber."  ~ D. Bonta

How did you know what to do, which number to fumble for in sequence on the rotary phone, your small hand cradling the receiver and your small voice asking for the doctor, you only knew him by his first name, this doctor Fernando, in those days when house calls were still made and you, feverish on the couch, with wet cloths and hot delirious dreams that came out through your chattering teeth and then you felt somewhere the burn of a needle entering the flesh of your arm and the heavy quiet under your lids after– But this time it  wasn’t you, it was your mother passed out on the kitchen’s cold granite tile after she and the cruel grandmother had another of their terrible rows and you didn’t know if she was alive, if she was still breathing, after she screamed and  heaved the stalk of green bananas leaning against the shelf across the room… You don’t know why that comes back to you, or the smell of antiseptic and lime, the sight of her body on the floor, pale limbs, bony elbows, and the kindness of the doctor when he comes through the door, how he pats your hand, how the curtains look with the sun sieving yellow through their fringes, and the sound of water dripping from a faucet–        



In response to Via Negativa: Maquiladoras.

Self Portrait at the Fish Market, with Scales

They’re clean, said the man
          behind the counter; they’re gutted.
                    Meaning the gills had been taken out,
meaning he’d drawn with the tip
          of his knife one swift incision and slit
                    from the anus all the way till the head
of the fish. You wonder what they did
         with all the slick guts that spilled
                    out of their bellies, on whose grill
the long floppy sac of roe will char
         and sear. At your sink, you unwrap
                   the bodies from newsprint and see
they still wear their armor: there are some things
         that don’t get taken away.  They shimmer

                  like crushed gems you’d touch to your lips. 




First month of the year, named for
the ancient Roman god of beginnings,

doorways, transitions and endings: poised
at the terminus of change, countenance

like a book with leaves splayed open
to face forward and back. And I too

am caught perennially in passage,
ambivalent nature wanting most of all

to hold on but also to let go. Another
cycle, another drift; and no real

middle ground between knowing and not-
knowing, between feeling like I’m done

here, and like I’ve only just begun. Amid
the bright, tinny noises of celebration,

desperately I long for silence; and in
the thick of silence, want to be taken back,

enfolded instead of exiled. I am a boat
sailing forward into the current, and what

the water brings back because it doesn’t know
what else to do. I’m the girl that picks up

the vessel and fills it at the well, only
to empty it on walking back. I shield a flame

in darkness; in sunlight I shade my eyes. I break
and put myself together, over and over again.


Who hasn’t asked to be granted reprieve, mouthed a plea not to be fossiled in despair? More time and space, please: and clear vistas, less elegy. Let our feet dance again, let us walk without limping, let us see and be seen; let the men come back from the edge of the tracks where they wished to throw their bodies at that machine rumbling closer out of the dark. Let the women repeat the owl’s whistle without lining it with warnings. Let the guards dismantle fences and those miles and miles of concertina wire. I ask the fields not to be so quiet, to make their poppy flares wilder and redder until even wandering ghosts are tempted to stop and eat or make bouquets. I want them to get up hours later washed in the perfume of wildflowers, no longer burdened with what it was that turned them away, turned them loose or out of doors, unhomed. I want the soldiers to walk through the desert bringing water, blankets, food; for the coyote to be nothing more than a small prairie wolf with broad ears, scraping at cypress bark with delicate paws.