~ after Hugo Simberg, “On the Stream of Life” (1896)
If only it were like this: a craft
filled with words and books, the tiller
almost an afterthought. Going
where the water will take you
in the way that most thoughts meander—
through leafless trees, past distant
towns, farther into the unpunctuated
countryside of your solitude.
Open your mouth, says the nurse as she sticks the tip of the thermometer under your tongue. The cold resides in regions between the heart and the hand. Everything else burns like a cake of tallow into which a piece of twine has been stuck. Do your dreams ripple like a sheet before breaking into bubbles? You watch them roll across bathroom tile like a herd of silverfish. When you touch one, it divides over and over and over into smaller versions of itself.
“We look before and after,
and pine for what is not…”
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley
Drawing maps for the hill
station, really they were modeling
the wilderness after their own cities
in the west: Burnham in his prairies,
his stockyards and early prototypes
of sky-scrapers. Aspiring to the colonies
birds build high in trees: their rookeries,
extravagance of space opening for light
over the middle court. On one side, plots
for residences. And on the other, buildings
of state. Lagoons, a greenway, promenades
for The White City— semi-utopia in which
visitors were meant to be shielded from poverty
and crime. In their records you won’t find
a list of indigenous names, families moved
along with livestock deeper into the nameless
periphery of rice terraces, lemon groves,
and more than a hundred species of fern.
~ after “El Flautista” (“The Flutist”), Remedios Varo; 1955
A cardinal touches down on a Japanese maple
but can’t tell us where they’ve taken
all the children. We take turns watching,
we take turns playing songs for the mothers:
their grief, our grief, might merge
to form a thing that could unseal a stone
from the mountain. Only there is no one
walking out into the light as if resurrected.
That copper-tinged wind, that citadel
whose once beautiful blueprint is breaking.
The light, too, is breaking; or in the throes
of change. My face is the inside of a shell up-
turned to the moon. A rune, a coelacanth.
Night-blooming cereus stranded in time.
Skies the color of old aluminum
in the morning, when you can go
into the river and scoop shoals of tiny
fish in your hands— their ink dot
eyes and inch-long translucent bodies
weaving clouds under the rocks. Pale
drifts, smallest and ghostly, over-
lapping: so hard to tell one body apart
from another. And I don’t know anymore
sometimes if I am mother or daughter
or wife or teacher or friend; if I am scale
or chain or raw; if a thin line of smoke
coils me into submission before something
I cannot name scalds me and swallows me whole.
In response to Via Negativa: Sartoriology.
~ after Remedios Varo, “Icono,” 1945; óleo y nácar incrustado/madera (Oil and inlaid mother of pearl/wood).
I want to believe that beneath the plumbing
and gears exist possibilities of escape;
or flight, even. This isn’t just the result
of having been given books to read in childhood
with towns named Lakeport or Riverdale; or where
merry was a word that conveyed characters
from one episode to another, much like a red
convertible. I’m not surprised when I read
that before 1917, such stories were constructed
from whole cloth, with little or no connection
to the real world. But when I say
the herbalist placed both her hands
on the part of the skull that was most tender
and transparent just after birth, there is
a general air of skepticism. And yet I felt
an immediate pulse— it coursed through
the length of me and did not stop at the soles
of my feet. What about the mirror? Is it not true
either? Whose face looked out as I raised a guttering
candle to its surface? You can know upon entering
a building that the shape of a man at the end
of a hallway will correspond to the shape he leaves
in a bed. So many stairs. So many planets and stars
reeling in their own inscrutable dance. But our
mathematics is more simple: something passed
here at one time believing it could last
longer than the birds that fell mute or turned
to stone. A house is an architecture of open
mouths and eyes. And trust me, you don’t
really want to spend eternity in a tower, lost
in pearled conjugations of ropes and hair.
In exchange for music, a grammar
lesson: because the piano teacher
did not speak English.
Whole note and half. And how many
violets stoppered in a bottle?
Between things is a rest or a thin
slice of toast on a tray
when words become impossible.
You want to sing? Shape your mouth
as if to tell the river it can be
fire or a nest or the letters of your name
building a bridge in a forgotten language.
You want to speak? Turn the bell upside down
and fill it with rain water. Drink in
the tongue swinging madly in that empty house.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world. ~ Fernando Pessoa
I want to tell the beasts I’ve led
to the river’s edge that we’ve arrived,
that the thirst we’ve held on to for so long
will finally be slaked. But what did I know
about not making promises, how could I know
there’s no more milk in the earthen jug?
I am tired, so tired. All I want to do
is lie on the silt-brown shore and let
the curtain fall, let the animals
of my need find their way or not
in the woods. Such a brilliant shade
of orange on the horizon! And the grass:
each blade numerous and distinct, making
four blue flowers such an extravagance.
~ after Hugo Simberg, “The Fairy Tale I” (1895)
~ after Harrison Forman, “Igorot Woman Carring Harvest on Northern Luzon Island, Philippines”
Charol: what we called patent
leather— its bright, high gloss
most desired for children’s First
Communion footwear and men’s dress
shoes. Mongol: most popular brand of
No. 2 pencils, thereafter the name
for every yellow-painted stick of graphite
with which we wrote our lessons. Or ballpoint
pens, all of them in our minds called Bic.
Until my father quit smoking cold turkey,
he’d ask someone to buy Marlboros for him
at the corner store: the Salem Menthol kind.
Sometimes, without thinking, I’ll ask for
a tissue by saying Kleenex. The tongue’s
colonial lessons in renaming the world
sit undisturbed beneath a canopy of recent
layers: odd artifacts on shelves and tables,
next to each other in every room of the house.
~ after Hugo Simberg, “Unelma” (“Dream”); 1900
Against the silver blue
and ghostly latticework of trees,
the soul has picked out its mate.
Here’s the husband, whose ordinary feet
move across crimson-speckled grass—
he studies in wonder how it is
they seem to know, apart from the rest
of him, just what to do. The woman
sitting on the rock feels
overcome by the weight of what she does
and doesn’t recognize. It’s like a late
afternoon drama that used to play only
in black and white on her father’s
old television console: a faint rustling
that could be wings or simple static,
before a window opens high overhead
to let a banner of grief into the night.
So gather your hair into a bun
or comb back your locks into a kind of halo.
In any clearing, at least three things will be
asked to dance: the woman, the man, the mystery.