~ after Remedios Varo, "Tiforal" (1947) In this calcified Eden, it's still possible to recognize shapes from a time when you freely named things in the world. Arches and discs still glow with the milky sheen of untroubled intermissions. Among these silver-grey terminals, a turbaned neurosurgeon sits in the mahogany-paneled dark of his office, tenting his fingers. I am trying to remember what he said about the complexity of pathways, about the root and the sheath and the vein. Radiant: a burst of heat or light emitted from a center. But also, how spokes of them might be delivered to a place where all beams meet. See how the tongues of leaves bend in one direction; how silhouettes distill the teeth and hair-combs of lightning. The underlying mechanism for wings; the points of beaks, a crown for starfish. Pilgrim, you walk this stretch carrying only your drinking cup. Do you remember learning water from pure hammered copper always tastes colder in the mouth? A body registers the force of any shock, well beyond the first encounter.
~ after Remedios Varo, “Icono” (“Interior”); Óleo y nácar incrustado/madera; 1943
Of the insides, we know only
the feel of invisible pulleys,
the ways those tethers feel
connected to the milkiness
of moons or doors that shut
and open according to
the quality of light or
landscape. Light pours
down a stairwell tinged
with the green scent
of fields and farms. Where
are we in that checkerboard
of overlapping days and nights?
There are windows and doors;
wheels, elaborate contraptions
that are more than just wings.
Light, air, motion, the density
of darkness: even in this world
we’re made to succumb to the laws
of physics— to land a machine
that’s clearly made for transport.
Today marks the 8th year of my daily writing practice— I’ve written at least a poem a day since November 20, 2010; and Dave Bonta has generously shared space on Via Negativa, where I’ve been free to post and archive the earliest versions of these poems, which at the outset I wrote in response to Dave’s posts at The Morning Porch. I also use what I read of Dave’s posts here at Via Negativa, and everything else at large, to help jumpstart poems. At least four full-length books of poetry and three chapbooks have come out of this daily engagement with words and poems.
After all these years, I think I’ve found a working and comfortable rhythm to my daily writing practice. I look forward to that part of the day when I can write my daily poem/s— it is time that feels like a reward I give myself, and it gives me the incentive to try to finish up as many items on my To-Do list in order to get to it more quickly.
Some of the most valuable things I’ve learned are simple, but they’re not always easy to do: learning to write against the “noise” of everyday life; learning to write wherever and whenever I can find even a precious half hour relatively free of work and other distractions; learning not to obsess about those “perfect conditions” that we sometimes think are the only moments when writing can happen. Writers, and I am no exception, are always wrestling with things like that “impostor syndrome”— which is really rooted in the idea of some supposedly higher standard against which one is made to continually measure oneself and one’s achievements in order to feel validated or “true.”
This past Friday, I was in New York for a reading and the launch of my chapbook What is Left of Wings, I Ask. During the small reception, one of the audience members asked to see my book The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Midlife Crisis (which I’d also read from), then one of the poets there asked if it was my first book. When I told her it was my 13th, she turned to me with such a look and said something to the effect of “why did they let you join this contest then?”
So in my case, impostor syndrome doesn’t exist in a “purely” literary or artistic context. As a writer of color, a woman, and an immigrant, I can’t count how many times my credibility and output has been called into question, even after I’ve done everything that’s required, and often beyond. Once I was also told I should not list on my resume that I have four National Book Awards, because it “is misleading”— even if I also clearly indicate these are from the Manila Critics’ Circle in the Philippines— “since no American writer has won but one National Book Award” (which is by the way untrue because several men have won the National Book Award for fiction more than once, including William Faulkner and John Updike; and Jesmyn Ward made history by being the first woman to win the National Book Award twice).
In any case, the reading part of the program itself was a good experience; we had a warm and receptive audience, and it was a gift to listen to the two Honorable Mention honorees, Elly Bookman and Jason Baker, whose work contest judge Natasha Trethewey described thus: “There is a compelling voice in these poems rendering the ordinariness of our days extraordinary. A ‘furious rhythm’ undergirds the poems in Mixtapes Were Made [Baker]. And the deft play with language is more than wit; it’s a kinetic force that pulls the reader toward each new revelation and delight. Even more arresting is the way Stay Mine [Bookman] reminds us that the senseless tragedies of our world are commonplace— and in that acknowledgement, a necessary grappling for meaning.”
It is such an honor, and I’m very grateful to former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for selecting my manuscript for the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize. Natasha wrote, “What Is Left of Wings, I Ask is a lovely, piercing book of distances, the longing engendered by displacement, resilience in the face of sorrow, of ‘gathering darkness,’ and the nature of home—what it means to leave one for another. These are poems rooted in a haunting and quintessential American experience.”
It was wonderful to share the event with some people who mean a lot to me: my youngest daughter Gabriela, my old friend Myrielle Falguera from Baguio, and my former grad student and now anthology co-editor Amanda Galvan Huynh and her partner MD Huynh. It was also great to meet in person poet Aaron Fischer and his lovely wife Lauren. And of course, after the event, we ate our weight in fabulous Indian food and ice cream at Pondicheri, and congee with toppings at Congee Village; and went for the obligatory Shake Shack burgers and fries, after a long leisurely afternoon at the MoMa taking in the Charles White retrospective exhibit.
~ 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.
~ “Caminos Tortuosos,” Remedios Varo (1957)
From decade to decade, I cycle
veiled in my secret griefs—
Do you see the little blades
and how they pushed the heart
out of its chest? Once I was
feathered and bright, once
I was dragonfly wings laid over
the heated surface of a lake.
What vessel for water
flung as weapon
from a burnished throat?
Who’ll dress the wounds
that spiral around the wrists?
Following the smell of ripened
fruit I knocked on door after door
in the countryside. I wanted
to offer a song I could still remember
beneath the roof of a beautiful tree.
In the theatre’s half-dark
That interregnum between
idle chatter and the opening bars
Whatever comes as purposeful
beginning Lyric investigation
of parts traditionally difficult
to observe in plain sunlight
Before the floodlights dim
I catch your eye
Which is the moment I am returned
to myself How do we learn to possess
what flutters under the rim
of the breastbone Learn
the name of a feeling that folds
into itself on its side A lunar
wind that passes through fingers
Do you also feel a pang A gleam
A metal clapper before the actual event
It holds out a coal of kindness
that serves to formalize
mourning And sometimes I want
to lay my head on a pillow
of snow— Think of the cold
Its crystalline dendrites
little forests springing up
over the head, descending into a thin
treeline feathering each eye Everything
in ceremony is gestural— the smallest
movement from the wrist signifying either
a wave or the passage of time One day
or a decade A century What are we asked
to hold for as long as we can in one
position on a low tufted cushion Do you see
how the wound opens and opens each time
you tell me of your sadness
Which is that there are things
I will never be able to lift What hovers
like clouds over pale shoulders I want to cry
out into some wilderness just out of reach
Near enough to perceive its habit of desolation
~ after Remedios Varo, “Star Catcher”
~ after Remedios Varo, “La Llamada” (The Call), 1961
A blue curtain descends
from the rafters When a door
opens you think of the end
of life The yard of your childhood
home Quilted rows of vegetation
that fed only other hungers
Tiny white flowers guarding
the places where stone met stone
Nothing you could throw in a pot
if there was nothing else
But here is all this loneliness
It presents itself to your care
From one to another you stumble
with vials of balm, your bottled
songs, your practiced step
You want to smooth the canyon’s
raised edges Flute ridges until
they’re fragrant as old wood
Are you afraid when the cardinal
flashes her breast in the bush
That bright red gash a warning
As though some celestial object
pinned you under its glare It traces
your steps Knows before you do
which form you’ll touch first
Which last Which not at all
~ after Remedios Varo, “Tránsito en Espiral” (Spiral Transit); 1962
What does it mean when the sea spirals
through the town in your dreams? Its name
once used to mean swamp grass, or tree line,
or mountain ridge. The houses are wood-paneled
and old. In their attics are suitcases
filled with agate beads and parts of back-
strap looms, photographs of carnival queens.
Along cobbled roads, small goats and chickens
ruminate on history. What passes through them
is also holy— hard and packed as though
to outlast weather, burrowed in the soil
as though desirous of changing into gold.
And everyone who passes through here learns
to face all directions. Everyone leaves a small
part tethered to the center, the way an orphan’s
mouth turns in sleep toward the wind’s milky breath.
some alchemy of phosphoric
connections— a conflagration
seeded in stars before we
were even born, the sympathetic
rise of hair along forehead
and nape. Your gaze translates
into tectonic movements across
the tablecloth, the undulation
of curtains and ceiling lights.
Though the years have aged us both,
rivers of longing grow more and more
into the shape of that archipelago
left behind. When I look into
the depths of your eyes, it is always
my absence I catch, though your mouth
never shapes any chiding word.
~ after “Simpatia” (Sympathy), oil on masonite, 1955; Remedios Varo
In response to Via Negativa: Fire Dream.
~ after Remedios Varo, “Find,” 1956
It is a nautilus rounding the shore,
a vessel headed two ways.
It is a swamp overgrown
with neon candelabra.
It is a lighthouse made of steps,
a table set for one in the middle.
It is a rudder sighing
to its own compass beneath the lake.
It is the breath sent up through the spine—
just enough to billow the sails.
~ after Remedios Varo, “Garden of Love,” 1951; oil on masonite
And you were the bird that visited
me in the cage of my house, the warm
mustard of your breast a foil
to my ice-colored cast. I stood
on the threshold, having come
from miles of subterranean
engagement with myself, solitary
as a bull sitting in the middle
of a dirt-floor room where all
the shades are constantly dawn.
I admired your rosy winged
optimism, the blade
of your anxiety held in check
by its own gallant sword. Aren’t
we a pair? There’s hardly any
boundary left to cross, now that
we’re mostly on the same side; even
the forbidding woods have opened up.