She is made of wood, a silken hardness that begs touching.
Should anyone reach, trail a fingertip across her flesh,
the man in straps would speak, his mumbled words rasping
through the stopped air, turning beating cells boorish,
piercing desire’s heart, killing a love so old, so pure,
it has no real name. Such is obvious from the way she stands,
lifting her heavy hair, each hand the careful cynosure
of being — she drapes the primal fiber like garlands,
letting it flow free only to capture the thickness of trees.
Her eyes are closed. Under abraded lids resides the look
everyone knows: pupils enlarged by pain; simple refugees
from knowledge received of the body, woman’s final textbook.
The belly asks first. It says come, reside here within me,
neither cold, nor afraid, nor desirous — twirl and dream
of nothing but this spare salt universe, wear only veins, silky
wisps of hair, discreet, pale limbs enfolded by soft cream.
Her feet nourish the ground, her head becomes the forest.
Walk where her shadow falls, seek the margin of her arms,
soothe your tired neck in mother’s lucid heat, hedonist
entity you have become, set in blind motion under charms
worked by no laboratory scientist in a trim white robe.
Rather, you emerged redly from a thousand other deaths,
one messy cauldron holding shapes; the patient, springy web
of chosen elements drawn together, joined by many faiths.
The breasts want, too. Child, they sing in unison, nourish your
body with our thin white blood — suckle, cradle the nipple deep
against the palate, pull the flow from a dozen small pores, gnaw
strong like a velveted vise, drink true until you swallow sleep.
The need to believe is more than skin. Need is the whole glossy
image on this lonely wall; what it means to be such a mechanism!
She never schemed for her fey power — nor does she expect mercy.
You exist, mere fragile accident, in perfect jeweled synchronism.
Not as simple as punishment, nor as complex as grace, her skills
for life reside at a place men cannot enter, no fault of their
own. They build instead the world, of brick, stone; shy stabiles
meant to appease longing, courageous memorials to light, to air.
Heads of Caracalla, a poem
There are three of the ancient busts on display
in the Louvre. Poor soul: he only controlled
his great empire for six years. I’ve been married
for seven, and though it isn’t like ruling Rome,
it’s hard enough. Thus, I can’t imagine how
he managed, even if he could imprison or execute
at will. Maybe stress did him in at twenty-nine.
True enough, during the heated third century
after Christ, the common man was too often dead
by thirty, teeth rotted away to stumps,
complexion scarred and worn, creased deep
like pegged and scraped hides drying in the sun.
Surely Caracalla’s own hands were soft,
languorous and pudgy, with those meticulous
shiny nails? Perhaps he was afflicted
with diabetes, or simply poisoned by his lovely
but illiterate wife. Will anyone wonder
what carried me off after a thousand years –
or even ten? During three decades on earth,
sculptors recorded all his secrets: first the pretty
baby, innocent and round-cheeked as any three-year-old,
blunt-cut curls springing away from his tender forehead
like the petals of an iris. Around the time
of his ascension, he had become sullen, his eyes
impenetrable, glassy, his torso clumsy, thick-necked,
his full, full lips bowed with palpable cruelty.
I must admit, by the year of his death, he’d grown
into his flesh — he looks wise, even kind,
and his drilled marble eyes are lively, holding
a gleam of curiosity for something outside his own
imperial body. I place my finger against the hard marble
cheek, hearing my own frail life tapping its brisk heels.
Searching for Dreams in Little Havana, a short story
Karen knows it’s a bad sign when she sits wondering whether the man she’s crazy in love with is a liar, or a fool, or both. Fuck first, talk later, yes, that approach seems outdated, rather quaint. Impatience has always been her biggest problem. The way this one calls women bitches, it’s like a warning beacon, but she’s not listening because she already thinks she loves him.
Karen wants this man. Or rather, she wants something, and she is trying to figure out if it is him. She orders a latte made with chocolate milk, lights another cigarette. The waiter serving her is thin to the point of illness — his sharp elbows have worn holes in the sleeves of his chambray blouse. The waiter looks nothing like the man she thinks she wants. She wonders if the waiter wants anyone, right now.
“Can I get you anything else?” he, the waiter, asks.
“An audience with the Pope?” she says. “Eternal life, maybe?” She is only partly kidding. She has had her past lives examined under hypnosis. She remembers being locked in a tomb in France. She did not care for it.
The waiter laughs and shakes his head. He flees from her the way young waiters always flee from her — looking back over his shoulder, tossing his hair out of his eyes, knees trembling like a young mule deer’s.
Karen calls Edward, the man she thinks she wants, from her office. While the phone is ringing, her assistant comes to the doorway. She holds a sheaf of papers which Karen knows is the monthly billing.
“Go away,” Karen says to her, smiling. This is the way she talks to all her employees — imperious jokes, self-mocking but at the same time crushing and heavy with the power she refrains always from using.
“Hello,” says Edward.
“What are you doing?” Karen asks.
“Paying bills,” he says.
“Can I come over?”
“I told you I was impatient. I’m tired of dictating.”
“I need to dust off,” he says. “Shower, change.”
“Twenty minutes?” she says.
“Make it forty,” he says.
Before she gets out of the office, her ex-husband calls. Donald is furious, he is always furious, it is the reason they are no longer married. Donald has forgotten how to have fun. Either he has forgotten, or he never knew. He is a very practical person, he runs a tidy house, a neat garden, a solid social life. Karen is no longer sure what drew her to him in the first place. She tries to remember, often when she lies down to sleep she thinks of what it was like to live with him — the predictable days, the fully planned weekends. He never kissed or bit her in the throes of passion, merely covered his face with his hands, as though trying to block her out. He never talks about religion, nor politics, nor his health.
“Where have you been?” her ex-husband says. “You missed Sara’s school open house. I tried calling you all day. Didn’t your secretary tell you?”
“I had an emergency to attend to,” she says. “One of my clients was stranded in Baltimore.”
“Well, there’s always a reason,” he says. “There’s always a reason for the way you neglect your personal life.”
“I guess that’s why you divorced me,” she says. Karen remembers the day she told him she didn’t want to stay married to him — he threw his shoes at her , but they landed in the kitchen sink, splattering her with soapy water. She can have no doubts.
She kept waiting for Donald to have an affair, so she wouldn’t have to. But he was lazy, he put aside passion and loveliness and focused only on money. He could make a lot of it, it was his best talent.
At thirty-five, Karen gets carded one last time for cigarettes, tells the clerk she’s really old, takes off her sunglasses to show him her crow’s feet. Later, her man Edward says with heat, oh, he wanted you. She laughs nervously. No man is able to endure her — it comes from how her father left, how he wanted to stab her when she was born, how her secret heart is looking for some man to make up for that, to endure every hateful thing she can say but never leave.
Most of her adult life has been spent sleeping, so when Karen develops insomnia, she assumes it’s her own fault, always having been a slugabed. She has the blues every day even before she gets up. Life is both too full and too empty to tolerate. Like a snake, she holds everything in fierce embrace, she has loved it all so much, it is dead. She has slept enough, she decides, she’ll make the best of these wakeful hours. She takes up needlepoint, cross-stitch, knitting and crochet, and soon her living room is filled with her creations. Still, she misses her dreams.
Karen goes to a shop in Little Havana, searching for some harmless herbal remedy, something almost, but not quite, a placebo. She’s a firm believer in the power of the mind over the body. Witchcraft is another thing entirely, so when the pale shop-woman draws back a beaded curtain and motions her in to the back room, which smells of burnt sugar, she hesitates. She takes in the woman’s hairy upper lip, her gold canine tooth, her precisely lined red lips, her sexy upper arms — decides it’s worth a try.
Hirsuteness notwithstanding, the pale woman is abnormally beautiful, the kind of beauty women admire and men find frightening — hard, pristine, with sharp angles everywhere. This lady’s nose is a work of art, of architecture, of poetry. All Karen wants is to close her eyes and dream of this moment, twist it into a candy fluff to sustain her through the miserable waking hours.
It’s her desperation, Karen guesses, which has aroused the shop-woman’s sixth sense, a sympathy so strong her pale hands shake as they hold the tangle of beads behind her. Karen blinks back tears, surprised. The bottle the woman chooses is purple, with a gold foil label. Imported from Cuba, it reads. Cuban witchcraft — Castro hasn’t killed every colonial superstition, evidently.
And the voice in Karen’s head says: do what you must, and break your heart down even farther, you haven’t touched the depths yet, of where I will take you. And you will weep for your own folly, and still not be satisfied. You ask for sleep. What can you live without most easily? What can you give up, forever?
Rosalia (December 13, 1918 – December 6, 1920), was a child who died of pneumonia. Her father was so grieved by her death, he hired a famous embalmer to preserve her body. It is still nearly perfectly preserved, nearly 100 years later. This poem was written after observing a garden near her tomb, planted with the flower she was named for, Rosa multiflora, commonly called Rosalia, an especially fragrant and vigorous climbing rose.
Rosalia (Rosa multiflora)
The haughty snail rears up, large and indolent,
its creamy shell ponderous, though rakishly tilted.
The knowing eyes unfurl on stalks greyish-violet,
above tender undulate flesh, faintly quilted
as if by past misdeeds. Near a warm slate path
thrust through the damask-brown earth, a small bird
dips wings, cocks head, perches on the birdbath
shaped in the lithe innocence of a fair-haired
Roman cherub. The rose-heads swoon in the sun,
lazy petals curled inward to form delicate bowls
ravished by enormous bees, whose silvery finespun
wings vibrate, ceaseless keepers of love’s oversoul.
Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.
Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.
Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.
They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.
That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.