Ten Qualities As A Cosmo Girl I Really Want In My Man
A First-Love Poem
The Pink Bubble Technique
Fear On l1th Street And Avenue A, New York City
High School Reunion
Song For All The Would-Have-Been Princesses
As If Lovers, By Virtue of What They Are Called, Are More Attractive Than Husbands Or Wives Or How
Sometimes The First Boys Don't Count
On The M104
Reminded Of My Biological Clock -- While Looking At Georgia O'Keeffe's Pelvis One (Pelvis with Blue, 1944)
Testament of Sex
The Big Black Book Is Not In Heaven
Mary Moppet's Daycare Center
My Mother Dreams: If Her Husband Dies, Who Will Cut The Lawn?
What Happened This Week
From Lorca's Deli, New York City
Stories From The Body
The Boy Who Dimmed Light Bulbs
Not Much Difference Now Between The Sky And The Lake
Departure To The Depths Of Heaven, Via Grand Central Station.
On Being Born The Exact Same Day Of The Exact Same Year As Boy George
April 18, 1990
Riding The Subway In New York, I Remember
The Night Before Father's Day
Ernest Hemingway, Your Mother Made You Wear Dresses Until You Were Three
Dream, Vagina Dentata
Jung Says The Soul Is Round
Prayer, Or Nostalgia For Heaven
An Answer To A Question
The Sky Sings
Mrs. Shaw's Cadillac
Nearly Drowning At Six
A Conversation In Stereo
That's Going To Mean Something Later On
Love-Struck In New York
Ode To The Ferris Wheel, On Its Ninety-Ninth Birthday.
Why, On a Bad Day, I Can Relate To The Manatee
For The One Man Who Likes My Thighs
Ten Qualities as a Cosmo Girl I Really Want in My Manfor Jean Valentine, after seeing Bambi
I want a boyfriend with antlers.
(I read somewhere if I long in specifics, I'll be more likely
to get my wish.) A boyfriend like Bambi, he'll be the one for me.
He'll have sort of a feminine name
so I won't immediately think of cuss-words and muscles.
Yet he'll battle for my honor, save my life if he has to.
And when he fights, he and his opponent will turn into shadow.
He'll never be offensive. He'll have really good posture,
hold his head high. He'll look like me, but not cuter:
I'll have longer lashes and bigger bluer eyes.
He'll have seen a loved one die, so he'll understand loss
but will have worked through his grieving by the time we meet.
Yes, he'll be a prince. He'll think of me only and give me twins
as calm and easy to take care of as no-iron sheets.
A First-Love Poem(Crawford Allen Children's Hospital)
The static cracks like whips over lions
as the nurse yanks a comb through my hair.
Since I've come, I'm most interested
in things that aren't there.
The trick for remembering opposite colors:
I stare at the lemon soap dish for hours and blink
grape-purple dots in the porcelain sink. Then, I scout
the halls for him. He's Sleeping Beauty and I am the Prince.
I have some sense that kids don't always live, but he will
if I visit him, insist that I am too in the sixth, not fourth, grade
and borrow text books to cinch my new made-up age.
Mornings he speaks in whispers. His chest barely lifts
the sheet. Then, at noon, it's time for me to breathe
into the asthma machine. As the liquid in the cup I hold turns
to mist, I play with the coils of hose looped in my lap
and watch the dials to see how many pounds I can breathe.
I could be testing my strength for him at the carnival game,
sending a marker up the thermometer-shaped gauge,
ringing the bell until I'm dizzy with exhales.
My horizontal boyfriend. He's thirteen and he actually talks to me.
With my chin on his bed rail, I listen to secrets --
his father in a strip joint; "Busty" Somebody
placed a breast on top of a bald patron's head.
I wonder about where the contact hasn't been:
if my hand could fit under his neck,
through that dark tunnel formed where his scalp hits
the pillow and where the mattress meets his back.
I follow the bridge over his lip and plan
a hazy rescue, a nebulous kiss --
It's late and I've snuck into his room.
He's sleeping; but suddenly I'm not so sure
what to do. It's the first time
I've wanted to touch someone and couldn't.
I'll still see his profile laid out in landscapes,
the blond snow-dust on his cheek
by the precipitation of light falling from his humming tv.
In the Stadium Theater, a movie about Santa Claus
going to the moon in a rocket. My mother doesn't want to see it,
but takes me after I beg her and beg her. It is the first day
I'm not wheezing for a while, and she hesitates
bringing me outside, but we make it. Sudden temperature changes
can kick me off, like bee stings in summer
or walnuts in a friend's birthday cake. I know I can die
any number of ways. I saw a casket the length of my sled
whisked down the steps of Founier's Funeral Home. I belong
in a glass globe, where the snow isn't cold,
where my lungs can't constrict so easily, shying from life.
I wake up in hospitals sometimes -- my skin, pale green,
and my mother shows me my face in her compact.
There is a crayon called seafoam that is the same color.
The doctors, in fact, say I'd be best off in a boat, far away
from the shore, because pollens, with their fertile sense
of direction, have no reason to make it very far into the ocean.
And it's also best I'm kept where I can't fall.
I'll never be able to have stitches -- my skin
will form keloids, too sensitive to heal, and bubble
like the muciferous coughs I'll never outgrow.
I'm no pushover, though. I fight, for example, the armada
of dust mites in my room: plastic over my mattress
and pillows, the humidifiers, vaporizers, and my stuffed animals
all bundled up in Glad Wrap. Instead of holding hairy pets,
I watch fish through a tank. My eyelids and theirs,
on the look out, and thin as soapsuds... I know how and when
to take my medicine, but this day I forget,
so excited about the matinee, a Christmas in the open waters
of space. During the opening credits I'm silent. I don't want
to miss a minute by asking my mother for some change
to buy a soda at the stand, so I pull out my pills
from my jacket pocket and, without a drink, try to swallow them
with popcorn. My windpipe retaliates and everything
is stuck in my throat. I choke, then I throw up.
The vomit sprays on my sweat shirt, a hand-me-down from my cousin.
Red and white, it reads, peace love peace love...
in lots of thin rows that wind all around.
My mother says, "Why don't you take that thing off?"
when we get home and she sees the crusty orange stains
on the front. But I only half-hear her, imagining
the movie plot I've missed, what the air quality might
be like inside an astronaut's helmet --
and if I could run up a hill if I were weightless.
The Pink Bubble Technique
On Shakti Gawain's self help tape
she endorses the Pink Bubble Technique --
placing our worry in an imaginary dome
and projecting it out into the universe.
On the brink of my meditations, I've rocketed
whole countries, entire banking institutions,
and my nieces, so they'll be protected
from drunk drivers and AIDS. I've launched
the Blue Cross/Blue Shield budget, the security
of my teaching job. A whole building on 23rd Street --
poof! My mother's slipped disc, my father's prostate.
Pieces of everyone I love
have been cast upward in a pink bubble
at least once.
As our troubles lift, getting smaller
and more distant, Shakti Gawain advises:
"Now, there's nothing left for you to do."
Because I'd been taught that the wish, the prayer
is always enough, I was only partially surprised when
today, before I reached the sulking cashier
at the end of a long Dagastino supermarket line, I found myself
in a pastel air ball, suspended high above Manhattan.
My friend had been concerned because I'd been looking
down -- afraid, because of the recession,
that I'd lose my job. She must have been the one
to cast me into the floating candy-color womb.
I was still holding a bunch of bananas
and a TV Guide I was browsing through but never intended
to buy. In a bubble hovering near mine
I saw my landlady Leona Helmsley who had ascended herself.
There were countless other mini-bubbles
full of stray kittens and brown and pink babies.
South America was wedged in an oblong sphere.
A dolphin, an eagle, a chunk of biopsied breast,
a coiled colon with hopes of being cancer-free --
things people worry about most.
I was ashamed
I'd left dishes in the sink. My papers
were hardly in order. But because the bubble
was airtight, doorless, I tried to relax
as I peeled a piece of the fruit I hadn't paid for.
I checked my TV Guide horoscope
for the week ending November 25. Woozy, I saw
my stolen future, through a gauzy pink concave -- the world
I, with all the others, was drifting away from. The world
left, for better, for worse, to fend for itself.
My sister picks up her daughters at the bus stop
ever since a nine-year-old girl from the neighborhood
was coaxed into a car by a man
telling her he'd hit a kitten down the road.
His story went that the small ball of fur
ran somewhere near the railroad tracks
and he needed an extra pair of eyes to find it.
The girl was smart and had been taught
everything grownups thought she'd have to know
about even the worst of strangers, but she wanted
to be a veterinarian when she grew up.
And the man looked as though he'd been crying.
"He had that child in the car four hours,"
my mother tells me, my mother who would cut off his balls
if she had the chance. She sounds fed up, middle-class,
when she says it, and I want to say "no,"
but I too share her sentiment. My father
thinks the rapist deserves worse, to be shot dead --
no questions asked. My brother-in-law has a gun,
and my sister knows he'd use it if anyone tried to touch
their daughters, my nieces, my parents' grandchildren.
Four hours is longer than some double features,
longer than some continental plane rides,
longer than a whole afternoon in grade school.
Nothing is slower than time when you're nine years old,
nothing is more fragile than trust.
The rapist dropped the girl off at the pizza parlor
where the men who worked there called an ambulance.
Before this, my nieces walked the short distance home
and they protest, wanting to know why they can't anymore.
The after-school rapist hasn't been caught,
but the second and fifth grade rumors aren't terrifying enough.
My sister wonders how to tell her daughters,
who love small animals and only want to help.
Fear on 11th Street and Avenue A, New York City
Now the papers are saying pesticides will kill us
rather than preservatives. I pass the school yard
where the Catholic girls snack. Cheeze Doodles and apples.
No parent today knows what to pack in a lunch box
and the plaid little uniforms
hold each girl in: lines in the weave cross
like directions, blurry decisions.
A supervising nun sinks in her wimple. All the things she can't do,
she thinks, to save them, her face growing smaller.
She dodges their basketball.
Who said the Catholic church has you for life
if it had you when you were five? I remember my prayers at odd times
and these girls already look afraid.
But it's not just the church. It's America.
I fear the children I know will become missing children,
that I will lose everyone I need to some hideous cancer.
I fear automobiles, all kinds of relationships.
I fear that the IRS will find out the deductions I claimed this year
I made up, that an agent will find a crumpled draft of this poem
even if fear edits this line out... I have no privacy,
no protection, yet I am anonymous. I sometimes think
the sidewalk will swallow me up. So I know when the girls
line up to go inside and one screams to her friend
"If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back..."
she means it. She feels all that responsibility, that guilt.
There's only one brown girl who doesn't do what she should.
She's dancing by herself to a song on her Walkman.
One of her red knee socks bunches at her ankle and slips into her sneaker.
And the shoulder strap of her jumper has unbuckled so her bib flaps.
Maybe she can save us. I clutch the school yard's chain link fence.
Please, little girl, grow up to be pope or president.
They tumble from closing bars into here.
Uninspired men nicknamed for their hair:
Whitie, Red; the bald one, Flesh.
What a way to save to go to Europe.
But that's what I'm doing,
the donut waitress taking advantage
of drunks. I look through
the fatty blurred window,
remind them often of my aspirations,
drum on the counter top: I am not like them.
Red's got a novelty passport
and motions me over. He thinks
his finger's alluring as Cape Cod,
the farthest I bet he's ever gone.
"Guess where I've been?"
he slurs and has me open the blue book.
A rubber jack-in-the-box penis pops out.
I think of adding sugar to the diabetics' coffee
when they laugh, describing their naked wives.
Twenty-four hours, any day, they know here they can.
There's not even a lock on the Mr. Donut door.
SO when there's a fight on the corner, Flesh tells me
to call the police from the phone in back:
"If the bikers see you finking, they'll get your ass."
From behind the muffin case, the motorcycle clash
looks like a home movie: skipping loops, a volume lapse
as bikes are kicked over, heads smashed.
The blood puddles slowly, graying.
Connie strolls in, her lipstick all crazy:
the fight's over her. She wants a light.
I know she'll stain the rim of her cup.
But they all leave big bills under the saucers
and I get to read the few
quiet hours before dawn.
Birdfor Denise B.
Your mother loomed all hips and breasts,
big mad curves like boomerangs
always coming back, while you sat in front of your plate
taking small bites, chewing a bit,
then spitting the food back out.
You were in junior high, starting to read --
how women were always on a diet:
refraining from taking late night walks, restricted
from getting their own credit cards, maybe working construction.
That was pop-politics, your mother said
the day she was tired, and the run in her stocking made her cry.
You would never be her, you commanded your body
when you noticed your hip jutting from your waist
and the first bit of fat on your chest --
straining towards that mortal hour glass,
that sandy digestion. Birds eating rocks
because they don't have knives or forks.
"She eats like a god damn bird," your father complained,
always talking about you in the third person.
"I don't need anyone," you might have said, over and over,
sometimes aloud, sometimes to yourself until your periods stopped
and your breasts flattened back to how they were
when you were a little girl, running in the front yard
without a shirt. Until you were in the rehab
and you realized your bones would never be hollow,
your hospital smock like a spotless bib tied around your neck.
"This is no bimbo disease," one nurse said absently to another
as she hooked you to the tube, a robin feeding its baby
a worm. And when no one was looking,
you turned your spiny back to winter, the crack of an open window,
and tried your best to catch pneumonia. A thin
coat of feathers grew over you, trying to save you.
A kiss has nothing to do with sex,
she thinks. Not really. That engulfing, that trying to take
all of another in for nourishment, to become one with her, to become
part of her cells. The way she must have had everything she wanted
in the womb, without asking. Without words,
kisses have barely the slurp-sound of a man entering a woman
or sliding back out -- neither movement with even the warning of a bark.
The Greek word "buli," animal hunger.
Petting, those kisses are called, or sometimes necking.
She read this advice in a sex manual once: "Take the man's penis,
slowly at first, like you are licking melting ice cream
from the rim of a cone." But the gagging, the choke --
a hot gulp of tea, a small chicken bone, a wad of gum grown too big.
That wasn't mentioned. It's about what happens in her mouth
past her teeth, where there is no more control, like a waterfall --
or it being too late when the whole wedding cake is gone:
She orders one from a different bakery this time, so no one
will remember her past visits and catch on. She's eating
slowly at first, tonguing icing from the plastic groom's feet, the hem
of the bride's gown, and those toothpick-points that kept them
rooted in pastry. She cuts the top tier into squares,
reception-like. (The thrill she knew of a wedding this past June,
stealing the white dessert into her purse, sucking
the sugary blue gel from a napkin one piece was wrapped in.
She was swallowing paper on her lone car ride home,
through a red light, on her way to another nap
from which she hoped a prince's kiss would wake her.)
The second tier in her hands, by fistfuls, desperate
as the Third World child she saw on tv last week, taking in gruel.
Her head, light like her stomach is pumped up with air.
She can't stop. She puckers up to the sticky crumbs under her nails.
Then there are the engraved Valentine candies;
CRAZY, DREAM GIRL, ACT NOW, YOU'RE HOT. She rips open the bag,
devouring as many messages as she can at once.
They all taste like chalk. She rocks back and forth.
She has to loosen the string on her sweat pants, part of her trousseau.
The bag of candy is emptied. The paper doily
under the cake's third layer, smooth as a vacuumed ice-skating rink.
What has she done? In the bathroom, like what happened
to the mistakenly flushed-away bracelet, a gift
from her first boyfriend -- the gold clasp silently unhooking
as she wiped herself, then, moments too late, noticing
her naked wrist under the running water of the rest room
sink's faucet...She's learned it's best to wait ten minutes
to make herself throw up. Digestion begins at this point,
but the food hasn't gotten very far. As ingeneous as the first
few times she would consciously masturbate, making note of where
her fingers felt best, she divises a way to vomit
that only hurts for a second.
She takes off her sweatshirt and drapes it over a towel rack.
Then she pokes a Q-Tip on her soft pallet. Keeping in mind
the diagram in her voice class, the cross section
of the mouth showing each part's different function,
the pallet -- hidden and secret as a clitoris.
The teacher's mentioning of its vulnerability, split-second
and nonchalant like a doctor and his tongue depressor.
It's a fast prayer -- she kneels in front of the toilet.
Her back jerks and arches the way it n-dght
if she were moving her body to meet a man's during intercourse.
She wipes what has sprayed back to her chest,
her throat as raw as a rape that's happened to someone else.
She cleans the seat of the bowl with a rag, and cleans
her teeth with a second toothbrush she keeps for this purpose.
Her sweatshirt back on, she gets to the kitchen
to crush the cake box into a plastic garbage bag.
And leaves to dispose of it, not in the trashcan downstairs,
but in a dumpster way on the other side of town.
High School Reunion
The troublemaker has become a monk.
No longer able to push the puny boys down the stairs,
torture the wearers of glasses and braces
or set fire to anyone's locker,
he says an invocation before our meal.
It's been ten years
and none of the cheerleaders are as fat
as we had hoped, but pretty Suzy is skinnier
than we could have imagined.
One of her arms is covered
by the long sleeve of her sequined gown,
and the other is bare -- cavewoman-style.
Suzy's perfect teeth seem to have grown yellow and pointed.
It is rumored that her track-star-husband beats her.
The locals say his name has been in the paper, more than once,
for drugs. I imagine him asking her
which shoulder will be hidden in her asymmetrical dress,
where else he can safely punch. The troublemaker monk
might hear the track-star's confession,
then say, sadly, he understands.
Suzy dances like it's not very fun,
with none of the energy she used
to scoot to the top of a pyramid of other girls,
her saddle shoes firmily planted on the backs
of their maroon and gold uniforms.
Her legs barely shook and her arms belted out
as though she were singing an opera.
When her husband says she doesn't deserve any dessert,
we feel the guilt of wishing her those extra pounds,
of wishing Suzy any harm at all
Song For All the Would-Have-Been Princesses
Consider the gall of the bullfrog,
throatily calling at night for a mate,
longing for a kiss from a Beauty
that could change his fate. Some say a frog
is the male sex. And girls
who kindly put their lips to its
are promised to get over their fears.
But what about the cowfrog?
No mammary glands, no sweet milk, all her eggs
outside herself -- not a frog in history
ever turned into a princess by a peck
on the cheek from an innocent boy,
as though female royalty and luck
sprout from other stuff. Once, before the Ranidae
were green and slimy, a young she-frog,
acting on impulse, shyly flirted with a prince.
She batted her eyes, big and bright as flash bulbs,
but, busily adjusting his white mink capelet,
the prince said to someone in his court,
"Get this commoner out of here! Does she not realize
such a scandal could cost me my throne?!"
And like St. Brigid, the defeated she-frog
might have mumbled, "Please God,
make me ugly, so I will no longer tempt men.
So I will no longer be tempted."
As though for a cowfrog, a would-be princess,
desire itself is shameful.
As if Lovers, by Virtue of What They are Called, are More Attractive than Husbands or Wives or How
I still remember John Nickels poking me
in the stomach, then putting his arm around my waist, saying,
"Hey, I like your style." A seventh-grade tingle
went through me like a potion.
I just had vague notions of sex and orgasm, my only analogy:
a pebble ripple in water.
And, though the flutter lasted long after, I missed him.
He barely spoke to me again.
He'd avert his eyes as I came down the hall
like it was all too much for him to bear --
A poke, we both knew, was a promise, a commitment.
He must have thought he'd turn into a frog or something if he'd admit it.
Sometimes the First Boys Don't Count
Walking home through the woods from a movie at the plaza
that I didn't remember minutes after it ended,
an action adventure that I didn't want to see, but said yes to
just in case you held my hand, and you did.
Walking home by the shortcut, the path
the developers made because they'd be building houses soon,
we had nothing to say. It was our first date
and you stopped to kiss me, the cold of the mud
wetting my feet. Your tongue, like an animal's
rough and eager, through the chain link of a zoo's fence.
I didn't know you, but you put your hands up my shirt
like it was nothing to either of us.
You cupped each of my breasts as though holding me back,
or measuring me for something, then kept walking,
not taking my hand anymore. Even at fifteen,
I knew you were the type that after the first kindnesses,
the honeymoon was over. Your face in the night
was even flatter, less pronounced than it was in the light.
I knew, before this, that I didn't love you or even want
to talk to you the next day in school.
I told my girlfriends you weren't very smart. You took shop
and fixed cars with your dad, not even the intricacies
under the hood, just body work. And when I went to that garage
in your back yard because we were going to another movie
and your mother said I should get you
so we wouldn't be late, I saw calendar pages curling under a picture
of a topless woman in short-shorts. She was holding a wrench
to her lips. Your dad looked at me the same way you did,
but that was how I wanted to be looked at then -- that was how
I thought it should be. You washed the grease from your hands,
wiped your brow with your forearm and were ready. A few dates later
I held your penis as though it were a science experiment
and put it in my mouth when you asked. A kind of aspic squirted out.
I swallowed like a brave girl, taking her medicine.
Sex was as beautiful as flowers.
The orchid unfolding between his legs,
the baby's breath on his chest,
the blue bells under his arms.
Tea roses on your nightgown,
and, of course, you would have wanted him:
the only boy at camp
who didn't vie to tie your underwear to a tree,
who instead folded it neatly and hid it
so you'd later find it under your pillow.
Although he could have, he didn't follow tradition
and read your letters -- he secured them,
along with your diary, between your mattress
and the cot springs. The only boy who gave you privacy.
So you gave him yourself. At sixteen,
you'd collected all the pamphlets. You knew
about the pill, nonoxynol-9 and condoms.
Still, sex was as delicate as flowers.
An infection, like the limp cactus
I watered too much in the glass terrarium
my first boyfriend gave me.
Maybe your sex could not take so much love.
Maybe your sex needed to be diluted
with sketchier pasts, a stronger fear of AIDS,
a few more seeds of mistrust. Or maybe,
more simply, it wasn't your fault. Chlamydia
is easily treated, the doctor assures you
although now your mother must know
and your father, too, with whom you haven't spoken
in months. I stood holding you once
when you were just a baby, your diaper
in the crook of my elbow, and I was counting
the days, longing to be a teenager.
I said I had the back of your head
with my other hand, no problem,
because I really thought I had -- and, besides,
anyone could take care of a little kid.
But when I took my hand away from your neck
just a second, you flipped backwards
like a blossoming bud a movie camera had captured
on high-speed film. Your mother caught you
and held you for the rest of the day.
The doctor says you are not pregnant,
the yellow pollens whirling
outside the girls' tent. The sleeping bags
stacked and rolled up tight
like the whorls of petals, rolled up unfairly tight
and meant only for one.
On the M104(New York City Public Bus)
The longing we know that does not have a name
may be for our lost twins, our cellular siblings
who flaked away from us
only days after our conception.
Like a singular petal tugged from its floribunda,
most of us were left alone in our planet-wombs,
gravity-less balloons, loose space suits. Galaxies of mother
around us, we slept the way I still like to:
my back nestled against someone else's chest,
my knees bent and at rest on his
as though I were sitting in a chair
but my weight askew, pulled away to a 90-degree angle.
No wonder, regardless of who it is,
love is what I feel every time.
He is my lost one, my lost twin,
the dolphin, the underwater uterine-angel
who loved me regardless, who continued
to swim up against me, whether I pulled away or not.
I miss him the way a soldier
has a phantom itch on the elbow
of his amputated arm. I look into mirrors
and dress up as someone else.
Our lost Gods are so hard to find
though they are as many
as the flakes of novelty confetti
that snow from a bridal shower bell.
Or the pastel dots
that rise to the roof and multiply
on this city bus
as the sun hits a stone
on some piece of jewelry a passenger is wearing.
The magic blinks away as we turn the corner
and a building's shadow takes over.
We all check our watches
and bracelets, wondering which one of us
could have been the source
of such beauty. The travelers who saw
look at each other to confirm.
Our lost Gods, so hard to find --
their appearances so short, their bodies so small.
Reminded of my Biological Clock -- While Looking at Georgia O'Keefe's Pelvis One(Pelvis With Blue, 1944)
I see so many things, a primitive ring,
a nest with a fallen-out bottom,
a white rubber band snapped into blue.
But mostly it's real memory
and the doctor holding up my x-ray
to the screen of light, a mini drive-in.
The bone was mine -- big, oblong
and intact, even though my skin was purple,
my muscles sore. I'd fallen
off of Matthew's ten speed.
There were whispers that my hymen was probably gone,
first broken by the cross bar
that separates a boy's bike from a girl's,
rather than by Matthew himself. And now the x-rays
were showing my ready pelvis, an empty hammock,
just waiting for a sticky fetus sucking its thumb.
"It's beautiful," the doctor said
admiring my illuminated centerfold-skeleton
before he turned to me, the real -- and therefore
less interesting -- thing. He smiled:
"You have the perfect hip bones, miss,
for carrying babies." To my mother, he said,
"If everything else inside her is OK, someday
she'll be in labor for no more than an hour."
I was thirteen and I wanted no baby,
only a boyfriend, only some petting.
I wasn't even sure how I felt
about tongues. My favorite game was
swimming deep underwater, kicking through
a tent of spread legs, scissoring my thighs
in short quick ups and downs so I wouldn't lose
by booting someone in the crotch.
"But I don't want a baby," I might have said aloud.
The doctor and my mother might have conspiratorially laughed.
My pelvis was as white as the ones Georgia painted,
except the weather surrounding hers
was robin egg-hopeful.
My bone was a whorl in an x-ray-gray storm.
My disembodied pelvis, like a melted hoola hoop,
a coiling snake meeting itself, a lasso
without the rope of control to catch what I wanted.
"The women in our family are all Fertile Myrtles,"
my mother explained later, when I changed my mind, and tongues
and other appendages boys had
become more to my liking. "When I got
pregnant with you, I think I was just
looking at your father," she said as emphatically
as if she were telling me the truth. So I found out how to get
a diaphragm and pills and foams and condoms and used them
all at once, memorizing the percentages
of their individual effectiveness: 80, 82, 89.5.
"I'm pregnant, I just know it,"
I would panic every month, my pelvis
a nebulous halo, a loose fitting noose.
Exasperated, my first real boyfriend would remind me,
"Impossible. We didn't even have intercourse last month.
Remember? You were too nervous." In the meantime,
my girlfriends, one by one, skipped their periods.
There were trips for abortions or quick marriages.
One young mother left high school
to become a cashier at the Stop & Shop.
While she was still nursing, she leaked milk
through her shirt and smock, leaving
something like a perspiration spot
every time a baby cried in her line.
This wasn't for me, though I felt guilty,
my pelvis being the right shape and all.
My mother watched her talk shows, sometimes
on the topic of childless women, and muttered,
"How can those career ladies be so selfish?
If they don't have babies now,
they'll grow old and die alone."
Sometimes in my dreams I'm back on Matthew's bike,
not falling this time, but riding off
into the orange-cowboy sunset. Other times,
though, a crown of thorns sprouts in my belly --
my nightmare grows dark.
It is always daylight around Georgia's Pelvises.
The sky is the blue that the child she might have had
might have seen when she was first born.
Sometimes I dream bluebirds land on my hipbone
as though I were a round limb
on a desert tree. I feed them anything
they desire. Then the mother birds
feed their youngsters, and I tell them
they can stay as long as they like.
Testament of Sex(October 6,1990)
Every Saturday the saxophone sage
plays in front of Chelsea 2nd Hand Guitars.
Each wordless chorus is his testament, as tragic
and purple as bruises, as alluring
as a woman's bare shoulders.
Every Saturday I listen to the musician's wisdom:
that he is gold and she is wood,
that he is one and she is all. He has his reasons
for playing in front of the guitar store --
the actuality and reflections of acoustic hips
surrounding him like halos of protection
from the blows of the world.
He doesn't want to fight. He'd rather slow everything down
and let us all rest after each tumble. So sure am I
that his voice will sound exactly like the swimming teacher
who taught me to dive, I never wait around
long enough for him to speak.
Between songs, the saxophone player silently wipes his forehead
like he's tackled the hardest lessons in a book.
The silver coins against the red velvet insides of his case
glint like blushes of afterglow in an unlikely bed.
Between his songs, the silence
of the city is so full and tenuous
that it can't be called silence at all,
but rather the sound after great sex,
the sound before a great war.
My first boyfriend is dead of AIDS. The one
who bought me a terrarium with a cactus
I watered until it became soft. The one
who took me to his junior high school prom where I was shy
about dancing in public. The one who was mistaken
for a girl by a clerk when he wanted to try on a suit.
In seventh grade my first boyfriend and I looked a lot alike:
chubby arms, curly hair, our noses touching
when we tried our first kiss. My first boyfriend
was the only one who met my grandmother
before she died. Though, as a rule, she didn't like boys,
I think she liked my first boyfriend.
My first boyfriend and I sat in the back seat
of my mother's car, and on the ledge behind us
was a ceramic ballerina with a missing arm.
We were driving somewhere to have her repaired
or maybe to buy the right kind of glue.
My first boyfriend was rich and had horses
and airplanes he could fly by remote control.
My first boyfriend died on a mattress
thrown in the back of a pick-up
because the ambulance wouldn't come.
There was a garden in my first boyfriend's yard.
One day his mother said to us,
"Pick out some nice things for lunch."
My first boyfriend and I pulled at the carrot tops,
but all that came up were little orange balls
that looked like kumquats without the bumps.
My first boyfriend and I heard ripping through the soil
that sounded close to our scalps, like a hair brush
through tangles. We were the ones who pushed
the tiny carrots back down, hoping that they were able
to reconnect to the ground. We were the ones.
The Big Black Book is not in Heaven
Once, late at night my lover and I drove into the desert.
He was a geologist and, in his pickup,
he told me not to worry so much about the end of the world:
humans were too egotistical for their own good.
If Shakespeare and skyscrapers were lost,
really -- so what? Around us
the saguaros were straining against crucifixion.
I marveled, to myself, the sparkling of the stars.
The farthest I'd ever gotten away was in orgasm,
the ones that rolled on and on.
This was the beginning
of my knowing something about the rest of it --
that maybe it wasn't safe to leave, or if I did find a good escape,
I'd never be able to take everyone with me.
So as his tongue was lapping me softly,
like a dog's, like a best friend who loved me, I had to tell him
it wasn't his fault that I could not come, that I could not go --
the desert air wrapped around us just so,
my back against the corrugated bed of his truck --
that I was thinking of his friend,
the woman who claimed to see auras and who
actually witnessed her husband's
puff into nothingness as he stepped into a malfunctioning elevator
and dropped to his death. I asked my lover
if he thought that his friend was making this up.
His patient hand ran over my collarbone
and felt for a pulse on my neck.
to be caught in a life-giving trap, I saw
around us, a party of one-size-fits-all souls
carrying on, dancing like there was no territory to speak of,
dancing like there would definitely be a tomorrow.
The desert rippled like my boyfriend's truck
was a mere rock plopped into a vast body of water.
The shapes multiplied like Jesus's fish,
like neighbors, like light-oblivion shadows.
Mary Moppet's Daycare Center(Tucson, Arizona)
I call the police to report the bruises, on my way to work buy a few boxes of cookies, but as soon as I can, believe me, I quit. Bill, again, is climbing the fence, running into the street from what he's become. His skin, which discolors so easily, shows every mark. He's just beginning to sprout patches of moustache and beard, to resent being the oldest kid here, and knowing his mother and father are brother and sister. His eyes stare bland as tap water.
Coco's, Tucson's family restaurant, is giving out kids' paper hats. When I go there for breakfast, I ask for one and keep it in my sock drawer.
Meg and Angela, the other teachers, line up the kids to come in. It's too hot for the after-school group to be crying, though nothing can muddy the playground dust. Some choke as it's spanked off with the big brush.
Bill's mother wears a Circle K smock and his father, a Seven Eleven cap. The only parents who come in together: they see a lust in my smile when I ask if I can take Bill to a matinee on Sunday. If I interfere, his mother says -- she draws on her lips -- she'll kill me.
The nightmares are starting to come back. I try to find a therapist, but the only clinic I can afford has a man and he asks, "How does this make you feel, being five minutes late? Is this a pattern? Are you addicted to drugs? Do you drink? Were you ever abused?"
Angela really cares for the children. One night it's two hours since all the others have gone. Still no one has come for Dana whose mother calls and says everyone is tied up. So Angela keeps Dana overnight at her house and Mary Moppet's finds out. Dana's stepfather always comes now exactly at closing, drunk. He knows he'll be charged a dollar each minute he's late from here on. The daycare, he grumbles, just wants to make a fast buck.
In one of my favorite movies, Atlantic City, Susan Sarandon's character washes herself with lemons after working at an oyster bar. I try to find something like that for me to do. I get tanner and blonder as I sit my free afternoons by the Prince Garden complex pool.
One day a married man asks me how I am adjusting to Tucson. His wife is pregnant with their first child. I don't know him well. He says we should go for a drink.
Everything at Mary Moppet's is starting to have a form. How big the burn mark determines where Sandy is sent. If it's smaller than my thumb, her parents have to take "how to be a parent" classes. Bigger, she's sent to a foster home and her real mother or father can't sign her out. A record is kept of subsidized suppers: macaroni and cheese, barely drained canned peas. No refills -- there's inventory -- for milk spilled.
There's a naked man, except for underwear tied on his head like a mask. The light bulb I'd left on over my door has burnt out. And past the dirt driveway lined with cactus is the prickly field where I could have been dragged, where I could have been mangled, where he could have done all the terrible things to me he was mumbling.
The moon above is but a slice of anyone's terror -- Sandy's or Dana's. I crush his hand in the door, keep slamn-ting it with my hip and somehow hook the chain. I'm afraid to turn on the lights so I get a kitchen knife and feel in the dark for the phone. The first time I dial the police, not a sound will come out. And I'm sure I could say even less if more happened. I push the table in front of the door.
Meg is in a rock band and, when she dyes her hair calico, some of the parents complain she's unfit. One Halloween, she brings in face paint and does up the children with it. Mother after father threaten it better come off.
My sister has her second baby, Katie. She calls from Massachusetts and says the labor was easy. I'm glad she didn't have a boy. To me, everything male has begun to look ugly. Even the lie of protection, of kindness: the way the lock thrusts its bolt from the door into the jamb. I constantly check to make sure it's in and hear every noise when I'm in bed or taking a shower. My robe hangs on a hook like a torn bouquet of flowers.
The toddlers stay penned in with their shit. Diapers are changed only every three hours. Spitty blocks are dumped in piles on the floor and Tex is always draining his playmates' bottles. At rest time, we put down mats and pin blankets over the windows to shut out the sun. In the grayish light, small figures slump down. "When nap?" some children even ask as though this is a favorite slot of their days.
It is easier for the teachers to escape. We get passes to go dancing at "Cowboys." We're extras in a made-for-tv movie once: Star Struck produced by Dick Clark. We sit at a set bar and watch a soap opera actress's all-girl band, nudge each other on the shoulders or elbows, point, and look like we're having fun.
The police send helicopters out the night that guy tried to attack me, but never find him. I hunt like a detective for men with bandages on their right hands long after his would have healed, long after I move away from Tucson. The cop that comes to take the report at the complex says, if this ever happens to you again, you should never run home; now he knows where you live; instead, run to the street where there's traffic, some stores; surely, someone will help you.
Meg leaves Mary Moppet's when she gets enough gigs. Angela goes to Mexico. She's getting married, wants kids of her own.
My Mother Dreams: If Her Husband Dies, Who Will Cut the Lawn?
My mother drags her money across the street
from Old Colony to Fleet National Bank
because she reads Old Colony has been having trouble
collecting property loans. What if the bank had closed?
What if there were big day-glo letters
slapped over the hours telling her so?
What would my mother have had to do to get her money?
It says on the door deposits
are federally insured up to an amount
she has a lot less of. But how long
would the reimbursement have taken? How many forms?
She knows the government. She was born
at the tail end of the Depression, her childhood
was the Second World War. She knows
from raising her own family
about meat-stretchers, how to sew. She knows
about wanting, about lies, although with babies in diapers
and working full time, she can barely recall
Vietnam. She's saved all these years, but now
she can't get on the plane to Florida.
She doesn't want me to go on vacation to California
because of the quakes. She doesn't want me
to ride the subways, or, for that matter, live in New York
at all. She'd find me a job in a small place
with a small husband.
The way she lives is a little safer
though there are murders, too, in our hometown,
and last year some teenagers broke in
in the middle of the afternoon,
when she was home. In her dream, my father dies
and on one will help her cut the lawn.
I am gone, as is my sister.
When she asks the children
on the street, says she'll pay them,
they just laugh at her. She looks in the phone book
under hired help,
but in typical dream-fashion,
the letters and numbers all blur.
When my mother attempts to call the operator,
the touch-tone buttons melt
under the heat of her index finger.
From one window, she sees the grass has grown
as high as the trees
and from another, there is a drift of snow
blocking her entire view.
As though her dream is real,
I tell my mother: Do not worry.
If it comes to that, I will mow the yard, I will shovel,
but she is silent, knows this is false comfort.
I'm too far. But the phones will always work,
I assure her, I am only a train ride away.
My own dreams are full of AIDS --
My friends topple, slowly, in pain.
And my mother and father, in the ones
where they're still alive,
go to banks where their cards have been revoked,
their PIN numbers have been brainwashed
out of their heads. I can't help
because there are no more trains,
mail carriers, planes, Western Union.
"It is the end of the world as we know it,"
a singer is singing the same song,
except all the lyrics are different, unrecognizable
to me because there is no more English.
Locks and owning anything is forbidden.
"My narents have been through enough!"
I am screaming. The streets are cobblestone
and dark. Soldiers are hiding in dumpsters,
between slats of scaffolding surrounding construction.
When I wake the first time, I am sitting
in a rocking chair. My mother's head rests
on my right knee, my father's on my left.
What Happened This Week(May 1, 1992)
David didn't come to school Tuesday,
the day his essay was due.
Instead the police showed up --
a Dragnet team -- asking if anyone
had seen him since Friday.
The class huddled at the implications
of the words: missing person.
David, eighteen, too old for milk cartons,
but just ripe for the morgue
and a numbered tag around his bare toe.
Just ripe for a knife, a bullet,
a bat. He was gentle, small enough to be raped
then stored in a car trunk
if there was time, or left on a subway platform
with his empty wallet by his head.
When I called his mother the next day
the phone didn't ring a full ring before she picked it up.
Not having slept, she couldn't remember her address
when I said David's English class
wanted to send her a card.
She said David was the first of his family
to go to college. I told her he wrote
beautiful essays, then I said, "I mean, he writes
beautiful essays," trying to keep him alive
by using present tense. When he showed up
to class on Thursday, we all thought we were seeing
his ghost. Blue bruises tinted his black forehead,
like a halo collapsing inward.
He said he'd been arrested in East New York,
and we all clapped because he was still alive.
He told the story -- stopped as a passenger
in a stolen car, which, of course, turned out
not to be stolen after all.
"Run, so I can shoot you, nigger,"
a police man said to David
who shook and whirled inside
like a blender. He had to concentrate
on his feet, keeping them steady
so there'd be no mistake about any sudden movements.
He was tossed in a cell, questioned
about the two hundred dollars in his front pocket
since he was on his way to buy his girlfriend
a ring for her birthday. The white cops
made fun of his musk oil, stepped on his sunglasses
though, he was assured later, this was by mistake.
Though everyone in America is still entitled
to that cliched one call, this particular jail
in East New York didn't have a pay phone
that worked. David cried into his cot,
and the guard called him a mama's boy,
hitting him, heel of his palm to David's head.
No phone, they laughed the first 48 hours,
and the tri-state Dragnet team took two more days
after that to find him, even though
he was in one of their own jails.
David told us his story Thursday morning,
and to cut the tension I said he could have an extension
on his paper. He said not to worry,
he had a good lawyer from Jacoby and Meyers.
Those of the class who knew better groaned.
"You need a great lawyer," I said.
"An expert in civil suits -- you could sue the city.
Just think of the psychological damages
to your family alone." Then someone in the back row
held up The Post, the front page declaring
the jury had acquitted
the policemen who'd beaten Rodney King.
We all knew what we had seen --
yet today's paper seemed less real,
more frightening than the video tape.
I wrote the words irony and metaphor
in big block letters on the chalk board.
David stood up and bowed,
the best of definitions we could come up with.
From Lorca's Deli, New York City
The cashier who usually winks at me was watching the hanging tv over my shoulder -- Kojak or something like that. And a cat sat on the counter. A little boy was asking for cigarettes for his mother when I heard a gun shot, a little loud, I thought, for a tv. Then, no, it can't be. On Avenue B the first bullet missed, but as I turned to the window the second one got him and a man went soaring and flopped onto the sidewalk as though it were his bed and he'd had a long day. The little boy was looking, too, out through the door where his head only reached Pull spelled backwards. He started screaming when the cashier said, "Hey, I know that guy," and I had to stop the little boy from running out to the street where a mob was forming. The assailant ran and took a right onto the block where I live, and others began running, too.
It was only five in the afternoon -- a mother would send a boy to the store. We heard more distant shooting, then the squealing ambulance, cop cars in the rain. The police moved a little tired, a little afraid. One came into the Deli asking, what did he look like? Spanish, male, a jean coat, I ventured 5'8", but added that I'm really a bad judge of height. The cashier said nothing about this guy looking familiar and the little boy just wanted to go home. The policeman said, "Little man, why don't you give us a few minutes to find the bad guy before you come on outside." So I bought this boy a bag of popcorn, lifted him up onto the counter where he sat and stroked the cat. We both watched through the glass, and he said he felt OK now, that it was kind of like watching tv.
Stories From the Body
He hopes I'm not squeamish about scars.
His long-sleeved arm, where he's been shot
by two bullets. Two hints
of what lies beyond his cuff: scars
on the flip side of his palm
like grooves on a record album, the thick grooves
that separate songs. I assure him
I'm not easily shocked -- why, when I was ten
I was bitten by a dog. See, the pink slug
below my shoulder that never healed quite right.
When he takes off his shirt, the graphs
on both of his arms are like two big kissing fish --
fish almost the size of each of my hands,
the fins fanning away, outlined
by big cross stitches, the symbol
for kisses closing a letter.
The fish scales, unevenly dimpled,
like scraps of persistent wallpaper
during a renovation. Still, he says,
the doctors did a good job.
When I touch the fish, he says they don't hurt.
And there's something of a coin slot
on his stomach where the second bullet,
having gone through his arm, grazed.
And then on his leg, a lighter patch
as though someone has clouded him with a chalk eraser.
This skin was taken from here,
he explains, for his arm. And, on his back,
another impression, where he was stabbed,
but that happened when he was a kid.
He once beat up someone who teased him,
then took all his money. He's rigged candy machines
to drain out the change. And long ago,
he tied up someone who took his stereo.
I want to know if he's ever stolen a car.
He hasn't, and those mini-crimes
only really happened, he says,
at the first of his adolescence,
marveling at his new bigness -- no longer
the little Black Jerry Lewis
without rights to even his own bike
once the boy next door got a hold of it.
But yesterday, when in a dispute
for a New York City parking space,
he stepped out of his car,
and the leery contender drove off.
This isn't the kind of thing I usually admire --
the people who push their weight around
are hardly ever the people I know. Yet, for a moment,
I felt the thrill, vicariously the bully.
But what of the safety implications for me?
Blond, a woman vs. black, a man.
Then, before I get more scared for one of us
than the other, I remember his story of the line-up,
to identify the smirking guy who shot him,
the frustration of a dividing two-way mirror.
The months of physical therapy for him
to be able to produce a legible signature,
just because of his hesitation to give up his wallet,
in the dark, on 11Oth Street, in August.
The Boy who Dimmed Light Bulbs
for Phil That's the way it started.
Split-second brown-outs in his kitchen
as his mother made him his favorite sandwich,
then later a flicker
in a neighbor's lamp. He was like Harold
and his Purple Crayon,
but backwards --
things blackening into nothing
when he thought about them.
When his friends said that this darkness
never came to them, the boy who dimmed light bulbs
realized he was different. He told himself
maybe he'd outgrow it in his adolescence,
but didn't. A night beyond his curfew
he walked the long way home in Smithtown,
each suburban street light
blinking off as he passed.
All becoming part of the background night.
No stars, the length of Long Island
a velvet gloved finger,
what his shadow would have been like
if he had stopped to pause
and the watts had stayed on.
His teachers said he had no other choice
but to become an artist,
so he moved away from home
to Manhattan. He sublet an apartment
on the Lower East Side
and the radiators started to spit
and crackle like the teeny dots
of gunpowder sold to kids on red paper strips.
A girl on the steps to his building
played with them all day, her mission
to get at something, to free
the small sulfur ghosts.
More than envious, sometimes the man,
who as a boy dimmed light bulbs
and didn't know many girls,
paused and watched her
as she let off her steam.
Next, fuses started to blow,
and a fire began when he tried to iron
a shirt for his waitering job.
The City of New York made the landlord
of the building he lived in
rewire the property,
and the boy who grew into a man
without outgrowing his tendency
to dim light bulbs
muttered under his breath
that it wasn't his fault. He hadn't painted
anything yet, though he still
told everyone who asked that he was an artist.
His tv split in the middle
like it had been hit by lightning,
and he was only looking
at the TV Guide. He went to four churches
and the offering candles
were instantly snuffed. He went to a nutritionist
who said he should stay away
from high-energy foods
and slowly sip drinks whipped in a blender.
Then he went to a shrink
who asked about his mother.
The man who had dimmed light bulbs,
not only as a boy, said maybe,
now as he thought about it,
he did have one resentment.
He told about those liver sandwiches
he only said were his favorites
to make his mother happy,
but that really made him sick.
The shrink said not to separate
the boy who dimmed lightbulbs
from the man who dimmed them still
as he reached in his pocket
for a cigarette. The shrink
asked the boy/man if he minded
if he smoked, but didn't wait
long enough for an answer
before rubbing the tiny wheel
of his Bic lighter. Shards
of light bulb fell like slices of snow.
And both hot and cold,
the Fifth Avenue office
went up in flames, then the hall,
the elevator, the whole floor.
The boy who dimmed light bulbs
cleared his throat.
Not Much Difference Now Between the Sky and the Lake
My father slides into third base
and falls on the sandy pavement of the street
where we play kick-ball. The varicose veins
in his legs leap like frogs who can't get out,
and his knee is skinned like a kid's.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," he says, heading into the house.
"You finish out the game. That's an order."
The neighborhood kids adjust, call someone else
up to kick, and put back the cardboard base
my father's spill has misplaced.
But my concentration is lost. Is my father
washing his wound thoroughly enough?
I bet he doesn't know where the Band-Aids are.
My father continues to fall, in replay fashion,
as I watch him a few days later in his hospital bed.
The fluid in his inner ear, waving
and whacking him out of balance. He says
it was like he'd just hopped off of a spinning whirligig
when, at work, he went to wipe his hands on his apron
and the bakery ovens were suddenly on the ceiling.
When he collapsed, he thought he was bracing himself
against the wall. A spinning screen, a time-lapse in a movie.
When he was on the ambulance stretcher, he says,
he was better, clutching on to the side's metal bar.
But it was, for him, the ledge of a building's roof
because his left and right had become up and down.
On our next visit, my mother tells us in the hospital elevator
not to cry or stare at the tubes and graphs
on the monitors. My father claims this time
he's feeling quite well -- we didn't even have to come.
He has the chilling confidence of my sister who will,
in a few years, wake up from a coma,
after her car accident, and answer, when asked,
that her name is Michele and she's seven:
"Now, where's the peanut butter ice cream?"
Over the next couple of days, she'll age herself back
to eighteen. And my father, too, will soon loosen his grip
on the empty food tray suspended above his counterpane.
For now, it's the safety bar on his roller coaster car.
And each time his family visits, his wife and daughters
inch their way down the wall, eventually
crossing the corner of the L and standing on the floor.
His disease is rare, the specialists say.
So when my father sleeps after his medicine,
I study one of his ears for something out of place.
The C of his helix is perfect, the antihelix
tucked neatly beneath, and the concha
winding down smaller into that dark canal
where his trouble lies so deep, even the light
of a doctor's speculum can't reach it. Maybe there's something
like an air bubble, adrift as it might be
in a carpenter's level when his line is slightly crooked.
I ask my mother to explain to me again why ears pop
during a hilly car ride, why sometimes my ears ring when I sneeze.
Can he drive? Can he read? Can it happen again?
That top setting itself into twirling...Not much difference now,
for my father, between the sky and the lake. He walks with a cane,
aiming for what he thinks is his destination,
training himself to then go twenty degrees to the left.
In this world of gravity and one-way streets, my father wanders,
refusing any help. And as though his topsy-turviness
is passed on in my genes, I stand, in a window --
more like a mother than a daughter -- trying to let go:
my father shovels the driveway, his hands
without gloves and a lit cigar in his mouth.
Departure to the Depths of Heaven, via Grand Central Station
It's closing, Grand Central Station. And I think I see my Uncle Wil, only one month dead, sitting with the homeless, eating a sandwich out of a brown paper bag, and wearing the coat he entrusted me with last Christmas. He asked that I deliver it to the vagrant who lived on my block. I think, though, the guy sold my uncle's Hagar for liquor because within a week it was gone.
Grand Central is bigger than usual, as big, in fact, as a Midwestern field. An angel- nurse pulls a train of empty ambulance stretchers like a child pulls a chain of wagons looking to give rides to her friends, or like circus elephants link by tails and trunks. Some of the homeless follow her, wanting to get on and lie down.
As I get closer, this isn't my uncle after all, beyond the information booth, the big clock. The man whose back leans against the blue hazy light of Chemical Bank is someone else. He is screaming, although his words are faint by the time they reach me: "We are all homeless on Earth. This is not where we should be...."
Outstretched hands like llamas' heads pushing through zoo bars, and voices chanting, "Quarter, quarter, please spare a quarter..." The saxophone, so romantic in New York, turns to a harp that I suspect I am hearing from the roof of heaven, and I swoon to the floor like I did on Fourteenth Street in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. It was the AIDS mass, and a priest touched my forhead--though I kept saying, 'No-no-no-I won't fall," I eased back onto the floor, was lowered into a grave which became a womb, and came back within seconds to sn-dling faces telling me I'd been very receptive.
This time when I awake crumpled Zaro's bags and cigarette butts, littered around my face and arms, slowly disappear. And above the glorious Grand Central ceiling, all quarks and quasars and gods with arrows. Without moving, I'm all energy like I'm idling in a car with its hood down or being strapped into a rocket. Then I'm off, pushed and pulled headfirst like a birth, past the windows, the ceiling, toward the light where my uncle is waiting -- where nothing looks particularly familiar yet is, like the hospital I can't remember, but in which I was born.
On Being Born the Same Exact Day of the Same Exact Year as Boy George
We must have clamored for the same mother, hurried for the same womb.
I know it now as I read that my birthday is his.
Since the first time I saw his picture, I sensed something --
and with a fierce bonding and animosity
began following his career.
Look where I am and look where he is!
There is a book documenting his every haircut
while all my image building attempts go unnoticed, even by my friends.
I'm too wimpy to just dye my curls red
or get them straightened. I, sickening and moral,
talked about chemicals when I should have been
hanging out with George's pal, Marilyn.
He would have set me right:
Stop your whining and put on this feather tuxedo. Look,
do you want to be famous or not?
In the latest articles, Boy George is claiming he's not
really happy. Hmm, I think, just like me.
When he comes to New York and stays at hotels in Gramercy Park
maybe he feels a pull to the Lower East Side,
wanders towards places where I am, but not knowing me, doesn't know why.
One interviewer asks if he wishes he were a woman.
Aha! I read on with passion: and a poet? Boy, I bet you'd like that --
You wouldn't have to sing anymore, do those tiring tours.
George, we could switch. You could come live at my place,
have some privacy, regain your sense of self.
So I begin my letter. Dear Boy George,
Do you ever sit and wonder what's gone wrong?
If there's been some initial mistake?
Well, don't be alarmed. There has been,
but I can set it straight.
Today, you say, as though an actor
in some bad coming attraction,
that you did not leave me for a man, but for all men,
and I grab a loose hand, Max's leather mitten,
shake it something like: nice to have met you.
He is all outside, your new boyfriend.
His cheekbones as perfect as a summer playground, he's steel
rings and slides. My face is lost in a muddy flush.
You've made me hate that I am intricate, all insides,
a pink watery cave, an occasional gluey pearl.
We were just driving age when I picked you up
for a matinee. Both sticky and cool, you showed
me your unmade bed that summer afternoon
and winked. Your mother on an errand,
you closed the door and opened your clothes,
the green plaid shirt from your newly showered skin.
You helped me with my belt.
We arched our waists in some strange ballet.
Harder than we thought, it was hot and cold
and slippery all at once. Calf-straining, like ice-skating.
We heard a slam as you entered. I jerked
my feet into my jeans, pulled them up
past my knees, before I spotted my underwear
wound, a figure eight, on the floor. I coiled the cotton
into a ball, a twisted lump in my back pocket. Stay here, your palms
told my shoulders, weighting me down with Winning The Oscar:
Pictorial Glances in my lap. My lips pouty as stars
and all swollen red. Your mother yelled:
I want her out of here! I was just -- your voice as though prying
two stuck pages apart -- showing her my book.
I can name every movie we saw for the next five years
but that one on that day. You quiet, except for:
I can't believe you let me do that...Maybe my mother is right.
You broke our pact the way we broke each other:
driving faster, I swerved a cry. You shrugged:
Don't be sentimental...Besides, men are different.
Were you looking, even then, for your own shoulder? So many
shirtless boys on the street. I'd be alone
and in the cinema restroom with my first-time blood --
it streaked my hand, admittance, the color of my ticket stub.
April 18, 1990
My friend has cervical cancer
that grew from a wart virus she contracted
from an ex-lover. There was infidelity
and lying, the worst relationship she's ever had.
And now surgery. Possible sterility.
Her cells keep growing like they don't know any better,
and her gynecologist is calling back all the wart virus patients
she's ever treated to test them again,
this time for the kind
of cancer my friend has -- a rare, dangerous strain.
We agreed earlier today -- it's like science fiction.
I am tired, alive on the subway,
and Ryan White's on the cover
of the People magazine I just bought.
It is dated in advance -- April 23rd --
like the eagerness of a virus itself.
Today, one of my students mentioned, in passing,
asbestos takes 24 hours to leak
from a ceiling onto a floor and fully contaminate the air.
And it seems too soon to put Ryan White in a poem,
concurrent with all the newspapers and tabloids.
On a television talk show, one child in a studio audience
asked Ryan if it was fun to meet celebrities like Elton John
and Michael Jackson. Adult America realized the question,
once it had been posed, was exactly the one we'd all been wanting
to ask. The AIDS-infected boy answered gracefully,
with an understanding laugh. How easy it is to love
blond Ryan White, his white straight teeth,
the white down on his delicate teenage neck,
the kind of boy I know I'd have had a crush on in high school.
There is a homeless man right in front of me
begging for chemotherapy money. I've seen him before
on the One Line. He blames Agent Orange
for the knob on his stomach. He pulls up his tee shirt
to show us -- those who will look --
and I fixate on his glob of cancer rather than meet his stare.
He says he'll get off with any of us at any stop,
sleep on any one of our floors.
He'll eat anything we don't want in our refrigerators.
His story includes his two teenage daughters,
something about the pipelines in Alaska.
He is furious, like all of us, at the government.
A fist rises up in his otherwise empty stomach.
He has not learned the art of forgiveness,
as Ryan White had, only because he hasn't
as yet found a sympathetic ear.
Two days from now my friend will have a part of her cervix removed.
Two days ago I sent off what I owed to the IRS,
writing "No bombs. We need AIDS research!" on the memo line
in the bottom left hand corner
of my check, but debating first for some time.
I didn't want to draw any attention to myself.
I didn't want to be audited. So I turn
from the Agent Orange man
and from People's Ryan White story
to the Poetry Flash magazine I am carrying.
I see Robert Hass' "A Story About the Body,"
a poem I'd heard him recite at a reading last year,
the one about the composer who's attracted to a painter,
but who cannot make love to her
because she has had a double mastectomy.
She cannot say her anger, but instead leaves for him
a bowl of dead bees.
I burst into tears seemingly not related to me
as though my eyes were breasts
I could lose at any time. My eyelids, supple
as the condom I never thought would break.
really -- it's been coming on for a while,"
I tell the woman sitting next to me
who offers a Kleenex, probably because I am almost as white
as Ryan White is white
and well-dressed, just coming from work.
When I first heard Robert Hass read
"A Story About the Body," I thought the man in the poem
was an unfeeling asshole. But today
I want to give that composer a hug,
then lead him to the gorgeousness of the artist's breastless chest.
I conjure her face, the pallets of her ribs.
I tell them they could have a meaningful relationship.
Because they seem like nice people, I explain to them
what I've learned from my self help books:
If they don't work out their problems with each other now,
they'll just have to work them out
down the line with someone else.
The Agent Orange man tries another car
and I am left with these tears, these embarrassing tears
that taste embarrassingly like sex.
That taste: don't just sit there, do something.
That taste like beautiful pollution.
Pollutionfor Julia and Madeline Kunin
As a child visiting Hampton Beach,
I was one day so chilled by the ocean
that when I went to the bath house to pee,
the warm, by comparison, temperature of my urine
burned me. I swore I saw a chimney line of smoke
rise between my legs from the toilet. My mother
didn't know enough about chemistry to explain it.
Instead, she insisted on her rules.
This is the first thing I think of as an adult
learning that there is a river in Yugoslavia
so polluted it cannot even be used
to cool down machinery. As a child taught
to bless the lakes and brooks and tide pools,
I didn't cheat until adolescence --
relieving myself in Social Pond, my water
a hot pocket I swam away from fast.
This local spot was a place for floating ghostly
arm and leg casts, cigarette butts, an occasional diaper.
Any one of these could have given me
my first eye infection, and my mother barred me
from our local pond completely. I went to my room
where I thought about the fact that somewhere a fish
choked on the Band-Aid loosened from the blister on my heel.
Litterbug was the in word then. Neither my mother nor I
could have defined carcinogenic or toxin.
The world went on with us, damning its own baptism
and cultivating tempting orchards
of mutant delicious ultraviolet apples.
Riding the Subway in New York, I Remember
The time I was ten and walking
to my friend Donna's house,
and the German shepherd came out of nowhere.
His paws on my shoulders
as though he was bracing me for something,
about to teach me a lesson
or new dance. He was like the four foot tall
rag doll with stirrups on her hands
and feet that Uncle Ray and Aunt Shirley
had given me for Christmas. I'd strapped her on
to learn how to waltz. I could lead her
or dip her, flop her cotton head
on my shoulder, but this German shepherd
was all will and might and silvery gray gums.
The sky above, a sky of gray sweatshirts
of lifting barbells or running around tracks.
The dog leaned into me and I was on the ground.
He bit in four places, my two shoulders,
my right hip, my left arm,
until a man with a hard hat as orange
as any construction, as orange as a pumpkin,
came out and whacked the dog on its back.
"You're trespassing," he said,
no kinder to me. "You're supposed to go
by the street." Behind him the sky
loomed like a trainer, the meanest gym teacher.
The man yanked me up by one arm,
and I started to run to Donna's
knowing from another little girl's scary story,
men can be even fiercer than dogs.
"You OK, kid?" he called after me,
like a bad friend who all of a sudden
wants to make up, if only because he's afraid
you'll tell his mom. I ran
all the way, as though I was on fire
and didn't know enough to roll in the dirt.
Donna screamed when she opened the door
to her house, the back of my tee shirt
all covered with blood, all of it.
Her mother wasn't home. And so I'd believe her,
she made me look in the bathroom mirror.
I called my house and left
red finger prints on her phone.
Not until then, did specific places
on my body start to hurt.
The pinking sheared notches
on my shoulders, the ripped open bum
in my hip. Donna wrapped a facecloth
around my elbow, near the only wound
that was exposed. Blood had dripped down
my leg, around my sneaker,
and underneath, into the grips on the soles,
so that each of my footprints also
left little squiggles of blood
on the tiles of her bathroom and kitchen floors.
"I was trespassing,"
I confessed as soon as my mother
pulled up in the yellow Impala
and finally I was able to cry.
She said, "Here, lie down,"
and from the window
of the back seat, the sky
a big gray brick, as hard
as the sky ever gets with no storm
in sight. I asked how much
blood I could lose, and my mother
said, "Don't worry, honey, it looks worse
than it really is," and I pictured
the seven pints everyone had,
but outside of us all, and filling
the nickel waxy milk cartons
the lunch ladies sold at school.
I comforted myself -- how juice in a glass
always looks like so much more
after it's been spilled.
In the emergency room,
the doctor peeled my shirt
from me like a wet bathing suit,
told jokes about firemen and rabbits.
My mother was there, too,
a strong silent angel. And no one
said anything like I was wrong
to be on the path we kids cleared
through the woods, that ran
from my street to Donna's,
long before all the new development
had started. There was a path, too,
behind Madeline Avenue
that went clear through
to East Woonsocket School.
Safer for their children
to walk there, parents thought,
than on the big busy streets
that didn't have sidewalks.
Now, having the time to react,
my body said what it could
to the German shepherd.
From the crook inside my elbow
emerged a purplish blue ghost,
like the hickey bruise
on Donna's older sister's neck,
soft and full of status,
hurting less she said
than getting pierced ears.
She showed us how it changed
to a yellowish green
when, a few weeks later,
she scrunched down the ribbed collar
of her turtleneck
and told us once again,
"Remember -- this is our secret."
I had to have a tetanus shot
so I wouldn't go crazy
and foam at the mouth, or twirl
the way I'd seen a boy at school
imitate his dog who'd died from rabies.
Breaking all the fourth grade rules
about opposite sex friends,
this boy sent me a book to read
while I was recovering.
My scars were pink shiny maggots,
even that boy admired, that said
I could survive anything,
that said I could go
wherever I wanted.
In 1981 I was on a train in Milan
where a man would later try to molest me,
where later I'd push him so hard
he'd call me a bitch, though he said nothing else
in English, and he'd rip the collar
of my shirt, and I'd kick him and run
only to be trapped on the platform
where I could see him masturbating
through the window of the train he stayed on.
His friends would block the entrance
to the terminal where I wanted to get help.
His friends would call me "bonita," surround me,
and touch my neck and hair before the police
would come and do nothing because, they said,
it wasn't a violation, really. I was all right.
In 1981 I was on a train in Milan
trying to write my sister a letter
because she is a year younger than I am
and because she was living at home with my parents
and she was pregnant. I thought, then I wrote,
"You could get an abortion." But she was eighteen,
and she was in love with her boyfriend.
She wanted to get married and have a husband.
So I scratched out the abortion sentence
while a man sitting next to me was reading the letter
that panged on my lap. I was crying when he whispered
he was able to read English and smiled as though his hand
was already on my knee. He was like the man
who would, in a few hours, try to rape me. He asked
if it was true, if American girls were easy.
Assumptionsfor Pat Vega
First, I'm assuming that gravity is working.
That you're, at this moment, being pulled
towards the earth. That your head is bigger
than your hand. That you know what a computer is.
That your arms are shorter than your legs.
That you get around. I assume
that the land and water masses on the globe
are proportional representations of the land and water
masses on earth. I assume the stars
are where the astronomers tell us they are,
that such scientists have no reason to lie,
that there's life on other planets, and the infinity sign
is symbolized by that little figure eight
lying on its side. I assume you know how to count and add,
that you've never gotten to the biggest number.
That your telephone is currently in service.
That you have a phone and a pad to take messages.
That you know your number by heart.
That you have a few good friends to talk to.
That they know your phone number and call you often.
That you think killing someone violently,
for no good reason, is wrong. That you get hungry.
That you eat vegetables sometimes.
That you buy produce in stores, that you wash
the leaves of lettuce first. That you are troubled,
at least a little, about our environment.
That you have a sexual orientation.
That you can draw a fish or flower.
That you've never meant
to deliberately hurt anyone. That you define yourself
as boy or girl, man or woman. That you are a product
of your upbringing. That you're more than
the sum of your parts. That you
have been stereotyped at some point.
That you have a legitimate gripe
That you know more than you let on.
That you can't always express what you feel.
That a diamond costs more than a rhinestone.
That, no matter how rich or poor, you have a price range.
That you usually get the right change.
That you have used a stove.
That you think some behaviors are more acceptable
than others. That you live by a code of ethics.
That when you break your own code, you feel bad.
That you think you're different.
That you are indeed different.
That paint brushes are made in an assortment of sizes.
That you were once smaller than you are now.
That you are alive.
That you have celebrated holidays.
That you have the same birthday as someone else.
That you think about sex.
That you have a mother.
That your father is either dead or alive.
That you have met your parents or not.
That there are technicalities.
That you fantasize about the lives of strangers.
That you didn't always have those shoes.
That when your baby teeth were growing in you screamed.
That you aren't always paying attention.
That there are certain things you can't remember.
That you can imagine petting a small animal.
That you have thought about what love means.
That sometimes your tongue gets dry.
That you've felt inadequate.
That you are sometimes hot, sometimes cold.
That you've reached out for help.
That you can do two things at once.
That your blood is red and you can wink.
That you are using Marilyn Monroe
as a reference point for beauty.
That you have an ego.
That you worry. That you go to the bathroom.
That there's a toilet where you live.
That you live under a roof.
That you are sometimes ultra-aware one day you will die.
That you have seen children.
That you have seen a coat and skirt made of ultra-suede.
That you know the difference between a spoon and a fork.
That you sometimes are at a loss for words.
That you have an opinion.
That you know how to read or that someone
will read this to you aloud. Assuming
I could be wrong, I'm also assuming
that you understand English.
That you weren't able to read this before it was written.
That you are partially made up of bones and plasma.
That someone else hasn't already written these letters
in the same exact order with the same exact spaces
in between. That your body has been immersed in water.
That you see the same color and shape as I do
when we look at the same peach. That there is a theater
near you. That a movie will be released
at Christmas. That you have been to visit a dentist.
That if someone says "profit" or "prophet"
in a conversation you know from the context
if he or she means "accumulation" or "wise one."
That you have seen the inside of a church.
That you've bought someone a present. That you think
I'll leave something out. That you can grow hair,
that you sometimes clean your fingernails,
that your fingernails have gotten harder
as you've grown older, assuming you've grown older,
and that, when you were a baby, a caretaker
peeled your soft cartilage away so that you wouldn't
accidently scratch yourself. That both your fingernails
and hair will grow on after you die,
that you will indeed pass away,
that you will be buried or cremated,
that your body will be found,
that someone will cry when you die,
that you've cried when someone you've loved has died,
that you have loved someone --
either sexually or as family
and that those two lines didn't cross,
or they did. That you want to talk about it.
That you fret if people say they don't like you.
That you've been to a party.
That you like some kind of music.
That you have felt jealous.
That the world is round
because Columbus said so. That you have been to
or seen pictures of America.
That you have been exposed to ritual.
That you have rejected certain traditions.
That you like some people more than others.
That you have been angry.
That you have been oppressed.
That if a stranger saw your naked body
you'd feel something like shame or surprise.
That you know what a gun can do.
That you have watched tv in color or black and white.
That you identify your skin with a shade
that doesn't accurately specify
the richness of its tones.
That you have put check marks in boxes.
That you've observed someone with chapped lips.
That you have suffered.
That you have relatives and a background.
That you have said something you didn't mean.
That you have a preference.
That you're only human.
That you have made a mistake when writing
and had to cross whole words out. I assume
that the operator will help you
place your call. That the post office
will be opened as scheduled this week.
That you have a goal. That there's a want
in your belly and a heart in your chest.
That you'll look up any words you don't understand.
That you've had misunderstandings.
That you believe some things can be mended.
That you have a dictionary and enough light.
That the pages in your dictionary are arranged
in consecutive order, that your definitions
are close to the same as mine.
The Night Before Father's Day
The fireflies might have been bouncing balls in a sing-along.
You could have followed their luminous bellies, recited
the right lyrics, and lied so easily. It was night.
I wouldn't have believed you anyway, honest --
because of the raspberry liquor and the swaying candles.
It wasn't even your boat in which we were going to make love.
And I kept wondering if the flies, too, were for hire,
like passionate fireworks so far away from the shore.
It was a lie, a skit from Love American Style,
except you didn't love me at all
the night before Father's Day. I wasn't really young enough
to be your daughter, but it was close. You kidded
that you wanted a present because you had had four abortions,
four trips to the clinic with three different women.
I started to cry because of everything,
but mostly because you'd forgotten my birthday.
You said as though I had no right to my tears,
"Look, I never thought about you in that way at all.
You were just fun to have sex with.
You're a spunky girl, but honestly, you're not even my type."
It was like Christmas in an awful house
with no presents, just a blaring tv, and no one even trying
to sing a carol or make a turkey.
A voice in my head said, "You can fix this. You can fix this."
But was it my house or yours? It was a whole different
time, in a different part of the country.
A stronger voice in my head,
one that I usually only hear witnessing accidents
or getting a phone call about death,
said, "Get out. Get out for your life."
I looked through the porthole. Could I swim to shore?
What was lurking in the bay water? The dinghy,
like a diaphragm, elaborately tied up in knots, would take too long.
"I'm an old man, and I still look at each woman
I pass on the street. I wonder if she's wearing a bra
or the color of her pubic hair -- I can't help it."
I was the child whose mind, in part, is off, far away.
Another part was stuck listening to a ranting parent.
You were unbuttoning your shirt like it was a turn-on,
regardless of me, regardless that I was planning my escape.
Ernest Hemingway, Your Mother Made You Wear Dresses Until You Were Three
Well, maybe that explains everything.
In your house in Key West, where the pastels of the town
must have driven you crazy, above the fireplace mantle --
like an expose -- you're pictured in frills as a toddler.
"Knickers were fashionable for boys,"
the tour guide explains, "But Hemingway's mother, well..."
Her perky voice trails off as though, after all these tourists,
she still hasn't found the right words.
But there you are again, all grown up and in plaid flannel,
against the far wall. "You'll notice," the tour guide says now,
her monologue-pace restored, "Our Hemingway was quite a sportsman."
You stand with an enormous fish, cranked so that its nose
is to the ground in defeat -- its tail is hoisted straight up,
making the fish double your height.
And in another photo, you hold a pair of antlers,
proud and with no apology, as though they were a bowling trophy.
Deer heads and moose heads are mounted in your study to extinguish
any lingering doubt. You typed with two fingers and married
four times, each wife dismissed when she showed too much independence.
Liquor-locks, around the vodka insured no one would drink
unless you were home. But bored with you always gone, Pauline,
Mrs. Hemingway-number-three, put in a pool and raised
the kitchen counter six inches so you'd have no excuses -- from now on
you could clean your own fish without straining your back.
Hemingway, we know you loved cats, but you even machoed that,
bringing home a urinal from Sloppy Joe's
to make into a drinking trough for your pets who'd leave a line,
a geometric progression of offspring. Mutant cats,
every generation with more toes than the last, each extra
jutting from a front paw like a little potent penis.
Maybe you were rough, wrestling the kittens and throwing them
into the pool, then toweling them dry, saying things like "Ah shucks."
And it's true, mothers so often get blamed for it all -- but a dress?
Some whisper also that your father was henpecked.
Freud was forty-nine when you wore a skirt for the last time,
and he would have forgiven you, freely, the way we do -- the way
you forgave your mother when you dragged your three-legged labor chair
to a bullfight, and sat in it to watch the gore. Did you think
of your mother as you sat, as though daring someone to make fun,
in an antique chair in which antique women actually gave birth?
Buying Stock"...The use of condoms offers substantial protection, but does not guarantee total protection and that while there is no evidence that deep kissing has resulted in transfer of the virus, no one can say that such transmission would be absolutely impossible."
I know you won't mind if I ask you to put this on.
It's for your protection as well as mine -- Wait.
Wait. Here, before we rush into anything
I've bought a condom for each one of your fingers. And here --
just a minute -- Open up.
I'll help you put this one on, over your tongue.
I was thinking:
If we leave these two rolled, you can wear them
as patches over your eyes. Partners have been known to cry,
shed tears, bodily fluids, at all this trust, at even the thought
of this closeness.
I run into my old boyfriend's new boyfriend
on Boylston Street and, as he talks, I fish around
in my handbag, my pockets, for something sharp
so I can stab him. He prattles insensitive circles:
how my old boyfriend is impossible, but I already know that.
I want to call him queer boy, a faggot: he keeps calling me "hun,"
twirling the fringe on my scarf. We have nothing in common
until his goodbye: pink gums show between his teeth
and upper lip. He has my goofy kind of smile,
the kind my old boyfriend always made fun of.
Boy, is this guy in for trouble.
My dentist was Doctor Alexander.
I chose him because he was within walking distance.
There was no indication in the phone book
that he was into S&M. I might have been
into it too, if I could have played S,
but stuck as an M in his chair as he patted the top of my head,
I felt queasy when he seductively said
he'd checked me out
long enough to find a cavity
because he likes all the young pretty ones to come back
before their customary six months.
I brushed him off, anesthetized to the routine
of hooting and whistling
women encounter everyday
on twentieth century New York City streets, the sleazy smiles
and hands pawing ours
when we get change with our newspapers.
So I kept my next dentist engagement, dreading it
only slightly more than a usual visit.
This time Doctor Alexander wanted to give me a crown --
a $650 expenditure if I'd go away with him
for a weekend. We could get to know each other first,
he reasoned, as the procedure takes four or five visits.
But all that gold wouldn't have shown,
wouldn't have taken me any closer to royalty.
My dentist retaliated to my polite rejection --
pinched me with a Novocaine needle,
then drilled way too deep, hitting a nerve.
His square dental light loomed like the flash of white
before the start of a horror movie -- one I, at that moment,
decided to write the script for -- warrior women
with teeth in their vaginas to curtail their rapists.
Doctor Alexander asked me a question about what I did
for a living, pretending I'd be able to answer
though both his hands worked in my mouth.
Then he volunteered he'd become a dentist
because the pay is terrific and there are no emergencies
in the middle of the night. Once, in a childhood fight,
my sister bit my arm as hard as she could,
her upper and lower biting partners
trying to connect, to rip through my flesh.
The imprints she left
were like horse shoes, battle scars of good luck,
that bruised into purple, pale blue, then faint green.
Doctor Alexander had no way of knowing that this was the memory
he was inspiring in me, but I knew he could see,
on the occlusal surfaces of each of my teeth,
little imprints and shadows like characters
of a language neither of us could understand.
They spelled out my learned and archetypical rage
at every situation this reminded me of.
The dentist's metal explorer and drill bits
righteously displayed on his instrument tray,
his towel clip civilly clutching the paper bib under my chin.
He could lower or elevate me at his will
with the lift pedal at his feet. Human teeth
last longer than bones which is why
some have looked to them, instead of the stars,
for answers. Crowded-toothed persons
never straying from home, pointy-toothed others
unworthy of trust, and those unfortunates
with spaces between their two front teeth
never to be happily married. Babies
born with nubs of enamel
poking through their gums, the wisest of all.
Doctor Alexander's handpiece hissed, then stopped
for the last time in my presence.
As he silently stirred the silver paste
with which he'd fill his mistake --
a sparkling inlay in my upper second molar --
I pictured the future of women,
what part of them would live on
long after their flesh and skeletons --
their lips no longer there to purse or frown, their fists
and legs no longer there to clench and kick --
only their smiles left to grin and bear it.
Dream, Vagina Dentata
It has something to do with sex, I've read.
Teeth hanging by gum threads. I twist and swing
them, cradle-like, with my tongue, a thick wind
rocking tree-bound babes, while keeping them embedded.
And what if they're grown-up? It's cold and hard
as a coffin, this stretcher. Wind-up choppers
clatter among scalpels, circular mirrors,
liplessly wording, Your smile won't grow back.
What has been under pillows? Teeth, a gasp --
piggy bank quarters or nickels closing eyes.
And the gynecologist won't hear my heart
as he fits me for dentures, so I start
to sprout, all molars, bicuspids, canines
and incisors from my antarctic mouth.
Clitorisfor Aminata Diop, who refused an excision, who fled her Mali village
pulse to otherworldliness
mighty red tongue
Just Sayingfor Karen
Since AIDS, a rape is worse than rape,
we were just saying that the other day.
Then it happened. Worse than we could have expected.
You were sleeping in your loft bed
six feet from the floor, and nowhere to go,
when you woke to his knees on your shoulders,
his hand on your face, and a knife at your throat.
Such awful aftershave, you choked
and wiggled just enough to free your mouth
from his palm, to take an occasional breath.
He could have crushed you, broken your neck
with one arm behind his back. He said that.
He said he was showing you mercy.
He said it was the first time
he'd done anything like this,
like you were so special. And there was a mask
on his face for the occasion,
and you woke to him there with you in your bed,
darker than your worst childhood fears.
Darker than dreams of ovens and coffins,
you wait for your period,
pray you are HIV negative,
and will wait again for a test in another six months.
America is a place where all privacy is gone,
we were just saying that the other day.
We were saying maybe it's because one day soon
there will be no room for any of us
to have as much as a lawn. But we were just talking,
we didn't really expect it --
this man who raped you, who snuck
through a back window, and then left
through a front door.
I'm jealous when my mother touches anything else.
The potatoes that roll in the stainless steel sink.
The water runs and my mother rubs each bump --
under their chins, behind their necks -- clean.
Sometimes she bathes me here, washes my hair
kneading small circles on my scalp. I trust her,
"Keep your eyes closed. Cover your ears."
Now there's a flame, small and round as a hand mirror
taunting from under the pot on the stove,
"Who is the fairest child of all?"
And I stand on a chair to watch water bubbles pop a soft "Oh no,"
then disappear. My mother gently plunks potatoes in, one by one,
and says, "Careful not to tip. These will be done
when the skins crack, when I can stick a fork in."
There was a mother in the newspaper this week
who cooked her baby and served it to her husband
as though it were a chicken.
Communionfor Monika Beerle --
If Daniel Rakowitz had only dreamt
about eating Monika Beerle's flesh,
these dreams possibly could have expressed
his desire to live off her money
or perhaps his devouring passion --
with an element of oral sadism.
Or even a regression on his part,
an attempt to psychically reincorporate with his mother --
reverse the process of his being disgorged
from her during delivery,
as if the opposite of birth
wasn't really death at all.
But it wasn't a dream:
Monika's head boiling in her own pot, on her own stove.
Daniel seasoning, then eating, her brains and her heart.
Some say he thought in this Satanic-cult-way
that he would finally be able to control her.
But could it be, instead, that she's wound up
controlling him? Maybe now, in prison, Daniel dances
the way Monika had at Martha Graham.
Maybe he will suddenly share her love for everybody,
including Jews and Gays and Rastafarians.
Maybe he will develop a taste
for things Swiss. Yes, maybe now, in prison,
Daniel will become Christian,
having had Monika as his communion.
So transformed, he will apologize to the cops
for ever having called any of them pigs, and
because of his sincerity, the courts will set him free
so he can play himself
in the made-for-tv movie. Then, with the money he makes,
maybe he'll begin his own ministry. He'll return
to feeding the homeless in Tompkins Square Park,
but with more of Monika's gracefulness, a lighter step.
Maybe Daniel will teach us, through his transformation
and repentance, no one can ever truly destroy a spirit.
Jung Says the Soul is Round(Tompkins Square Park)
Jung says the soul is round.
And so is a bird bath. Round?
So are the bracelet slots of handcuffs and mounds
rising on a pair of brass knuckles.
Jung says the soul is round.
And I see its reflection everywhere
in one of the poorest parks in America.
What I want to say first is there are no flowers,
but then joy takes over because there is the sun and an orange
a gray man is gratefully holding.
And the round pockmarks on the orange.
Summers before, there have been riots,
but today in the park, a library book
rests in a child's lap. His wooly head peers
at a picture of a round pie before it's been cut.
The fork marks around its perimeter
as mysterious as designs on a mandala.
A hoola hoop flies askew on a young girl's hips,
a ring around her rhythm of Saturn.
The tiny unseen beads swishing music in her striped loop.
The parabloid trash receptacles.
And that round sun again that doesn't let up.
The spidery umbrella, no longer any good against the rain --
a floppy parasol, doing what it can,
over the fair round and round-freckled redhead.
Prayer, or Nostalgia for Heaven
Please, just give me a map, and I'll follow it.
And, if I'm worthy, throw in a sign --
maybe a miracle to show me I'm on the right track
or a coincidence, a deja vu so strong
I'll say, "Aha! This is the way to heaven."
Dear Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, or Genderless-One,
I live among your humblest achievers. It was easy
for me to get A's in school because I was told
what to study, and I did it. My meals
always look exactly as they do in the pictures
of the cook book. I'm not a deviant. I'm only here
to serve you, whoever you are, but like
an overwhelmed waitress, I'm not sure
you're in my section of tables. I run around
in Zen circles, climb the highest totem pole -- I love all
the directions of the cross: West, North, East, and South.
I love the twelve apostles and the zodiac. The numbers,
the colors, the letters of a name all mean something to me.
The lines on my palm, the configuration of my tea leaves.
The tarot, the runes, the pennies, and the I Ching.
But like a sorceress pleasing too many masters
and mistresses, too many shepherds at once,
I am a sheep and, as you know, a consumer -- therefore I need to
be told what to buy. And you must understand this --
even paintings of baby Jesus change through the ages:
sometimes he's fat, black or white, sometimes lean.
So Goddesses and Gods, I plead again for direction. If only
you could put me on a special mailing list -- or send me
an advertisement like the ones that only go out
to preferred shoppers announcing a special sale in advance.
Show me the way, and I'll go. In the meantime, you'll find me
down by the river, getting close to what is left
of nature. I'll wrap my arms around me mummy-style and roll
down the biggest hill -- sky, grass, sky, grass, sky, grass --
and wait for your reply. I'm ready for anything. Maybe
you'll be little green men and women. Maybe
you'll charge out of the doors of your flying saucers
on horseback. Maybe you'll plant kisses
on all of us, on each Earth-bound Beauty's sleeping cheek.
An Answer to a Question
You said that if we could just touch
we'd be able to figure it out.
Your palm scanned me up and down
like we were two parts of the same computer --
screen and mouse, bytes and search keys,
orphans and widows, open windows.
Your hand finally found what she wanted:
the pea under my mattress. We referenced
my clitoris, then cross-filed it
with beauty, ocean, politics, the deep.
We grew small in each others arms
the way lovers can in their dreams.
Then I exclaimed the pea was a pearl.
Each ring shadowed a halo. Lifejackets bloomed
the colors of tropical fruits.
Knowing no ending was completely happy,
we slipped through mighty thorns,
sliding safely through technology
until there was enough room for us
to be home wherever we went.
The Sky Sings
The sky sings in plurals.
Sun, moon. Moon, earth. Star, wish, and us.
At night we wake to these songs
which circle like whole notes, whole rings
around the earth, around Saturn, and Venus.
Mars, we hear this singing, half cold
and half light. Beyond buildings, beyond traffic,
sometimes beyond text books or maps, all eyes raise
seemingly at once. EGBDF:
Every Good Boy Does Fine. This was the way we learned
what sounds rested on what lines of our music books.
Our ears, bass clefs, trembling cliffs
with small oceans inside, keep our balance
and ping with this cadence. Like spoons
tapping on glasses of water, on glasses of wine,
the stars sing in the sky. So even when we pull away
like receding waves to look at our sorrow, to look
without love at each other, we are struck by the curve
of these sounds which pull us, rising, always
reaping, always towards joy.
Mrs. Shaw's Cadillac
When Cindy Shaw told me
her mother wrote The Happy Hooker
I believed her. On our way to Scarborough
Beach, we read passages aloud
from the creased paperback.
All three of us in the front seat
of the powder blue Cadillac
convertible. Mrs. Shaw's pink kerchief
flapping like a cheerleader's skirt,
her platinum waves stuck in place.
Lucky, their black labrador, sprawled
on the back seat, barking
sometimes when we laughed.
Mrs. Shaw told us everything.
She would make up our bottom lips
with her gooey finger
then point to her breasts
between the plunge in her bathing suit,
asking Cindy or me to lean over and check
if her freckles were turning into sunspots.
She had stillborn triplets once
and said she was too old now
to go through three more births.
Maybe I was like one of the daughters
she'd lost. She buried the babies
giving them names all beginning with "C."
Cindy's magazines spread out
on the blanket, blazing fingernails
and hair. We watched Mrs. Shaw giggle
for lifeguards, pretending to chase Lucky
in shallow waves, while we tugged
at our suits all gritty. In the shower
Mrs. Shaw promised an "R" rated drive-in
and hooked each one of us for a moment
into her bra. She pinched at what she called
"two empty sandpails." Then she made us
swear not to tell Mr. Shaw any of this.
His construction working hands seemed
sometimes as big as car fins.
Nearly Drowning at Six
The blue of Bill's Pet Shop fish tank was all
I knew to know, so down, down, eyes open
for pastel gravel, plastic scuba men,
sausaged air on their backs. My slow fall.
I was thinking wax bottles, sweet liquid
inside, the penny-candy case Terry
kept in her store: Snow White-like I would be
laid next to gummy fish, magical-dead.
Then, nothing at once, but a seaweed bruise.
Grasses of mangers or Easter baskets,
muddle of holy days. Palm, pine, confused.
I was just six enough to know regrets.
My sister kicking, sunlit, above me:
Sweet Jesus. Her feet, I must kiss her feet.
A Conversation in Stereofor Michele
There were always two of everything (one for each of us) but
in different colors so we wouldn't get mixed up, and
one color, we thought, was always definitely better. The one
both of us, of course, definitely wanted. The same thing
was true with lunch boxes -- they may have both been
blue, but with unlike logos. Or
shoes -- one pair with laces, another with buckles.
Or two music boxes, but with separate songs.
With their girls only one year and four days apart, our parents
didn't have time to learn how to play favorites. Twins,
some people thought we were. Our Zodiac sign Gemini, we multiplied
times two our personalities, times two
what we really felt inside, times two
because there were two of us. And when we fought,
someone usually said, "You just want that
because your sister does, too."
But some things in two
were more clearly unequal: the foretelling halves
of a wishbone; heads or tails meant one of us had to lose;
or the samara twirling like a green set of wings
from the maple tree in our yard. When an adult
snapped one apart and handed each of us a section to open
and wear on our noses, one side was always blessed
with more sticky sap. And the less lucky of us
had to hold the witchy nose-extender on with our fingers.
And even though we weren't divided that terrible sibling way:
one pretty, one smart -- one was prettier, one smarter.
Those comparatives like: one had better boyfriends,
longer hair, or nicer clothes, any given year.
Or we were known by events. One played softball,
one couldn't. One cracked up the car, and one didn't.
And although sometimes two seemed too much, sometimes
it wasn't enough. We lost out, for example, on the superlatives:
Being only two, we couldn't be the best of anything.
We were more like our scrambling hands in the game we played --
opisthenar, palm, opisthenar, palm -- only one of us
on top for a split second at a time. And as we grew,
sharing the same room, one of us might have been watching tv
while doing homework. The other
talking on the phone while reading a magazine. And
instinctively, like a conversation in stereo,
we knew when to pass the com chips. So sometimes,
when I think my sister's children are mine or
my sister feels like she's just finished my poem,
they are and she did, in that moment sometimes...
because somewhere our mother closes her compact two-sided mirror, and, in a dark
corner of her purse, the enlarged and lifesize
reflect each other. And maybe somewhere our father
tells a joke, how I kept the womb warm for the second one.
That's Going to Mean Something Later Onfor Kathleen Rockwell Lawrence
"See the way she fumbles for her keys while he keeps talking --
that's going to mean something later on."
You were whispering to me about the movie on the screen
of the Orson Welles Theater. In your third year of film school,
you said with authority, "Because film is so expensive,
is shot that isn't connected later..."
You paused when a character was killed, then continued:
"Not like in novels. You don't have time to be sloppy
with description -- will it matter after or not?
"No, I think every word counts in fiction or poetry, too,"
I lamely said, my major English Lit.
We didn't have sex, and though you didn't say,
"That's going to mean something later on,"
it did. The track marks on your arm -- I thought
they were as tragically romantic as suicide bracelets.
You had been in a rehab, and I said,
overcoming such obstacles must be an angel." No one we knew then
knew anything about AIDS. You said, "Let's not spoil our
friendship," or something like that. And I stayed for the night
anyway, falling asleep on your bed while you were looking
through your books to show me something. You moved to Belgium
that summer, and I never heard from you again.
Walking home the next day I saw a little boy on the Fenway,
his mother was whacking him on the back with her purse.
"Son of a bitch," she said, "when will you learn to listen?"
That's going to mean something later on --
someone is going to pay for this,
But as though karma those days was a boomerang
caught in a whirling wind and coming back off course,
it was easy for me to feel like a victim. I was sure
the witness would pay, or perhaps someone on this block
whose windows were closed, who was cooking supper right then
for her husband. But maybe if the moon is a projector,
I reason, and our actions are now what happens on screen,
then the karma is all right, though not always a karma
of happy endings. The close-ups might be headlines:
wars, land fills, national deficits. Or maybe
our personal triumphs and tragedies.
More likely wdre players
in a thriller -- the audience watching us knows computers
give us cancer, though the few characters who read about it
in the New Yorker can't get their editorials published
anywhere. And the cancer researcher is not-so-mysteriously
bought out. I pray we are as precious as celluloid,
and someone watching knows all of this means something.
Love-Struck in New York
I kiss a homeless woman on the lips,
soothe the angry young man passing leaflets
with a hug and his angry young causes dissolve.
I tell the Yuppie couple, "I think you're nifty.
I hope you get every appliance and gadget
you want." I invite my new DINK neighbors
(Double Income, No Kids) for dinner
and a menage a trois. I pet a mangy dog who growls at me
straining against his owner's leash
while I hold a baby with a rash as his teenage mother
folds up a stroller. A hood spits, missing
the sidewalk, and hits my shoe. So what?
I pay for a mustard-laced pretzel with a ten
and tell the vendor, "You keep the change.
I love everyone today." "You's crazy lady,"
he says, looking afraid. And my feelings
towards him, well, they don't change.
Ode to the Ferris Wheel, on its Ninety-Ninth Birthday(June 1992)
Oh, Mr. Ferris, what an invention!
Your diagrams and blueprints, your wild imaginings
finally turning, slow and high that initial time --
the toast of the fair, rising over the rest
of flat Chicago. I feel like one of the first to ride
this night of my birthday, a century later
in another city, another state. The summer
moon is rosy pink and maybe it's the climbing
and falling like sex that makes the man
who stands in front of my lover and I in the long line
boast he's taken the same girl on this ride
for twenty-six years in a row. His wife blushes,
half of her coy, the other half embarrassed
that her husband's so loud. I will be married
in a couple of months, and in my mind
my ring twirls like Mr. Ferris's first initials:
W. G. W. Letters con-ting back
to eclipse themselves. Ford Madox Ford.
William Carlos Williams. The palindrome
of my birth date and age: 13 and 31.
My lover and I will kiss, sure
we are blessed, every time
we go over the top crest.
The luck of the circle and the sun.
Why, On a Bad Day, I Can Relate to the Manatee
The manatee tries a diet of only sea grass, but still stays fat.
Mistaking her for a mermaid from afar,
sailors of long ago lost interest when they got too close,
openly making fun of her chubbiness. She knows Rodney Dangerfield
would write jokes about her if she were more popular.
She's ashamed of her crooked teeth, her two big molars
that leave her sucking and grinding
with bad table manners. She swims towards danger
over and over, scars from motor boats on her back
reminders of her slow stupidness. She resents being
called a sea-cow. She hopes her whiskers don't show
in the light. She is the mammal who knows
about low self-esteem. I first met her on my honeymoon
in southern Florida. I was on a cruise in my one piece bathing suit.
The women in bikinis squealed and pointed to the nearby dolphins,
clapping so their sleek gray backs would come to the water's surface.
In the shadow of her prettier ocean sister, the manatee swam by also.
No one but I paid her much attention. I wanted to lend her
my make-up, massage her spine, lend a girlfriend-ear
and listen to her underwater troubles. I dreamt of her
as I slept in the warmth of my new husband. I dreamt of her
as he slept in the warmth of me. On a good day, too,
I can relate to the manatee, who knows
on some level that she is endangered
and believes in mating for life.
No one warned me he'd long for loins and hocks
so soon into our marriage. My husband munches from bags
of second-choice pork rinds on the porch, not wanting to exclude me from the dinner
he really wants to make. Back in college, his roommates loved his pork chops.
At midnight he and his friends often drove to a diner famous for its spare ribs.
I catch my husband looking longingly at the pork.
I'm on my way from the dairy aisle and, not wanting to make it an issue
then, place the milk and cottage cheese in our cart
loud enough to give him warning. He obediently slides over to the chicken
and picks out a four-pack of yellow dimply breasts.
As a wife who doesn't eat red meat, I feel inadequate. I wiggle my toes in the pink
slippers he gave me for Christmas. I've read enough to know what happens
when husbands don't get what they want. Should he romanticize his unabashed
pork-eating past, he'll start to resent me -- fast. I remember with a shudder
his sheer pleasure when I passed him my slice of ham at our wedding reception.
Whenever we're in a restaurant, he orders sides of bacon. I find cans
of Spam and Bacos behind the breakfast cereal in the cupboard.
I explain I'm not trying to hold him back, that he should eat pork in the house.
I'm not self-righteous in my decision to keep boars and sows out of my diet.
But always polite, my husband swears he doesn't want to.
What's the fun of eating sausage alone? My girlfriend, who loves pork too,
makes her point. Of course, I feel worse. Aren't I woman enough to meet
my husband's needs? Threatened, I confront him about his behavior
at the pork counter. At first he doesn't recall, then he says he was only looking.
So now he's only looking. Marriage disasters from my childhood sizzle.
Uncle Waldo always said, "Hey, it's not a crime to look, is it?"
when a good-looking "babe" walked by. But Aunt Charlotte knew it was.
After a few years, she threw all his clothes out of the window, crying it's over,
calling him a swine. Always loving, my husband hugs and reassures me.
I look down at my fuzzy slippers and feel better. Uncle Waldo hated pig's feet.
For the One Man Who Likes My Thighs
There was the expensive cream from France
that promised the dimples would vanish
if applied nightly to the problem spots.
Then, when that didn't work, Kiko, the masseuse
at Profile Health Spa, dug her thumbs
deep into my flesh as she explained
in quasi-scientific terms that her rough hands
could break up the toughest globules of cellulite.
I screamed, then bruised over, but nothing
else happened. When they healed, my legs still looked
like tapioca pudding. There was the rolling pin method
I tried as far back as seventh grade,
kneading my lumpy legs as though I was making bread.
Cottage Cheese Knees, Thunder Thighs --
I heard it all -- under the guise of teasing,
under the leaky umbrella mistaken for affection.
I learned to choose long dresses
and dark woolen tights, clam diggers instead of short-shorts,
and, when I could get away with it, skirted bathing suits.
The nutritionist said that maybe Royal Jelly tablets
would break up the fat. I drank eight glasses
of water everyday for a month. I ate nothing
but steak for a week. I had to take everyone's advice,
fearing that if I didn't, my thighs
would truly be all my own fault. Liposuction
cost too much. The foil sweat-it-out
shorts advertised in the back of Redbook
didn't work. Swimming, walking in place, leg lifts.
It's embarrassing, especially being a feminist.
I wondered if Andrea Dworkin had stopped worrying,
and how. If Gloria Steinem does aerobics,
claiming it's just for her own enjoyment.
Then I read in a self-help book:
if you learn to appreciate your thighs, they'll appreciate
you back. Though it wasn't romance at first sight,
I did try to thank my legs for carrying me up nine flights
the day when the elevator at work was out;
for their quick sprint that propelled me
through the closing doors of the subway
so that I wouldn't be late for a movie;
for supporting my nieces who straddled, one
on each thigh, their heads burrowing deep into my lap.
I think, in fact, that it was at that moment
of being an aunt I forgot for an instant
about my thigh dilemma and began, more fully,
as they say, enjoying my life. So when it happened later
that I fell in love, and as a bonus,
the man said he liked my thighs, I shouldn't have been
so thoroughly surprised. At first I was sure I'd misheard --
that he liked my eyes, that he had heard someone else sigh,
or that maybe he was having a craving for french fries.
And it wasn't very easy to nonchalantly say oh, thanks
after I'd made him repeat. I kept asking
if he was sure, then waiting for a punch
line of some mean-spirited thigh-related joke.
I ran my fingers over his calf, brown and firm,
with beautiful muscles waving down the back.
It made no sense the way love makes no sense.
Then it made all the sense in the world.