When you ask your mother how you came to be
she will look at you presently but be somewhere else.
Her eyes will light with the warm glows of conception
and you will see in her remembrance that you came
forth from light — pure blinding light. As you continue
reading the story that her face always tells, you will
trail her eyes as they land on the figure of her mortal
husband. And then, just like that, the light will be gone
but your mother will be back with you presently. She
will tell you again with her mouth the answer that her
eyes never seem to corroborate…
And the moon, high above
and removed from all,
will decide when to exile her
from eden. When to begin
the ruination of a life. When
to pull rivers from virgin wombs.
And the girl, down below
and under it all
will never question the day
she becomes unclean. Will learn that
some things will never be
her choice. Will see a rock
govern her body
before she ever will.
(for the people of Flint, MI with empty cups and running faucets)
Someone fed them
Of Jesus turning water to wine
Here they heave
From their subsequent thirst
Lies wafer-thin as the body
Lead pours out as the blood
Do this in remembrance
Do this & remember it
Do this & dismember them
On skin-whitening days
I politely refuse to go out
because I’m afraid of the light
and can’t handle my friends’ glittering lenses
their sympathy and understanding
when what actually kills is in the midst of multiplying cells
Because of love I’ve recently
developed allergic dark spots
it’s a kind of passion
that ages over time
and embeds deep in the skin
a bit of sand polished by seafloor flora
can’t rub away
a lifetime of lines
I’ve heard SK-II makes a facial mask from peeled eggs
and in twenty-four hours it can heal mute dark wounds
it needs to cycle for twenty-eight days
and with wholehearted trust and patience
you can rejuvenate a face
grown old from its travels
but I was born with a sensitivity to eggs
and I can’t forget the question of the chicken and egg
and finally I’m not sure if I should
love you first and then break up or
first break up and then love you again
so finally I decide that both of these skin-protective sequences
should be carried out simultaneously
I don’t really want
to see you as incurable blackheads or acne
since deep cleaning and bleaching
will bring skin-rending pain
but since I can’t change my face
I can only give up thinking about you
On skin-whitening days
I grow an inch I gain two kilos
with no more insomnia or lack of appetite or listlessness
the skin knows
its origins it knows how to love itself
it can dislodge wrinkles and dark veins
and let the sun usher in birdsong
I thought I knew you because
all night and day our breath mingles together
for three years and ten months
my name, gender, resumé, and ideas
have been classified as files and updated at the set time
entered or downloaded according to the mouse
you’ve given me unlimited broadmindedness and broadband
to traverse the up/down left/right horizontal/vertical space
your lovely musical voice accompanies my dancing
your blue screen quits out of emotional interactions
(there’s grass in the lower corner of the screen
in the upper corner there are tiny flowers and dinosaurs)
I used to think we would grow old together
like in the promises of a red and gold menu
but you’ve had your moments of betrayal
secretly conversing with others and making contacts
but also carefully letting me read your intimate notes and codes
until I began to suspect your unruly flickering face
pounding the keyboard with all my suspicious fingers
or bitterly pulling on the loose cords
I pray you won’t ever stare blankly at me again
ignoring every word I type
or casually change the subject to code
until you suddenly shut down and refuse to see me
yes, since I have no special training
I can’t just skillfully make various attachments
——Wrong password, please try again
(you said you would wait for me your whole life
no matter what but what does that
“what” really mean?)
——ERROR, your file has not been saved
(we used to eat together
but that café closed
when the building was torn down)
——This page cannot be opened, please try again in a moment
(just as I planned to send you an email
you sent a message to my fax machine
and with the line busy, neither one could go through)
——The line is currently busy, please refresh the page
and when I refresh it things suddenly go dark
the wall lets off an acrid stench of burning
and when I mistakenly connect my nerves to the system I realize
I was an idiot when it came to computers and love
——“Only those who understand love will live forever!”
even God (if there is) has to snicker and sigh
over this unprecedented oath of alliance.
Yearning like snowflakes
shakes off the twinkling of black and white
not on the earth but in the heart
distorting the high-definition screen
your face is blurred
laughter and tears pulled and warped
like a return to nothingness
I try to catch it
the computer is tepid
and the keyboard has long since frozen into Morse code
unwilling to reveal the truth
Whenever you like is fine
you can come and go as you please
just flip the power on
type in the role’s name
and you’ll arrive as you promised
more punctual than a lover
for a canned conversation
with the preinstalled glint of cold steel staring at the camera
putting on an unwavering smile
this rousing play
that we acted out holding nothing back from sohu.com to tudou.com
we’re both on the internet
and the one we love is far away
Not before our eyes
before our eyes is nothing but a pile of dead embers
people leave like a lamp clicking off
these past few years he’s been pale and silent
and the form I once embraced
only gave me a website in the end
promises and best wishes
are sent in infected email
after one begins to love oneself
hearts will separate and live apart
and so with one stroke
I delete his name and password
Translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman
Recently I’ve fallen in love with instant coffee
dissolving you like dissolving my heart
leaving dark stains
on the walls, clothing, drawers
perhaps the caffeine has expired
not even love poetry can keep things fresh
I fell in love with coffee because of Detective Galileo
my heart leaps and hands tremble
but that has nothing to do with love’s homicide case
(who murdered the innocent?)
and your whereabouts offline
once in a while on the web I’ll discover
someone else with your name
but the internet is vast scattered and uneven
my last note before I die will be like a dismembered corpse
bobbing up and down
it’s better to go offline and climb a long flight of stairs
from the first half of your life to the second
At last I’m on the open patio with the cat watching the sky
the early morning sunlight is wet from last night’s rain
the birdsong is hoarse from the city’s pollution
the cat’s tail is quite short it’s longer than my affection
I let go swiftly and off slips
cat fur and nothingness
I bow to my own shadow and smile
I lift my head to look for a bit of clear sky
but all I see is a dizzying blue curtain
like the flickering of a computer screen
then a ferocious barking drifts up from a lower floor
the sharp yapping sinks its teeth into my senses
a wolf heart like iron
I chase the black cat cursing
my stomach churns
I decide to have another cup of coffee
dissolving you like dissolving my heart
Last night while watering the garden,
I mistakenly elbowed a yellow jacket
or perhaps it was a carpenter bee
casually bathing in a galaxy
of purple astor. And then, as if
taking the Circle Train home,
we accordioned together vaudeville-style —
our physical margins shaken
by the surface of bright lies.
And through the torn sleeve
of my sweater, I felt the stinger
insert until you stumbled, slow-motion,
into the flowerpot; inert like a lover
who has overexerted himself,
then lies down in the gold husk
of a late July night.
Now all that remains of us is a raised scar,
burning like a silver dollar —
swiftly seen-to with wet tea bags and copper pennies —
the way we tried to exorcise the toxins
from our lives: a blue basin next to the crib
of a sick infant or a vacuum cleaner hung,
then ignored, in the guest room closet.
When you left, I didn’t recognize myself in the drapes.
I took down all the mirrors
from the walls, subsisting on huckleberries
and the machinery of my heart
which came as a continuous surprise —
the new knowledge that
my body could outlast death —
could heal this deep, sharp sting.
From my room I retrace the intricate lace of maps,
trails of saffron and blue. I begin my story
anywhere, pull a thread of burnt sienna
to the Elephant and Castle,
or travel a Circle to the Barbican.
The world submerged makes sense to me —
the scent of a man’s Cadbury, the sound
of a voice asking please do not leave…
I savor the place names of stations I have dreamed.
It’s what isn’t here that interests me.
How this trinket tray adores deception —
provides a legend to the Angel,
a lover for the Piccadilly train.
How this late 20th century souvenir
keeper of beach glass, tea bag, one tiny bell
creates more than any cartographer would tell.
I lean toward a stranger, grey eyes reading
mine before the doors next open, slightly
close, before we rise and go —
past a young girl offering Puccini
by the escalator’s puddled edge —
past travelers, erotic and unknown.
How we must forgive a map its half-truths,
its absent streaks of grief,
and arrive in a back-lit glance
to where time for one moment rinses clean.
One must have a mind of a gardener
To regard the dirt with thoughts
Approximate to wonder, to live in
Fascination of the earthworm —
Pink hermaphrodite of the jiggling zither;
And to behold the Mrs. Jekyll rose,
To note the light’s addictive sugaring
In sun gold tomatoes
And not to think of quiet
Promises in the winter’s chill and frost,
The past delicious juices, that in time
Attaches bitterness to skin, to rot, then snow —
Which alters the birds predictive packages of shit —
Companion to the gardener who knows
She must garden through the rain and in light snow.
— for LaMonte
An ear bud without music
expertly hangs from his collar like a safety line
for closing down the world.
This body, he works so hard to make invisible —
this body, he cannot make invincible —
walks into College English, his head held
towards the floor. Seventeen. He picks the space apart
from classmates. He’s a window, he’s a door —
his golden eye telescopes, examines the air above —
a third eye with visions he will one day learn
to steer: pathway to a Shakespearean atmosphere.
He argues with himself, his professor, in the arc
of a world not yet understood.
He writes 100 sonnets but shows no one.
A bell ringer hipsways by market stalls,
bellows hello to the man who brings the chanterelles,
the immigrant families building bouquets of tulips
to launch like ships, the cheese makers and fishmongers,
knife sharpeners and kombucha concocters.
She rings her instrument along each row signaling time
for the buying and selling to begin.
Are you feeling lost? Did you think I shifted
scenes to a mercado in San Salvador or an Irish city street?
Please! There’s no need for a Starbucks here!
At the Farmers Market, the tangerines reign supreme
along with local lettuce and trendy Tuscan melons.
When the bell ringer passes the blueberry farmer with eyes
of indigo spangled in gold, she tells him if a fork falls,
a stranger is coming to dinner and then walks on quickly
looking into the light snow of the cherry blossoms.
Her grandmother would have washed her mouth with soap
for even looking at a man — a light bulb turning on
in the old woman’s head: gangster, predator, no-goodnik.
Don’t sweep after midnight she’d say — or you’ll miss
your good luck. She of the Lithuanian shtetl,
she who knew what it was like to have to obliterate
the scent of winter Daphne, the acres of daffodils.
The rain pinched the glass
of the windowpane.
The rain’s tiny pelts nagged at the glass
like the conversation
she was avoiding having.
The avoidance made her feel
removed from herself
while at the same time even more
The room in which she sat
was well lit, so outside
looked like asphalt
on a playground’s court.
She could see the orange ball,
bouncing lower, lower, lower —
until it stopped.
The ball, its visibility, then disappearance,
that her words, too, dissolved like this.
Or were her words, against the dark,
a bright, bright blue?
She comes into our room again,
her first time in weeks.
I hear a small stir on the floor,
the rustle of crumpled paper or a bag.
Last month I would have covered my head
at this noise, groaned in irritation,
but not so today. I lie quiet in hopes
that she complete her first return.
On the phone last night, a surprise,
my mom said, Your dad
and I divorced when you were ten.
For two or three years, you didn’t have stable
parents. I was caught up in my head
and couldn’t really be there for you.
Her years-old absence, precise, pristine, still stings me,
though I feel some shame that it does —
it’s like being a child again,
though I am all grown.
An aching need for my mother
originated decades ago, landed,
dug a hole, and took root. She was gone.
Sadness grew then, sprouted up and bloomed,
blue and dark, with petals that peeled easily
from the slight stems when I touched them.
This was all I knew of growing,
so I tended it
and cultivated a garden
of these flowers, navy-dark, gray-rimmed, the kind
of night in which no stars can be seen
by the eye that searches up for them.
I mistook the sadness for beauty. It was.
I mourned each blue petal that fell.
That was a thing, my mother said.
It’s not surprising
that loving causes you worry.
Sometimes sadness seemed the heart of love. Tonight,
though, I lie in wait for her, the cat.
I’m hopeful she’ll come back. With her here,
I’ve learned some joy, how to honor another’s
right to be. So too with my Boo,
sound asleep, snoring, not worried
when, or if, she will
return. He settles in his sleep
against my body, his warm skin on my skin,
solid and soft, a quiet promise
that some loves are here to stay. They will.
A small rustle, just a thread, and she jumps
from the wooden floor to the bed.
The color in the room was yellow.
I don’t know if I knew then why,
or that yellow is as much the color of nerves
as it is of cowardice, as I stood stiff-straight
in front of Father Panda and examined his face.
It was wide, porous, ruddy, full as a moon beneath
a wave of curly hair the color of the pews.
We both wore white, he in his vestments,
me in my dress, all decked out
with the things I knew I must have done wrong.
From the vestibule, the smell of incense wafted in.
Outside the room I could hear the sound of children
trying hard to be quiet. A bit of holy water
splashed from someone’s finger to his forehead.
I was bad. I was definitely bad. I thought. The bell
tolled. Father Panda’s wide face split into a smile.
I amused him with my silence. I was not a sinner,
after all — was it possible? No. I gulped, stammered,
dug in: “I can’t think of anything.” That was the sin.
a saw stirs up its loud whine
to separate the limbs of the tree
from its trunk.
A car stereo begins playing
the entire soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam
and she hears “hot and wet” “hot and wet” —
“it’s nice if you’re with a lady”
and she feels the last, labored breath of Robin Williams
like a dull machete attempting to slice through the swamp grass
as he suffocates himself
outside his closet door
and all of the suicides inside of her
lift their heads and eyes,
like turtles lined up alongside
a creek in which
the bruised, naked torso
of a woman floats by,
her breasts full of gravity, nipples staring off dully to either side
as if she never in her entire life
saw anything that surprised her
The man does not reach out to touch
the girl, though his intention
is like the sheet pulled back
from the skin of that dead body —
there’s no stopping it now,
not the unfeeling hands that lift the cover
nor the grief that will live
forever in the blood of the mother
who stands over her daughter’s torso, the roots of her severed limbs
not even able to speak the words
Yes, that’s her that’s her
late morning (after a long restless
night) blurry eyes focus on the ceiling,
sky in shadows, the clock projects
11:11 neon against the wall
an accusation somewhere vague
in my brain, tainted modern
criminal, off-balance, sleeping-in
11:12 is the turn-key
out of bed into the cool room
exit the womb between
blanket and sheet, blasted
with air, light and dust
one must cross through
each day with an agenda
(formed, or not) this critical
movement, one world to the next
we traverse our time
fractured, come to terms
but the point is to awaken
alive, to drag our self from
the dead of sleep
The antique cards from my great grandmother,
the photographs of ancestors I did not know,
so much regal furniture, I sat in a closed off
parlor, quiet in a King George chair, looked
across the room at the matching couch,
the grand organ, the gold trimmed tall mirror
with marble at its base, hung full length
between tall windows formally draped.
I loved the quiet in this room, the history I
never understood. The organ no one played,
out of tune, a museum for far away relatives
in England or Holland, mother’s side
of the family, who tried to stay wealthy
but exposed to the elements oxidized
in a slow decline, till it wore thin this family
chain, clear to inevitable death.
So much no one remembers, only two chairs
left, reupholstered, and the mirror, yes, the
mirror, now on sister’s wall in Philadelphia,
no longer with its marble stand, but it hangs
a view to see ourselves, how we have walked
through to this other side — some of us — who
would be us, long disappeared, those still here
with traces in our blood, on our walls, in the
pictures we grow older and more distant
every decade — this rusty chain still present —
binding like a cross, there is no escape, no matter
the life we live now.
- after Gregory Pardlo
It was leap year, on a Thursday, I was born
upstate New York, Borsch Belt small town.
To a family of farmers, where covered bridges crossed
creeks. Twenty miles to the racetrack in
Monticello, our nearest city, where father worked
for an air conditioning installation firm.
The Evergreens of the Catskills.
A mother off seeking four-leaf clovers.
Born to arrowheads and quartz, to blueberry
bushes in back fields. I ran to frogs
and salamanders across stone fences
through wild woods, no eyes followed me.
It was during the cold war red scare, but I,
a wild barn child was unaware. Daddy’s little girl
I wore patent leather shoes at Easter and
blue velvet at Christmas. The cameo necklace,
Mother gave me, fell into a stream. I was a wild thing
from go, feeling the velocity of wind. The night
I came a fierce push. I was born clear white,
pastel perfect skin, with spit-on Irish blood
and German ancestry I was told to never
acknowledge by a direct line uncle. The year
I came, there was a storm brewing in the guts
of women to have climaxes they’d never reached.
There was a surge to land on the moon. The
Atom bomb was introduced from Britain. Born
in the year of the Dragon, I knew it would be rocky
not a song in the rain, nor the cotton candy
fun world where mother resided.
We may have been young and stupid
We tried things this life
We survived to tell or hold our tongue
I only wanted good teeth
It was the kind of day that kissed
my adrenals, I was in love but didn’t
know, I forget his essential nature
Looking at altars I swim the undersea
Our art, how we breathe it
becomes our moment of forgiveness
Everything essential dies or disappears
Fear takes us out of our body
I waited forever to sing
They wrote a song with ordinary
words about an ordinary man
I could not stand to listen
The whole world cries each day
Let the bells ring