My job as a scholar has been to show what is—and lay out what yet could be, under sundry future conditions. The poet’s mandate enjoins no less.
In response to “Is this all there is,” the poems below pose complementary questions: what might be left over, after so much has been taken? And whether all of it, together, can ever be enough. –E. P.
for G. R.-O., 1942-2004
It puffed air hard,
And soon that exhalation became a voice
Inferno, Canto 13
Until a bullet has snapped her lung’s branchings in half
it is as if there is no revolver,
only two hands, one to steady the pistol
and another to curl a finger around the trigger’s steel scare quote,
the gesture of: These words are someone else’s
“The worst thing about shooting yourself
must be living through it,”
missile missing the jugular
for five jungles of nervure.
In dreams, the radiologist shows us not my aunt’s clogged,
rotten-soft heartwoods (which, as trees get older,
but the daguerreotype of a falcon-gentle, suspended
between twin paper-maples,
recaptured seconds after escaping.
Quizzed by my mother, I limn it as a question
of her mind’s fractured facture,
harrowed, pathless convolutions,
the ways she had come unmade before this undoing:
splay-toed gait, viscose scarves crossed in armature
over the breasts, hair a mass of tangled scapulars.
One sister wonders whether the other scrupled,
or cell-phoned before discharging.
We guard our silence when saying more
would be syrup-tapping in the forest of the suicides.
for her, miscarried at nine months
The baby arrived on time,
but dead. The blood spilling
from my mother was thread
from a runaway spool, cotton-clotted
her body a two-eyed needle
or field of consequences,
with a telephone-receiver voice.
(“The last thing I saw was the doctor,
pulling from inside me,
becoming the wound that eats everything,
even my healers.”)
Earliest memory: flying on a swing
the whinging engine of a stalled car
and my father’s raw-membraned face.
The news dislodged with coughs:
truth, then and often,
the sound of a trout-bone heaved free
from your throat.
The relative who died later
of brain tumors, plural,
dressed me for visiting hours in a golden pinafore
I’d hated—because my mother made it—
until that morning.
Though sedated, she saw me
yellow-bellied as a cartoon sissy,
before we’d had time to raise the hospital bed
or lift the white rope of intravenous from her face.
In three days it would be as if she had never said
“It’s a miracle.”
She left her seat to find a piece of candy
set aside for my sore throat. I heard
the scuff of bunions on tile, then a hiss
from the lamps and the ceiling’s glass lozenge.
The daily brown-out had muscled in at sundown,
stopping the current cold in copper cables
mined from the island’s clay-larded lodes.
Sent to the bedroom for candles,
I ran a palm along the pilasters for balance
until bullets of saucepan plaster
came to powder in my hand.
I saw the holes and then my aunt Lola
on a dimpled mattress, wrist-deep
in a tray of empty wrappers.
Your hours in this country flew
as if the devil’s son had raced them. Fast!
You tell my brother that we fed you.
I noticed my gringa niece tastes before she swallows.
There is no haste to your hunger.
We season but salt is wasted on us;
the bite goes straight to the belly.
Before this, the only food I chewed with no teeth
was Jesus, in the host.
Today we ate a loaf of stolen bread, with bootleg cheese,
twice a month there’s a thumb of wallet-tough beef.
Your cousins don’t thieve for the glory, believe me.
to the whimper of invisible springs.
Within the walls a scandal
of raveled metals pulses:
your power does not go out
when the lights or the dollars do.
for never naming
my firstborn daughter Dolores.
For my dry mouth,
the last half-ounce of sugar in your house
would turn to water.
For the detainee’s fiancée
Guantánamo Bay, 2003
Spoiled food has fueled this night’s unrest:
I twist as on a splintered dish
and don’t yet believe myself asleep
until the two heads come awing
ushering in what acephalic wraith?
the government man
and his listing forms of recompense.
Behind him, anvil-shaped boys younger than my nephew,
faces: plates of orzo-small chevrons.
No gauze but to forget
the address for mother—yours, mine,
while a crone’s riding me bloodless
and only your body in the shaft
between this goggled shadow and the dawn answers me,
arrow-fast. No babe aflame,
no soldiering column more.
The nightmares wait until you, too,
The diviner’s verse
I spin my word from a fiber
fished out of a parrot’s nest
fermented in the liquor let
from a maiden baobab’s armpit.
If thread begets rope
you’ve yet to open the gift
basted by a quilting ancestress
—the one that once in your palms
was just a brown map.
Hold it upside-down, muddy it
Breathe pepper into its creases.
No one says the night is spotted
but that it wears beads.
Remember, even after (the ships have left
and) the crescent moon bloats into cowrie:
you cannot split
the feather’s feather.
On the godson’s conception
No one raises you, yet you grow,
eye minute as the seed of an oat.
I put earlobe to navel and heard the sea
but—caveat—am neither mother
nor country doctor. I held on as to a conch
and nodded, professed to detect your shell
pearled in my sister’s red pith,
A melody collects in your brain’s strange aspic:
your father’s tangos, a sweetness pressed
from the hourglass figure of his stringed bass.
Milongas for one junta’s disappeared.
Not far from history’s Argentinas
are the pleated womb’s incarnadines.
in your jagged nail the claw’s perfected.
You are more animal now than tomorrow,
more thing than you will be again
until your beauty stills the midwives’ tongues
and these apostrophes become a name.