The First Woman

My parents are from the snowy, muggy midwest, but I grew up in sunny California and was so unaware of prolonged gloomy weather that I did not understand what “Seasonal Affective Disorder” meant until I moved to Ireland in my 20s. But my earliest travel memories are of road trips to the desert, my dad driving our crayon-blue Datsun. Some weekends, we’d drive from Glendale, California to see the Cabazon dinosaur structures (pictured above) and then to Banning for date shakes. (My parents used to be into health food desserts.) I think it was my mother who loved the desert so much. Whenever I think of our trips, I remember these three images: my pretty, young mother, approaching me while sipping a date shake and wearing 70s-style macrame sandals and a Bodhi Tree t-shirt; a view from inside the T-Rex head; and across the pink desert, among the palm trees—the dinosaurs of Cabazon.

Photo Family trip
My parents and I on a road trip, circa ’79.

In my mid-twenties, I began Northern Arizona University’s MA program in Flagstaff. The town is 7,000 feet above sea level, so the weather and terrain are much different than Cabazon. There are forests of ponderosa pines and aspens that turn gold in autumn, and the whole town is covered in powdery white snow for several months of the year. However, the sun still shines on  most days, which was a welcomed sight for this California girl. One of the most beautiful natural scenes I’ve ever witnessed is snowflakes glistening through sunlight, all the trees, bejeweled. I often walked in the woods when it snowed. The whole world went silent under white blankets. Every now and then, I’d hear a muffled crash and turn to see a pine tree unburden itself of top-heavy snow drifts. I have never felt more wonderfully alone than I did in the desert.

As you drive south from Flagstaff, you pass through central Arizona, where pine trees and snow turn to shrubs and red mountains. Further still, shrubs give way to tall cacti that always looked friendly to me, as though they’re waving toward the passing cars with their arm-like branches.

Even in the parts of Arizona where it does not snow, there is a quietness to nature, probably because most animals and insects hideout during the day, as do many humans. Also, the dry heat makes you more aware of your body, and in that way, it can focus the mind. I often hiked alone back then. Unlike in the deep south, where insects and frogs sing a happy heralding, the utter silence of the desert made me feel like the only person in the world, a feeling that has always comforted me. Even desert rocks feel different to me. In the south, rocks are highways for every bug, reptile, and amphibian; but in the desert, rocks invite you to sit and to be alone with them, and you are.

As I wrote Sister Nun, I found many desert images popping up in my stanzas. I lived (collectively) in Flagstaff for only four years and have (collectively) spent thirteen years in the south, but the feeling of the desert has never left me. While the south’s nature is teeming with loud and aromatic life, the desert feels like the very beginning of life, quiet and red and prehistoric.

In “Sister Nun Faces a Sidewinder,” the first few lines set a tone of loneliness, enhanced by the mention of a chain motel, which has always seemed to me the perfect setting for any lonely story: “Sister would say that she had lived / a lonely life, if pressed now in / this chain motel parking lot.” In the next line, “Scales bright as her own / bald head” likens Sister to part of nature herself as well as reminds the reader of her appearance. (When she leaves the Buddhist convent, earlier in the book, she keeps her head shaved.) The next few lines give the reader further description of the setting: “The cacti, fuzzy and / soft from a distance, wave / at the cars, taking them / for suns.” The cacti’s appearance from a distance is much different than its sharpness up close, and the cars’ appearance from a distance confuses the cacti, who see the glare on metal as passing suns. This image provides contrast and foreshadows later imagery that pertains to the brightness of early creation.

In the next stanza, the speaker qualifies Sister’s loneliness: “If she said she was only alone / when she asked to be, that, too, / would be true.” Although Sister is lonely, she often chooses to be alone. In the next line, however, she must put aside human concerns of loneliness and remain completely present in the face of potential danger: “but today she faces / a sidewinder, and she stills / like red rock.” The last line again reflects the low desert setting.

I separated the next section of the poem with a set of asterisks. Although stanzas themselves are a pause in language (and often a shift in topic) using asterisks helps the reader know that there is a rather large shift ahead. In this case, the poem shifts from Sister Nun in contemporary times to the creation of women during the Mesozoic Era. I wanted to invent a creation myth that reflects Sister’s loneliness and offers a hereditary loneliness that links all women. In my creation myth, the first woman was created toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs:

“Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.”

I liked the idea of the first woman appearing by accident as opposed to the structured Biblical creation myth: a male god intentionally creates a woman from part of a man and then prescribes her a subservient role. In my myth, the first woman emerges from a natural, assertive act: “lightning / struck a stone, and a giant / woman appeared.” I remember eating at a restaurant in Phoenix and watching fat strobes of lightning smack the sand outside. I wanted the woman to exist from electricity’s force. Yet, when she first materializes “Her physical sight / was slight at first.” As with most beginnings (including Sister Nun’s own travels) the first woman had to find her footing with little experience and few defenses. Although the dinosaurs “laying dying,” unable to care for their children, there is still threat: “she hopped / around lava and ducked / from Pterodactyls on / gut alone.”

The first woman feels a maternal urge and nurses “baby Brontos when / their mothers passed. Held their / long necks gently across her lap.” As she finds connection with the world around her, she must also watch it deteriorate: “But soon, the comets made them / so sad that they lifted their big, baby / legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves / to the sun.” I’m not sure if the scientific community has determined certainly why the dinosaurs went extinct, but for my poem, I wanted to reference different schools of thought that the reader may remember learning in class. One theory I’ve heard is that Earth was hit by a meteor. I also read that some dinosaurs died because they got stuck in tar pits. I wanted to play with that latter idea by having the young Brontos (I know, the Brontosaurus never existed) intentionally entering the tar pits, knowing that the end for all the dinosaurs is near. They position themselves to the sun to see the last beauty the world has to offer them.

In the last stanza of this poem, there is, again, a contrast between beginnings and endings: “The woman painted her body with wet / sand and opened her eyes for / the first time as she sank into the salty Earth, and / waited.” As an act of mourning, she paints her body and lets herself sink into the Earth as the dinosaurs allowed themselves to sink into tar pits. At the same time that she surrenders to grief, her eyes open for the first time. The last word “waited” implies that she does not find death but will rise again when she is stronger. Since she opens her eyes before she sinks, one might assume that she will be wiser upon return.

The last stanza provides a frame to the first narrative about Sister’s encounter with the sidewinder and connects her situation with the first woman’s: “Sister has learned to wait.”  The snake “finally returns to / her cold nest” and “Sister thinks of the / woman she left this morning, wrapped / in sky, blue sheets, her naked body / heated in the dark room.” First, the snake’s threat is softened when the reader learns that she is protecting her nest, which also echoes the first woman’s attempt to protect the young Brontos. There is contrast in language and imagery between the cold nest and the hot desert. The image of the hotel room that Sister leaves behind (along with the woman) is cold and dark. When I was living in the desert, the dark, air conditioned interior of my home, or hotel rooms I stayed in, felt like caves. The motor of the air conditioner both numbs loneliness and exaggerates it. But when you step outside—you can barely see at first—the sun is so bright. The whole sky is against you. Little by little, you can feel the air around you. You spot an animal diving under a rock for shelter. You cannot leave your cave in the desert without feeling that you are on some kind of quest.

In contrast to Sister’s intense and frightening moment with a venomous snake in the harsh sun, I gave the woman Sister leaves in the hotel room darkness and quiet. She is “wrapped in sky, blue sheets” but is in a “dark room,” and she has “the / look of our first mother” (again referring to the first woman in the creation myth) both “loving and / astonished.” The first woman has become “mother,” a far more personal description, and there is a sense of inheritance: with love comes pain.

 

Sister Nun Faces A Sidewinder 

Sister would say that she had lived
a lonely life, if pressed now in
this chain motel parking lot.
Scales as bright as her own
bald head. The cacti, fuzzy and
soft from a distance, wave
at the cars, taking them
for suns.

If she said she was only alone
when she asked to be, that, too,
would be true, but today she faces
a sidewinder, and she stills
like red rock.

* * *

Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.

She nursed baby Brontos when
their mothers passed. Held their
long necks gently across her
lap. But soon, the comets made them
so sad that they lifted their big, baby
legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves
to the sun.

The woman painted her body with wet
sand and opened her eyes for
the first time as she sank
into the salty Earth, and
waited.

* * *

Sister has learned to wait.
And as the snake finally returns to
her cold nest, Sister thinks of the
woman she left this morning, wrapped
in sky, blue sheets, her naked body
heated in the dark room, and with the
look of our first mother, loving and
astonished.

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