Church of Sister Nun

“Church of Sister Nun” is the last poem in Sister Nun (which, if you are new to this blog, is a book of poems from the voice of a former Buddhist nun). I spent the majority of summer, in 2011, writing the book and really had no idea how I’d end it. I knew she had to leave the earthly narrative, but I was not ready to let her go. I also had it in mind that she would have lived a long time. I decided that I would continue with the surrealist nature of the book and let her live for 215 years. In the last poem, I give her a second coming.

Throughout her first physical incarnation, she joins and leaves a convent, but in leaving, she takes a bit of the convent with her. She changes her name to “Sister,” and she keeps her head shaved; however, she also explores the Earth’s core and outer space, and she writes a self help book. Although she often thinks of convent, either to compare or to interpret the present, she never finds religion nor cares to. Therefore, the title of the poem, “Church of Sister Nun,” already indicates that someone, or a group of people, have overtaken her narrative. The first stanza contradicts the title’s implication that she may have started her own church (or has condoned one in her name) and also declares that she has returned to Earth centuries after her death:

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

The second stanza declares that Sister had lived for 215 years and that, although she was heavy with grief, she was free:

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all.

For the next stanza, bear with me; I’m about to discuss Britney Spears, gender expectations, and the fine line between pain and freedom. Years ago, as you probably remember, Britney Spears, exhausted by the paparazzi, shaved her head in a hair salon and then took an umbrella to the windshield of a photographer’s car. I can’t speak to her deeper mental state, but I recall seeing the image of a bald Britney, umbrella in attack-mode, and thinking, “Good for her.” She shaved her beautiful, long hair, a symbol of feminine sexuality that kept her rich and working but also hounded and mocked for the better part of her adolescence and young adulthood. Truth be told, I was a fan of Britney after the umbrella incident and was disappointed that the media reduced the scenario to “crazy” (not that that’s any surprise).

Spears is thirty-six now, and like many, has taken more control of her image through selfies on Instagram; however, she is back to promoting that image of sexy seductress. I get it. Sex sells, and the images she posts couldn’t be more stilted, but I can’t help but miss the day she lost her locks and went on the offense.

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For the poem, I pictured the future to be about as hollow as the present, and although Sister Nun’s experience with fame is not as aggressively felt as Britney’s, the paparazzi’s presence burdens Sister in her golden years. The faux intimacy of their proximity foreshadows the remaining narrative after her death: “And/at her age, followers behind her/every step with their future cameras.”

In stanza three, Sister Nun again is objectified, although this time more tenderly. There is also a reference to the commodification of Sister Nun’s image:

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

In the first part of the final stanza, the speaker reveals that the worship of Sister Nun was for nought, as she also did not understand the mysteries of the universe. With this understanding, she slips away “from camp,” indicating that she has a small following in future times:

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.

The final lines of the poem juxtapose dark and light imagines and are rooted in nature. Sister has just left the group, and the speaker implies that she will leave her body once more:

Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

In a previous blog post, “Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, O My!” I discuss the religion that I grew up in and followed until my late 20s (Self-Realization Fellowship). In church, I remember hearing stories about Krishna, who voluntarily left his body under a tamal tree. (The Mahabharata tells a different version, claiming that a hunter, named Jara, mistook a sleeping Krishna for a deer and fatally wounded him with an arrow.) The tamal tree is said to have a dark, blue bark that resembles Krishna’s skin. In the last couple lines of “Church of Sister Nun,” I wanted to allude to the story of Krishna, giving up his body under the tamal tree, and to imply that Sister would soon do the same.

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I also wanted to end the poem with a sensuous image, and I chose the scent of jasmine because certain varieties will only blossom at night. In the beginning of Sister’s journey, she is grieving and alone. Although it’s arguable that her loneliness remains through the end, it is out of the darkness of her heartbreak that Sister Nun connects with her true self and finds an enlightenment that grants her meaning, depth, and adventure.

 

Church of Sister Nun

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all. And
at her age, followers behind her
every step with their future cameras.

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.
Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

Photo Credit: https://visualwilderness.com/quick-tips/choosing-a-location-to-photograph-aurora-borealis

Everybody Must Get Stoned

My first introduction to Medusa came in the form of that ludicrous 70s show, Land of the Lost, where Uncle Jack saves his boneheaded niece from the vain monster by holding up a mirror, which causes Medusa to turn herself into stone. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she dies when Perseus beheads her. He then gives the head to Minerva (Athena in Greek). As an afterthought, in Ovid’s version, the reader learns about Medusa’s past. Here’s where it becomes difficult to chalk her up as just another Gorgon: Medusa used to be a hot-looking human with gorgeous hair. All the men used to fight over her. Then, along comes Neptune (Poseidon in Greek) with his male-god privilege, and rapes her in Minerva’s temple. In true blame-the-victim form, Minerva punishes Medusa by turning her into a mortal Gorgon and changing her beautiful hair into snakes, to add insult to injury.

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The Huntington Garden Sculpture in San Marino, CA

In “Medusa’s Slumber Party,” I wanted to portray her as a multi-dimensional person, not just as a monster in her final moments with Perseus. The first stanza begins with the notion that the snakes were metaphor before they were literal:

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

This first stanza also gives background to the myth of Medusa. In the second stanza, the reader can imagine Medusa’s childhood as average. I wanted to humanize her history by setting it in modern times, while keeping the myth in tact:

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

In this stanza, although the dramatic situation is innocent, darkness (literal and figurative) permeates the room. The speaker and Medusa suffer from nightmares and restlessness. The light turns the dark blanket red, a color that foreshadows her future bloody death. Medusa turns away from the light and burrows deeper into the literal darkness of the “makeshift tent.”

By the third stanza, Medusa is living as a Gorgon; however, Medusa’s feelings are mixed. She feels the snakes as “a rush, the heavy / crown on her head” but also as “absolute aloneness.” Medusa is different from the other Gorgons, not just because of the snakes, but because she is mortal.

The speaker finds her “After the curse…/ aging in a garden, the snakes for all / to see. Her toga looser than before and / the curve of her collar bone.” Medusa appears weaker and vulnerable. Still, the speaker feels for her and manages “to kiss her mouth before a snake” nips her ear. If the reader is to take the snakes as both literal and figurative, it may be inferred that Medusa cannot let the speaker close to her, even though she seems to appreciate her visit: “I left as she waved / to me from the shade of an oak tree. It smelled like rain.”

The last stanza takes the reader into the future, and continues to keep the narrative modern, with a cocktail party as the setting:

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

Here, Athena is humanized, although the presentation does not flatter: she is awkward and reckless, whipping out Medusa’s head, knowing that it could turn people to stone. Nevertheless, this thoughtless act does not affect the speaker. One gets the sense that her understanding of Medusa renders her immune to the dark powers of Gorgons (or at least of this particular one). The speaker knew about Medusa’s darkness, as a child, and also visits her in the garden, post-curse, without incident. Despite her intimacy with Medusa, it is the speaker’s awareness of Medusa’s tendency to turn toward the dark that teaches the speaker “to let in the light.”

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Halloween 2009: pipe cleaners and googly eyes

This poem first appeared in the Kerf, Fall 2012.

 

Medusa’s Slumber Party

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

It was a rush, the heavy
crown on her head, the buzz of her
absolute aloneness.

After the curse, I found her
aging in a garden, the snakes for all
to see. Her toga looser than before and
the curve of her collar bone. I managed
to kiss her mouth before a snake
nipped my ear. I left as she waved
to me from the shade of an oak tree.
It smelled like rain.

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit: Ignasi Monreal

 

 

 

Season’s Beatings, Dadaists, and the Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld

Ah, the holiday season. For some, it is a religious time. Others just like coziness and Christmas carols. For the rest of us, it is a time for worming through trenches, praying to Krampus we won’t set off some gnarly childhood-memory landmine. (That’s me dressed as Krampus in the photo, by the way. Tomorrow, my wife [who is infinitely patient with  my costume-lifestyle] will dress as St. Nicholas, and we will deliver licorice and pretzel sticks [from Krampus] and chocolate [from Santa] to our little three-year-old neighbor. I think it’s important to take stressful holidays by the horns [pun intended] and turn them into something that doesn’t make a switch and cage seem par for the course.)

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Last year, this time, I was at the beginning of what I now refer to as my “year of the mixed bag.” On the one hand, by the end of 2016, Voldemort had finally collected enough unicorn blood to take power and make America gross again. On the other hand, I was planning what was to be a beautiful and happy wedding in the following month. 2017 began in the best way possible: I married my now wife, and the memory of that day, and the fact of our marriage, has provided a backdrop for the year, one that has kept me from ever feeling too dark for too long. On the other hand (there are too many hands in this narrative) I lost a dear family member to mental illness and watched as friends, old and new, either moved far away or changed so drastically that I could no longer recognize them. (Or was I the one who changed? I can’t tell sometimes. Either way, friendship’s fault lines cracked once more.) Work went smoothly…or horribly. My sweet 18-year-old cat died. 2016 has definitely been a good candidate for a sad country music song.

As for Christmas, I think that the commercialized version of it comes at a bad time. I am a mixture of extrovert and introvert, but the latter definitely takes over in winter. It seems as though shopping and making merry are activities better left to spring. In winter, I like to take quiet walks and notice how the branches hold hands across the skyline without leaves to keep it private. Most plant life is either dead or asleep, and I like the silence of the outdoors.

I recently bought my first house. Each spring, I am still surprised to see what types of flowers and vegetation pop up. In winter, though, I am left to find clues about what might have been and what will be. My house is warm, and there’s something in the crockpot. The spices develop and the vegetables soften. I’m not sure what I’ll find in myself during winter, but I know that it won’t quite be ready until spring.

I have always loved the last line of Joy Harjo’s poem “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles”: “But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.” This month, I want to talk about found poetry and offer a writing prompt. If you, too, are experiencing the affects of “the mixed bag,” perhaps you can write a found poem where you pick out the jewels from a conversation you overheard, from a math textbook, from a fashion magazine, or any other source, really. If you do write a found poem, I hope that you share it in the comments below! In the meantime, here’s a brief lesson on the found poem. Hope you enjoy!

But first, let’s start with…

The Dada Movement

The Dada Movement arose in the early 20th century and philosophized that logic and reason had lead to world war and believed that the only response to such chaos was anarchy and irrationality. Also, Dadaists were none too fond of the bourgeoisie, whom they believed were responsible for society’s rigid imposition on art and society. Dadaists fought against rigidity by producing “anti-art,” flipping the bird to aesthetics, meaning, and morality. Dada art’s meaning was to express meaninglessness. They wanted to offend and to destroy tradition (which is understandable if you’ve ever studied the horrors of World War I).

Meanwhile, many believe that “found poetry” stems from the Dada Movement. It’s easy to see why. Below, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a good example of one of his “readymades.” (Yes, it’s a urinal.)

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L.H.O.O.Q. (below) is another version of Duchamp’s readymades, which was created from a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa that Duchamp doctored by drawing on a mustache. The name of the piece is a pun: the letters sound like “Elle a chad au cul,” which, in French, means “She has a hot ass.”

duchamp.jpg

Found Poetry

Found Poetry is a form that is what it sounds like. The poet finds “poetry lines” from unexpected places such as textbooks, advertisements, news headlines, and conversations overheard. The poet may decide to take the lines verbatim, and distinguish them with line and stanza breaks, or may pick and choose parts of the “found poem” and heavily edit it.

My hope is that you, dear readers, write a found poem this December and post it in the comments below! Until then, please enjoy the found poems of D.H. Rumsfeld (that’s not something you hear everyday, is it?) from Hart Seely’s wonderful book, Pieces of Intelligence. Seely’s found poetry comes from Rumsfeld’s briefings and media interviews, and reveals an existential brilliance that I bet you’ve never thought to associate with our former secretary of defense.

Happy winter, everyone, and be nice to yourselves!

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

A Confession

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

Happenings

You’re going to be told lots of things.
You get told things every day that don’t happen.
It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—
It’s printed in the press.
The world thinks all these things happen.
They never happened.
Everyone’s so eager to get the story
Before in fact the story’s there
That the world is constantly being fed
Things that haven’t happened.
All I can tell you is,
It hasn’t happened.
It’s going to happen.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

The Digital Revolution

Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!
A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!

—June 9, 2001, following European trip

The Situation

Things will not be necessarily continuous.
The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous
Ought not to be characterized as a pause.
There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won’t see.
And life goes on.

—Oct. 12, 2001, Department of Defense news briefing

On NATO

You may think it’s something
I ought to know,
But I happen not to.
That’s life.

(July 9, 2003)

On Reporters

If you do something,
Somebody’s not going
To agree with it.
That’s life.

(Feb. 19, 2003)

On the Budget

If you do anything,
Someone’s not going
To like it and
That’s life.

(May 7, 2002)

On Leaks

Look bumpy? Sure.
But you pick up
And go on.
That’s life.

(May 17, 2002)

On Democracy

People elected
Those people to office.
That’s what they think, and
That’s life.

(Feb. 20, 2003)

On Criticism

It makes it complicated.
Sometimes, it makes
It difficult.
That’s life.

(Sept. 11, 2003)

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.

Sister Wolf

Sister Nun is a character who suffers, as most people do, from the pain of duality. Sequestering herself from the world does not heal her broken heart; rather, living in the convent exasperates it. She must strike out, dramatically, in order to hunt for the connection she craves. It is by leaving seclusion that Sister finds connection with herself, and in doing so, reconciles her inner diversities. She longs for others but often prefers to be alone. She wants to understand the universe but enjoys mystery. She loves both men and women. Later in the book, we learn that she is also a werewolf.

Sister Nun often uses the surreal as a lens through which to understand life’s realities differently. In the case of “Werewolf,” the reader can immediately understand Sister’s duality, on one level. Werewolves are usually portrayed as humans who can (or are cursed to) turn into wolves or wolf-type creatures. Many tales portray werewolves as tortured: they turn into grizzly beasts against their will and become conscious again only after it’s too late, their wild instincts already satiated. However, I wanted Sister Nun to accept this transformation, especially since she is in the process of finding peace with her dualities.

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals a dark incident from Sister’s past. She becomes a werewolf after someone “pierced her back with dirty / claws, infecting her with the urge.” There is an idea of transference, that someone else’s “dirty claws” can change another person’s future. However, “Sister Nun does not mind that / she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t / bother her” to think of how she became one. At the end of this stanza, the speaker vaguely refers to the affect of the “infection” as “the / urge.”

In the next stanza, “Dogs bark at the night, prepare / for Sister’s visit.” It is unclear for what they need to prepare, but when Sister arrives, she “gnaws their / bones, humps the women, and makes everyone laugh.” In this stanza, I contrast the images that could be taken as aggression (“gnaws their / bones, humps the women”) with the fact that she “makes everyone laugh.” Everyone is included in the good time, and although the previous two images are wild in nature, the dogs and she are having fun.

The final stanza deals with Sister’s interaction with humans. The first few lines contrast her easy, natural relationship with other canines with the violent and fearful reaction she receives from other humans: “But not everybody likes Sister / Wolf.” Here, part of Sister’s name even changes from “Nun,” a distinctly human calling, to “Wolf.” Although it’s still capitalized, the name change reveals the shift from her connection to canines to her conflict with humans. These humans “grab their / rifles or, in a pinch, chuck / silver bangles at her and / shriek.” The beginning of these lines sound aggressive: they are willing to shoot Sister Wolf, but the narrative quickly devolves as their reactions become rather silly. The silver bangles refer, of course, to the myth that you can kill a werewolf with a silver bullet. However, they are throwing jewelry and shrieking, in what sounds like a pitiful attempt to keep her at bay.

Sister’s reaction is a mixture of aggression and pleasure; she “growls” and “laughs.” One gets the sense that her aggression is playful and that she is not afraid of the humans’ attempts to end her. In the morning, she “wakes nude / and adorned until the next / bald moon pulls / her like a riptide.” Rather than the traumatic wake up call that most werewolves experience in folklore, I wanted Sister’s “day after” to feel like waking from a dream where she felt beautiful and happy. The “bald moon” both refers to the moon’s fullness and references Sister’s head. (Sister had joined a Buddhist convent but kept her head shaved, even after she had left.)

The final lines “pulls her / like a riptide,” in one sense, shows that she is not completely autonomous. She is still pulled in by nature, but when she is part of nature, she also finds freedom.

“Werewolf”

Werewolf

Sister Nun does not mind that
she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t
bother her to think of the night
he pierced her back with dirty
claws, infecting her with the
urge.

Dogs bark at the night, prepare
for Sister’s visit. She gnaws their
bones, humps the women, and makes
everyone laugh.

But not everybody likes Sister
Wolf. The humans grab their
rifles or, in a pinch, chuck
silver bangles at her and
shriek. Sister growls,
laughs, and wakes nude
and adorned until the next
bald moon pulls her like a
riptide.

Photo Credit: Christian Hughes
http://www.christianhouge.no/Shadow-Within

Bitch!

Today’s blog post is a writing invitation! Follow me, won’t you, down memory lane? In one graduate course I took during my MA program, our professor assigned us a recitation. Here is a conversation we had on the day mine was due:

Professor: Shanti, are you ready for your recitation?

Me: Yes.

Professor: What poem will you recite?

Me: “Bitch.”

Professor: Shanti!

“Bitch” by Carolyn Kizer was one of my favorite poems in graduate school. The dramatic situation (or plot of the poem) involves a woman who runs into her ex and remains calm and affable to him. However, she internally experiences an array of emotions, triggered by his appearance. Kizer anthropomorphizes her speaker’s internal feelings by manifesting them as a dog, or the speaker’s inner “bitch.” Here, I’ll read it for you; I cannot recite it anymore since my memory’s gone to sh*t:

What are my favorite parts of this poem? I like the contrast in the speaker’s tone of voice and the emotional reaction of the bitch: “My voice says, ‘Nice to see you,’ / As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.” I also like the range of emotions the bitch experiences. She first reacts to the ex aggressively, and the speaker has to remind her that “He isn’t an enemy now,” but later, “At a kind word from him, a look like the old days, / The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper. / She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.” At this point, the speaker and the bitch switch stances, as the speaker disciplines: “Down, girl! Keep your distance / Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain. / ‘Fine, I’m just fine,’ I tell him.”

In the next several lines, the speaker explains that “she remembers how she came running / Each evening, when she heard his step; / How she lay at his feet and looked up adoringly.” Despite her devotion, “he was absorbed in his paper” but “the small careless kindnesses / When he’d had a good day, or a couple of drinks / …seem more important / Than the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal,” and the speaker must drag the bitch by the scruff “Saying, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.’” The speaker’s desire to maintain dignity dominates over the bitch’s desire for the ex. Here, the bitch could really represent the id or a child, wanting this man despite the knowledge of his bad behavior. The speaker has the difficult task of tightening the reigns and escaping, while she still has control.

For the last three years, I have lived with dogs, and although they praise me each morning as if I were the rising sun, they are technically my wife’s dogs. I have lived with my eighteen year old cat (Mouse) for fourteen years. She is very much like a dog, which I hear is typical of the Maine Coon breed. Although she usually resembles royalty, greeting “her” guests as they enter “her” home, she does bestow special blessings on or warnings about some who cross her path. One memorable time she did the latter was when someone I felt “iffy” about came over. Mouse looked up at this person, then looked at me in disbelief (how could I let this disturbance into her home?) and began running around the living room, racing-track style. And although she has never once intentionally hurt me through scratching or biting (even when I’ve had the unfortunate task of bathing her) she ran right up to me, gave me a surprised look, and bit my hand. She pivoted and bolted down the hallway, fluffy tail a blur. I felt as though she had expressed, “You’ve been warned. Do what you will—I’m out!” She has also approved of people, sometimes placing a paw on their shoulder and giving me a knowing look.

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Mouse Cat Weiland

I actually didn’t have Mouse when I recited “Bitch,” back in grad school, but I sometimes think of this poem when I see her manifest the good and the bad of what I already know but won’t say or admit.

So, here’s your writing invitation: Write a poem that anthropomorphizes an inner insecurity or a set of mixed emotions. Please share in the comments below. No need to be shy; we’re all friendly here!

 

Photo Credit: https://www.etftrends.com/2017/03/are-parts-of-wall-street-being-two-faced/

Our Mothers

In preparation for America’s Next Top Model, I used to cook a giant bowl of pasta and toast a  hunk of garlic bread. A neighbor came over one evening, which happened to be the night of the season premiere, and was surprised when I shushed him. I usually turn off the television / phone / computer—or whatever technological distraction—when someone visits. He sipped his drink and watched as the models cried about their new haircuts, their weight, their tight, pointy shoes.

“Why do you watch this show?” my friend asked.

“Shhh,” I said. It was time for their close-ups.

Here’s why I liked ANTM: it reminded me of writing poetry. Bear with me. The best models possessed both technique (knowing how to angle their bodies into “good lighting,” for example) and an ability to relinquish control. Many of the models were criticized for looking “too posed.” In poetry, the writer must “find the good lighting” through word choice, line break, and punctuation. However, if the writer cannot let the poem grow organically, it feels too manicured, and the reader is left wishing for the poem’s heart to beat.

I like the way Lu Chi describes the relationship between technique and intellectual depth, in The Art of Writing:

“While the language may be lovely
and the reasoning just,

the ideas themselves
may prove trivial.”

I don’t think there’s intellectual depth in modeling. In fact, in cycle 1, the best model of the group (Elise Sewell) got “eliminated” because she responded to the question “What makes a woman sexy?”  by discussing the correlation between estrogen in the womb and desired “feminine” features. To this response, the judges reacted with some version of “Oh, you’re smart, huh? Do you think you’re better than us?” (By the way, if you ever feel like hearing a good, expletive-laden rant, I highly suggest listening to Elise go off about the “wasteful” people around her.) Intellect appears absent, and even shunned, from ANTM. However, in order to produce interesting photographs, the young models must contort their bodies in uncomfortable clothing (or no clothing at all) whilst dropping their emotional guards. I was always impressed by the ones who could do it. To lower one’s shields, one must know she has them and what triggers them. Likewise, the life force of a poem, which I believe is emotion, can only be allowed, never forced. While there is, of course, a place for intellect in a poem (but perhaps not in modeling) without a certain surrender, the poem can sound stiff or “too posed.”

Another theme that I noticed in ANTM was the influence of mothers. Tyra enjoyed discussing her mother’s support and love, and she frequently told the girls how sacred their own mothers were, which I always thought was rather naive. Some of the young models even talked about their broken relationships with their abusive mothers, but Tyra relentlessly conjured the mother figure image, either from her own personal narratives or from the memories she evoked from the young models.

It is through these two lenses—the marriage of form and intuition, and the pervasive presence of the mother, that I wrote the poem, “Our Mothers.”

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the youth of the models. Their “blooming faces” and “Tightly-knit / skin that won’t be missed till / worries stick like flour to the dough” indicates both an innocence and a certainty of future worries. The second stanza switches to a  memory of the speaker’s mother, who’s skin is both vampiric (an image that conjures darkness) and without wrinkles (which reminds the reader of the young models in the first stanza). However, the reader also learns that the mother’s skin is young-looking only because she rarely leaves her dark bedroom and that she also has a pill habit. The speaker remembers handing “her bottles like / spices to a master chef,” which references another reality show, Master Chef.

In the third stanza, the speaker discusses the success of the models who don’t rely on their natural physical beauty but rather, allow themselves to be vulnerable:

“On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.”

The speaker romanticizes modeling, indicating that opening emotionally for a photograph can somehow connect the model to her true self, dark as it may be. The models stare “ugly into the lens,” which seems to have been a strange trend in fashion for at least the last twenty years. (On a side note, I got married earlier this year and was surprised to see that even the some of the women modeling beautiful wedding gowns seemed fairly pissed off about it.)

The fourth and fifth stanzas return to the mother. In the fourth stanza, the reader learns that the drug addiction has gotten worse and that the mother is homeless and alone and possibly hearing voices:

“Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.”

The speaker wants to connect with the mother, but it proves as impossible as using the Milky Way as a medium of communication. In the fifth stanza, the speaker  again describes her mother as physically youthful: “My immortal mother only now / begins to silver against the black.” The speaker then imagines her as a contestant on ANTM: “Her long, stringy hair would get / chopped on Top Model, razored / to highlight her cheek bones, / centered, even in her sixties.”

The last stanza focuses on the vulnerability of the models: “The models bend like baby / dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts. / The foreign girl gets sacked. / Back to Europe with her chic, / bald head.” The girls pose like baby dolls, which makes them look childlike and susceptible to that strange hue of misogyny that asks grown women to remain infantile. The foreign model is far from home, and using the word “sacked” reveals the harshness of the reality show’s environment. Upon her dismissal, and in the final stanza, “Everyone is crying / and partly wishing it were / them, far away and alone.” In the final two lines, the speaker connects with the models: “like me. Thinking / of our mothers.” The last few lines take the momentum of two narratives (the models’ competition and the speaker’s trouble with her mother) and create a scene of mixed emotion and contrast. The models presumably want to win the contest but also “partly” wish they were going home, and the speaker finds connection and meaning from a show that centers around arbitrary achievements.

“Our Mothers” first appeared in Two Cities Review, Issue 5, Spring 2015

Our Mothers 

On America’s Next Top Model,
blooming faces march
down the runway. Tightly-knit
skin that won’t be missed till
worries stick like flour to the dough.

I think of my mother’s vampiric skin, without
crease for the years she spent self-penned
in a dark and air-conditioned room, delegating
her pill habit. One by one, from the floor
beside her bed, I handed her bottles like
spices to a master chef.

On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.

Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.

My immortal mother only now
begins to silver against the black.
Her long, stringy hair would get
chopped on Top Model, razored
to highlight her cheek bones,
centered, even in her sixties.

The models bend like baby
dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts.
The foreign girl gets sacked.
Back to Europe with her chic,
bald head. Everyone is crying
and partly wishing it were
them, far away and alone,
like me. Thinking
of our mothers.