Her Makeup Face

L. T. H., I. M.

There were years at her bedroom vanity, daubing on
makeup, fussing with clips and brushes, a clamp
for eyelashes, the phalanx of powder jars and perfume
bottles assembled like the glassy face of a wave standing
over a box of Kleenex. She’d paint on lipstick,
then blot the excess with a fold of pink tissue pressed
between her lips, pulling pins and a net from her hair,
grabbing up her purse and high-heeled shoes,
almost ready to step up the tiered flights of City Hall stairs
and the long day’s work bossing the typists and Clerk IIs.

How long was this her life, composed or grudging amidst
the clatter of machines, the pouches and memos
that swelled like a tide of incoming blather each day
she stood at her desk, commanding Stella Sue from Memphis,
Helena from Jalisco, and Kay (short for Keiko) from Boyle Heights?
How many times must she have thought of flowers floating in a tree,
archipelagos of plumeria buoyed on their branches
as a soft, onshore wind brought the scent of the sea
to the subtropical pietà of a mother and her newborn,
wrapped in blue flannels, in her arms as she sat on a torn
grass mat on the lawn by the browning litter of blooms
beneath a skeletal tree by a bungalow in Kahuku?

In her last illness, while lying comfortably in her bed
in the semiprivate room of the care center in Carson, California,
her mind and lifelong rage sweetened by the calm of forgetfulness,
she said she wanted to go back, that it was “a good place”
and she’d like living there again. “Ripe mangoes and guava taste
every day,” she said. “And everybody knows you your family bess.”

She spoke in pidgin like this, without demands, no fusillades
of scorn nor admonishments like I’d gotten steadily since childhood —
the torch of discontent that had lit a chronic, rancorous façade
had doused itself in the calm waters of a late-life lagoon
that caught her in its tidal fingers and captured her moonlike face
so that, when she gazed upon me those last days,
she did not scowl but smiled, her tyrannous visage
made plain, beatific without blemish of pain or artifice.

Copyright © 2018 Garrett Hongo. This poem originally appeared in Kenyon Review, November/December 2018. Used with permission of the author.