Motherhood, 1951

- 1947-2010
Dear Saint Patrick, this is Peggy,
Or maybe it's Pegeen to you,
Well, I'm really Stella Mae.
Peggy's my nickname,
But anyway, will you please tell me
What to do about the rattlesnake
That's in my room?
I know it's there,
But I can't find it anywhere I search.
I've ransacked the closet more than once,
Because that's where we found the skin it shed.
I even put the cat in there and shut the door,
But he only went to sleep on my new dress
Which he had clawed from a hanger.
My grandma, Maggie, says you drove the snakes from Ireland
And they came here to Arizona.
She's right, you know
For didn't a rattler kill our cat, Blackie?
There he was beside the porch, stiff as a board
And baby Florence saw it.
She's only three and doesn't need to see death like that, not yet.
If you can, let her believe for now
That we will live forever.
Anyhow, I'm pregnant again.
I know I've sinned
But I am paying for it.
Don't make my girl suffer
Because her mother used poor judgment
And got herself in trouble out of wedlock.
My mother's disappointed in me.
My father doesn't care
And says I don't have to marry
Just to have a name for this one in the oven.
Father says there's nothing wrong with our name
And will serve the babe as well as any other,
But mother is determined to give this one a legal father
Like Baby Florence has, but only on paper.
She doesn't have a father either,
But she's got her granddad, he says
And goes to work. He is a barber.
Mother is a cook and she works longer hours,
So I'm here with Baby Florence 
And that infernal snake all day.
Outside, the new cat, dogs, chickens and hogs
Roam about the yard,
But they can't help me, can they?
I keep praying, but you don't answer.
I guess you've got no time for me,
So armed with a shovel,
I go in the closet once again
And succeed in smashing a wall.
Bits of plaster fall on my head,
But I don't mind.
I'd rather be dead than never find the thing
That crawls about the room
Without fear of discovery.
This morning, I woke up to find a coiled imprint
At the foot of my bed.
They say I am protected from harm
Because the Virgin Mary put her heel
Upon a snake's head and crushed it
For the sake of all pregnant women.
I am safe, I say to myself and pray for mercy
And recall the dead baby diamondback we found last fall.
It glittered like a tiny jeweled bracelet
And I almost picked it up,
Before I remembered my own warning to my daughter
To never, ever pick up anything suspicious.
I wish I'd done that with the man partly responsible
For the mess I've made.
The diamondback was like the lust I felt for him.
It glittered so beautifully
I had to pick it up and wear it for awhile,
Then like some Lazarus, it came to life,
By striking me with its poisonous fangs,
Leaving me to pay for my crime
Once by lying to myself
And twice for good measure.
Now I must suffer for my pleasure.
I curse, slam the wall again
And feel pain radiating from my navel
Down through my bowels
And am not able to get to the telephone
To call my mother.
I hear a splash and all of a sudden,
The snake darts from the hole I made in the wall
And crawls forward to slake its thirst.
I grit my teeth, but stand stock still
As the pain gnaws at my vitals.
I try to show no fear 
As the snake takes a long drink of my water
Then slithers away,
But not fast enough to escape,
As screaming with pain and rage
with all the mother instinct I can muster,
and in the Virgin Mary's name,
I raise the shovel and smash the snake,
Crushing its head,
As I double over and fall beside it
On the red, concrete floor.
For awhile, a ripple runs through its body,
Then it is still.
When my pain subsides, I fall asleep
And dream I'm dead
And hundreds of baby snakes are gathered at my wake.
They crawl all over my body
And I try to shake them off,
Until I realize they're part of me.

At Saint Mary's Hospital, the nurses and my doctor
Tell me how courageous I am
And the nuns even come to visit me.
They claim I have performed a miracle
And should be canonized.
Saint Peggy. "How does that sound?"
I ask Saint Patrick aloud
When left alone to hold my child.
I smile at her and tell her she is blessed.
The nuns have gone off to light some candles
And in the chapel.
They say they're praying for special dispensation
But I don't need that and neither does my girl.

Back home, after a few days, I realize

That I made a mistake in thinking I could take away my sins
When Mother tells me my new daughter is cursed
Because I killed a snake the day she was born.
"What a cruel mother you are," I tell her
And she says, "Yes, I'm just like all the others.
I should have smothered you when you were born.
I was so torn up inside, I nearly died for you
And you repay me with not one bastard, but two.
I never thought I'd call a whore my daughter."
When I protest, she says, "There's the door."
After that, I decide to ignore her
And in a state between agitation and rest,
I remember something I had forgotten.
As I lay beside the snake.
I saw a tiny bunch of eggs spill out of her
And realized she was an expectant mother too
And simply wanted a drink to soothe herself
One desert afternoon
When mothers must decide to save
Or execute their children.

Grandfather Says

"Sit in my hand."
I'm ten.
I can't see him,
but I hear him breathing
in the dark.
It's after dinner playtime.
We're outside,
hidden by trees and shrubbery.
He calls it hide-and-seek,
but only my little sister seeks us
as we hide
and she can't find us,
as grandfather picks me up
and rubs his hands between my legs.
I only feel a vague stirring
at the edge of my consciousness.
I don't know what it is, 
but I like it.
It gives me pleasure
that I can't identify.
It's not like eating candy,
but it's just as bad,
because I had to lie to grandmother
when she asked,
"What do you do out there?"
"Where?" I answered.
Then I said, "Oh, play hide-and-seek."
She looked hard at me,
then she said, "That was the last time.
I'm stopping that game."
So it ended and I forgot.
Ten years passed, thirtyfive,
when I began to reconstruct the past.
When I asked myself
why I was attracted to men who disgusted me
I traveled back through time
to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life
I thought was gone,
but it had only sunk from view
into the quicksand of my mind.
It was pulling me down
and there I found grandfather waiting,
his hand outstretched to lift me up,
naked and wet
where he rubbed me.
"I'll do anything for you," he whispered,
"but let you go."
And I cried, "Yes," then "No."
"I don't understand how you can do this to me.
I'm only ten years old,"
and he said, "That's old enough to know."

Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond

For Yasunari Kawabata

Chrysanthemum and nightshade:
I live on them,
though air is what I need.
I wish I could breathe like you,
asleep, or even awake,
just resting your head
on the pillow wrapped in black crepe
that I brought you from Sweden.
I hoped you’d die,
your mouth open, lips dry and split,
and red like pomegranate seeds.
But now, I only want you to suffer.
I drop a stone in the pond
and it sinks through you.
Japan isn’t sliding into the Pacific
this cool April morning, you are.
Yasunari Kawabata, I’m talking to you;
just drop like that stone
through your own reflection.
You stretch your lean hands toward me
and I take them.
Water covers my face, my whole head,
as I inhale myself:
cold, very cold.

Suddenly, I pull back.
For a while, I watch you struggle,
then I start walking back to my studio.
But something is wrong.
There’s water everywhere
and you’re standing above me.
I stare up at you from the still, clear water.
You open your mouth and I open mine.
We both speak slowly.
Brother, you deserve to suffer,
You deserve the best:
this moment, death without end.

Guadalajara Cemetery

You sort the tin paintings
and lay your favorite in my lap.
Then you stroke my bare feet
as I lean against a tombstone.
It's time to cross the border
and cut your throat with two knives:
your wife, your son.
I won't try to stop you.
A cow with a mouth at both ends
chews hell going and coming.
I never asked less.
You, me, these withered flowers,
so many hearts tied in a knot,
given and taken away.

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Angel Saint

for Ssenono Vicent (9/1984 - 9/2003) 

If I could choose, if it was possible, if I was worthy, if babies homes weren’t crowded 
if aunts and grandparents weren’t overburdened and I could take it all back 
to the point where no man had sinned, I would rather be an angel than a saint.

I would rather float close to God and close to men than be canonized by men. 
I’m dying and I see a light, I’m dying and I see my creator, I’m dying 
and the heat which fills my veins finally calls my lifelong bluffing

and I leave. Life’s been so long in coming and so quick in going — somewhere between 
watching my parents turn hollow and smelling the rainy season come on again
and again life must have happened because now it’s stopping and I can’t find 

the part where life happened at all. Once, madam was explaining a sonnet and the turns 
it can take at the end and the tensions its form carries and I thought my life is less sonnet 
and more rhymed couplet — beginning, it is nearly done and ending, it is still being propelled.

My lantern is fading, my coal is cooling. I want to leave this world and find another, 
not stay remembered here where only Ugandans would notice me looking out 
from prayer cards. They’ll pray and I’ll have to be the mendicant for their 

eyelid lesions and pointed ribs, their mouth sores, night sweats, and patching hair; 
so let me be an angel, let me watch again from above. I’ll stop begging and 
start living; please give it up, please give me up, please — I want to go and meet them — 

the saints I prayed to, the angels who watched over me, the God who made me 
in his image. I want to see if he has shrunken muscles, too and know if his mouth 
grows dry in the night so he wakes swollen and cracking. I want this heat, this choice.