New Year in Vishnyowka

                            (a lullaby)

Snow glints and softens
a pig's slaughter.

Mama refuses another 
drink, mama 
agrees to another drink.

On the wall—a carpet with peonies,
their purple mouths 
                     suck me into sleep.
Small, 
        I've been bedded. 
                                            Toasts
from across the wall, 
                     my lullabies. 
Mama says no-no-no 
to more drink.

My bed smells of valenky. 
Without taking its eyes off me
a cat 
licks its grey paw as if sharpening a knife.
Mama yells yes to another drink.

Mama's breasts are too big to fit into packed morning buses.
There's uncertainty 
                                 I would grow into a real person.
But on a certain day 
in Vishnyowka, 
a pig

is slaughtered, mama whispers yes 
yes yes yes 
to more drink,
I'm vanishing into the peonies’ throats,
peonies smell of valenky, 
                                 of pig’s blood
on the snow.

*

Clock’s hands leave a strange ski track.

Belarusian I

even our mothers have no idea how we were born
how we parted their legs and crawled out into the world
the way you crawl from the ruins after a bombing
we couldn't tell which of us was a girl or a boy
we gorged on dirt thinking it was bread
and our future
a gymnast on a thin thread of the horizon
was performing there
at the highest pitch
bitch

we grew up in a country where
first your door is stroked with chalk
then at dark a chariot arrives
and no one sees you anymore
but riding in those cars were neither
armed men nor
a wanderer with a scythe
this is how love loved to visit us
and snatch us veiled

completely free only in public toilets
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing
we fought the summer heat the winter snow
when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands
when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes
when we were shot in the legs we nodded our heads for yes
and shook our heads for no and when they ate our heads alive
we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters
to be born again

and there on the horizon the gymnast of our future
was leaping through the fiery hoop
of the sun

crossword

a woman moves through dog rose and juniper bushes,
a pussy clean and folded between her legs, 
breasts like the tips of her festive shoes
shine silently in her heavy armoire.

one black bird, one cow, one horse. 
the sea beats against the wall of the waterless.
she walks to a phone booth that waits
a fair distance from all three villages.

it's a game she could have heard on the radio:
a question, a number, an answer, a prize.
her pussy reaches up and turns on the light in her womb.

from the rain, she says into the receiver, 
we compiled white tables and chairs under a shed
into a crossword puzzle
and sat ourselves in the grid.

the receiver is silent. the bird flounces
like a burglar caught red-handed.
her voice stumbles over her glands.
the body to be written in the last block—
i can suck his name out of any letter.

all three villages cover their faces with wind.

Singer

A yoke of honey in a glass of cooling milk.
Bats playful like butterflies on power lines.
In all your stories blood hangs like braids

of drying onions. Our village is so small,
it doesn’t have its own graveyard. Our souls,
are sapped in sour water of the bogs. 

Men die in wars, their bodies their graves. 
And women burn in fire. When midsummer
brings thunderstorms, we cannot sleep

because our house is a wooden sieve,
and crescent lightning cut off our hair. 
The bogs ablaze, we sit all night in fear. 

I always thought that your old trophy Singer 
would hurry us away on its arched back. 
I thought we’d hold on to its mane of threads 

from loosened spools along Arabic spine, 
same threads that were sown into my skirts, 
my underthings, first bras. What smell

came from those threads you had so long, 
sown in, pulled out, sown back into the clothes
that held together men who’d fall apart 

undressed. Same threads between my legs! 
I lash them, and the Singer gallops!  

And sky hangs only the lightning’s thread. 
Like in that poem: on Berlin’s Jaegerstrasse
Arian whores are wearing shirts ripped off
sliced chests of our girls. My Singer-Horsey,

why everything has to be like that poem? 

Related Poems

The Cause of All My Suffering

My neighbor keeps a box of baby pigs
all winter in her kitchen. They are

motherless, always sleeping, sleepy
creatures of blood & fog, a vapor

of them wraps my house
in gauze, and the windows mist up

with their warm breath, their moist snores. They
watch her peel potatoes, boil

water from the floor, wearing
a steamy gown. She must be like

Demeter to them, but, like this weather
to me, this box of pigs

is the cause of all my suffering. They smell
of invalids, lotioned. Death is over there. When I

look toward my neighbor’s house, I see
trouble looking back

at me. Horrible life! Horrible town! I start
to dream their dreams. I dream

my muzzle’s pressed
desperately into the whiskered

belly of my dead mother. No
milk there. I dream

I slumber in a cardboard box
in a human kitchen, wishing, while

a woman I don’t love
mushes corn for me in a dish. In

every kitchen in the Midwest
there are goddesses & pigs, the sacred

contagion of pity, of giving, of loss. You can’t
escape the soft

bellies of your neighbors’ calm, the fuzzy
lullabies that drift

in cloudy piglets across their lawns. I dream
my neighbor cuts

one of them open, and stars fall out, and roll
across the floor. It frightens me. I pray

to God to give me
the ability to write

better poems than the poems of those
whom I despise. But

before spring comes, my neighbor’s
pigs die in her kitchen

one by one, and I
catch a glimpse of my own face

in the empty collection plate, looking
up at me, hungrily, one

Sunday—pink, and smudged—and ask it
Isn’t that enough?

They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea

Ascending, wheeling
in a gyre, the roc
spreads his wings
ninety thousand li.
Bearing the blue sky,
he looks down, surveying
the little kingdoms of Man.

—from “Dialogue Between Birds” by Mao Zedong



1.

Grandma always spoke fondly of the shrimp
in the spring at the edge of the village.
No bigger than her smallest finger, they frothed
in the small pool—rice-paper shells
bandaged around a bit of milky gray
with long silk threads for whiskers.

Small vehicles of life in deadwater.
They moved like a great fleet of dragon-boats
from one end of the spring to another,
their legs the oars of many men.
For them, the spring was a lake—
an ocean—a continent of water. It was all
they needed to survive. There was nothing else.
No apparent food for them to feed on, as if
they sprouted from the rock itself—
a deep pact between stone and water.

And what did they think of her small net?
She often wondered what it looked like to them.
A fibrous constellation pulled out of the sky,
descending, penetrating the defenseless water with ease,
carrying them towards the edge of the unknown.
The constant pressure of water—suddenly gone:
a strange lightness unbearable.

Were they aware of body, and not-body?
of mind, and not-mind? In the air,
as blind as they had ever been.
How crisp they tasted fresh out of the water!
They tasted even better in the wok: lotus-leaf
shells blooming like rust under oil and tender iron.

Was water dark or full of light? At times, the spring glowed,
thinking itself an ocean and its inhabitants phosphorous beings.



2. (1967)

The fields heaved like a fur-thickened thing
under the midday sun. Its great, slack mouth stretched
for miles, swallowing up the men and women.
It tilled their bodies relentlessly, carving up grooves
like the deep folds of intestines.

Ma was upset again, the sadness upon her face liquid
moonlight pouring over the globe.

The badge-wearing children had come knocking at the door
again, demanding all their photographs. The colored one, too. Yes,
even the colored one had been scratched up and taken away to the fire.

Each face effaced an incision upon the heart.

It was no good to try to console her.
She couldn’t be consoled.
It was so expensive, she said.
You looked so pretty in your new dress, she said.
And the one with your grandmother—
the last one I had.

Uncle came from the city to visit, decorated
and uniformed, bringing with him
coupons for extra portions of rice and cotton.

Even that was not enough to make her smile.

Sister, he said, pull back your dark-grey hood. These things are not necessary for life or
for happiness. And the wok, too. The wok must go. Our soldiers need the iron. Our fields
have sprouted out of their blood. Our fences stacked with their bones. There are certain
rivers here, crossing the land like polluted veins, filled with the piss of dead men.

Sister, he said, I have journeyed through the primal world and seen what evil crouches
over small huts. Establish your mind on the highest cliff, where the eagle’s nest dwells.
Bring your feet to the precipice, and you will see the birds who turn from wing to wing.

Even that was not enough to make her smile.



3. (1944)

Late summer brought the cooling of bamboo mats,
and the Japanese soldiers.

It was said they came from Beijing where
the river dolphins played in the Yangzi.

What did they know of the war,
living, as they did, underwater?
Did they taste the bodies that sugared
the banks with blood? Did bullets pass
dripping brightfire through the water?
Did they feel the march of spoiled feet like a ripple—

a pulse—?

She had been warned often of what they could do,
what they had done in Nanjing:
bayoneted women in their full-moon bellies,
forced fathers to fuck their daughters,
and afterwards taken photographs—
little trophies to remember the war by.

Ba, but they look like us.
Pale-skinned and dark-eyed,
with long, straight hair like the fibers
of falling stars.

No, my daughter, they are not like us,
not like us at all, these ri ben gui.
They sail across the mirrored sea
with blood on their flags
and minds.

On the day they first came,
the stew on the fire was boiling,
boiling and boiling again.

For three weeks, the meat had fallen
away from the pig in long, fibrous strips.
and now its bones turned, uneasy,
in the pot.

Ma was sucking on a thick, yellow bone, sucking out
its spongy stuff. “There’s always something left for you
to eat,” she said, “even when all the meat is gone.”
She lapped at the bone with a little pink tongue.

In the distance, came the sound of the alarm,
a long wail, passing like a ghost through the village
with bare feet, and river hair.

Ma tugged her to her feet. Their small bones
gathered themselves quickly, running
towards the cover of the forest. Near the edge,
she turned and looked through rows of bamboo,
towards the village where the slow ones began to
fall. Her stomach growled.

She thought sadly of the soup left on the table.

 


In the spring, the shrimp continued to swim.
To them, it was a quiet evening: distilled with light
passing, on its way through the universe.

 

 

Bolivia

(and her daughter)

I hate the sea. I've always hated water 
even as a baby, even in my bath,
or so my mama says. She likes it, herself. 
She goes in the sea like a mermaid, and comes out 
a monster, rubber fins slimy with eelgrass. 
The beach boys watch her. They're supposed to watch 
me, but I don't care, for I am queen
of an island state in the pool, where everything 
is blue, like my bathing suit. It is called Bolivia.

Outside Bolivia, things are mostly brown 
or green. Our little house by the lagoon 
has green reeds by it. brown ducks swimming under-- 
a mother, her six chicks, like fuzzy bows 
on a sleek kite tail. Mama duck wears blue 
chevrons on striped brown shoulders. She is a spy 
from my Bolivia. On the brown lava, wild 
peacocks strut on petroglyphs.
It wears their tails to shreds. That makes them shriek, 
tin whistles, from the tin that's mined in Bolivia. 
But mama says they sound like humans quarreling.

I sleep on the Hide-a-Bed. But we each have
our own bathroom. My shower takes five minutes.
Hers takes an hour, the water must get cold.
I think that's when she cries.

Some nights a beach boy comes to the door
to say she has a phone call in the office.
Each time I have to tell him she can't come.
That hateful noise of water crashing down-- 
I play with my hair until he goes away.

Tonight was luau night. We got dressed up. 
Mama bought me a muu-muu, blue hibiscus, 
ugly, but she meant well. The little orchid 
on my plate was smeared with pork fat. After dinner 
the beach boys put on skirts and leis and danced 
and played the ukulele. So did the maids,

and then we had to pack. We bought Bolivia 
here, so there wasn't room in any bag 
to take my island home.
We tried and tried to make the air bleed out, 
we even jumped on poor Bolivia, 
but couldn't make it fit. "A four-buck air mattress, 
I'll buy you another." I wanted to shriek and fly 
at mother. But I just said, "There isn't any 
other," and shrugged and turned my blue back on her.

Tomorrow morning we have to get up early 
to fly back--where?
Having the same address is not the same 
as home. I know Bolivia wasn't a real country
but pretend I don't. There are better things than real.

Bolivia was just blue plastic and air 
with a leaky valve. It smelled awful, like chlorine. 
But it sparkled, it stayed afloat. It was all mine.