A match aflame is held aloft. Fire focuses the eye, the mind. But these eyes aren’t a match. A flame won’t catch these eyes, any of them. The field once green, now roaring from a match, a flam- ing horizon. Make a wish. Then a quick escape. Behold, beware a match aflame. This poem is my response to a writing challenge--four stanzas of four lines each, four syllables per line, with one line repeated in lines 1, 2, 3, 4 of stanzas 1, 2, 3, 4.
i've underestimated the pleasure of things catalogued, things put in place. to know that we agree "this is a badger. this is not not a badger" satisfies like a well built chair. rest & know that we can rest & know, that the cataloguing, the naming can be beautiful, that a name can fit & fit well. we can even refit, replace: firefly. lost love. still life. artwork. plaything. like this girl in her place, still, pale, except the color of life on her mouth, the glistening gaze behind the brittle thicket surrounding, adorning her. the babe in the wood, aflame in twigs, clothed in dried delicate proportion, packaged & shelved, awake & alert to all on the other side of the glass.
I don’t read enough nonfiction, and when I do, it’s usually a first-person memoir. Not a lot of footnotes, not a lot of history — all big ideas & institutions, thorny questions & issues narrowed to the snails-eye view of a single person. I need to grow out of this reading habit, I know. Novelist Alia Trabucco Zerán guided me down a nonfiction path that I don’t often walk.
Her When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold offers readers like me a powerful & accessible blend of research & reckoning, of storytelling & reporting. Focusing on Chile in the 20th century, Zerán revisits four notorious crimes, notorious not only for the shocking brutality of the murders but also for the way that the brutality challenged contemporary notions of femininity, of wifehood, of sanity, of hysteria.
Throughout each account, Zerán interrupts her accounts for detailed research notes–a look at how the research happened, how librarians react to her curiosity, how she herself unveils her own understandings of her country & herself.
The recurring threads (hysteria as a defense, the misogyny standardized within Chilean law, the deployment of psychology as a way of understanding the crime & shaping the punishment) got me thinking anew about how gendered my lens is personally, as a reader, as a teacher, as a father.
It’s a curious book to be excited about, to recommend, but it’s one that is so varied in its style & focus that if you don’t appreciate, say, the Law & Order aspects of it, you just need to hold on for a few pages before Zerán shifts to a different (equally compelling) writerly lens.
before a melody, a mood, rolling waves of sound, resolution always imminent, all connecting a network of electronic ethereal lines. now the voice— open to dreams, to horizons.
to have and to hold
keep clean, keep communicating, keep being funny & nice
from this day forward
keep the past in the past, keep your jealousy to yourself
for richer or for poorer
max out your 401k, decide who pays the bills and how, share taxes, share accounts, don’t buy anything <$100 without checking in with her
in sickness & in health
exercise, wash your hands, don’t expect thank yous for loading the dishwasher. learn to cook. learn to snack. drink moderately
for better or for worse
you’ll think some wrong & petty things a lot — keep it in your head. learn to make sacred everday tasks, everyday beauties — the smell of her hair, the smoothness of her cheek, the calming & ennobling presence of family, the loyalty she shows friends. the love she gives you unearned
till death do us part
learn to care for her. learn to anticipate her fatigue & her worry. learn to be gracious in the little that you do. one day you’ll be reduced to a body to maintain not a personality to cherish, not a coparent or a partner. one day you’ll need help in ways you can’t imagine, in ways that you won’t notice or recognize. one day it’ll all be over, and you will have lived well thanks to her, thanks to these words today. be happy because you’ll leave her as you found her. beautiful, strong, wise, clear brown eyes, soft skin.
Inspired by Jamaica Kincaid & Lupe Mendez. The title alludes to the wedding vows in a Jewish ceremony–“Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.” Roughly, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”, from Song of Songs 7:10.
I: Daniel was the son raised in the valley. A bucket for a swimming pool. Air conditioning was hosing down the cement porch, waiting for a breeze. Him and Mom, Granny and Papá Romulo. Then Dad returned from the war. That’s all I know of the war. His return. Raul was raised in San Antonio. Daniel & Raul, speaking Spanish, singing boleros, eating raspas, and parting their hair on the side. Los hijos de Junior y Noelia. Tan joven, tan guapo. They knew the valley, they knew the language. I came late. Learned late. I came each summer to Granny and Papá Romulo. Dad in the reserves, Mom with us. Two weeks to watch and learn late. II: Fairgrounds Road Rio Grande City, Texas I climbed the salt cedar each morning. I could see Roque Guerra school, where Mom learned English. Dogs unleashed, dust and dress shops and the panadería. Papá whistled. I climbed down. Past the cement porch, past Granny hanging sheets freshly wrung, flapping and damp, between the pomegranate trees, Javi watching from the other side of the chain link fence, (sin hermanos, pobre de Javi) to a row of bricks in the backyard, to Daniel, Raul, David, Martita, and Papá Romulo. He had made us slingshots. He sets up the cans, his heavy step crunching mesquite pods. We take aim. Pebbles ding the bricks, bounce in the dust, Javi watches from the other side of the chain link fence. Pull, aim, miss. Calmate, mi’jo. Pull, aim, miss. Fijate, mi’jo. His weathered thick hand on the slingshot now. Dress shirt and dress pants, thick lenses and Three Roses pomade, but a face and a gaze pure Olmec. Fijate, mi’jo. One pebble, one shot. A can falls. Papá Romulo, stepping heavily, back to his fading aluminum lawn chair. Grinning, rolling a Bugler. (The bricks were put to better use when the house burned down on my eleventh birthday in 1980. I was there. Papá Romulo learned to make do with his left hand after the stroke in late May, 1985. Raul led us down the hospital hall, fighting back tears in his cap and gown. Papá Romulo, face drooping, voice powerful & phlegmy, letting Raul know how proud he was, how loved he was.) III: I haven’t been to Fairgrounds in twenty years. It’s not ours anymore. I drive past it, past the peyote dealer, past the bougainvillea and unlocked trucks and picket fences and hand-painted signs for businesses long gone. All the way to the cemetery on the left. Where my cousin Netito patted my shoulder, as we carried Papá in his casket. Where Mom and Tío Israel cried and sang. Where the dust covers plastic flowers and prayers etched in stone. Where I went the day after Thanksgiving in grad school (just to pay respects) and wound up with my Tía, slicing apart a hose tucked in the weeds, to siphon gas from her car to fill the borrowed lawn mower. We can't leave it like this, mi’jo. Dusty, dirty, like a parking lot. The mower kicked up whirlwinds. I gathered faded silk flowers blown from nearby graves. We stood under the mesquite. She cried, and I slapped my jean jacket clean for the drive back to Dallas. IV: My closet has vintage skinny ties & guayaberas, safe from the fire. I still wear the gold Virgen they put around my neck in 1982. I’ve never removed it. I look at the veins in my hands, more pronounced each year, and see Granny’s veins, her olive skin. Your blood is bouncy, I’d say, poking her veins and laughing, my head on her shoulder, her hands on my lap. Our hands, our blood, write now, right now. V: They lied once a year, Granny and Papá Romulo, each April inflating their income for the honor of paying taxes. Their city is named after a river that they never crossed. They lie side by side, under a mesquite tree at the far end of Fairgrounds Road. A slightly different was originally published as part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge in May 2019, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.
Back then, back there, if you were a man, you joined the military. Dad did. Mom has photos of him uniformed, ramrod straight on campus, far from home, not yet at war. He graduated & went. 22. An officer. His first day, his first mission: find a platoon presumed dead. He did. They were. Fifty years later, the tears have come back for those that didn't. The VA reached out: You can talk about it. We're here. We'll listen. It'll do you good. It almost always does. These days, if you're a man long alone with your feelings, you move slowly, you mourn privately. After the VA, you pull over the car to weep, the tears coming like a blowout. You'll be home late, dazed by the surprise of what you remember, what you survived. This is a mostly true story. He's alright. Really. I saw him just the other day. The photo, taken June 2019, shows Panel 8E of The Vietnam Memorial, where two men from dad’s unit—64th QM BN—are honored. Donald F. Leuthold (SFC, US Army) and William W. Webb (2ndLT, US Army) died during an ambush while on intel recon 06/05/1966. Click here for mental health resources, information, treatment options, and more — all accessible to veterans & veterans’ supporters.
A man crosses the street in rain, one long last step over the curb. His coffee cup out at an exaggerated distance, a comically small cup to be sheperding through the crowded city street. He's on time. Two more blocks. Past the Thai place, past the laundromat, past the diner. He'll be there soon. Two keys -- one for the gate, one for the door. It's an old building, tight turns on the stairs. Small rooms. No closets. He takes off his shoes & feels the moist cold of his socks as he walks to the window, twisting the fading light into the living room. There's a chair he'll leave behind in eight months when he moves home (but he doesn't know that now), brocaded, low, a color he can't name, springs he can't ignore. He reaches & turns on the TV. His team almost never televised here, far from home. His team will receive. It's a Sunday in January. 1995.
From a project with students, using the first line of Shoulders by Naomi Shihab Nye
I love the title The Memory Police, so I was happy to wait a long time for Yōko Ogawa‘s novel to show up at the library for me. So long in fact that I was able to read another of her books — The Housekeeper and The Professor — while waiting. This was turned out to be for the best, actually, to read the books in the order that they were written and in escalating order of complexity.
The Housekeeper and the Professor focuses on three characters, the two in the title and the housekeeper’s son. The professor of the title is an elderly award-winning mathematician, who can only remember the most recent 80 minutes of his life, due to a debilitating car accident. His housekeeper and her son come to learn a new way to love and to see the world in caring for this eternally-present professor. Ogawa weaves just enough math (like amicable numbers) into the conversation to give the reader a glimpse into the world of the professor and the newly opened mind of the housekeeper and her son affectionately called Root (because his haircut makes him look like the sign for square root).
There are no big conflicts and no huge reveals. Instead, there’s a trip to the doctor’s office, a baseball game, a birthday party, homework & haircuts, comfort food & household artifacts: just the kind of slowly evolving wisdom and daily blessings that an ordinary life can give to those fully present to & for one another.
The Memory Police is also a novel based around three people: a novelist, an old man neighbor of hers, and the novelist’s editor. It’s a much darker story & world than Housekeeper. They live in a devolving world, a world in which items are disappeared, destroyed, and forbidden by the memory police from reappearing. Calendars, harmonicas, roses, books. Ogawa offers no reason for the state-sponsored disappearances, so the novel takes on a quiet and powerful suspense. It’s political story clearly, about a state’s power to shape our stories & ourselves, but there’s no exposition scene, no single Memory Policeman who reveals the machinery behind the political rulers. For some readers that lack of motivation might be frustrating; for me, it meant that I really had to live as the characters lived–that is, with very limited knowledge & no way of digging deeper. As a result, the novel read like almost like a fable, and like a survival story, one in which the novelist hides her editor, who persists in remembering objects lost, thus endangering his life, and who lives in a kind of Anne Frank hidden room in the novelist’s house.
Both novels offer clear and stark lessons in memory and in the power of community, even the smallest of human interaction. They read fast, and they will linger long.
As a kid, I wanted to be a priest. I knew the costume, had seen men add layer upon layer of holiness. I knew the sacristy, the drawers of clothing & cabinets of gold & wine. A bell struck. All rose. He walked. All waited on him. He had it all. The title, the pulpit. I never imagined myself at fifty, feeling young, feeling uncertain, feeling like anything less than a leader, a voice behind a screen offering forgiveness. Holiness, I hope, is everywhere. Sin, I've learned, is nothing to be ashamed of unless it's cowardice. Enter the space. Listen. Speak.