—The fear of long words
On the first day of classes, I secretly beg
my students Don’t be afraid of me. I know
my last name on your semester schedule
is chopped off or probably misspelled—
or both. I can’t help it. I know the panic
of too many consonants rubbed up
against each other, no room for vowels
to fan some air into the room of a box
marked Instructor. You want something
to startle you? Try tapping the ball
of roots of a potted tomato plant
into your cupped hand one spring, only
to find a small black toad who kicks
and blinks his cold eye at you,
the sun, a gnat. Be afraid of the x-rays
for your teeth or lung. Pray for no
dark spots. You may have
coal lung. Be afraid of money spiders tiptoeing
across your face while you sleep on a sweet, fat couch.
But don’t be afraid of me, my last name, what language
I speak or what accent dulls itself on my molars.
I will tell jokes, help you see the gleam
of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel. I will
lecture on luminescent sweeps of ocean, full of tiny
dinoflagellates oozing green light when disturbed.
I promise dark gatherings of toadfish and comical shrimp
just when you think you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.
Something poisons the sea stars
in the Pacific. They rip themselves apart,
twist their arms in gummy knots.
The arms just walk away from the body:
the pull, the pull- what a stroll: - until the arms
detach entirely and spill their creamy innards
onto the ocean floor. I want to do that with my arms –
maybe just my left one – the one that keeps
reaching back to your yellow house
and those slow summers when we grilled out
almost every night. I want to pull of my arm,
or maybe just one finger, or three, so I don’t point
tot he playground where our blue dog jumped
through the rows of swings that still hum
their mild annoyance from each slobbery leap
they endured. Mzybe I just want to rid myself
of knuckles so I can’t knock on the door you now share
with another – just so I can see her sweet, blank face –
so I can laugh and say, Sorry, sorry: wrong house!
Forgive me I am nothing but a thumbnail. Yes – that’s
what I’d get rid of - my nail now blackened
with each thump of a sentence. See how
I accidentally brought you up again
when I picked up this nail, this hammer?
When my father wanted to point out galaxies
or Andromeda or the Seven Sisters, I’d complain
of the huzz of mosquitoes, or of the yawning
moon-quiet in that slow, summer air. All I wanted
was to go inside into our cooled house and watch TV
or paint my nails. What does a fifteen year-old girl
know of patience? What did I know of the steady turn
of whole moon valleys cresting into focus?
Standing there in our driveway with him,
I smacked my legs, my arms, and my face
while I waited for him to find whatever pinhole
of light he wanted me to see. At night, when I washed
my face, I’d find bursts of blood and dried bodies
slapped into my skin. Complaints at breakfast about
how I’d never do it again, how I have more homework
now, Dad. How I can’t go to school with bites all over
my face anymore. Now I hardly
ever say no. He has plans to go star-gazing
with his grandson and for once, I don’t protest.
He has plans. I know one day he won’t ask me,
won’t be there to show me the rings of Saturn
glowing gold through the eyepiece. He won’t be there
to show me how the moons of Jupiter jump
if you catch them on a clear night. I know
one day I will look up into the night sky
searching, searching— I know the mosquitoes
will still have their way with me—
and my father won’t hear me complain.
Always let the wonder win
A grief is there.
Sadness and rage is always there.
And then the wonder wins.
I make sure the wonder wins.
And definitely there are harder days than others,
but that’s where the practice is.
I try with all my might to make the wonder win
by the end of the day.
Miracle fruit changes the tongue. One bite,
and for hours all you eat is sweet. Placed
alone on a saucer, it quivers like it's cold
from the ceramic, even in this Florida heat.
Small as a coffee bean, red as jam—
I can't believe. The man who sold
it to my father on Interstate 542 had one
tooth, one sandal, and called me
"Duttah, Duttah." I wanted to ask what
is that, but the red buds teased me
into our car and away from his fruit stand.
One bite. And if you eat it whole, it softens
and swells your teeth like a mouthful
of mallow. So how long before you lose
a sandal and still walk? How long
before you lose the sweetness?
The Rolling Saint
Lotan Baba, a holy man from India, rolled on his side for
four thousand kilometers across the country in his quest for
world peace and eternal salvation.
He started small: fasting here and there,
days, then weeks. Once, he stood under
a banyan tree for a full seven years, sitting
for nothing—not even to sleep. It came
to him in a dream: You must roll
on this earth, spin your heart in rain,
desert, dust. At sunrise he’d stretch, swab
any cuts from the day before, and lay prone
on the road while his twelve men swept
the ground in front of him with sisal brooms.
Even monkeys stopped and stared at this man
rolling through puddles, past storefronts
where children would throw him pieces
of butter candy he’d try and catch
in his mouth at each rotation. His men
swept and sang, swept and sang
of jasmine-throated angels
and pineapple slices in kulfi cream.
He rolled and rolled. Sometimes
in his dizzying spins, he thought
he heard God. A whisper, but still.
Why I Am Not Afraid of King Cobras
Forests equal fairies for a girl of eight.
What I did not equate was this was jungle,
just off the edge of coconut groves
and rubber trees, land where even my father
never ventured alone as a boy. But this
was vacation, time off from spelling tests
and fractions. All of a sudden I had grandparents
to buy me pieces of pink candy, and glass bangles
that clinked with each swing of arm. After dinner, I loved
to gouge the rubber trees with a stick, watch the plastic
ooze from each gash, roll the warm sap into a ball—
each bounce so high, I’d lose them in the last flicks
of sun. I had wandered further that day, deeper
in the groves where cinnamon and sweetleaf grew like weeds.
When I reached for a new stick, I saw him there, standing
in what I learned later is the Imperial pose—eye level,
his teeny tongue tasting the air for what I smelled of:
candy and glass. The ribs of his neck spread wide
as my father’s hand, then smoothed down, and I laughed—
he was suddenly small and naked, like he’d lost
his hat. We stood there for some time before I turned around
and went back inside to tell no one that just minutes before,
a girl and snake made their introductions—the birds overhead
holding their breath, the pierced trees bubbling at their bark.