We are mostly water, yet
we prize it so little we let
it run down the drain while
we brush our teeth, leave
it running to answer the phone.
Use it up on lawns that never
should grow in the desert, that
give nothing back in food.
Use up rivers to keep golf
courses neat as buzz cuts.
Thirst kills us much faster,
more efficiently than hunger.
Bad water kills just as dead.
Women walk carrying water
on their heads like crowns.
Great weather the TV says
while a drought parches trees.
Without water, nothing green.
Without water, nothing living.
Why don’t we worship water?
It is a bad day and age for the kind of freaks we used to be: tattooed ladies, fat women,
rubber-faced babas, those mermaid girls with sweet webbed feet. Melancholy freaks,
wistful in our gauzy dresses or our striped unitards, every hair in place with a ready song
or a line of verse. Before every man was a mark, there was an etiquette.
Now we want more! Better! Gills! Pinheads! Hermaphrodites! There are specialists of all
sorts, with no skills to speak of. Just simple insults to the eyeballs. We used to want to
educate our freaks, have them perform moonlight sonatas, play games with the children,
woo our women with their tender hearts. Now we watch them on the television, isolated
in our own wards, providing no entertainment except in their very formities.
And the state of the freak show? No one takes pride of place in the bally, all the good
mikemen have gone the way of the buffalo. It’s irony that’s ruined this country, the people
in it. You treat your freaks as if you’ve seen it all before. No anomaly, no matter how
exotic or fundamental, can turn your heads.
I don’t take these things lightly, you know– if a tear happens to spring from my ductless
eyes, what of it? What care you wandering by the fleabitten stadium with our threadbare
plush? After you’ve knocked a good tip into some carnie’s pocket for your girl? After
you’ve slummed in the sugar shack and taken a ride on the ferris wheel to cop that first
feel. It’s heavier than you expected, isn’t it?
I remember it as if it were yesterday, my first day on the box. “Worm Girl” was
emblazoned everywhere in royal purple and gold, arrows all over the show pointing down
to me and they came to me with wonder in their eyes and they touched me, the places
where arm or leg would have been. Wriggling for them was the necessary evil. But the
looks on their faces when I sang an aria from Carmen, or the national anthem (I knew
several: I had travelled the globe), the way their eyes filled—it was as if they didn’t even
know what they had come looking for.
A woman stands. At her side?
The real Flower’s secret armada of red “petals”–––
Each carries the divine passenger.
How could I have known?
The real Flower’s secret armada of red “petals?”
A word can hoard entire stories: Man!
I should have known–––
like the hand, a wanted possession; or the mouth, the bitten tongue.
Words hoard entire stories: Man! Don’t let no man
wipe his feet on your dress sang a great Scotts-Irish woman.
Without biting my tongue, without burning my hands:
I clap the oiled hot bread.
No man wipe his feet on your dress! sings my great-gran Nicholls
from the bridge of my grandmother’s mouth.
I clap the oiled hot roti.
I douse the tawah with ghee.
From the bridge of my grandmother’s mouth:
Remember? Olive oil and lemon juice–––
(I douse the hand-forged iron with ghee)
will keep knuckles from darkening.
Olive oil and lemon juice? Remember:
Gingerlilies float on the table.
Will keep my elbows from darkening?
Still, I am the breadfruit’s roast brown skin.
Gingerlilies float on the table.
Her hands: the breadfruit’s creamy insides.
I am the breadfruit’s outside skin, brown
like the Garifuna woman, unnamed in this floating kitchen.
Our hands knead and roll and twist and fold the bread’s creamy insides
against a hand-polished horizon.
Why is her Garifuna mother unnamed in this floating kitchen?
If I taste salt, raise a veil of flour, will I see?
Against a hand-polished horizon–––
At her side! A woman stands.
Salt-still, in a veil of Flowers. Red Mother–––
Granny’s one dark passenger.
Dear disappeared town, the flowers
at my window remind someone of you. Say
“petunias.” Hear Betunia–––town of his father’s birth.
Mornings, he leaps from my bed to brew mint-
cardamom tea. Hear sea. Dear B, his father’s
found a way to grow fig-trees in Newark, NJ.
In winter, you are safe, burlap-cocooned,
a smuggled-secret in his garage.
No hungry warblers. No sudden frosts.
Nor the Atlantic weight that can slow.
Nor the Atlantic weight that slows
an eighty-year old Arab man walking
through Manhattan in search of olive oil.
He scours bright shelves of the city. Home
is a map salvaged purely from memory
and the beveled light in his hands.
Olive oil as smoke. Olive oil as wine.
Olive oil as desert mosque. Which orchard.
Which school. Which mother. Which son.
Dear son, come summer, he will lift.
Dear sun, come summer, he will lift
the trees and place them under your ardor,
darning that lost farm with this cramped
garden. There’s only the one celestial arbor
we all live under. He will become master-
seamstress, desert bee, oh, pollinating one.
For here lays his secret to the ripening of figs
in Newark, NJ: Prick each fig, every one,
with a needle, dipped in olive-oil.
A man crows, brings me tea and smoke.
My man crows, brings me tea and smoke-
purple fruit from the chain-link garden.
I graze each coppery plum. Say “home.”
Hear Chile, Brazil, Iceland and Jordan.
Seek the invisible navel. The mouth
is a bulldozer? No, our smoke-velvet lips
warble “witness,” join in the map-maker’s prayer:
This orchard. This school. This mother. This son.
This fig. This room. No one can say gone is gone.
Not the disappeared town, not the flowers.