STILL LIFE WITH POTATOES, PEARLS, RAW MEAT, RHINESTONES, LARD, AND HORSE HOOVES
for Franco Mondini
In Spanish it’s naturaleza muerta and not life at all.
But certainly not natural. What’s natural?
You and me. I’ll buy you a drink.
To a woman who doesn’t act like a woman.
To a man who doesn’t act like a man.
Death is natural, at least in Spanish, I think.
Life? I’m not so sure.
Consider The Contessa, who in her time was lovely
and now sports a wart the size of this diamond.
So, ragazzo, you’re Venice.
To you. To Venice.
Not the one of Casanova.
The other one of cheap pensiones by the railway station.
I recommend a narrow bed stained with semen, pee, and sorrow facing the wall.
Stain and decay are romantic.
You’re positively Pasolini.
Likely to dangle and fandango yourself to death.
If we let you. I won’t let you!
Not to be outdone I’m Piazzolla.
I’ll tango for you in a lace G-string
stained with my first-day flow
and one sloppy tit leaping like a Niagara from my dress.
Did you say duress or dress?
Let’s sing a Puccini duet–I like La Traviesa.
I’ll be your trained monkey.
I’ll be sequin and bangle.
I’ll be Mae, Joan, Bette, Marlene for you–
I’ll be anything you ask. But ask me something glamorous.
Only make me laugh.
What I want to say, querido, is
hunger is not romantic to the hungry.
What I want to say is
fear is not so thrilling if you’re the one afraid.
What I want to say is
poverty’s not quaint when it’s your house you can’t escape from.
Decay’s not beautiful to the decayed.
Lipstick on a penis.
A kiss on a running sore.
A reptile stiletto that could puncture a heart.
A brick through the windshield that means I love you.
A hurt that bangs on the door.
Look, I hate to break this to you, but this isn’t Venice or Buenos Aires.
This is San Antonio.
That mirror isn’t a yard sale.
It’s a fire. And these are remnants
of what could be carried out and saved.
The pearls? I bought them at the Winn’s.
My mink? Genuine acrylic.
Thank God this isn’t Berlin.
Bartender, another bottle, but–
!Ay caray and oh dear!–
The pretty blond boy is no longer serving us.
To the death camps! To the death camps!
How rude! How vulgar!
Drink up, honey. I’ve got money.
Doesn’t he know who we are?
Que vivan los de abajo de los de abajo,
los de rienda suelta, the witches, the women,
the dangerous, the queer.
Que vivan las perras.
"Que me sirvan otro trago . . ."
I know a bar where they’ll buy us drinks
if I wear my skirt on my head and you come in wearing nothing
but my black brassiere.
(from Loose Woman)
* * *
DECEMBER 24th, PARIS–NOTRE DAME
The Seine runs along.
The river. The rain.
Water into water.
A blue umbrella fading into fog.
A child into his mother’s arms.
Buttresses leaping delirious.
Wind through the vein of trees.
The rain into the river.
Tomorrow they might find a body here–
unraveled like a poem,
dissolved like wafer.
Say the body was a woman’s.
Undid the easy knot and spiraled.
Without a sound.
A year ends
another one begins.
I go out into the street once more.
The wrists so full of living.
The heart begging once again.
(from My Wicked, Wicked Ways)
* * *
1. The Glamour of Evil
One always wonders why the church calls glamour evil, or vice-versa. What is there about beauty that might offend God? Don’t tell me glamour is not beautiful, and vice-versa. Why divide the spirit and the flesh?
No one who reads these poems seeks to judge them. Do they? Why should we want to be less than human? We may well never be more . . .
It’s hard not to know what to do with these poems. They are by a moxie mejicana who lives inside herself the way those not as brave as she live outside, burning and burning with rage and desire. She can’t help them, she will help them–it’s up to them. She can convey, impart, evoke how it is for her. If we are going to know anything about this country, we are going to have to listen to her. Read her.
There is a story, undoubtedly true because in it she’s in trouble with the so-called city fathers. She paints her house bright colors and the city council explodes in fury. She defends her way of living. She writes another poem. And another. She writes a novel. She writes stories. And other stories. She’s already told how it was to grow up in Chicago, chicana. She stays close to home now, next to her own skin. She’s in San Antonio in one poem, in Paris in the other. A reader likes to know where she is. What she says and how she says it makes a reader feel more grounded somehow, like this gringo who dreams he lives somehow, for some reason, in a barrio nobody leaves until somebody else is born, and then not too soon, mind you.
I want to call her a moxie mejicana, but it’s not for me to say. She says who and what and why she is Sandra Cisneros.
How much, to me, the poet resembles a gandy dancer laying down tracks on a railroad through the nerves. In one poem she’s in Venice and elsewhere, one of Pasolini’s ragazzi, all this time celebrating life and death in a bar in San Antonio. In the other, shorter poem she’s not talking but taking in a moment in Paris: the Sienne. Notre Dame. Our Lady. The joy of life, the inevitability of death, the waste, what remains, the turning of time over into another year. The flow of the faces she sees, the foreboding of what she hopes not to see, not here, not ever, but that’s not possible. The longer poem provides the limits of the shorter one. Or does it? What Paris evokes is simply a world apart from her bright house, the lively bars, the laughter, tears, the time, all a way, hers, it might be mine or yours, of paying homage through the breath of blood and bones to the beauty of flesh, its own flow–what survives through poems as well as music or visual art–any art that respects its limits and still must break through and try to surpass them.
She’s wholly herself. Anglos call such selves individuals, but usually only when they refer to those of like skin and speech. They, of course, don’t know the half of it. Or even a quarter. Or an eighth. Or a sixteenth. Or nada. Hard to say. What are Anglos worth on God’s market? Spaniards? Latino/as? Let the Market decide, eh? You may as well destroy those who bring no money to the table. You do, Market, you shed them like a snake sloughs its skin.
Myself, I need to see through the haze a country throws up between its citizens, so blurry we believe it’s foolhardy now to risk seeing ourselves in the so-called other, too threatening, too mind-numbing. We could go down to city hall and ask the town council to give Sandra Cisneros everything she wants. It’s not much. Not as much as you have. You don’t have her. She has you if she wants, but she doesn’t need you, she has her house. She lives there. Let her alone, but listen to her, read her words, learn to grow up. She’s a good teacher, one who makes you laugh at least as much as weep.
Why not let her be herself? Ah, but that’s the trouble, no? You can’t let people paint their houses blue and red and yellow, flaunting their disrespect for the laws of the city. Besides, property values . . . think of your neighbors. But what if she started something? People loving rather than fearing each other, say, based on who they want to be seen as when they are next to whomever this is I don’t know and doesn’t know me but maybe that’s because I don’t know myself.
These are not poems so much as raw slivers of life, even the brief capture in Paris of condensed time, its ephemeral and evocative and inevitable passage. Yet it’s in San Antonio where the surface of life bleeds like a human soul, lively, energy without end, or fighting the soul with the mind like two hands grappling with some angel dreamed.
2. La Paloma
Where I once lived, there’s a bar under a bridge going over railroad tracks to and from downtown Albuquerque. La Paloma I want to call it. In La Paloma men and women are happy to be alone with each other and with themselves. They dance and laugh and drink and talk and flirt and fight. They have no need of strangers. You go in there and depending on your entrance the silence may be ice or go unnoticed. The door opens and for the moment it takes to go to the bar and order a beer and make yourself comfortable, you may be and most likely are happy. But to stay, you have to earn your keep. You have to mind your own business. You talk their language as best you can and they may even applaud your diction. Or you keep your mouth shut and pull it off. I knew one guy took a friend in and he just smiled and flaunted his pearly whites in a gesture of what he thought should indicate goodwill. They got it. When I was alone I tried to actually feel what the room would be like if it were empty. That way I settled in and drank my beer. This guy with his friend, they must have thought they were in a place not only novel but a comedy, one they imagined seeing themselves see themselves: these gringos being in here, where they might as soon have their throats slit if they don’t stand back slowly from the bar and pull their pockets inside out and make the gesture of standing aghast, showing what they have that the others do: See what we have! Nada!
But on good days, and always in the early afternoons, before the booze flows too fast, say to yourself, even then, Look out, hombre, your magic is about to evaporate. Clear the air that may be full of suppressed outrage. Don’t even think, just drink and live for the time you’re here as deeply inside yourself as you can reach. It’s good for you. To others, your very presence is likely to be an insult.
You think you can do what you want in La Paloma and walk out like you walked in? Look at us, these eyes might say: We have scars on our faces, on our hands, pull up our shirts and see the scars on our bellies, drop our pants and show the scars we have down there, and listen to how I say it, there’s a scar in my voice, and another scar somewhere not even I can see it. You see, a knife never knows what or who is at the end of its blade, they skewer the one who wields them as much as those into whom they are thrust. And that’s one way to read these poems, maybe.
Imagine the simplicity of what happens. Cops come in here, like they do, and tell you to break it up. You stand back, they let you alone. For the moment. That’s all anybody has and you may has well make the most of it. Imagine! You have to put yourself in their shoes. And they can’t afford your fancy shoes. Your cut of clothes. Your hat size. Your money belt. The way you waltz in and out like you own the city. You don’t own us, their eyes say all a body needs to say: You don’t own La Paloma, you don’t own the dove .
(13 December 2010)