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by Sho Sho Smith
You know the nervous prattle poets make introducing their work? Here it is, floating around the poems I read at the Nomad Café Poetry Reading, May 2010. As featured reader, I needed fluffier, funnier fluff, so that no one would go to sleep or say shut up already. I will never be guilty of the deadly boring poetry reading. That’s a promise.
“Sho Sho Smith is a writer in Oakland. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa, and her poems have appeared in New American Writing, Parthenon West, Puerto del Sol, Shampoo, Columbia Journal, Court Green, Eucalyptus, and Mantis. She’s now working on her first poetry collection, Trompe l’oeil of a Tiger Clawing Its Way Out of Your Breast.”
WRITERS’ BIOS NEVER TELL YOU WHAT YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW. SO I’VE RE-WRITTEN MY BIO HERE AND THROUGHOUT THIS MINI-COLLECTION TO CONFESS THE STORY OF MY REAL LIFE, MY OBSESSIONS, MY SHAMES. ABOUT THE AUTHOR The author is at her humanest between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., longer than all the hours combined. The world hangs on like candlelight, memory wiped. She puts on her second skin and goes to work in the dumpyard of dreams, charted through the telescope of a pen. Truth be told, it’s pretty boring these days. Weak tea, ergonomic and non-smoking. If she’s lucky the pages soak up time
like sponges. The author yawns. The muse stretches out of the cave, shedding the author, the hour, the laptop it hates, while the criminal and homeless and poet close their eyes, shape shifters in shapeless shifts.
I THINK OF MUSES LIKE ANGELS. I DON’T KNOW IF I HAVE ONE, SO I MADE ONE UP, CASTING IN THE ROLE OF MUSE THIS STRIPPER WHO ONCE GAVE ME A LAPDANCE.
MUSE The dirty blond would remove her panties for an extra twenty. Flick the elastic of her lucky star for a peek at the fork of her thighs. In her goldrimmed smile a pierced tongue. Her throat opened, singing along. I must be just another mirror in which she watched her watch herself blow the gun of her finger, wink upside down, the girl with no name whose breasts smeared my glasses with supermarket emollients and glitter.
FINALLY I RECEIVED MY MFA AND DID MY TIME IN IOWA CITY….AND IN THE END, ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY POEM.
IOWA CITY I am not a dog but the other dogs have come for me. Their fields move like ghosts, double yellow tongues either side of me from the sun – and I am running, running to leap the rabbit’s back headlong into the tilt of their eyes: one body, one breath concentrated to vanishing. I am among them in the spirals of the field. The kill, tongue in my mouth. * When birds fly over me, my teeth ring. A bell burns in each tall grass. We could get lost though we never would. Fired by wind and blown in my ears like thunder. Crows cut air from cold water. Even a whistle could get lost. * I am here now, under this tree. I feel my whole body in my eyes: a spring in each ankle, the earth vibrating with rabbits. I chase birds that resemble people not to catch them, but because my head is a single cry and space streaks by me clapping stressed with dandelions.
* I am too quick for holes. When I sleep, it is the sleep of dogs. When I swim through the fields toward the house in the weeds, I’ll lay in the shade once again. Landmark of the fallen bicycle, the porch in ruins, the wind upstairs. It belongs to no one. It is enough for me, the long stretches of afternoon that end in the cicada language and the blinding blue.
AFTER GRADUATE SCHOOL, POETRY QUICKLY LOST ITS PLACE IN THE REAL WORLD. I STARTED TO WONDER WHAT’S THE POINT, AND LOOKED FOR ANSWERS AT THE ANNUAL A.W.P. CONFERENCE FOR POETS.
ANOTHER A.W.P. CONFERENCE
Per me si va ne la città dolente, per me si va ne l'etterno dolore, per me si va tra la perduta gente. -Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
There is a special hell for poets, said the lanyards around our necks. Like confused great whites we kept on circling Tower I looking for the point. Then at the book fair gates there appeared a pretty vest named Volunteer. Through the crack I glimpsed the poets pour downstream like autumn leaves, each booth a garden of flat fruit. When my turn came, she shut the door. Members only? Are you a member? I forgot my badge. I felt like a member. Banished under the banner Poets & Writers Welcomes You we shades, cowards and neutral angels waited under the stairs. What common curse made us members, anyway? A woe for words? A love of crying? Surely some diabolic chromosome chose for us the life of Poet or Volunteer. Then my vested Virgil beckoned me
with a wave of her ponytail and said Even a poet’s time is valuable? I was about to say yes or no when she pressed a one-time guest pass in my hand. Once you leave you can’t return, so no insy-outsy, k? The gates caved. She shoved me in. It was fluorescent as a headache. Bodies dragging backpacks paused to listen to the loudspeaker voice that announced the simultaneous readings and lectures with limited capacity, ongoing every hour for eternity, all of them interesting.
TRYING TO BE AN ADULT, I HELD A SERIES OF JOBS, MOST NOTORIOUSLY AS THE EDITOR OF THE POTTERY BARN CATALOG. THAT’S WHEN I WROTE THIS POEM.
ON QUITTING TO BE A POET
Even in Kyoto— hearing the cuckoo’s cry— I long for Kyoto. --Basho
I never aged there in a way. No years, only quarters passed. All I had to do was show up in my black disguise, smile and go dead. Three short walls and no ceiling held me in. Tips of heads passed by. They knocked by saying, knock, knock. The money was honey. I knocked out the lights above, standing on my spinning chair. In Conference Room C, a papery thunder, a flash of light rolled across the glass ceiling, pouring down a frantic rain. The room glanced up at the wet, sucking mouth The accountant raised his voice a bit. I could have stayed forever without getting wet. No one quits for poetry, an unjustifiable reason on a subject that doesn’t exist. I’m vanishing, I told them. In five minutes the boss forgot me. If office death meant no emails, no calls, no visitors, I died and went to heaven. Afterwards, it was the same old world with a window between us. Sometimes I want the old false feeling back, to believe again in Fridays where all the clocks add up.
But the circles always lead me back to the only God I ever knew, greater than all his minutes, there when civilizations vanish, with me whenever I’m alone, lighting my way to the deathbed.
YET THAT FRACTURED IDENTITY STAYED WITH ME LIKE AN EARLY MIDDLE-AGE CRISIS.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR The author prefers mannish cuts and military colors like code orange, white lie, purple heart. But that other person she sometimes wakes up as expresses herself in ruffles and gloss. They’ve always despised each other, these twin sisters, smart and dumb, masculine and feminine, writer and editor, making typing difficult. Frankly the author can’t always be sure who is wearing her favorite jeans today, who rolls her eyes and who rolls her r’s, who gets the pen, who gets the pencil. A double life every other day. The only true test is the yellow light. Who she is, if she stops or if she goes.
THAT WAS WHEN I STARTED RAPIDLY AGING.
FOR YOU ON MY BIRTHDAY The roses you gave me have died so gracefully. The tight buds opened their eyes by first nightfall, at two days wore full dresses. They spiked the room with heavy oils day three, with only a nose to mate with. Mature by day four, they lifted their labyrinths to the sun. A light blue shadow threaded with veins fell on day five. The petals changed their shape, curling like clavicles day six. Day seven the fragrance turned ghostly. Day eight they held themselves a little too still, too sharp, and during the night, day nine, the first petals fell. Day ten the barest touch undressed them as if they could not wait. On the last day only their centers were left. In one open pupil, yellow with powder, I found the bee that got lost in the maze.
YES, I HAD QUIT MY CORPORATE LIFE TO LIVE A CREATIVE LIFE, BUT IT WORKED TOO WELL. I FOUND MYSELF UNEXPECTEDLY AND UNGRACEFULLY PREGNANT.
CESAREAN The anesthesiologist held the mirror above my belly to make sure, he joked, the one they pull out is the one I take home. I never quite believed in that secret world. In the mirror at the other end of my body – but not my body, a numb peninsula called the sterile field – I watched the doctor shave and slit me a new pair of lips while chatting about his next bike trip. Saltwater spurted as he broke the bag and reached into the shortcut, into the other world that lost its magic at his touch, becoming real. I saw his hand disappear and reappear with a pair of feet in his fist, a snared rabbit. Prehistoric, shocked, a squid-like cord wrapped around one ankle, still without a single mortal breath. He presented her under the light. It’s a baby, I said, surprised it was human. Arms frozen, eyes shut, breech legs bent and crossed. Then one eye opened and closed again. A feeling I cannot explain. Deepest silence. A puzzle
finishing itself. All at once a golden flush. A baby, a baby but not yet a mother, linked by a sudden mutual hunger. They drained her lungs. She cried out, blood hurting, turning shadow into flesh, becoming my daughter.
HOLDING MY BABY IN MY ARMS, I WONDERED IF I WERE FIT FOR MOTHERHOOD, AS A WRITER WITH A RICH AND IMAGINATIVE INTERNAL LIFE.
ATTEMPTED MURDERS Never been beaten to death by strangers. Never seen the frilly rip of meat yanked off a dull knife. Intact, I become a silver screen for deaths. At stoplights, in dull conversation, the silhouette of a quivering breast resisting like pig flesh or muscled mattress accepts a madman’s wounds. Not violent, just curious about the forbidden side of skin, the jewelry of organs. Some days I feel more like dismemberment with a short heavy blade, the choad plunged to the hilt like a key into a vault. With a honed shank on knuckle grips or homely shiv sliding through light, I comfort myself to sleep. I have a theory that it’s not just me. Not some kind of helpless request like pornography, but a sublime devotion. The brute flesh not broken into. The body holding on like a damsel in distress her sweetmeats shimmering during autopsy, her stab wounds opening like windows on her arrogant heart.
AS A MOTHER, I FOUND MYSELF THINKING ABOUT CHILDHOOD AND FAMILY, AND HOW HARD IT IS TO LIVE THROUGH IT WITH THESE PEOPLE. EARTH AS RECLINING NUDE Like a child looking through an airplane window I look through my own eyes, studying arrows on a tarmac patched in many shades of black. Up we roar where no arrows are, leaving behind the little shells of home by the blue livers of our pools in a cradle of hills, so smooth and suede. It is strange to see the streets turning into a map, the map turning back into a planet. It is a relief to be our real size. Now we can get down to business, which are the clouds. Here fine as egg white, there fat as buffalo, here stuck between mountains, there in massive halves guillotined by outer space. Sometimes the clouds look as tempting as an endless trampoline. Old as I get, I always see myself break the double window and leap out into eternity. I see myself fall slowly through heaven and step onto the mountaintops calling each one by name. Whatever we call them, it is not their name.
CUTTING THE STAIRWAY OF THE EAR Grandfather was supercool because he meditated instead of slept and died meditating. He showed me once, tucked his sweatpants into a full lotus on the piano bench, pulled his face inward and froze. Where he went nobody knows. Whenever I tried to meditate it felt like being buried alive. I numbered my breaths with mile markers only to lose them like ten balloons. Not soon but eventually the naming ceased. There came a strand of quiet like an arrow. A listener stepped out from behind the headache, past the small talk of our lives, down the narrowing syllables, half a song away and waited on a wooden bench dedicated to my memory. The woods before me were threaded with watercourses. I sat still and listened: blood logic, intelligence eternally washing the edges. I tried to locate myself on the map of the heart. The map was a footprint. I was following one footprint through a landscape far from what we have created. ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author’s mother, a pushy Leisure World realtor, spoke with a rough Chinese accent she could never imitate for fun because she could never actually hear it, not in the act of talking to each other, not even over the telephone, but only when her mother spoke to pure white Americans who shouted what? as she brayed at them, exasperated. It was all out of rages, arbitrary he’s and she’s, butchering, to the author’s delight the great English language, except for fuck used often and properly. Her mother’s name had apple in it. She wrote the author a birthday card, Sleep your heart first, then your eyes.
I HAD COMPLEX FEELINGS ABOUT BEING CHINESE. I WAS ALWAYS IN DENIAL.
SELF-PORTRAIT AS ANONYMOUS They never pass a mirror and think, I am white, do they. Sometimes I want to unroll that white face down my own to feel the red, white and blue of their eyes – so much eye to contact – and breathe deeply through tiny teardrop nostrils dotting the end of an aristocratic nose. An entire face guarding the diamonds of the eyes (or emeralds, or sapphires, or even one of each) with heavy draperies of eyelids fringed by broom-like lashes. I’ve longed for the infinite potential of their cells, the curly blond hair and hourglass figure. Not is what I am, studying them so deeply that I have never quite recognized myself, never quite looked like a me. Those moments I catch my own reflection I walk right on by, thinking aging well is overrated.
CHINA-TOON The proprietor of Snow Garden untangling her windchimes barks 50% off without looking up. In back of her kite shop, hanged silk animals crowd the ceiling, bright heads bowed on skeletons of fine bamboo. Their tails stroke my hair. The eyes of the tissue paper dragon are clouded. The grasshopper is frayed, painted crookedly from memory by a blind man, I imagine. The art is dying. Evolving, you might say in America, where the extinct go on sale. Wings outstretched hiding radio speakers, a giant phoenix looks skyward, babbling stock quotes in hyper-Chinglish.
QUESTIONING MYSELF ON ALL LEVELS, I PREDICTABLY STARTED LOOKING FOR GOD.
A SPIRITUAL TALK I enjoy the peaceful view of the backs of heads. Hairstyles say so much: left or right, race, age, income level, time of day. Once I thought our heads were stuffed with hair. That turned out to be true. A bald man’s smile ringed his neck. Waterfalls spill down chair backs like inconsolable rain. Mentally I braid. When the guy onstage says to the open windows, the illusion of you has no lifespan, the dyed and undyed nod their wigs. It’s a safe bet that everyone is unhappy with their hair. Just this morning I was caught between the little mirror and the big mirror against the bathroom sink, the blind scissors in my fist cutting out my neckline.
HAVING FOUND GOD, I FINALLY FELT FREE TO BE ME. OR DID
LIBERTY I was lost in the body of a giant girl. A blue dress lifted me from the froth, my mother’s nightgown where I used to hide. Stairs wound up my head, coils of them, a kind of spine. I climbed and climbed those endless steps, looking for her with a candle flame and a storybook I could not read. The darkness stopped me. I made it just a baby step before the heavy crown fell and the mask of her face covered mine. Now I look at myself as a stranger does through eyes that never close. I can make the waves rustle in their sleep. I never see myself but in those waves. Only my own idea erected me, proof that all of me is a shell and also an eternity.
SO HERE I AM, WITHOUT A CONCLUSION AS USUAL. JUST AS LIFE GOES ON, I FLEE THE SCENE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR The author saw the world in gray, the fickle color of human emotions. It was not her favorite color, but it was the best color. Gray deciding if it’s black or white – or gray. Such thoughts made her miss her exit. She was late to a semi-important party. But the sky was so gray that it began cancelling out the bridge beneath her and the waters below, as if the mirrored dimension she floated on vanished, as if she were driving straight into the back of a mirror. In the rear view, she herself was turning gray, becoming indistinguishable from blank space. And the feeling she could not explain, a sense of time in her wristwatch on the wheel was a gray that only numbers could say on a highway looking backward over the froth, the darkening headlands stuck between a titanium eye and the party somewhere.
THE END Love, Sho Sho