You hear words like burn and drown and freeze and scald and they’re just words to you. You hear stab and strangle and pummel and hack and they’re just words, too. A few letters, easy to say. Easy to move past. Burn. Drown. Freeze. Scald. Compact little sounds. Some may make you flinch. Send a momentary shiver down your body, raise a bit of gooseflesh. But then your nerves settle; your body seals itself again.
When your body knows these words, knows them in every fiber, the words change. They become the smell of your own scorched skin, the taste of your own blood, the sight of your own fingers on the floor, separate as dropped slices of apple. These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.
Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body
(some tender part of you still flinches)
(some immaterial nerves still flare)
Michael and I had lunch at The Castle today, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Riverside. The lentil soup was fantastic, spiked with lemon. The Lebanese salad was tart and fresh, a dice of cucumber and tomato and mint. The place is new, but not really. I can’t remember if you and I ever went there together back when it was still Pitruzello’s, back when you were still alive–I don’t think so, even though I can picture you in one of the booths, your pale skin glowing against the black vinyl; I can picture you there the way you looked before I was born, when people mistook you for Audrey Hepburn, your hair in a short beehive, a cigarette between your fingers. I can’t remember if I ever told you I answered the restaurant’s call for lunchtime tearoom models in 1987, when I was nineteen. Probably not. As much as you wanted your girls to be open with you, more often than not, your measuring gaze made us pause .
Even now, at 46, I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad they placed in the San Bernardino Sun. I hated modeling as a kid–I was too shy, too self-conscious in front of the camera. I cried at almost every audition, every photo shoot. At nineteen, I didn’t see myself as the modeling type, either. I was a hippie chick with hairy armpits and legs, a sophomore at the University of Redlands. I had gained the freshman fifteen and then some eating three cafeteria meals a day, the only vegetarian options being cheesy, starchy casseroles like lasagna and enchiladas. My belly stuck out nearly as far as my small breasts; my face was almost as round as it had been when I was on long term steroids a few years before. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was awkwardness. Flaws.
It was a big year for jellyfish,
La Niña pulling them
like magnets to the shore.
A fresh translucent mass
was heaped every few feet
along the beach—
like flamenco skirts,
with thready purple—
the poison ones,
we learned from Chris,
who used to have jellyfish fights
with her friends in Massachusetts.
Didn’t they sting you? I asked,
remembering horror stories
of foot stings, leg stings,
but she said no, they knew
which were safe to lob
at each other,
the creatures smacking
against their bodies
in brief wet flashes
like living artificial breasts.
The beached jellyfish
did look like saline implants—
a vast exodus of implants
on the lam from Tinseltown,
panting their freedom
into the great bosom of sand.
I could almost hear chests deflate
up and down the Sunset Strip,
could almost hear
a chorus of nipples
sigh in soft relief
as one buoyant sack
after another slid
out of its mammary cave
and flopped its way back
to the sea.
Later I saw jellyfish
swimming in the harbor,
billowing in and out
like valves of a blowsy heart.
Jellyfish have no heart, no gills,
no brain—they are all undulation,
all open mouth. I wanted to scoop
them out of the water,
plaster them over my breasts,
let them harpoon my areolas
with their stinging cells
the way my nursing children
would clamp their jaws
around my nipples
when they first began to teethe—
La Niña, El Niño, returned to me
as babies, their suckling skulls
all fontanel, bells of milky light.
So, you’ve had a dizzying last few years…
Indeed. My head is still spinning a bit. In the span of about two and a half years, I experienced just about everything on the list of “top stressors”…I got divorced from a man I had been with for 20 years, got laid off, got pregnant, got married, moved to three different rental houses, gave birth at home, lost my mom to suicide one week later, bought and started renovating a house (which of course involved moving yet again), lost my new mother-in-law to a sudden heart attack less than four months after my mom died, plus I had two books published within three months of each other (Delta Girls, a novel, and My Life with the Lincolns, my first novel for young people) and had to try to promote them while the world under my feet was undergoing such seismic shifts.
Pretty good, all things considered. The baby, who is now one, is such a joy. I have yet to find the right balance between new motherhood, writing, teaching, and everything else in my life (including sleep), but I’m working on it. With a 20 year old and 17 year old, I had gotten used to having more time to myself, and the lack of autonomy is challenging, but I feel very lucky to hang out with such a funny, adorable little person.
It feels wonderful…poetry is my first love as a writer and remains at the heart of my writing life. Other than a novel in verse I’ve been tinkering with, I admit I haven’t written much poetry lately, but I recently revamped my poetry manuscript, Lack/Luster, and have started to send it around to publishers, so I’m continuing to engage in the world of poetry (and am always nourished by it.) Lack/Luster is a “collected works” of sorts—it has a couple of poems from my undergraduate days, as well as poems from when my older kids were little, along with more recent work. I feel like once I get it out into the world, it will create space inside of me for a fresh batch of poems to emerge. I am eager to see what form they’ll take.
I went to Barcelona for the first time this past summer, and developed a huge creative crush on Gaudi. I was moved to tears inside of his unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral—it didn’t seem possible that a human being could conceive such a crazy structure, much less build it. I felt transformed just standing inside the space, my mind utterly blown. It made me want to find a way to write something equally strange and organic, equally grand. I doubt I will ever accomplish this, but it feels like something wonderful to aspire to.
On a much more mundane level, I was recently eating some really good bread with really good butter, and found myself so filled with awe and gratitude for our ancestors who figured out how to make bread, how to make butter, and how they taste doubly good when you put them together. I’ve felt that way, too, when eating fresh mozzarella with fresh basil and a really ripe tomato—whoever figured out that flavor combination is a serious genius. I would love to be able to find words that fit together in such a perfect, elemental way.