Poetic Gladiators

My mother is deciding whether to sleep upstairs or down. 16 stairs up or 16 stairs down. It doesn’t really matter, as both are hard on her knees. She discovers the ‘T-Zone Vibration Technology ‘ 16 stairs down and that decides it. Stepping gingerly onto the footpads, she sets the display to ‘Fat Burn’ and hits ‘Start’. It rocks, low and slow, not what she expected but that’s why she stepped up. For the unexpected.

…“THIS FADED AIR, TORPID WIND, GENERATIONS OF BONES IN THE DIM LIGHT…” From another room at the front of the house, I can hear her… “THIS FADED MIRROR, PATTERNING THE EMBERS OF MY FACE…” As she rehearses for a spoken word performance, I’m reminded of the first time she cracked her soul open with the power of language…“I WILL DESCEND TO THE RIVER, TO THE BED OF STONES, THE SADNESS OF LEAVES, FLOATING…” There’s no one in the house but she and I and yet—I feel as if the whole world is watching.  My 80-year-old mother is flaying herself in the middle of my friend’s living room and all I can think is, “What if someone hears?”

“Don’t think too much, don’t second-guess, go with your gut.” We’re writing together in a cafe in Inglewood and she notices I’m uneasy. I make poems in the solitude of my own home, where there are no persons raising judgey eyebrows over their coffee cups. “Okay, I’ll start,” she offers. Her prose is intense, dark, frightening—as if daring me to be her counterpoint. Dipping my words into a well of honey, I parry her with an optimism honed from years of practice. We spar like poetic gladiators, she with the spear, I with the shield; I with the spear, she with the shield, and the metaphor of our relationship is not lost on me.

_

The 99 Steps

As published in FreeFall Magazine May 2017

The smell of gasoline
from his Peterborough
a wooden fishing boat
that loomed like
an oceanliner
but wasn’t much bigger
than a canoe, my dad said.
It had its own house
the boathouse
a place we weren’t allowed to go
but did anyway
just so we could taste the air, his air.

12 steps

The smell of leather
from his club chair
worn extra smooth
by flesh and bone
oxblood and oak
and big enough for two
in a wood paneled room
in a house on a lake.

20 steps

A tiny trailer sat
under the aspens
poplars and jack pines
as if it had grown there.
He was gone before I could
remember him
from drink
or despair.

28 steps

I like to think he took me
out in that boat
to tell me stories
about Lake Wabumun
and the Indians who used to live there
before cottages and loosestrife
grew along the shoreline.
Of how those Indians
made black licorice
from old rubber boots
and built the 99 steps
up through the berries
so they could pick their way
to heaven.
I like to think he took me
out in that boat
to the canal off the lake
where the water ebbed warm from
a power plant along the shore.
He’d lower me over the side
so I could swim next to the Handy Boy
weeds threatening
to pull me under but instead
the weeds took the lake
and the lake took him.

53 steps

His name was Harold
but everyone called him Alf.
His family came from Arkansas
a place I’ve never been
and likely never will although
my mother has
just to see if she could find
a trace of him.
His mother was part Indian
Toccoa
high cheekbones and fierce jaw.
I know
I’ve seen the pictures.
He had an immigrants face
heavy browed and full lipped
with skin that lined easily
despite its olive tone.
I know
I’ve seen the pictures
taken before he drove that face
under a semi on just another Christmas Eve.

74 steps

Was it his idea to name me
after a point of land?
Point Alison.
A punctuation
perhaps significant.
He’d head out to the point
when the cabin got too small
preferring the sound
of the Evinrude
to the voice in his head.

84 steps

Alf planted his feet
between the exposed ribs
of the boat,
hand on the throttle
a Spud Menthol neglected
on his lips.
Stands of bullrush
split by the prow
swept endlessly past,
a curtain
closing behind him.
I’ve never been back
and probably never will
but like Arkansas
we both have a trace of him.

99 steps

Los 99 pasos

El olor a gasolina
de su Peterborough,
un bote de madera
emergiendo como
un trasatlántico,
pero no mucho más grande
que una canoa, decía mi padre.
Tenía su propia casa
la casa del bote
lugar al que no se nos permitía ir,
y sin embargo íbamos
para saborear el aire, su aire.

12 pasos

El olor a piel
de su sillón
rojizo y de roble,
liso y desgastado
por los huesos y la piel
con lugar para dos
en un cuarto de madera
en una casa junto a un lago.

20 pasos

Un pequeño camper yacía
bajo los abedules,
álamos y pinos
como si hubiera crecido ahí.
Se fue antes de que pudiera
recordarlo,
por tomar
o por desesperación.

28 pasos

Me gusta pensar que me llevaba
a pasear en su bote
para contarme historias
del lago Wabumun
y de los Indios que ahí vivían,
antes de que en la orilla crecieran
casitas y hierba mala.
De cómo los Indios
hacían regaliz
con botas viejas de caucho,
y erigieron los 99 pasos
por entre las moras
para irlas escogiendo en su
camino al cielo.
Me gusta pensar que me
paseaba en ese bote
en el canal fuera del lago
donde brotaba agua tibia
desde una planta en la orilla.
Me bajaría a un lado
a nadar junto al ‘Handy Boy’
donde las algas amenazaban
con hundirme, pero más bien
las algas tomaron el lago
y el lago lo tomó a él.

53 pasos

Su nombre era Harold
pero lo llamaban Alf.
Su familia vino de Arkansas
lugar al que nunca fui
y tal vez nunca iré, aunque
mi madre fue
sólo para ver si encontraba
un rastro suyo.
Su madre tenía sangre India,
Toccoa,
pómulos altos y quijada pronunciada.
Lo sé,
he visto las fotografías.
Tenía cara de inmigrante
cejas pobladas y labios carnosos
su piel llena de líneas
a pesar de su tono olivo.
Lo sé,
he visto las fotografías
tomadas antes de que se estrellara de cara
bajo un trailer en una tarde más, de Noche Buena.

74 pasos

¿fue idea suya nombrarme
como un punto en la Tierra?
Punta Alison.
Puntuación,
tal vez significativa.
Se dirigiría hasta el punto
donde la cabina se hiciera muy pequeña
prefiriendo el sonido
del Evinrude
al de la voz en su cabeza.

84 pasos

Alf plantó sus pies
entre las costillas expuestas
del bote,
una mano en el acelerador
un Spud mentolado colgando
entre sus labios.
Manojos de junco
divididos por la proa
serpenteaban interminablemente,
una cortina cerrándose tras él.
Nunca he regresado,
y tal vez nunca regrese
pero tal como Arkansas,
ambos guardamos un rastro suyo.

99 pasos

I learned through the process of translating this poem that translation itself,  is an art form. Thank you. To those who contributed their thoughts and especially to a dear friend, mi amiga querida, who spent hours inside my head so that The 99 Steps could come to life in español. Gracias.

A Too Short Story

When we are young, friendships come easily. We collect them like seashells or fallen flowers—precious in the moment yet when the moment is gone, another comes to take it’s place. To love unconditionally and forgive quickly is something we often lose with our childhood; life makes us less trusting and more careful about who we let in. But life can surprise us.

When we moved to another country, another city, another culture, I became like a child again, surrounded by strangers who each carried the possibility of the gift of friendship. Friendships that hung in the balance of both wanting to give, and wanting to receive.

One night I met a woman at a party and we got to talking – about life, love, art. She gave me her time and I accepted it like the treasure it was.

A ceramicist, she invited me to come visit her studio. Inside, the air was close with dust from the clay and heat from the kiln. She introduced me to all her children—some lay naked and waiting for her painters brush while others stood like soldiers in all their finery.

Her life partner was also an artist so she took me across the road to his workshop. The massive doors opened easily despite their imposing facade, and inside lay a fantasy world. Surrounded by the smell of wood and steel, I made my way through found objects that would one day become works of art. The raw beauty of the space was like nothing I’d seen, and even though I had yet to meet this man, his energy emanated from every nail, every stone, every piece of wood.

In infinite jest
the sun rose again today
the wind stirred
the water rippled
the shadows danced.

In infinite jest
each breath came
in and out
in and out
as if it were just another day.

In infinite jest
the clouds moved across the sky
a living canvas
its semiotic indicator
a waning moon.

The sky
becomes the sea
the sea becomes
the sky
death becomes life

In infinite jest.

Thank you for your fallen flower George Samuelson.

A Fine Vintage

IMG_8283A metallic twang, like a note struck on a steel guitar, reveals the mineralized soil in which everything grows. Assaulted by notes of spruce, eucalyptus and dogwood, I inhale an aroma, leafy around the edges, evergreen at its core. Undertones of an old cigar box that has been left out in the rain, creep past my heightened olfaction. And yet—the lingering impression on the tongue is angular, optimistic as a freshly laundered white shirt hung to dry in the chinook winds that blow where the Canadian Prairies and the Great Plains meet. At the edges, I can taste winter, and I’m reminded how much I miss this Alberta air.

The Road to Provence

The perfume of earth and olives
fifty shades of green
deep cypress frames guilded eucalyptus
in heat as dry as a nut.
Oleandar like home
signs for snails, peaches and Brousse de Rove
a deer crossing
a lone cyclist
a family picnic on the side of the road.
What sound?
dogged, implacable, deafening
the song of the Chicada
that starts with the dawn
and probably drove Van Gogh crazy.
The road to Saint Remy
pungent with pine
vines like soldiers guarding the ancient terroir
against the riot of sunflowers.

Dusky light
sets fire to the rock
the vividness of youth on every face
as day turns to night
and the chicadas sleep.

Yellow

A hail of leaves
into the windshield

Unrelenting yellow.

Soundless yet I can hear the sound
of life
Ending
Unyielding
Growing louder
with each second
until the hail is a maelstrom
A maelstrom of butterflies
into their looking glass
Unavoidable
And in another second
it is over
How is it that death can be so beautiful?

I wrote this poem on a road trip from Merida to Cancun. It was a tedious drive until a small force of nature woke me from my stupor. I didn’t understand at first what was happening, and when I did, it was both exhilarating and sad.

Burning Woman: Marcela Diaz

A lone woman stands at the edge, looking down into the abyss that is her life. The night is confidential, with only the stars to bear witness. She carefully opens the box of matches that she has been worrying in her hands for the last several hours. She takes one last sip of the wine that has been both her companion and her fortification on this dark and still night. She strikes the match and watches as her world is engulfed in flame.

Marcela Diaz was raised in Monterrey, Mexico but when her father died suddenly at age 38, she and her young mother and six brothers and sisters returned to their roots, to Merida. “I was only 8 years old when I lost my father,” Marcela shared, “and in a way, I lost my mother too. She was always in the home, but after my father died, she had to work to support us. We moved away from a life with my father, to one without him, and that was a little frightening for all of us.”

Blog_1X4A4760It is hard to imagine Marcela frightened by anything—she embodies a ferocity and strength that belie her soft voice and slight stature. She sits across from me, a recent pixie haircut rendering her much younger than her 53 years. Like the phoenix, Marcela has risen from the ashes of a life touched by pain and loss. She has cleared away the detritus of her soul, and channeled her passion and conviction into the one thing that transcends loss—her work.

It is the work that connects us. Her massively intricate henequen and cotton rope sculptures are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The crosses spiked with cactus, the ropes and knots coiled like bodies in death and life, the dresses towering above my head; all are beautiful and commanding, and I was determined to meet the artist responsible for stirring my own soul.

Like a sentinel, the woman stands guard as flames lay waste to her life’s blood, to her grief. Sweat and tears and hundreds of days of solitude are now a funeral pyre of anger and self-loathing. She breathes in the acrid smell of the burning henequen, feeling no remorse over what she has done. This is her penance, her cross to bear. Her beloved no longer walks the earth and it is the burning pit that will release her from her mantle of shame.

Marcela Diaz became an artist late in life—she was 43 when she had her first exhibition. I was curious as to the catalyst for her dramatic transition from wife and mother to obsessed artist, and asked how this came about. “When I took my eldest son to university in the US, I cried all the way home on the plane,” Marcela shared. She grew quiet as she replayed this moment in her mind, still fresh even though a decade had passed. “It was like I could see my life ahead of me—a life full of loss. I could see that I would lose my next three sons to the world, just like my firstborn, but more importantly, I could see that I would lose myself.”

The pain around that moment was etched on Marcela’s face, and I waited quietly while she collected herself. “Even though I was raised by staunch Catholic parents, I am not a practicing Catholic. I do not go to mass or confess my sins. However, I do have almost daily conversations with God and I do believe in divine providence. There have been many places in my life where I could not see beyond my own pain. And in each of these places, a gift was bestowed on me that I can only interpret as some kind of miracle.”

Banner_casa 1I was struck by Marcela’s openness and generosity with me, given the infancy of our friendship. I asked her about these ‘gifts’, these moments of divine providence, and how they have shaped her as a person, as an artist.

“Gerda Gruber was one of my gifts,” Marcela laughs. “I was 39 years old when I saw an advertisement in the paper that Gerda was accepting one more student for her 3-year sculpture residency. I was still in a deep melancholy that seemed to have no end, and Gerda’s call for artists awoke my soul. I was not an artist and never had been, but I knew with every fibre of my being that this is what I was meant to do. Obviously Gerda believed that too—she accepted my impassioned plea and three years later, I had found my voice as an artist.

A small, persistent sound breaks the womans’ reverie and for a moment, she wonders where she is. The sound continues, then stops, and a voice whispers in her ear, “Hermanita, preciosa, su sobrina está llamando desde Francia.” The woman turns to see her sister standing next to her – it seems her sister is always next to her. The woman takes the phone and hears the distant voice of her niece. “Tia, I saw him, I saw Tio in a beautiful dream. He was sitting in a chair, looking at your exposition, at all your work, and he was smiling. He told me how proud he is of you, how very very proud. He was so real I felt I could touch him.”

Blog_1X4A4745I asked Marcela about all the crosses in her work, an obvious symbol, I thought, given her religious upbringing. “My crosses are not symbols of Christianity—my crosses are symbols of man and womankind,” she said. “They may lie down in abject despair, they may stand strong with arms thrown wide to say, ‘Here I am, embrace who I am’. Or they may release their angry thorns to the world because to keep that anger in is to die.”

Blog_1X4A4744And the dresses? “The dresses are beautiful”, she agrees, “but they are more than that. The dresses are like ‘artificios’, masks we wear as women, with the roles we play or are forced to play. They represent the confines of a society concerned with perception and correctness. They represent the strength and individuality inherent in ourselves but often not seen or embraced. They represent the Dona, the Wife, the Child, the Madre, the Puta, the Mestiza, the Yucatecan.” When I asked about the henequen itself, there was no hesitation. “Henequen is the Yucatan, the Yucatan is the henequen, and so I am the henequen. The henequen embodies a history of extreme wealth and poverty, strength and fragility, beauty and pain. I found myself in the henequen, I found my sense of place, I found Marcela.”

The woman stands at the edge of the smouldering fire, watching as the remnants of her work hang themselves in the sky like stardust. Her body becomes a divining rod, returning to the source of her anguish as if to say, “This too, is the source of your awakening.” With a clarity she has never known, the woman understands this is not the end of her life’s work, this is just the beginning. And it is her beloved who has set her free.

http://yucatanexpatlife.com/fundacion-de-artistas-inaugurates-gallery/