What is love but feasting atop a grave?
Mother’s Day and the Catholic cemetery is packed
with barbeques, Mariachis and plastic
tablecloths laid for picnics. There, alone
with his hands pressed into a burial mound
and in the cool shade of a concrete angel’s wings,
a boy sits crosslegged. He could be a yogi
concentrating on the orderly column of black ants
that carry, one blossom at a time, yellow
mesquite flowers to their eggs underground, except
that it’s Mother’s Day, and he is as alone
as he’ll ever be, staring at the empty curl
of his fingers holding nothing but
the distant mourning of doves.
At desert noon even the dead enjoy
singing that braids heat waves
shimmering molten lead between spring blooms.
My friend has come to speak to
her mother riding the spirit horse of memory
along an underground river this past year.
She lights a candle and brushes debris
with her tender palms from the ant-tilled soil
above her mother’s ghost face.
Walking between graves, her skin fills
with a guitar’s laughing blue chords,
with charcoal smoke,
with the boy’s mute hands,
with loneliness spun by hot wind each afternoon
under the invisible birth of stars, where
the dead begin to remember their names.
I Have an Illegal Alien in My Trunk
Just north of the border, the migra doesn’t consider
this bumpersticker a joke. Only a chihuahua
without papers, maybe a pair of pawned cowboy boots
would fit in the trunk of this mini SUV driving Oracle
swarming at rush hour. Even though half of Tucson’s traffic
speaks Spanish, the legislature’s declared
English the only legal fuel—it’s
the same Continental Divide stubborn and paralytic
as the steel-plated wall insulting our nation’s learning curve
as it cleaves us. For over seventy years
my grandma’s high cheekbones were illegal. Lovely
as a tiger lily she spoke
the six severed tongues dividing her heart.
In a grave that does not spell out her name
in any language, she is beyond the shovels of police
who would have to dig up her bones to deport them
back to a village outside Prague, where
beneath a Catholic church are layered
the crumbling skulls and femurs
of her ancestors slaughtered by centuries of wars.
I am safe in my adobe house
with its rainbow nations of chuckling quails,
pyrrhuloxia, phainopeplas, choirs of mockingbirds,
skitterish verdins and purple finches, coyotes,
javelinas, rattlers, scorpions, collared and leapard lizards,
and the not so silent majority of English sparrows
who accommodate too easily to walls—there
is not one passport among them. The cactus wren
weaves her tough nest among the barbed thorns
of the cholla, while round-eared gophers construct
complex subways for their babies to run
under chainlink fences separating yards.
Each day along the border of our sealed hearts
gleaming with coiled razor wire, traffic
idles waiting for armed guards
to pillage each car trunk for contraband
people and drugs. I have seen our agents rip
out the interiors of vans, spit commands
at old women with black hair and dark skin.
Sanitary, they use rubber gloves
to deconstruct the meagre grocery bags
and plastic purses of common lives. Indians
are particularly suspect, even though reservations
were drawn like tumors by both governments
to spill across borders, so that whole families
are amputated like unnecessary limbs.
This morning walking the Rillito River,
we read bilingual signs warning the thirsty
not to drink irrigation water slaking imported
ornamental bushes & flowering trees.
This year, statistics say, twice
as many border crossers will die of thirst
in Arizona. Who can stop tongues
alien or otherwise from swelling black at noon. After all,
in the barbed wire waiting room of the heart
there is no seating for sentiment
nor room for the frail arms of hope to save strangers, even
if they are nursing mothers or desperate fathers
looking for work who haven’t yet learned
the English word for por que.
After all, waging a war on terror
like any war is not for the faint ambitions
of the humane, so, in the game of homeland security,
we erect a bulletproof wall across the borders of our souls
that guarantees destruction must win.
A Short History of Falling
for Namgial Rinchen
Sweet Babel of birdsong syncopates
dawn’s light as bruised as the hematoma
oozing under the skin of my left knee.
Sudden leaves reshape trees and the delicate longing
of tree frogs pipes snow into a bad memory
old as falling. My knee still aches
from Sunday’s tumble on the pallet I didn’t see
over the stack of sawn aspen I carried
for the night fire. Unmindful, I tripped
on an iron fence stake cockajar
against the woodpile, this time breaking
my fall with my palm’s life line.
My history of falls is unkind. At five, I
plunged through a rotten barn board
all the way from the hay mow
while shafts of numinous straw
whirled like moths on fire
past my Dad shoveling manure.
I smashed into the concrete floor wet
with cow piss near the Holstein’s hooves.
Her licorice eyes were big as my fists
as she bawled at me this
first lesson of gravity.
At ten, when I slipped on ice
running for the school bus, I lay
on my back watching my breath
and snow become the ghosts of bare
maple limbs twirling blind white. Not wanting to
move my spine’s broken porcelain, I
froze hoping to melt into all
that was pure and cold. When I couldn’t
rise, my dad carried me in, cursing
my clumsy and bruised tailbone.
Afterward, falls pocked each year, unpredictable
as a broken clock, until
I crashed in a midnight parking lot,
both hands in my back pockets,
boot catching the cement bumper
turned upside down and painted with tar.
My chin cracked the curb first,
breaking my jaw, then ripping three
ribs from the sternum. What came
from my mouth was garbled
as birdsong, a blood murmur I mistook
for a scream for help. What I remember
are the three good people who walked
around me, not stopping and
the table full of cops I could see
through the restaurant glass, who never shifted
from coffee mugs overlooking
the wounded rug of my body. What I
remember is my lover’s face white
as a terrified swan as he lifted me.
Above Mangyu Village, I hiked the thin
trail far above tree line to sunset,
bending to the infinitesimal
in the shape of a plant I could barely see,
petals the size of molecules, its yellow center
smaller than a drop of blood, when the mountain
tilted, and my shoes slid gathering speed
on talus that rattled like oiled marbles of fate.
I could not stop and wondered whether to fly
off the ridge pressed flat so
I wouldn’t somersault the thousand feet
to the valley or to sit back on my heels
as if my boots were skis. The last moment
I grabbed the only thing that held
the last rim, a turquoise rock.
The other climbers thought my yelling
a joke, all but the Sherpa who leapt sure
as a mountain goat, zen master
of shifting stone, and snatched my wrists
to yank me back to the path.
We sat then, breathing for a long time, unwinding
our stories like prayer flags
strung out in Himalayan wind.
How do we ever thank who
or what saves us? Namgial told me to look
at the turquoise rock still clutched in my palm. We call that a god’s eye, he said, and there
in one sea-colored facet was etched the eye
almond as Buddha’s and open
as if it knew, while above us,
a Himalayan eagle incinerated
before falling to the other side of the world.
Pamela Uschuk is the author of five books of poetry, including the latest, Crazy Love (Wings Press, April 2009), just nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and the chapbook, Pam Uschuk’s Greatest Hits (Pudding House Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in nearly 300 publications worldwide and is translated into a dozen languages. She lives in Colorado.
Photo of mural of Mexican woman and cactus by latetripper, Pixabay.