Still Life with Damnosa Hereditas and Dark Constellations
— USS Arizona and Llullaillaco Maiden
Undersea, the body will arboresce, limbs branching to digits clarified
by dissolve—the mace-head of a sea urchin jolting its spines from the emptied brainpan
like a light bulb’s haloed rays sketched to signify epiphany, what punctuated my father’s life over bodies
of water. Night shift astern, that wake’s mesmerizing phosphorescent churn detonated a tiny star
in his brain, anchoring his entire life to one unanswerable question. The woodiest tissue
spurs a bloom; from January nights, Christmas trees keep rising to bruise the shallows
of my neighborhood’s lake—water flea to seed shrimp to crayfish to shad, chaining up to the bass the trees
were plunged there for. Any wreck will harbor its pearls. Any glacier glanced through the glass
roof of a centipede train whitens sky to the spine of a wind-lapped palm frond, cloud-shot with mornings
imminent with rain.
Growing up as the foot of mountains meant breathing day as one half shadow, one half sun. We called it speed
to swallow flight; to keep our parents’ fire from our hair, we breathed heat
in, rolling up the backseat windows so the comet tails of their lit cigarette butts sparked
off the glass, arcing away with a spray of tiny stars red as cinders my sister slipped me from the secret spoon
of her fingernail. Our father always drove deep into the meat of night. Black hush of midnight, our first
cross-country trip; black band of the Tennessee snagged with glittering fallout—city lights a mirror writing he read
as second vision: that one day he’d live in the South, meaning he knew even then
he would leave us. Black trees, black vines spilling across tarmac. The promise of disappearance,
the deepest breath.
Pacific waters, dark swarm of planes
on dawn radar misread as friendly—
black dragon, the flare’s signalling arc, a falling star triggering
the falling to a steaming
wreckage of light. The Milky Way’s spine— bright embers the dark
constellations entwine, gods animated by the skeletons of shadows: the Llama,
the Fox; the Serpent, the Toad. Moon a fisted cave spider dangling
between Andean peaks, moon across
Pacific waters: if a face, unfeatured as any father, soldiering on.
Moon fisted between antlered peaks.
Moon scattered across harbored sea.
Dark constellations, dark swarm on dawn radar.
Of the sacrificed Children of the Cold, two girls; of two, the Maiden
best preserved. Unlike Lightning Girl, struck straight through the ice, the Maiden’s heart still flush, spidered
with ruby ice. Ice a composition of lace stitching her arms’ tiny hairs. Ice
the skeleton of her last breath, five hundred years and still held. Caverned above the caldera, in the body
of ice, hers curled inward, the way the human always will, faced with fire, laced with ice, beneath
the gods—dark eyes studding the Milky Way, unblinking.
With our parents, there was so little drama. There was silence. Only his heavy snoring ratcheting up
late nights, from the couch, and new furniture, plastic- cauled, over months appearing
in the garage. When the moving van finally arrived, my mother still hadn’t asked,
am I to go with you?
My sister made her do it, ask.
Despite night’s looming freeze, calls of new frogs, threaded by the pull
of near spring, rise from the flooded field. Once, my father netted me a glistening fist
from snow melt and rain, all eyes and silver tails: a cluster of tadpoles. The watch of days we measured then
by each body’s swell, each tail sucking in, until each had abandoned the clouded
water of home we’d scooped to brim the terrarium flush to its island masted with a single
plastic palm. Once, he came home staggering, leaves stuck in his sweater, his hair. Once, he would eat dinner glancing always
sideways at the sideboard mirror, checking the movement of his jaws—was he chomping, was he
gaping, was that boy, that furtive, bird-boned body caught in the crook of his throat again
crowning, that over-alled, shoeless boy he’d been he’d so carefully caverned away behind his white
dress shirt, breast shadowed by the pocket Constitution he always carried. He was looking to see
how he would be seen by someone. My mother never asked
Dark meat around the bone-light of stars: dark constellations, animate gods, open mouth of a hunger
a single girl never could fill.
To impregnate with spices; to preserve from decay, by other means, as by cold. To preserve from oblivion; to keep in sweet and honored remembrance. To steep.
Underground, his body floats his chosen cargo of poison. Lightning girl, my mother preferred ash. A wall faced with marble. Remember as a word for star. A sky sometimes
to visit. The air that afternoon was numbing; no, numb. A pocket constitution I remember his student dropped into the grave. A Navy bugler played Taps, music he’d loved nights on watch.
In a museum absent of signage, the viewer can’t miss the missing, the single plucked strand unbraided
to revelation, each particular the girl was fed the months before sacrifice, how she took it
all in, maize and coca, leaves balled to the green wings her teeth still clench
in the x-ray. Outside, the signage of protest is over her displacement, glacial chamber
to glass cube. Not over what placed her in the ice to begin with. No flash
allowed, the eye must widen against the dim: each panel a staircase
of eyes, such exposure, what downed her degree by degree to this
Placed in ordinary first then struck from the roster of ships—but he was not on the Arizona, his only passed safely over the wreckage to open sea, epiphanic night—why do men keep choosing what they despise, his question
about war a scene to revisit in the memoir he left us while my mother managed only a single diary entry before abandoning herself for the blank white-out of pages. Witness
without word, word without witness: each a lesser than music, lesser than the hand’s embodied line, loop, dot, cross. Three rivers spoke the southern town I’ve
migrated to: all that remains of the removed—Coosa, Oostanaula, Etowah.
What the membered body maps: not surface
but braid, not the blue sea water now shadowed by memorial bridging the wreck; not the Convict Tangs
and Butterfly fish nudging fluttering fingers of corals as they nozzle through a doorway on a deck
studded with mooring bitts like keys on a flute—not the day’s bloom, break
down, bloom of an hour’s black ribbon of oil, its scribbled leak like a cassette tape
unscrolling, triggering devolution, amoeba to angel wing to psychedelic paisley
wash, like surfacing shreds of blacklight posters that papered my sister’s basement
bedroom—but detritus mat and colonial feather-duster worms, biofouling of the wreck equally composed
of the living and the dead, voices gone to iridescence and salt as the field of ice creeps forward to close
the liquid eye, over what, cold-blooded, has already stilled
beneath its lid.
Girl in the glass, to be visible is to be food for the gods.
Boy in the mirror, any fabricated thing held above the body patches the light it meant to flag.
Memory cools toward infinite viscosity which isn’t true freezing.
Ice is what we make of the stars.
Recipient of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two Georgia Author of the Year awards, Sandra Meek is the author of five books of poems, including An Ecology of Elsewhere (Persea Books, May 2016). Dana Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at Berry College, she is also director of the Georgia Poetry Circuit and poetry editor of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Visit her at www.sandrameek.com.