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

their names.
 

                                ~

 
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

precise stall.
 

                                ~

 
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.

View poetry by Sandra Meek appearing previously in Terrain.org.

Photo of oil sheen above the U.S.S. Arizona by Sandra Meek.

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