Seven Catastrophes: A Poem Series by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
The guide knifes an imaginary slit from breastbone down to the navel, then branches into two at her legs, hung off the execution stone. This is how they did it, he says, to criminals in ancient times. We are all Christians now. They give us tours, beer, and barbeque. A Batak house is shaped like an ark: high on stilts to keep out water, and to hold pigs and buffalo below. At night, their lowing shakes the kitchen floor. Leave us alone, they are saying. Bodies— of animals, or water—never ask to be held. Men sleep alone, against the front gable. The roof rises at both ends: stern and bow, or pair of horns.
Rising over the hill, we count pairs of horns against a green so profuse, it might damage the eye. When I close mine, color still flashes, neons like betta fish darting through the flooded paddies. Who am I to see this place? Saturation is a blue crater, a lake reflecting the heavy sky, and the cotton sarongs we hung up days ago that still haven’t dried on the line. When I climb and slip, a bruise spreads on my hip like a caldera: cold basalt at the center, silica at the shallow edge. When I move, it shimmers into living: a moth scratching the lamp, too hot where we try to touch.
Hot is the itch we know when spinning a yarn about the earth’s ejecta, but after the volcano, weren’t there years without summer? This continent swathed in six inches of gray? Pyroclasts veiled the planet, kept it away from the rain and sun. Wilt flattened the forest, concaved the human belly. And always that sound of small gods that could be carried on wind. The population P whittled to a waif-like : the ship slid in the bottleneck, and through.
Because the bottleneck theory tells us that a ship can flatten a nation, one ship always leads to another, and then its company digging up the land. When ripe coffee beans bulge—red as lungs’ alveoli—some drop and spoil before they’re plucked, the fields a small massacre. The remaining cherries must be scoured and rinsed and what now do we do with gallons of wastewater. Pour it back in the lake? Dumb down its original clarity? Dead fish float to the top, rafts with their silver sides up.
They promised rice, a sunny-side up, and kopi in glass tumblers. But they never said the inn was clapboards and shambles. The island’s pinnacle is a wrecked crow’s nest, far from the harbor’s pizza, English marquees: WE TOP WITH MAGIC MUSHROOMS. Crows sway in these tropical pines. The women chew their betel, smiles as orange as iodine. The young one ushers us to where we sleep: a barn with a bed touching all four walls. But I climb out at night, urgent and shivering, leap over the snouts of three sleeping dogs. To pee in the dark I hover, lift my hem over the soil, as I’ve seen the other women do in daylight.
What Marco Polo saw, he never recorded in daylight, preferring chicken-scratch in the dark, his feather pen’s white the only light to see by. These hill folk are man-eaters. They suck out human bones. Kin must provide pepper, lemons, and salt. He saw this, somehow, all the way from the coast, having never left the beach’s hem, pressed into the Batak interior. These women, he wrote, in truth, are very handsome, very sensual. I remember Elizabeth Taylor on a Spanish beach, nipples boring through her white bathing suit. The boys flock and circle her because she doesn’t belong. And way back in time, under rings of candlelight, Columbus is footnoting Polo’s Travels, the pages oily with his touch. The ink splashes beneath his hand: a mix of acid, salts, and gall.
We sleep beneath batik and mosquito net, salty skin scratching the mattress. Beside me, the guidebook pages, thin as a bible’s, curl up from the dampness. I dream I’m on a ship as it slides—no, thrusts—through the neck of a bottle. The scratchy sails cover us like burial linens. I have seen fluyt models in museums, but never the hook: the used to wrench it up like a tent. Somewhere under my sleep, the deck is buckling. I lie next to a woman that I have never met, our mouths muted by strips of sailcloth. A scar already divides her bare belly into two. Here, some missionary—a sailor, a white boy— guides his knife again, imagines her as a slit.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is the author of Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), finalist for the Miller Williams Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. Her poems and essays appear in The Missouri Review, Boston Review, FIELD, Washington Square, Guernica, and many other publications. She is currently the Murphy Visiting Fellow in English at Hendrix College and a contributing editor at The Kenyon Review.
Header photo of Batak house by Julia Chapple, courtesy Flickr. Photo of Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers by J. Robert Lennon.