Spilt

There, there! Though I never asked for this flatness
or to be so efficiently dismissed—
no lanterns floated on my temporary lake,
no time for the cream to form continents, calve icebergs,
and no one says of my demise, a library was lost

still I have known the sluggish bottom of the bottle
and the dead chill of the cooler, can recall
startlements of light as I rang like money in the pail

and before that, warmth and dimness
and the deeply thrumming pipes that bore my substance
from Meadow, sun clouded in bugs, through nonbeing
to a kind of splendor, even transcendence:

in perfect continuity with my surroundings, white light
poured into white light. And whole. And held.

I could tell the people a thing or two about despair.
Haven’t I spilled, controlled, each morning
past the stark looming letters that foretell
the curdling and the old-age smell?
But I know too that annihilation

means only to be packed again into the egg.
Prismatic, I will split and realign.
Behold the road that opens in mid-air,

the sudden and familiar loss of shape,
the wet slap my skin makes against the grain.
No tears, no tears! That cup was not my home.
I wore and then outgrew it like a shoe.

The world’s distilled to an infinite plane.
It’s happened before. I will get through.

 

[A year in poems— March entry]

 

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White Flag Beside the Wye

Five miles through woods crept up to eight, then ten,

and the sun had made its turn past vertical,

descended to leaf-level and set the green flickering

when the path dead-ended in river mud, ebb tide, no abbey.

 

The way unwound like a dropped scarf, blackberry-tatted.

In fallen-away fields the gorse burned yellow

around the unpanicked legs of cows. I closed my ears

 against hordes of nettles muttering go back

and knelt over the map: a paper bird I’d found

at the bus station that morning, hatched roughly

in the knapsack, blue wings creased with use,

its thin cry unconvincing

next to the book that shared its nest, the cover worn velvet,

the folded page I held in my palm

like a compass, no glimpse of Tintern yet, but that

would come, wouldn’t it?  All paths lead back to builders;

and so on through the deep and deeper forest

I paid out bravery like twine, knotted it, clutched

at its dwindling weight in my hip pocket,

until at the river’s sluggish edge I pulled its feathered end

into my hand.

 

They say the ruins are lavender in this light.

Are stone and slingshot. I’m down to my last apple.

The river opens up a skyroad for monkish bees that stumble

homeward from their flowers, the world’s sweetness

a burden almost too much for them to bear. Yet up they buck.

Over eons they’ll pack a blissful gold

in six-sided cells their bodies spend all to form.

But I am no alchemist. I have only prayer.

The rosary of footprints I’ve laid down winds up and back

in sodden chalk. Nothing but steady effort with which to beg

whatever god was cast out here or comes to summer rough

to make of me, as the day goes down, an offering,

something cored more finely than the hiker

I set out as, in a far more crowded country.

 

O setting sun! Strike a match against my hair

and kindle on the sodden riverbank what’s left of me

into a blaze the likes of which this valley has not seen

since men first cleared the land for their ships of stone,

a blaze such as the ancients used to navigate by—

for I am lost, I am lost, at last freely I confess it

like the sacrificial beasts that in late summer

wander these high fields crackling with gorse,

their legs alight, their bodies never burning.

 

 

A Year in Poems: February Entry

[Author’s note: this is a “longline poem” assignment I started for a poetry class I took with John Shoptaw at Berkeley. The WordPress format doesn’t capture the shape I was trying to create with each pair of lines. If you’re interested, the intended formatting is maintained in this Word doc.]

just to say

there will be
no crumb cake
for our daughter’s
birthday tea

because someone
ate the plums
even though
I hid them
in the icebox

oh
and forgive me
but your next
apology by poem

had better
be a goddamn sonnet

 

 

Here’s a little extra add-on to my January poem post. It didn’t feel fair to use it for my main poem, because it wasn’t resurrected from my poem graveyard–in fact it went from thought to finished (finished-ish) in the space of a few weeks. It is obviously an homage–and retort– to William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” a poem I know well but revisited with fresh eyes this past winter, when it was kicking around in meme form. As a writer and reader I love the original poem; as a wife and mother, I find it completely exasperating.

One Earring

You are not wooden
but you look it, coffee
lapping against tamarind
in the glossy and absolutely
smooth hemisphere
I used to rub with one small thumb—

or was that your sister,
fallen since into some dank
S-bend, no longer gleaming
like Saturday night, not
setting off the tint
of my mother’s tugged-at hair

(walnut and cinnamon smoking
to grey where it twisted
from her forehead)
but rocked in nightly tides
of turned wine and dishwater,
not spoken of, not saved?

Twins once, now you
are something else
I hesitate to name,
one a young and un-eroded
version of the other.
Tiger eye I’m told—

but surely that should
mean green, or striped,
or a stone that stares back?
Worn, your weight unbalances.
Until in the mirror
I summon ghosts.

In the glass the stones
of years fall back into my hand
and you are not orphan.
Here is the shell-like, elegant ear,
a mother’s cinnamon hair
restored to its rough glory,

and the floating moon of you
(moon of teak, moon of upturned earth)
whose gravity still grounds me.

 

 

[A Year in Poems: January entry]

[And a bonus poem to start the year off.]

A Year in Poems

I feel so-so about New Year’s Resolutions. On the one hand, why wait til January to make the changes you want to see in the world? You could have a summer resolution instead (when you might actually want to get up at 6am and run 3 miles through the park), or a back-to-school resolution, or just a my-god-it’s-Monday-again resolution. Plus you’re not going to stick to it anyway, are you? Why set yourself up for failure?

On the other hand, sometimes we need an occasion for change. It can help to have a sense that something outside of us is becoming different–the setting, the era, okay, the year–and that therefore we might for once succeed in being different too. I am not much of a runner, but when I studied abroad  in Mexico in college I woke up early every morning and ran along the beach as far as the sardine cannery and back. Every morning. The friends I made in Mexico thought of me as a runner. New place, new me. (One friend, who was actually a runner, tried running with me one morning and quickly discovered, oh, no, you are not a runner.)

DSCN1654
Like, seriously. Not a runner.

So right at the end of each year, when people ask if I have any resolutions, I usually say no.

But even as the words leave my lips, somewhere over my head a wisp of a resolution is floating, like the faint mist on a mirror that tells you a body still has breath.

And by the end of January–importantly, after people have stopped asking about it–I usually gather the ovaries to formally admit my resolution to myself.

I still think I’ll fail at it. I usually do fail, if what one’s going for is perfection. But if it makes me move even a little in the direction I want to go, wasn’t that worth it? The goal isn’t finish this marathon. It’s get off this couch.

Which brings us to this year. See. I have this stack of poems that I’ve started over the last decade or so and abandoned, or gotten stuck on, or thought were finished and then realized later with horror were the melodramatic ravings of a teenage diarist. My resolution is to pluck one poem from this pile each month of 2018 and finish it. This is no more ambitious a resolution for me than usual, but this year I’ve decided to add some extra incentive to follow through with it. Some virtual accountabilibuddies, if you will. That’s where you come in–if you want.

I’m going to post each poem on this blog by midnight on the last day of each month. (I am! I am! I am!) You can subscribe if you want (can you? I don’t understand technology), or check back in, look out for the latest installment. You can email, text, or homing pigeon me if I fail. You can say I owe you a beer if the poem is late and I will shrug and pony up. Although if you live in upstate NY, you will have to fly here to collect on said beer.

I might not share the Poem of the Month on Facebook every time (or any time, after this) because this is HARD FOR ME PEOPLE. But I will put it up here, on this blog.

Or, you know, maybe I’ll fail. I may end up flat on my face on the floor.

But at least I’ll be off the pinche couch.

 

Why I’m Marching

Because when we first learned we were having a son, my husband and I had the same thought: “we have to raise him not to be an asshole.” That son is now a sweet, kind three-year-old who is equally fond of cement mixers and princess dresses, T-ball and his toy kitchen. He has a little brother now, too. I am the mother of two sons. And I want them to grow into strong, intelligent, thoughtful men who treat all women (and all people) as respected equals. This task is made rather more difficult when the highest office in the land is occupied by a man who treats women like objects, publicly insults and belittles them, doubles down on those insults, who has boasted about sexual assault, on tape, for God’s sake, and still managed to be wildly popular among a significant fraction of the population. I march to send the message to my sons: this is not what real manhood looks like.

Because the office of president can no longer be held up as something to aspire to. Instead, if my kids exhibit any presidential behavior whatsoever, they shall face the mother of all Time-Outs.

Because in addition to sons, I also have nieces. Two of them are under 4 years old. Imagine if you were a little girl, and the only president you’d ever known was a woman. Imagine how your vision of your own potential would be expanded by such a reality–how you would be able to take for granted certain possibilities that women have fought hard for for centuries, that apparently still hover out of reach. And now imagine that the only president you’ve known is a misogynist with zero qualifications for governance, who nevertheless managed to get elected over a woman who was probably the most qualified and experienced candidate for president we’ve seen in the last fifty years. This, unfortunately, is a dynamic my nieces will encounter over and over in their lives. But they should hear me say it’s not right, and it never will be.

Because the day after Election Day in 2008, I went to the Oakland drop-in center for homeless women and kids where I used to cook breakfast every Wednesday. Over coffee I listened to the families talk about the election results, giddy, still a little disbelieving. Several were African-American women with school-aged kids. I listened to these mothers of young black boys and girls as they shared their hopes for the future, tears in their eyes. How, whatever else Obama would or would not accomplish, he had already given them, and especially their sons, a great gift: the chance to see someone that looked like them in the White House.

Because I can’t imagine what mother could possibly get that same almost holy thrill from seeing Donald Trump elected.

Because I have met and worked with a lot of people who came to this country without documents, and I know how desperate most of them are for a better life, how hard they have worked to get here and stay here, and how limited their options are. “I’m not against immigrants,” I hear many citizens say, “I just want them to come the legal way, to get in line with everyone else.” What these citizens don’t know is that for the poor, and for many people fleeing extremely dangerous situations in war- or violence-torn nations, there is no line. There is no legal alternative. Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform. Until that happens, we need compassion and leeway for those who are here in the shadows.

Because I personally know Dreamers who have lived their whole lives in this country after being brought here illegally as children. They are as American as I am and they deserve a chance to thrive here and to give back to the country they’ve made their own. If Trump revokes DACA, they could be deported to countries where they have never lived, where they don’t know anyone, where they don’t speak the language. This makes America poorer.

Because in this mainstream-Christian society, freedom of religion don’t mean a thing unless it applies to other religions.

Because once fossil fuels are pumped up and burned, they can’t be put back in the ground. Once coral reefs are bleached or old-growth forests are cut down, they not coming back in my lifetime. Once a river is fouled with mine tailings or pipeline spills, the ecosystem that depends on it may be destroyed forever. I have faith that we will recover from many Trump-era policies, but a failure to act on climate now may hasten disaster from which we will never recover. Indeed it may already be too late.

Because I’m one of those nasty women, and I cannot let this shit happen again.

Endangered Scientistas: My Marriage as Case-Control Study, Part II

Read Part I first, okay?

The postdoc.

That time in a scientist’s life that my graduate advisor described as the best, the most rewarding: that three-to-six-year period after the Ph.D. where you become a virtual apprentice in someone else’s lab, working under the umbrella of an established scientist, but developing your own projects and interests. You’re free of the additional stresses of both the graduate student (classes, teaching assistantships, one bitch of a learning curve) and the principal investigator (grant-writing, committees, teaching, personnel management, fancier dress code, and the list goes on). You are free to focus on pure research–a love of which is, we hope, the reason you got into this line of work in the first place.

My husband and I were both looking forward to our postdocs. Me especially, maybe. I love doing research–the actual doing of it, the handiwork involved, as well as the thinking that precedes and follows each bit of action. It’s the closest I ever come to making art. In college I worked in a histology lab where my weekly work was to cut very thin slices of skin from salamanders (don’t ask–or do), float them on the surface of a water bath, and, using delicate paintbrushes to manipulate the fragile tissues, mount them on glass slides to be stained in a panoply of bright colors.

So yes, I was excited to do research full-time, and I’d chosen a topic that deeply interests me: immunity to malaria, one of the most devastating diseases of humankind. My husband planned to study a different kind of immunity: responses to parasitic worms and to allergens, which the body treats similarly for reasons that are still murky but intriguing. We’d been in the same lab in grad school; now we were diversifying our joint portfolio, if you will. This was important for our long-term careers, since it’s unlikely that a single university or research institution would want to hire two people who study the same thing.

So began our first tangle with the two-body problem. We had to find two labs in the same geographical region that aligned with our respective interests. And they had to be good labs–labs with the funding, reputation, and intellectual environment to set us up for success.

We started by picking cities: Boston, Seattle, San Francisco. These are places with a high concentration of research institutions, improving our chances of both finding a good lab. But much to our surprise, when we each started looking for specific labs to join, my husband–let’s call him Dr. J–couldn’t find a single one in the Boston area that had what he was looking for. And I couldn’t find one in San Francisco (or Berkeley or Palo Alto) that seemed a good fit for me.

I won’t walk you through all the discussions we had–about switching out Boston for Philadelphia; about whether, if we did our postdocs in Seattle, we stood much chance of staying there long-term (we like Seattle, and it’s unusual to be hired as faculty in the same place you did your postdoc). Suffice to say, there was no one place that would put us both in top-notch postdocs that aligned with our interests. One of us was going to have to settle. But who?

Oh–and there was more factor to consider: we wanted a kid.

We were both pushing thirty, and while that’s not an old age for first-time parents anymore, we had various reasons for wanting to plunge into parenthood sooner rather than later. This meant that during our postdocs, we (but mostly I) could expect to need some time off from work. Possibly a lot of time, since we were really hoping to care for our child at home for at least six months before putting him/her in daycare. We also decided that in order to (1) have the kind of work-life balance we craved and (2) give our child (or perhaps children) the home environment we wanted, only one of us would pursue a career as a principle investigator. That was the person whose career we should prioritize; that was the person who should get the best postdoc.

That person was my husband.

I want to be clear here: I fully participated in this decision, I signed off on it, I still think it was the right one for us. And in part, we chose to prioritize Dr. J’s career because of personal preference: he had long hoped to run his own lab, while my own interests are more varied and I felt I could be happy in a less high-profile research setting.

But did science’s gender bias play a role in shaping our decision? You bet it did. For one thing, we knew that I would get at least some paid maternity leave after having a baby, while university policy doesn’t grant a single day of paid leave for fathers. Thus I would likely take more time off, freeing my husband to put in more time in the lab. For another thing, statistically speaking, Dr. J stood a better chance than I did of running the postdoc gauntlet and coming out at the other end with a faculty job–at which (again, statistically speaking) he would possess more earning power than I would as a woman.

And there were less tangible considerations, too–like how my husband felt more like a peer to the mostly male professors we interact with, making it easier for him to imagine being one of them. How my entire life–long before I ever thought about having children in a concrete way–I have assumed that I would bear most of the burden of caring for them, and so I have always factored this into my own vision of my career and my life’s work.

I could write a whole essay about these invisible cultural cues… and hopefully I will, someday. But we’ll leave it here for the time being: we moved to San Francisco, where my husband joined a well-regarded lab with obscene amounts of money, and I joined a new, unknown, poorly funded malaria lab that would go on to fold several years later.

Oh, and we had that kid, and yes, he is worth it, ya’ll. Charlie Brown postdoc and all.