I went to an event to support poetry in the jails of Santa Cruz County on Saturday. Ellen Bass read this poem, which knocked me out, Her new book, for which this is the title poem, will be coming out this spring:
As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
On Monday! Here you go, a poem I found on Split This Rock:
The Day I Learned to Speak My Grandmother’s Tongue
The day I learned to speak my grandmother’s tongue An Eastern wind shifted the earth While the western walls were whisked away… And the mountains of Laos rose on the horizon, Roaring with the sound of river dragons Splashing rainbow tail waves Across oceans of opium poppies Just awakened from their slumber By the baby chick with no feathers Hiding under the house board floor Waiting to teach the next generation That to live means to save the most vulnerable
The day I learned to speak my grandmother’s tongue I tied my own tongue upon the eight tones Of the Hmong language Stumbling upon words like a baby, like it should be Restoring back the balance between the ages As I freed my grandmother’s voice To rise clearly, to rise wisely Mighty like the elders’ powers should be
And my fears faded away, like the black spots on her skin Revealed for their true glory, as battle scars From a life lived completely And I found the ultimate truth That I will not escape my nature That I am a rock from the old mountain A strong Hmong woman Carved from another strong Hmong woman
If you lived through the Nixon administration, this poem has a deep resonance. It might even work if you didn’t:
For most in the United States the word brings a phase when mortars in Vietnam still whistled around them and the scandal of Nixon and his Machiavellian buds poured from the news into their subconscious—I see that Watergate too: the televised hearings, and in particular one session—Sam Ervin had just asked Ehrlichman or Dean or Haldeman, a long-winded, periphrastic, left-branching question—it must have lasted forty seconds and seemed three days before he paused for effect, and Ehrlichman or Dean or Haldeman answered: “Senator, could you please repeat the question?” And he did, verbatim! And that is one Watergate.
But I think also of the morning my father sent me to the creek that ran through our pasture to remove a dead calf a flood had floated north to lodge against our water gate— a little Guernsey heifer—I had petted her often— Now flies buzzed around her, bloated and entangled in the mesh—and I remember her eyes were open, so she seemed to watch as I pulled first one leg then another from the vines and wire that trapped her, and pulled her to the bank through the shallow water.
Because the second water gate, which features the tender relationship between a dead calf and a little boy, happened twenty years before the first, in which men break into an office complex in a hotel, I prefer its posts and hog wire that kept cows from a neighbor’s field to the gray rows of filing cabinets that brought down a presidency. The water pours out of the mountain and runs to the sea. Sometimes I say it to myself, until the meanings leave. I say Watergate until it is water pouring through water.