In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.
The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.
The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.
“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:
Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail, we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .
In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”
The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.
The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”
In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.
The night Trump was elected, I lay in bed awake all night, wondering if a nuke would reach the Midwest. I was sure we would all explode before the night was over. Lots of people were afraid in different ways, but my fears always culminate in the explosion of the world. Have you seen the movie Melancholia? That is always where my mind ends up.
When I was pregnant, I was afraid of falling. I was afraid the baby wasn’t kicking. I went to the doctor a lot to be sure she was still alive. But then, she was born, and the fears were bigger. There was not a squishy waterball around her body to protect her if she fell. I was afraid if a knife was in the same room as her. I was afraid of stairs. I was afraid of sleeping and of not sleeping. Don’t get me started about crossing roads.
Two Months Before My Son Leaves for Belgium, We Visit the Zoo
And a few months before that, the airport is bombed. I get message message message: am I letting him go? And maybe I’m to blame, because I never told them I’d once caught him running on the roof of our third-floor, that he was once hit so hard by a car his shoes flew from his feet into air (a story I heard as his friends joked about the lady who’d hit him, who’d cried and hugged him in the road, making sure he was ok), or when, just three days before the bombing, a high school kid scrawled plans to shoot everyone on a bathroom stall. And so, two months before my son boards a plane to Belgium, we feed giraffes, and he poses with peacocks. He wants to see reptiles and primates, his sister wants elephants, crocodiles, never stops running until she sees a baby kangaroo—we all stop and watch him hop around his mother who lays on the concrete floor, bored. He cleans her ears, jumps on her head to engage her in play, and she swats him away. He is already half her size, but clearly still a baby. He doesn’t give up until finally she stands, and I say I think he’ll climb into her pouch! My son doesn’t believe the joey will fit, and I tell him he will fit, and then, an illusion— the pouch one minute tucked against the kangaroo’s belly, stretches, touches the ground as the joey climbs in head-first, shuffles and turns settling in. After that, there is little to see. Black paws peek from the belly. The mother nibbles her fingers, drags her baby toward a food bowl, and I follow her eyes down the dark corridor toward the metal door bursting open, the light blasting in, my daughter running out into it.
Most moms I know spend a lot of time at Target. The Dollar Spot. The end-cap clearance. The Starbucks. They go for toilet paper and spend $100. I am occasionally a mom who does this, and I don’t call this out to judge, but to say, when I am afraid, I go to Target. It feels safe there. (Though I’ve seen enough shooting footage at Walmarts to know better.) It’s easy enough to drink a latte, push my kids in the cart while they play with a random toy I won’t buy, and pick out a pretty thing or two that will make my life easier.
When I spend a lot of time at Target (or, more recently, internet shopping), I write nothing. I let all of my anxieties be swept away by faux eucalyptus wreaths, bamboo potato bins, vetiver candles— the promise of an organized home, manageable children, an “Instagram-worthy” life. But when I get these things home, I am unsatisfied. Most things I buy, I return within a week.
Living alone, I’d call my mom, make her listen as I moved room-to-room looking in closets, behind doors, under the bed, anywhere
a man could fit. I plugged my curling iron in each day before showering, imagined identifying a man in a lineup by his melted cheek,
his missing eye. By then, I’d seen enough Law & Order reruns to play each scene out until sentencing. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted things
to be fair, believed hand-on-my-heart in liberty and justice for all, but I’ve also been so afraid. Mostly of a death I’d have to live through—
drowning, fire, kidnapping that ends with me tied up in a hole filling with dirt. My daughter is scared of ghosts, believes they’re in each
corner of her dark room. I tell her they’re not real, but once playing Ouija at the cabin with cousins, we contacted The Blue Ghost
and the light above us flickered blue/ burnt out, left us in dark woods alone. So who’s to say? I’ve never walked through a haunted house,
staged or otherwise, but my cousin pissed her pants inside one, left a puddle someone had to clean. One year, the gun club
sponsored a haunted hayride, and I rode through the forest, hay splintering my ass through jeans, and when a man jumped out of the dark
with a chainsaw buzzing at us, I thought, “God, who knows if this is really part of it? Who gets paid to behave this way?”
This was years before a man shot into a crowded concert from a hotel window in Vegas and before so many
defended his rights. I watch TV, try to believe “these stories are fictional and do not depict any actual person or event.” My daughter
asks about monsters, and I say they’re not real, but news breaks, and she knows I’m lying. If ghosts are real, what do they expect
from a four-year-old? By now, you’d think we’d all have heard the unsettled dead. You’d think something would’ve changed.
It took me a while to recognize this cycle of consumerism and fear, and especially how it is encouraged among women, particularly mothers, and it is fed by social media. The amount of money a mom can spend on “baby gear,” and the sheer volume of stuff one can buy for a tiny human being who can only roll over, is a testament to this.
A few years ago, I watched the video The House in the Middle, which is a PSA made by the Civil Defense Department in the Fifties and sponsored by a paint company. The video suggests that if you (the housewife) keep your house clean (and well-painted), your family could survive a nuclear attack. Can you imagine? All you need to do is keep a clean house, and ta-da! Your family survived the nuke. From there, I read bomb-shelter shopping lists. I looked at fallout shelter meal plans. I looked at photo after photo of how mannequin families “survived” nuclear tests. All of these mannequins looked just like me. They looked like every mother I knew: cooking dinner, stocking the pantry, decorating the fallout shelter with new bedding, encouraged to buy things and stay busy.
The Mannequin Refreshes the Facebook Mom Group While Sitting on the Toilet
A pregnant woman has been reading— childbirth sounds awful, bringing baby home is terrifying, she wants someone to tell her it’s not. Someone say it’s beautiful. And they do. 97 comments gushing about the beauty, assuring her yes, it’s hard, but you will only remember the joy of those first days, they go so fast. The mannequin has had enough babies to mostly remember the awful, the weight of body after body escaping her own, she can barely read the comments without feeling cheated out of forgetting, so she scrolls past them, another mom wants recommendations for a nutritionist, her husband won’t let their toddler eat sugar, natural or otherwise, and her toddler is losing so much weight so fast now that he’s weaning, and that’s as far as the mannequin gets before the door bursts open, and a photo appears in her Facebook feed, and it’s her baby a year ago, and here’s her baby today, and she sees he was beautiful—the baby on the duvet, stretching in his new skin, now wobbling in on chubby legs, such terrible, awful beauty.
Poet, community organizer, and instructor Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin. She earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of the poetry collection Louder Birds (2020), selected by Traci Brimhall for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.
Voras-Hills has received grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar as well as a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. She cofounded The Watershed: A Place for Writers, a literary arts organization, which evolved into Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.
It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.
The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.
The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”
One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:
Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.
Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.
Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.
Let’s situate: Where were you born?
In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a
photograph of the future.
Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.
Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.
Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?
A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.
To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?
Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”
If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:
Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s
lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells
of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.
In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”
Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.
I’m thinking of a photograph of a cactus blooming in the desert.
That is always the way I will think of you and your work. It has nothing to do with any kind of cliché of prickliness, because I have never seen a sharp point to you. Maybe you have sharp points like most of us do, but that is certainly not a feature of your spirit or your work. The cactus is full of life. It is green, so green. It curves in a perfect vessel which soothes and delights the lost, the thirsty, the weary. Maybe this sounds over-the-top or sycophantic (God I hope not) but one thing I love about you and your work is that it doesn’t shy away from the joy of expressing joy and a kind of love that meets the stranger on the path with a big smile and open arms. Sometimes people doubt it when a person shows up that way—maybe people have been hurt and are suspicious and maybe cynical. But I mean it, I see you and your work this way—like a vessel full of life and light.
I am not being eloquent. I just had to spell-check the word eloquent. I grew up without books, in a home where books were viewed with suspicion, but even more than suspicion, total neglect. So were children. I was a child in a house with no books and adults who were hurting and angry and left plumes of violent hurt and anger all over the house, in the rooms, and who roped me in with it and wouldn’t let go.
I grew up scared and then angry and then full of a fight that was both a curse and a gift. I spent a long time trying to fix myself. This is a love letter to you, not me, though! Except—you’d want it to be to me, too. That’s what I got from you and your work.
I don’t even remember exactly when I found you or the first poem or how. I’m pretty sure it was when my son, Elliot came out as trans the second time. The first time he told me, I don’t remember it, but he says he was eight and I guess I didn’t hear him or understand. I wanted to be a good mother. I was so overjoyed with my children and I felt such deep love for them and I was happy to create a home for them that would be a safe place and a haven. I also knew I couldn’t be perfect, because that would put too much pressure on my kids and I’d fall right back into the narcissistic traps of it being all about me. Am I being narcissistic now? How’d I get from Elliot to MY children to ME? This is all to say that I think the self exists on a spectrum between toxic narcissism and healthy self-love and grace all in between and around like a desert. Not a wasteland. The desert is teeming with life and beauty. I feel this wondering about the self and its capacity for violence and harm in your work, too. But also that grace for others and the self.
So I missed something Elliot tried to tell me when he was eight. Then he told me again at fifteen and I was still a little wary. But he said LISTEN TO ME, MOM. and I did. I turned to face him and I listened and I said yes to everything in him. He was and is so beautiful. Now he is at the University of Iowa, and when I see him sometimes for lunch or when he texts me or calls, my heart jumps and I feel so happy. He is the most beautiful being.
One of the first books I got immediately after he spoke to me and I listened with an open heart was Troubling the Line. I wanted to be a good mom, so of course, I ordered a bazillion books on being trans the next day: nonfiction, self-help, clinical/academic, fiction, memoir, and poetry.
That’s where I found you. I’m certain of it now. I then signed us up for a poetry workshop at Naropa. I got Elliot in the LAST SPOT for Eileen Myles’ workshop. I took Thurston Moore’s workshop because he was my childhood idol and I wanted to confront him (with grace) for a certain patriarchy I grew up with in the punk scene and kind of felt annoyed at (“Kill Yr Idols”). (I ran away from home as a teenager and found a home in punk rock and poetry.) And I thought meeting you and talking to you outside of a class face to face would be a really meaningful way to connect with you. So Elliot and I met you at SNARFBURGER and I was both beaming at Elliot and doing the proud mother thing and also spilling my soul all over your space. I bought Gephyromania.
You exuded light, just like your poems did. You talked about grace and you spoke the language of my childhood religion in a way that liberated the language from its terror and transformed it into this authentic questioning—the kind of question mark that the wise sages say we should live in. You made space in your workshop (which Elliot and I got to sit in on one day) to dance in the question. Literally, dance, move, embody! I was so scared of my body. So scared of myself, still, after forty-something years, still a scared little girl who wanted to be a brave and loved little boy, and now I had a trans son and he was a blazing light and I was immersed in all this light and felt both overjoyed and fearful, too, in turns.
Look, I know this doesn’t sound academic and like the proper kind of intellectual level of critique and analysis—but I’ve never been able to pull that off. I once wrote a paper about post-structuralism that was just gibberish repeating “signifier and signified” over and over again in every other sentence. I got an A+ but what I really loved in that class was my professor, Lydia Gasman, who survived the Holocaust and would quote Kabbala before class. I loved her.
I love you. Not in a creepy, stalkerish way. The world is dangerous and you’ve got to have good boundaries and sometimes survivors of abuse have trouble with boundaries, which can be a curse but also a GIFT. Because sometimes you meet fellow survivors and they’ve been through so much bullshit they’re like, can we just be real with each other? Like, we’re all going to die, so can we just love each other and mostly extend grace, unless someone proves to be harmful—in which case you have a right to protect yourself. But I just felt like my soul recognized you, first in your poems and then in your self. So whether I ever see you again, face to face, I think of you as a friend in the space of the world. The big beautiful desert and you’re out there blooming.
I want to be real with everyone I encounter on this big blue planet with its vast deserts of air and light and rocks and blooms. I really do love you all the poets reading and want to meet you and be open to you. If I can break the fourth wall a second and speak directly to the audience reading this—TC is an EMT!!! TC literally meets people in their most broken, scared places and tends to them and always has, in workshops, on the page, in dance, in the wilderness with Outward Bound, with my son, with students, friends, and strangers. Let’s all do that, please, to the best of our ability with all our crankiness or fears or suspicion (born rightfully by our experiences). Let’s be brave and love each other and extend one another grace.
Here’s one of my favorite poems of TC:
What Space Faith Can OccupyBy TC Tolbert
I believe that witness is a magnitude of vulnerability.That when I say love what I mean is not a feelingnor promise of a feeling. I believe in attention.My love for you is a monolith of try.
The woman I love pays an inordinate amountof attention to large and small objects. She is notdescribed by anything. Because I could not mean anything else,she knows exactly what I mean.
Once upon a time a line saw itselfclear to its end. I have seen the shapeof happiness. (y=mx+b)I am holding it. It is your hand.
Heathen/Heather Derr-Smith is a punk rock Sufi genderqueer poet with four books of poetry. s(he) lives in Des Moines with (he)r family of beautiful human beings and dog and cat animal-people. Heather’s most recent book Thrust, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award and was published in 2017 at Persea Books. Derr-Smith is also the founder/director of the nonprofit Cuvaj se, supporting writers in conflict zones and post-conflict zones and communities affected by violence and trauma. So, you may find Heathen wandering around the United States, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Kurdistan walking beside survivors and resisting authoritarian and fascist bullshit.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.
I understand and appreciate the amount of work and love and labor you have put into raising us.
You and dad came to this country as newlywed young professionals, and together you were always fighting as a team.
You were twenty-one and scared and fought your way through the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic spaces of the west coast, carving a nurturing space for yourself and our family.
You are the lioness, protecting her cubs from each element that is threatening.
You and dad are the first to take on the offender when something fucked up happens to one of us, and I love you for that.
Your words are like tiny swords, each one cutting slightly and swiftly, but deeply.
What I would like for you to understand, though, is how deeply you wound me.
Every time I come home, you comment on my body. I have struggled with my body image issues since I was ten years old.
It doesn’t help me that you were the charismatic 100-lb, 5’4” beloved beauty queen of your community.
Or that even now, after having three grown children, and two grandchildren, you don’t look a day over thirty, thanks to daily applications of Oil of Olay and vitamin E.
But my body? My body is a road map of stretch marks, and I shrink and grow depending on stress, work load, my thyroid acting up, the time of the year.
Every time I come home, I am subjected to your close readings of my body.
Oh, beta, you would be so beautiful if only your belly were flat.
Oh, beta, don’t wear short skirts around the house. Nice girls don’t show their legs to anyone but their husbands.
Oh, beta, why are you single? All of your cousins are married. Your younger brothers are engaged. If you lost thirty pounds, you would find a nice boy.
MOM! You have no idea what my life has been like. I have internalized your words to the point where I wake up thinking about my midsection.
Your voice haunts me. I go to bed wondering when the weight training will start affecting change properly.
The last time I was in fantastic shape, I killed myself every day. I swam and played tennis and danced and ran five miles a day. I broke my body over and over.
I fucked up my back during a period of weight training. My body hasn’t been the same since.
I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat desserts, I don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white flour, I don’t eat or drink any dairy, I don’t eat fried foods. I cook for myself every day, and I am doing what I need to do in order to survive.
You want to know what my pain is like? This bodily transformation I have undertaken has resulted in a pinched nerve, and a bulging disc, and nearly constant sciatica with shooting spirals of pain running from my lower back down my leg and ankles.
I could barely sleep, much less walk. I have done everything that you and dad said. Education above everything, no? Two BAs, two MAs. I finished a PhD.
All of this financed by myself, through grants and fellowships, based on my merits. And I am not yet thirty.
Graduate school has broken me in so many ways, and constantly being around blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slender, pale, privileged, entitled pieces of flesh does not help my body issues. You try living in X for five years, one of the ghostliest cities on earth.
You try teaching undergraduate students from the wealthiest feeder schools in X, who have never been in the presence of a woman of color who holds power over them.
These students look like Barbie and Ken. I cannot compete with them. I won’t compete with them. The worst part about your words is that you say them with genuine love and concern. You don’t have a malicious bone in your body.
You will tell me these things while we are taking a walk or while you are putting coconut oil into my hair. We can talk about everything under the sun, but when I react to your words with anger and offense, you claim to not intend to hurt me. You say that as my mother, you have every right to say the things you do.
I disagree. I call these microaggressions. Your biggest concern is for my wellbeing, but you seem to believe that I am starved for companionship.
You are haunting me. Your words echo inside my mind, constantly.
I don’t know if it is because there are three weddings happening at the moment in our enormous, multigenerational desi family.
I don’t know if it because you yourself are haunted by your mother’s words.
I’ve seen what Nani says to you. I’ve seen the pain that etches itself on your features.
I’m the oldest grandchild and the only single one, and I am a disappointment in spite of my many achievements.
I wish you wouldn’t bring this stuff up anymore. I don’t quite know how to tell you all of this and have you actually hear me. Crying doesn’t help. Threats to you that I won’t come home to visit don’t help. I’m tired of taking it and it is affecting my wellbeing. I wish you could hear what I am saying. I wish you would stop. I love you more than anything on earth and I wish you could love me the way I do you.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.
At first he told me he liked my dreadsAnd I hesitated to tell him they weren’t realThen he told me my body looked deliciousWhy did I hesitate to tell him that it wasn’t his meal?
I’m not supposed to let them touch meI’m not supposed to let them seeI don’t suppose it felt that goodI don’t suppose he liked my screamsI’m not supposed to invite them inI’m not supposed to offer a keyI don’t suppose he’s all that smartHe told me to shut up when I already couldn’t breathe
Why don’t black women EVER smileY’all are so much sexier with your lips spreading wideNot to tell or ask or sayBut, when it’s night. When it’s time to ease my day awayThat’s when those lips start to take me to heavenI try to stay coolI try to count each secondI try to stay calmI barely make it to seven…
I smileI doI smile at children and flowers and loversI smile at animals and skies and mothersI smile all the timeYou can trust that I doI just won’t ever smile at you.
Why do you call me babygirlWhen Truth told me that I’m A WomanWhy do you call me out my nameWhy do you think that i’ll believe that i’m nothing
Why do you make fun of my dreamsWhy make my future seem impossibleWhen an Angel already rose from the deadJust to tell me that I’m Phenomenal
Your words may scratch other womenBut they’ll never lay a hand on meBecause my ancestors’ loveGot to me firstIsn’t it obviousShit, I know you see.
Is it my scent that’s luring youDo you know about my secret tooIf so, then there’s nothing i can doI am only one, but my body is built for twoActually, my body is built for a fewBut today, none of those few are youNor is it my baby boy’s blueNor is it my baby girl’s cooNope, not this moon – nothing newNothing growing, nothing bubbling, nothing to stewParty of one, yes only one in my crewNo other color but red will doBut this, this, this you already knewThat’s why you approached me with a promise of trueBut a promise will turn sour and then to untruthI’ll grow into my mother waiting on youOoops, i said it – mother – those words twisted your smile askewMother me, mother my, M-O-T-H-E-R-F-U-That’s what they’ll shout until their lungs give throughWhich one will they come running toLove They Will Who?