Red shift

When I was small, my grandma had two cats.  One was black and named Sassy. I don’t remember the other one’s name; I’m sure it also started with an ‘S’.    My mother had a horror of animal smells, and the only people we regularly visited were my grandparents, so these cats were the first domesticated animals my brother and I had experience with.  I learned how to pet a cat from front to back, and not against the grain; not to pull a cat’s tail; what a purr sounds like (and, with more years and practice, how to do a convincing imitation); the unusual shape of a cat’s pupils, and the marbling of the iris; what a pet flap is for (and not for, i.e., for small children to crawl through); that cats eat cat food and not, as the cartoons had lead me to believe, primarily mice.

My grandma fed the cats out of the pantry, from what looked like cans of tuna fish.  She would call them by clanging a fork against their metal food bowls, and the cats would drop in as silently as fog.  The pantry was deep, more like a low-ceilinged closet, three feet wide with a plywood door, which was painted, if memory does not betray me, swimming-pool blue.  The door always stood open.

I’m not sure what brought my grandma’s cats to mind today.  The cats vanish from my memory sometime around my middle school years.  The pantry itself was removed in the great kitchen remodeling project that my grandpa and uncle took up around the time I went to college.  The house lost its old zip code when the town had to be split, and the roads to get to my grandparents’ house were redone and expanded when the outlet mall came in, before the Great Recession turned the county upside down.  I still have nightmares in which I am asked to navigate the new roads, five or seven lanes wide, with indecipherable signage and multi-lane roundabouts and flashing yellow left arrow lights (the paper had to run a column at the time to explain what they meant).  Inevitably in these dreams I wind up driving the wrong direction, to the mocking disappointment of my father in the passenger seat.

I thought the pain of nostalgia was the pain of being separated from the past by my changes.  I could go away to college, I could grow into a bona fide adult, but I had imagined that the past I left behind would remain static.  I could come back to my small town and it would be the way it was.  I imagined that nostalgia would mean missing what I used to be.

But the pain of the past is more like the pain of a divorce.  It’s not that I left a past behind; it’s that I and the world I came from have grown apart.  The more times I came back to look for it, the further we had diverged.

I can google my high school and see students attending an institution of the same name, but nothing about it is recognizable.  I scrutinize the walls in their YouTube videos, hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar piece of architecture while the Spanish 1 students ask each other, “Como tay yamo?”  But like Jerusalem in the wake of the Romans, not one stone has been left upon another.  I can’t tell if they’re in the same building.  I can’t tell if they’re in the same town.

The teachers whose names I know have retired, or left, or been ousted; it has not been a good decade to work in Michigan public education.  Old news stories inform me that bona fide celebrities built a house there, but they appear to have left again.  There was a highway sniper, a bizarrely big-city crime.  A dead Klansman’s robes were auctioned; the local journalist notes, memorably, that they were tinged pink, as though they had accidentally been washed with some red socks. The auction house is gone.

On my first day at college, alone in my dorm room at night, I sobbed.  Not because I was afraid, but because my mother, having delivered her firstborn child into the first official phase of adulthood, had been so obviously eager to get it over with.  I was not ready for her to be ready to move on.

When astronomers turn their telescopes to the night sky, they can see a shift in the light.  The universe is growing, not at the edges, but because every part is moving further away from every other part.  It casts a bloody tinge over all there is.  We are growing up; we are diverging; we are eternally breaking apart.

Voyage (NaPoMo 11)

Soon, you will launch your coracle
to carry a single candle-flame
into a hurricane. Your blindness is a mercy:
you cannot see the piling blue-grey thunderheads
conspiring beyond the planet’s curve, and so-
or, both knowing you and praying, still-
you trust your Navigator, and therefore
so must I. So while the sun-days last,
while the biggest waves that rock you
are only cradle-touches, I
will make myself your prudent deck-hand,
stock your craft with all that may, in time,
be needed for your errand in the dark.

O dear one, Lucy’s bravest daughter,
I do not know what gales may rage against you
or how the lion’s breath may roar
seeking to devour your candle-light.
I know only that when the darkness is complete,
the smallest light is piercing.

Exposure (NaPoMo 9)

She lays herself out
on the stone, showing
her belly, her thighs:
See me, she cries
to a billion inert ties,
and the shutter sound plays
a arms’ length away
through the tremulous space
of an absent embrace.

This is my body.
I give it for you.

She peers down at her belly,
folds over the skin
she thinks she will pierce,
to imagine the glint
that could catch the sun
in her selfie.

For you, I was pierced.
I poured out my self.

She tugs at her hems,
rolls up her cuffs,
to worship the sun
with each inch of herself,
hoping it might be enough.

Let me be enough.

War Cry (NaPoMo 7)

Don’t touch.

I am this body
and you do not own it.
This is my body
and you have no rights to it.

Don’t tell me
my hair would look pretty this way.

Don’t say
don’t worry, it’s fine, you’re not gay.

Don’t tell me
you love my x, y, and z.

Don’t say
you only meant to compliment me.

That is your body,
your responsibility.
You are that body;
what are you gonna be?

Hands up.

Talitha Rising (NaPoMo 5)

The sparrow lays haphazard nests, bundling herself
into the hostile places: concrete edges, cracks in masonry,
the unregarded rusty backs and undersides of things,
wherever man has left his mark but has not left his love.

From these rag-tag scraps of homes, she watches, keeping vigil,
until rising to an instinct born of faith, not observation,
she faces down the dark to declare the coming dawn,
shattering the silence with her one sharp chirp.

Blast Radius (NaPoMo 4)

You ran up to me today,
waved me in, whispered for me,
called me close, leaned in,
and shouted at me: BOOM.

You were born with a pressure in you,
a drumbeat that itches and drives you to dance.
All the routes you take are parkour courses.
All the shoes you own are running shoes.

You sprint like a robber through the junkyard of your journal,
surfing jagged waves of the trash-compacted letters,
blocks of story crammed together in the fury of creation,
top to bottom, edge to edge, not a break, not a breath,
scribbling with the pinhole-skinny focus of the genius,
single-minded agonizing rapid manic joy.

You have seen the pool of life and reckoned
that the only worthwhile way of getting in
is to cannonball from 15 meters up. 

Dunkelvolk (NaPoMo 2)

Can you read it?

from the German on your T-shirt from Peru

Can you read it?

in the silence that you keep tucked in close around you

Can you read it?

in the bones that you flash when I tell you
Dark folk

Black people

Dark people

Black People

Dunkelvolk
Can you read it?

in your focus as the bodies hit the water

Can you read it?

as the naming of the monsters gave you power

Can you read it?

in the pride, in the joy when you discover
Dark folk

Black people

Dark people

Black People

Dunkelvolk