“IN WHOSE IMAGE?”
After Wangechi Mutu
Columbus mistakes manatees
for mermaids and on this day in history
we mistake black women for sea cows The swollen
midsections blown out of proportion Born out of a
mistake What have you mistaken at sea
for a grand illusion A black Madonna
holding a white snake in brown suede
coat its fangs like ivory horns ornately piercing
each of her wind torn breasts The pulp sifted into
open mouths like bellies of ships needing to be washed
out When the blood leaves a stain the rain finds a holy
way to put us in our place The hairs stand up on my
forearms like a sea urchin’s buzz cut and my father has
been out to sea for days But how can you be home
before dark when the body you call home is the darkness
itself You should never trust a poem that ends with a
question Never trust a daughter waiting at the window
for her father to come home He will have seen things
at sea Will have held a woman in his arms like water until
his breath was but a bubble floating upwards in the stained
glass In the back of my mind a crucifix rests its neck against
the wall trying to wrap its head around a serpent named
Eve If I only knew me better I would know I don’t know
nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ but cornfields and snow Your knees
cannot keep your legs from drowning The only ocean
I’ve ever known—the baptismal font on Sunday Water
poured down on my straightened tresses and the hair on my
head curling into hissing snakes tangled in the priest’s shaky
hands his jerking fingers a flicking tongue When he
lifted me up from that water pupils wide and white as milk
I don’t know who or what he thought he saw Anything but
a mother of a God
a pecha kucha after Richard Serra
The priests never teach you to lock your fingers inside
rather than fold them over when you pray. It is better to
let the knuckles form like a crocodile’s knotted brow bone.
The skin forming zigzags of brown teeth. Better to let
your nails practice what it means to be landlocked.
What it means to be a Midwest girl meeting her lover’s
mother for the first time in the heart of South America.
Nowhere else could a bare-throated bellbird mock me
with its blue gullet feathers as though to say, if I had
a white body my chin might dribble sapphires too.
Lapacho trees trumpet their pink dresses over brown
limbs. I lick my lips—this bruised windpipe to blame
for the lack of rolled r’s in Spanish. I would later learn
how to roll the dough for chipa. The cassava flour
dusting my hands in Easter snow.
My lover’s mother sold chipa to men on buses when
carrying him in her womb. Her belly swelling
like the green hills of Paraguay, hills reminiscent of
the Cahokia Mounds I visited on field trips as
a Catholic schoolgirl.
Gasoline muscles through the air and by midday Asunción
places its sticky fingers in every crease of your skin.
My sweat glides through the wetlands of a country
whose native tongue I have never gleaned like the accent
mark slanted back of a waxy monkey frog.
How do you tell an anteater that you are the descendant
of a slave? That you have dreamed of Jesuits riding tapirs
to the water’s edge to drink. I once heard a poet say
there are people who fear even the trees.
We visit the stone church his mother wants us
to marry in. Men in folding chairs pass mate
outside like a holy chalice. Their puckered eyelids
reciting, eat my body, drink my blood.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross all perfectly
drawn from memory on my thighs, the paintbrush
of my lover’s tongue now drying in the sun. His open
mouth the bell rung before mass. Confession a peephole
in the wooden outhouse door.
In Paraguayan folklore there are seven monsters.
The Guarani say Kurupi comes at night
His penis wound several times tight around
his waist , a belted vestment of sorts.
His reach extending through the windows.
A scapegoat for how a woman could come
to be with child. How an 11-year-old
gives birth after rape.
[EVERY WHICH WAY]
A jaguar whips its cat-o’-nine-tails —a symbol of self-
flagellation, its spotted back stained with welts,
sins branded deep in a golden coat. Whiskers
glistening with beer and spit.
There is a place where scent and sound merge,
where I can smell the word for mother
from the kitchen. The parts of her body
an ecosystem. A crucifix shaped pipeline
[HOUSE OF CARDS]
My lover wants to buy his mother a house,
before the diabetes settles in the shantytowns
of her arteries, before her small clay body rattles
with every breath. But even in perhaps the final hour
there are names some mothers won’t provide.
I am with my lover in his homeland to find the man blood
says is his father. In the picture the man dresses as gaucho.
In another life he and my lover would have ridden
horseback, eaten ox meat by the fire, trading stories,
stevia root melting sweetly into their tongues.
In his mother’s house, the shadow of my lover’s father
scrapes itself across the floor just as the wiry old broom
sweeps bits of dirt together under cover of a dustpan
black as night. A child can never really know
their father anyway, never know his face by heart.
I could never trust what the blood said was mine,
how the blood sung a song of myself.
Most people are really just other people.
There are three bones in the human ear, one broken
from the voices it doesn’t recognize as its own.
They say a man must know his father to raise a son.
But expectation and disappointment are second
cousins, first removed on both our daddy’s sides.
Kierkegaard says to name is to negate and yet
we blindly name the living after those gone ghost.
[THREE UNEQUAL ELEVATIONS]
I watch my lover stare at the photo of his father.
His wanting eyes scanning his mother’s praying hands,
traveling every crooked vein in search of his namesake.
Will our child grow up chasing origin by its wiry tail?
What fearful family tree will it find to climb?
We could have ended up with any number of different
lives, an infinity of possible configurations and so we
pick apart the parts of speech until the day that we are
pronounced dead. The language has that funny way
about it, like air sticking to the teeth in a hiss.
[RIGHT ANGLE PLUS ONE]
My mother is indigenous to nowhere. My lips curl in blood
at the rising of the father. Black is not a primary color.
A brown woman can still get killed for saying no. A domain
name set to expire. When remote the connections get lost.
How did hips learn to sound out a child?