After Adrienne Rich's "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law"
1. "You, once a belle in Shreveport"
One of the tallest boys of Class 1A,
you posed against the older scouts, front
double biceps, back lat spread, side chest,
professional postures you studied in Flex
while stroking your little flared dick.
You were only half surprised when you won.
Though the other boys had more to show,
you threw your hardest punch into the hand
you raised. You crushed your abdominals
as if jumping on a soda can you tossed.
Your heart was still flushed the next morning
when an older boy, the one with strawberry lips,
grabbed and congratulated you, Muscleman!
Your arm jerked back before you could smile,
quicker, stronger, than you could catch.
2. "she hears the angels chiding, and looks out"
The angels fell silent after you left the church,
the boxy Baptist church converted from a cinema,
where you learned the parts of sinner and saint
with a cast of ten thousand. The drama was epic.
The stern trumpets died. You were on your own, outside.
Afraid of being seen by someone you knew, a student,
his parent, a colleague, a pair of shopping cousins,
you shuffled past the gay bar in Chinatown, shuttered
and safe in the day. You hung round in deadbeat malls.
You collapsed back into the couch and flicked the TV on.
From where I sit, looking out into drizzly New York,
the boyfriend sleeping in on Sunday, I could hardly
tell your desperate boredom, the two-for-one jingle.
I call out to you, but a small figure on the big screen
you thought you heard your name and slipped away.
3. “The beak that grips her, she becomes”
The monstrous, wrote Montaigne, is monstrous
only because we don’t know the whole universe.
The two headed child, the lady rough with beard,
the man who screeches for joy when ass fucked
are unremarkable phenomena on another planet.
Stuck on an island of belief, washed by disbelief,
you worked and kept your head down, terrified
that your second head would burst your shirt collar
to shut up your complaining boss. You dreamed
of a cock fat as a soda can and woke in phantom pain.
Change scene, another island. Montaigne’s planet,
where men want to marry and raise kids with men,
where every person can be both equal and special.
Here I want to be normal as much as the next man,
but there are nights I hear the bearded lady speak.
4. “the prick filed sharp against a hint of scorn”
Be nice was the rule you were taught to live by.
You greeted, thanked, raised your hand, apologized.
You gave up your seat. You opened the door. You
waited in line for the promotion others fought for.
All this you did because you wanted to be liked.
Even now my best thought has the basest motive
as the head is ineluctably pinned down by the ass.
To be any stronger I will have to meet with scorn,
to court its sneer, to close with its backhanded
compliment, to heave its hint, be thrown and to rise.
In terms closer to this Advent: no longer to be
stabled in a stall, a baby tickled by the straw,
but a long limbed, clear eyed savior, crowing
under a crown of thorns, stapled to the cross.
To raise a hand by causing the body to be raised.
5. “she shaves her legs until they gleam”
Hot water running, you can shave your balls
until they glide, pimply like a plucked chicken.
You can hit the weights, on a strict schedule,
and experiment with protein drinks and diet
to cultivate the body like a flowering plant.
But you cannot take the chisel to the chin,
you cannot change the muddy eyes for sky
or wash the black off the imagined blond,
you cannot bleach the skin like a nice shirt
without looking monstrous in a nice shirt.
Sometimes you think you left your country
to get away from you. Sometimes you think
you left to get to some beautiful idea of you.
My likeness, you left everything to get to me.
My brother, I am everything that you have left.
6. “love, for you the only natural action”
The way the body bops to the jukebox’s be,
the louche sunlight, the martini’s torch,
late night cab fare, lunch specials for a week,
the roof gutter rapidly filling up with leaves,
paperclip hearts, leather harnesses, windup birds.
The truth that will never be told to the judge,
protest marches, marches to protest the protest,
fairground fingerpainting, airport fingerprinting,
the lab that speaks with the voice of the church,
secrets leaking, Koran burning, stem cells research.
The life pulsing along quick invisible lines,
habit’s resistance, the generated poems,
men making love to men, men making love to women,
men making love to machines, as do women,
the hearing aid, the heart pacer, something made.
7. “who fought with what she partly understood”
The Czech do not hope… they have been through too much,
said the pale Irish-looking girl back home for Christmas.
They eat their cabbage and down their homemade brandy.
They don’t understand why Americans reject healthcare.
Groups are suspicious. They remind them of Communism.
Her voice to your ears was soft, unassertive, careful,
much older than her years, unAmerican, European.
Differently from the important announcement on C-Span
that the Senate voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,
she talked about the textbook she is helping to design
to teach Indian children their grandparents’ language
before the last surviving speakers disappear and leave
behind tape recordings, dictionaries and textbooks.
What does it mean for me to be doing this? she mused.
She asked your question. Silence, enormous and eloquent.
8. “like the memory of refused adultery”
What does it mean for you to be doing this, to write
poems that take for their departure women poets,
as if waving goodbye to your Ma at the airport gate,
she crying with familiar tears, you impatient to go
but obliged to stay, guilt at your feet like your bags?
Or is it an effort to understand women’s rage,
its different temperature, women’s happiness,
its predilections and dilations, women’s grief,
its consequences, and who better to approach
than your colleagues—counterparts—the poets?
When your teen sister complained of a tummy ache,
you were terrified that your semen had swum into her,
the seed in the bathing tub spilled with such delirium.
Not sex but you take the words of the woman poets in,
delirious words that stir up a disturbance, me.
9. “Our blight has been our sinecure”
An American reviewer once praised your poetry
for using English far better than native speakers.
A straight man walked up to you after a reading
to say how human were the poems on anal sex,
his girlfriend adding, how perceptive. For a man,
she meant but didn’t say. For an Asian. For a gay.
You could live on these poisoned scraps, toss off
the soda and let the gas expand to fill your hunger.
Or you could return these allowances, saying to one,
I am a native speaker, to the other two, Fuck off.
Or you could do what I usually do, banquet
off the table groaning with dishes in the wilderness,
and trust your body to extract strength from trash,
discarding the rest through the alimentary method,
and trust your soul, when it is stretched by gas, to burp.
10. "more merciless to herself than history"
If time is male, as Rich accuses, place is female.
The patriarch who trims his heirloom bonsai,
The matriarch who pushes the big doors open,
both must be bidden farewell and left behind,
though the tree wilts and the house calls for you.
Your sister is moving to India, with your nieces,
a country you will visit for its mausoleums,
perhaps stay with her but you will not live there.
Your brother, whom you have been looking for all your life,
is still mysterious and mercilessly fictional.
You have now been with your love for six months.
Last night, for the first time, you could not get it up
and you wanted to apologize but stopped yourself.
Reading Rich's poem again this morning, you found
a place to stand without having to penetrate.