( Victoria, B.C., Canada )
from Like Lincoln Out of Office Hours
A baby dress filmily floats thru the night
Over hedges of sloe & knotty slate sedge:
tiled roofs of the village coming into view
a sheep bell clanking.
One notch at a time
halter hung over wall
of the stall
reins in the right hand
let the silvered mare
out into the
overhang roofline of stables corrugated tin.
Raphael is the horse.
But the baby’s dress
is rippling snagging on a branch of pine like a caught wing
and now hanging, no limb, rough trunk pitch of high voice blanketed, gone.
Imagine two kids
who come upon an enormous stash of literature
during a cultural revolution.
That was how the letters spilled out
of the bag
for the woman with a slap of blue-black raven’s wing hair.
Her grandmother’s love-letters.
She thought then of Lalo
who’d been so wrought-up that tragic summer when the movie was filming in town. . .
The wooden wheelchair, then the metal one left back in adolescence Lalo tried to forget:
Now wore oxblood chukkas
cracked the pony whip..
Her shoulders broad as an oxen.
it was not for nothing the Lord gave me broad shoulders. . .
From one of the darkest, narrowest tunnels of her life
a beguiling story grandmother’s letters telling how she bore a mentally retarded son
gave him up for adoption: history’s weather now
the enchantment of Lalo whose ingenuity left her open-mouthed
went to her
like falling in love the dust clinging to her neck like a sad little collar.
Her two Lalo & Josh She put her jodphurs in a trunk
climbing the cliffs
always fearful for Lalo who seemed to be born like a cat with nine lives until. . .
She could not find transit to words
Only to other worlds.
A delicate miracle. Lalo fretted over her hair flyaway.
That summer, there was an oyster shine to air.
Lal wanted a red sunbonnet but her mother Nano would not dress her in one
knowing in European folktale it symbolizes flow of monthly blood. Lalo was late.
She slept so heavily in the grass that summer
one would think
she’d received a bullet to the head.
“You must sterilize her,” the Fragile X specialist said.
“She is incapable of handling children.”
Was her daughter not a virgin?
The petulance over the hair went on;
a touch of flame on her toes foreshadowed the tragic, the disastrous burning:
coral toenails Lalo painted that summer she was sweet sixteen
& the robins
in the evening
caroling their ancient song like in Shakespeare’s time.
Lalo rode her bike but also took up dancing, a rose pinned to her hair, before the attic mirror that summer
barefoot when she rode with wild energy, wild child, uphill & down
mountain They finally addressed the hair problem one evening.
“You put only a raindrop on your hands,”
her mother explained
then rub it thru your hair.”
Little did she suspect Lalo would put flammable jell from the garage
on her hair
and for matches to light her crown to fireflies.
Nano in the kitchen heard the cries. Lalo was a living torch.
She went up like a pine tree.
Mum couldn’t get to her quickly enough she heard the screams echoing echoing mirroring mirroring.
Lalo, her fragile X child was running both hands spread wide. Like a child napalmed.
Two children one in fire one in glass
Both in water
haunt her thru the years down burgundy-brown avenues of nightmare
& the thin European alleys of years.
Laid in her coffin, a morning sunny as prairies in snow
ice covering all
the very pines bearded.
For a year afterward Joshua couldn’t play the violin. He was fourteen.
He began cutting the flesh between his toes
till all the razors had to be hidden.
Now the cat was out of the bag
& wandering where?
Here There Everywhere.
followed her. The child wasn’t given to screamathons, though highwired, a tightrope walked.
The woman, tall like Abe Lincoln, with shoulders broad enough to bear a yoke with buckets
bore her two children
one living one dead
the one who had been twice-alive, a star ignited dancing:
the other self-mutilating
Out the gate
fear running up the & down the ladder
self-consuming like fire
away from the prairies
thru the monkhood mornings the way folk return from Lourdes, or St Augustine’s Fountain of Youth:
hair black as the slap of a raven’s wing
married to memory and to solitude
And to the hand slipped in her hand:
Her eye on Jesu the Gyrfalcon the woman tall, contemplative like Lincoln:
her daughter eerily limber, bending like the willow, folding
Anarchy where peace might have been.
PART ONE: The Story Line
I had been writing two sequences of poems: "Lincoln in Out of Office Hours" and "Fragile X Child." They overlapped in the poem, "Lalo's Death." This is the culmination of the cycle. It is also the longest poem of either sequence. No doubt, I had in back of my mind the tradition of Southern Gothic, the horror stories which are birthed thru the horrific. I heard the cadences of Charles Wright and James Dickey in particular.
Abraham Lincoln had four sons. Three of them died before maturity. I grafted the
melancholy I imagined to be Lincoln's upon the mother of Lalo, the girl child with Fragile X syndrome. Finally Nano, the mother morphs into a female Lincoln: tall, with good bones, dark and handsome, over six feet, inheriting his streak of pensiveness at
times bordering on morbidity.
She has two children, a son and a daughter I named her son Joshua. He is younger and plays the violin. Lalo mirrors him, she lifts the fiddle but is ham-handed and bangs it down on the bed. She is the sort of girl with peculiar fondnesses: like the sound
her running pants of nylon make when she rubs her legs together at Josh's christening. Lalo fails at many things thru her inherent fragility. So bonded are the two kids that after
this Joshua is unable to pick up and play the violin for a year (This mimed my younger sister's giving up another art, dancing, when I was stricken with polio at age 12. she was then 8 and later transferred her love to the violin.)
How disability (one very different from my own) like all disability gives the family a different incarnation. I turned Nano's family into a trio a family of three like ours: we three women were often called the Three Graces. Here there is one woman, a boy and a girl child. I am nothing like Lalo, yet surely knew some of her isolation. Both nest and prison, the home became a Mecca of the arts combining exile and release. Since the self was limited, I had to move beyond the self, in order to again a greater sense of life and
even to experience joy. Although at the bottom level handicap imposed narrowness upon me, at the top it let to exaltation.
PART TWO: Imagery
My imagery in this cycle uses a lot of the color red (and its synonyms: scarlet, crimson, and the color of blood) and it conveys that no-color which is "luminosity" such as oyster-shine, "Blue-black ravens' hair" "Oxblood chukkas" Certain physical objects convey an era: a trunk" of yellowed letters and "A sad little collar" are brought in. The cat with nine lives carries overtones of the cat-o-nine-tails whip italicizes a sternness I have built into this lyric, narrative poem (that straight backbone of the American Puritan) a severity imbuing the end of a person's life, a very young.
We see the extremely active child: riding bike, taking up dancing becoming aware of her beauty at the age of Juliet, the way adolescent girls do: "a rose pinned to her hair before the attic mirror": hair and mirror prefiguring the self-immolation which takes her life at a crossroads that dusty summer. With wild energy she rode "wild child, uphill & down / river-roads." Her mother at last determining to get rid of the flyaway hair instructs her daughter: put "a raindrop" of gel on her hands. Lalo has always been attracted to matches (an earlier poem speaks of fireflies and her enchantment at them.) Lalo wanders into the family garage, spreads a flammable petroleum on her hair, then grabs a large Diamond safety match, blue-tipped, strikes the match crown herself. The crown she creates herself kills her, turning her into a living torch, sending her up to heaven like a pine tree. Nano is left with two children "one in fire one in glass" yet both in water who haunt her thru the years. Again red occurs "Burgundy-brown avenues of nightmare" as well as thin European alleys.
PART THREE: The Outcome
The poem ends with the image of Nano, tall woman. the way it began. But she has gone thru a transformation, experienced history in the course of the poem. Like Abe Lincoln, she bears a yoke: two buckets of children, one dead, one live. The dead one was ironically "Twice-alive." The other is now morbidly subdued, obsessed with self-destruction. Pathology sings with the tongues of angels in this poem. . (Lalo continues, in her mother's dreams long after the death, to be that strange child who loves the sound "noisy" pants make like those she wore for her brother's Christening, swale, they rub against each other and charm her.)
Nano leaves her life, makes a pilgrimage, and then returns thru "monkhood mornings" implying she is celibate, abstinent now the way her character has always been. I think of her treks resembling patents going to Lourdes for healing St Augusutine's to drink from the Fountain of Youth. But she with "hair black as the slap of a raven's wing" is "married to memory and to solitude."
Her eye is on Christ, "Jesu" whom she envisions as the "Gyrfalcon". She is contemplative. Her daughter, Lalo, seems to revive "Bending like the willow, /folding." Thus she becomes a force of nature. Anarchy is where peace might have been.
The poem began shorter, then went thru various longer versions all of which I have incorporated into this final version. The poem began to shorten, then went thru various longer versions which I have all incorporated into this final version.
I meant it to be a disturbing poem, a disturbing cycle – both the Lalo cycle and the Lincoln poems which portray her mother, but I did not know that it would end in Lalo's death. what kind of life would have been open to Lalo? Not motherhood, not a career in the traditional sense, not earthly love consummated. Perhaps self-immolation at sixteen was the cruelly right thing, She could not walk away from this fantasy with her life. The final image I would like to leave with the reader is of a spirit who "could not find transit to words."
Next - Vicki Hudspith
Current Issue - Winter 2006