Remembering How to Swim (Excerpt, first 5 poems)
I am born
in a hospital
on the coast.
I have the ocean
in my blood.
I drink it in like milk
through my mother’s breast.
Learning to Speak
I learn the word yes in high water
when choppy waves clapping
with my thighs nudge me forward.
Fear is learnt as many kisses
to the mouth and to the eyes,
kisses that burn and taste of salt.
I still search my bathing suit
for the last dry piece of material
to wipe away the water.
Through low tide whipping the back
of my ankles, I learn the word no.
Nostalgia looks like a view
of myself standing behind
a camera filming another little girl
whose same memory of childhood
is being tossed inside the blanketed gathers
of gnarly waves and crawling as deep inside.
The lens is always grainy with sand, the oscillation
of muffled song and cries and the passing,
in and out, of dirty water through my ears.
I was whispered to once in a struggle with the sea
and was told that next to leaving quietly in sleep,
drowning in someone is as peaceful a way to die.
I say mema for mother,
or the woman who raises me.
She is always slender,
her pink and white striped bathing suit
baggy before the water wets it.
Until a few years ago, she keeps it
folded in with sweaters, belts, and hats
in her closet. Instead of dropping
me to school in the morning, she drives
to the beach and we lie across the shore
and I listen to her. Our bottom halves floating,
our top halves grounded to earth
by elbows. Then we build the homes
in sand that we want in life.
For da da, I call him uncle.
And even that word tastes silly
in my mouth like putty
or some other dough kneaded
and rolled into a ball then remade
into something else. He gave me a push
into the water with heavy hands
and turned his back. After he had left
for the last time, I learn the ocean has no floor.
House to House
Memory does not pack neatly
into suitcases and boxes,
neither do oceans. I’ve forgotten
the reason why we leave and the house
we live in next, and the one to follow,
only that each grew further away
from the water. I’ve forgotten if mema
remarries and how many times
or if my sister is born afterward
or whether I know how to swim,
the memory rhythmically falls behind me
like the sound of the water moving quietly at midnight.
Is she miserable, sullen-faced,
Can you still count worry gathering
In dark pools under her eyes?
Is it funny that I miss her terribly,
The way she holds onto
Ache like memory,
You’d think it was a god.
She, so full of fear, it freed me of my own.
So sorrowful, she reminds me
Of my mother who hid under
The weight of us all, we
Crushed her already spare shoulders.
Does Ada still hum amazing grace at her desk
As if she were running breathless,
To be saved, like my mother,
Whose greatest misstep was being born not a bird?
We’ll Burn the Bridge as we Cross It
I can’t get past the scar on your nose.
You say your brother never forgave himself
for taking his eyes from the road, running
into the metal dividing median.
You, thrown from the car
onto the side of highway,
and your mother watched it all like a play.
I see only the scar when we talk, my eyes
wander the thick coarse walls of the river
and travel to the tip, the uneven patch of color,
the shitty stitching performed too quickly
to piece the halves into one. 20 years later,
the scar looks as though
it was glued onto your face.
At night the jagged patch of skin glows
under the light of the TV,
while we lie together.
I Thought I Saw Afghanistan
I thought I saw the girl
who left me for war
in the parking deck
of the new mall in midtown.
Turned away from me
and bent forward,
she placed large bags to the ground.
Her body still slender, her arms
now carried the size of rigidity,
her hair, choppy and dry
as if it had been hacked at,
wrecked with frailty all the same.
I wanted to run, pull her
to me by the wrists
like a mother finding her child again
after he wandered suddenly
from her side --
I needed to steady her face
in my hands to search her eyes
for silhouettes of something shattered,
the only thing I know of war.