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Rebecca Seiferle: Poems

THE CUSTOM | HOW TO SPEAK IN BABYLON
| DOCUMENTARIES | THE RIPPED-OUT SEAM

Rebecca Seiferle has been a member of the New Mexico artists-in-the-schools program and is currently listed with Tumblewords. Her poetry has been anthologized in Saludos: Poemas de Nuevo Mexico, Pennywhistle Press, New Mexico Poetry Renaissance, edited by Miriam Sagan and Sharon Neiderman, Red Crane Press, and The Sheep Meadow Anthology. Her translation of Cesar Vallejo's TRILCE,the Sheep Meadow Press, 1992,was the finalist for the Pen West Translation Award and a finalist for the Columbia Translation Award. She is the author of two poetry collections,The Music We Dance To, from which some of the following poems are derived, and The Ripped-Out Seam, both from The Sheep Meadow Press, New York. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Global City Review, Harvard Review, Partisan Review, Prairie Schooner, Blue Mesa Review, The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, Indiana Review and many other magazines.The Music We Dance To was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize.Poems in the collection won the Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America and will appear in BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2000. Her first book,The Ripped-Out Seam, won the Bogin Award and the Writers Exchange Award. She is editor-in-chief of an e-zine:The Drunken Boat <http://www.thedrunkenboat.com>

THE CUSTOM

 

Gravied, sliced

down to the bone, every year

all that's left of the Thanksgiving

feast is the wishbone. Stained

the color of tea or rain seeping

into wood, it could

be beautiful, a singular harp

from which no one

has learned to coax

a tune, or ivory white,

a bow of stars that never shot

a wounding shaft,

but, instead, impelled

a feathered being into the air,

a hinge for the drumming

of earthly wings. But

the custom of the breastbone

is that only two of you can fight

over this good fortune,

only one of you can win,

so some Esau plucks the wishbone

from the carcass, some Jacob grabs

the other end. Sometimes the bone

tears and twists apart

as slowly as the strings

of DNA that bind you together,

unravelling in your opposing grips;

other times, already brittle

with heat or hollowness,

it snaps like the retort

of a branch breaking

from the cursed fig tree

or the jawbone with which Samson

slew so many Philistines.

Except for that one year,

when your mother hung

the disarticulated blessing to dry

in the kitchen window,

then, painting it red, transformed

its hollow shape into a small sleigh

for a velvet-coated Santa Claus,

his cheerful gaze steering blindly

through a decade of Christmases,

it has been the custom to fight

over the bones. You've always tried

to be the first to grasp

the better half, you and your

Cain or Abel torquing

across the kitchen table,

using the weight of your bodies

for leverage, until one of you

is left, triumphant, clutching

luck's fat knuckle, the other,

its bitterly splintered end.

HOW TO SPEAK IN BABYLON

 

Breathe. Bow once in the direction

of death. Open your hand

like the fist of the newly born.

Nod toward the couple

married for fifty years

who are still dancing the two-step beneath

the bright heaven they have made

of temporarily buoyant balloons. Grip

your fear as carefully

as you would hold a bee

between your fingers, wanting

neither to crush it

or to be stung. Speak

and remember the cord

still knotted invisibly

around your throat.

In the corner, a woman is

talking to some strangers,

and at your nod, her face

flushes with something

like love, her hand

rises, her palm pressed

in the space between her breasts,

as if, the word, flew, there

into her heart. But though

the gesture moves you,

you are not speaking for her,

but for that heavenly emptiness

that gathers beneath her wings

all the sorrows of this

Jerusalem. Recall

that moment when your life

knotted in your throat

before the empty church,

the miles of vacant pews,

and how you launched

your voice out, for nothing,

for no one, into that nothingness,

knowing you would be able to do this,

open your lips and speak . . .

DOCUMENTARIES

 

What's the difference

between human and animal grief?

Between that gorilla who bears

her dead infant, decomposing

against her breast, like

some unspeakable sorrow from nest to

abandoned next, and these women,

each frozen in the posture

her body took the moment of hearing

her child was dead?

 

When the lions prowl the marshes

to kill the cheetah young, we think

we are like them, we think we are not

'animals' like the soldiers who herded

the children into a church that they then

torched. The toddlers hanged from the tree

in the plaza looked like

the children in the soldiers' wallets,

except that their smiles were not framed

in cellophane or protected from the rain.

 

Naturally, the soldiers pride

themselves on being lions,

and 'lion-like' loll

like Agamemnon in a cloud of flies,

complaining in his tent, while,

finding her dead litter, a cheetah

carries off one cub, its foreleg extended,

stiff in her mouth, and crouches

like Clytemnestra mewing

over the memory of the altar.

 

From any distance, it looks like

human grief, the way she tries

to shield the tiny corpse, its matted fur already mixed

with earth in the driving rain.

The following poems are from Rebecca Seiferle's first collection, THE RIPPED-OUT SEAM, from The Sheep Meadow Press, New York, 1993. Poems in that collection won the Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Writers'Exchange Award and The National Writers' Union Prize. The collection was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize.

THE RIPPED-OUT SEAM

 

I will never stitch back together

the horned toad that I halved with a shovel.

All summer, in my mind, holding itself upright,

trying to balance its torso

between its front legs, the toad has tried

to drag itself forward, to escape

the agonized coils of its own

entrails spilling out of the gaping absence

of its lower body. No

meaning I can think of, no matter how deft

of hand, can knit the pale

distended bowels, or reconnect

the webbed feet's chaotic twitching

to the brain that lunged, leapt,

propelled them forward.

 

I was excavating a pit for the children to play in

with their fleets of miniature cars and must have

scooped the legs from the body in one motion.

When I lifted the shovel and saw the flayed skin

resting in the blade, I thought

the thighs' cavities, bloodless

and filled with dirt, were the ancient remains

of a cat's nightly predations, or the relic

of a hiberation from which

the horned toad never awoke, but then

I saw the upper half, alive, sitting at the edge

of the heaped earth were it, too,

had been tossed.

 

What shocked me was how perfect

the unwounded half of the body was:

the eyes' stunned gold,

the jaw's tiny teeth, the spine's

prickled barbs, the crimson gills'

breeding color, the throat's throbbing rhythm,

the head and forelimbs trying to go on, to continue,

while the lower half had been interrupted

in the emptying out

of the blue and yellow guts,

the soft pulp of the liver and lungs.

 

That was June, now it's the end of August

and in my mind, I am still carrying

the still living torso behind a tree

where I hit it with a shovel,

fracture the skull,

so it will no longer suffer

what I have done to it. Again and again

the creature drags itself forward,

tries to reunite the two halves

of what it is, to heal

the wound it keeps dragging behind.

 

Only in the ripped-out seams

of body, of mind, do we resemble each other...

rendered together,

the horned lizard and the human figure

drawn in black on the white surface

of every vessel that the Acoma people paint

and sell to tourists. They shrug

if anyone asks what the meaning is

of this design, of that one, at the idea

that everything must mean something

other than it is.

Copyright © 2000 by Rebecca Seiferle. All rights reserved by the author.

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