The American Wedding Picture

The Puritans in early America, I hear, used to fall in love with each other–slowly or quickly, in cold winter days on end or in the long harvests of autumn, in the freshness of springtime or in a summer night’s hot breath of sea-scented forest, of open windows, and open stars–and coming together before the congregation of the church, would announce that they were now married–had pledged their lives before God to each other, could make a home together in laying their heads against the other’s breast, had checked each other this very morning for ticks. And the town would offer baskets of grain and dried fruit, give blankets and down pillows, give geese and chickens, firewood, and ale, and with promises of faithfulness and prayers of blessing, sing songs of sharing in their joy, their sadnesses, and their desires.

We in the United States don’t all share in the simplicity of this Puritan couple and their village, but where does this leave our practice of democracy? When we plan our weddings, how many of us feel a tug to go beyond our means? We’ve rarely dressed like this, looked like this, eaten like this, drunk like this, been photographed like this, and never, possibly, in a more exclusive location, and we’re doing it all of these at once as if, may this never be, we have finally decided to forget, for just one day, our own desires and chosen, at last, to pay into the pool of our friends’ expectations. What do we really want?

I know someone who often serves food at the events she organizes. She believes in table cloths. “Do not ever put food on a table without a table cloth,” she says, adding, “I come from the islands. I know it’s colonial. But this is how I show my hospitality.” Have we reflected enough on this? Is there colonialism in our weddings?

When we picture our weddings, we do we see? Is it the people who have come to support us? Is it the color of the flowers, or the live act of presence in the words of a vow coming out on the breath of the one we love? Do we see table filled with food that simmers and steams, that calls us into pleasure and feeds our souls? Do we hear music that more than singing in our minds but deep inside our hearts and across our bodies we feel, we who carry five, six, seven, eight decades of knowing and being known? Do we feel sweat on our necks when we step from the dance floor or tears that fill our eyes? As if to pull us from our dreaming, a starker image flashes before our eyes. We can’t ignore it for long. It’s what we see before, during, and after the ceremony, the picture that lingers with us, the one presented in the photographs and hung in our hallways. It cuts into focus: our friends and family on either side, standing in a line, wearing identical clothes. It is a powerful image, and if we let it, it will tell us much about who we think we are. Because maybe we really do so love the crispness of the suits and gowns, their softness, their matching colors, maybe “a little riper and more lusty red than that mixed in their cheek,” and reflected across the aisle and above in the curling open of the flowers. We love the look of new shoes as fragrant as the changing sky in the hush before a fall of rain. We love the exquisite beauty of cousins and sisters and brothers, of old and new friends who have traveled across time and fields to spend a day here with us, of companions who, not being the same, fill their clothes differently and, showing us who they are, show us all the kind of friends we want to be. What are saying about here about friendship and our love? And what does it cost us? How much do we spend to show our friends who we are? And when our minds form the stage picture of our wedding, who are we looking at? And who isn’t there?

The first two who loved found each other in a garden. Where before it was not good for the man to be alone, they walked together as far and as wide as the reach of the garden. There were red dawns and shadowy dusks, the smell of vines and screeches of animals, hot afternoons and the sound of breezes under the starlight rustling through the trees, birds who sang and cold fish leaping in the streams, rocky summits, spongy rooted paths, warmth and mists, bark and salty earth, sudden green hillsides and open skies, evening and morning. They delighted in following every path, in tending to every creature, in tasting the fruit from every tree in garden but one.

I had forgotten how long she looked at the fruit. How good it was for food, how pleasing to the eye, how desirable for gaining wisdom. Can they really be like God? Will it really kill her? The fruit’s skin—how delicate, how soft it looked, so perfectly wearing its exquisite colors, now glowing and now softened, unthreatening. And she watched as drips of juice began to fall from the stem. Safety, one said. She counted them. Power, another. She breathed it in. Enough. Enough of food, enough of warmth. Enough of pleasure. I will be enough. She breathed out. We will always be enough. Had she ever seen a fruit so ready to be eaten? Adam had already made up his mind. He was with her. Maybe from a distance he could sense how good this fruit would be. This is your vision, he might have told her, your day. She took some and it, and gave some to him, and he ate it. And how sensational the first taste was. The saltiness, a dash of arrogance, the sweetness, the greed. The hunger. They groaned. Had they ever before eaten like this? Their bodies started to shake, unquestioned strength. Is this what it feels like to know like God? New words formed on their tongues. Oppression. Pain. How quickly the flesh of the fruit turned sour on their teeth. They swallowed it still. Patriarchy. Colonialism. Empire. They took another bite. Images of a damaged garden scraped against their throats. Where was the thrill they had before? It was now too heavy for them. Hopeless. Terror. They each began to cry, and a new idea wrenched in their gut, one that soon filled their bodies, a word so strong that for the first time in their knowing each other it made their eyes dart away from contact and for the first time in their loving made them turn their bodies away in disgust. For the first time they felt shame, and they rushed to put on clothes.

When God came to them, searching for them in the cool of the day, and finding them, asked them, “Who told you that you were naked?” they didn’t have an answer.

But it wasn’t like this before. I remember their encounter. This is what myth does for us when it is true. Back through the generations who have recounted it, we remember their meeting. They took a look at each other from across the garden and, wanting to look closer, were suddenly breath to breath, on every part of their bodies feeling each other’s warmth cross the silence between them. And they began touching. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he sang to her. We know that we are naked, and what a delight it is to be made in the image of God. Fitted for no other image. (I’m talking to myself here, too.) The woman did not yet speak. Maybe her words could find no meter. Or maybe we have forgotten her song. But in the years after the garden–the many years, the pain of childbearing, the pain of losing her child, the heartbreak of watching the thorns, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth,” come and choke the seed of love that was once sown in them–I believe it would bring her joy, mother of us all, to know that the voice of one future distant daughter, a bride, her young life brimming with eagerness, would find her song again. And raising her voice, in words that defy the patriarchy, that allow no sphere for greed, that tear off the shackles of the colonial oppressor, in a vision drenched with the richness of the earth, dripping with the taste of her lover’s body, and saturated with the simplicity of a summer evening–the wedding feasting over, or just begun—to her lover, to her sisters, to us, she sings:

I belong to my lover,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside,
let us spend the night in the villages.
Let us go out early to the vineyards
to see if the vines have budded,
if their blossoms have opened,
and if the pomegranates are in bloom—
there I will give you my love.
The mandrakes send out their fragrance,
and at our door is every delicacy,
new as well as old,
that I have stored up for you,
O my beloved.

 

 

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I Love You With…:Confessing Love

I was reading Anne Bogart’s What’s The Story: Essays About Art, Theater And Storytelling on the train, and after reading the following passage, I just had to start writing love poetry. This is the passage. My poem comes after.

“Constantin Stanislavsky articulated the actor’s paradox and dilemma succinctly: you are in a living room and you are about to confess love for the first time to the only other person in the room. The situation is deeply personal, private and exposed. And there are a thousand people watching.”

I thought about what it is like to confess love to someone. 

I love you with all the radio songs of the world
playing through my body. I love you with all
the pieces I thought were dead: dead hands, dead voices,
leaves and walls. I love you with the pain
that finds my lifeblood coursing in my veins
with the love of oceans that rage against the rocks
with a violin that empties its sound in a church
with the voice of an actor speaking from his wound
with the salvation of daybreak rising over graves
with the stirring of freedom that bends us over cliffs
with the wildness of hunger and the thirst of truth
the delight of touching and the gift of rain
the texture of oranges, the strums of mandolins.
I love you with the eagerness of a colt called into spring
with the running of bare feet not fearing splinters
with what used to be my sadness metamorphosed
from clanging tears into the quietness
of morning buds now lifting out their flowers
with the reverence of figures in stained glass
the moment when God’s setting sun breathes through them
with the closeness of a beach up to the water
with the discovery of feelings in a novel
with what used to be anger now defiance
like the tossing of a stallion’s mane
and emptiness into our murmurs together
the lips of friends, the glasses of companions
the newness of warm eggs laid in their straw.
I love you with the eternity of stars
with everything I’ve ever felt or dreamed
or known or ever loved. I love you with
my whole or many hearts or many lives.
I took so long to say to you these words.
But they come only from a breath that rings
my body in my spirit and my truth.
The well was deep. I offer you this drink,
after longing’s exhalation, filled
to sing the very breath of my own heart.

Two poems of love and marriage: Translations

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1. Les vœux

Une fois je t’ai promis le tout
quand je t’ai offert ma vie.

Je t’ai promis les nuits et les soirées,
les matins ensoleillées, les journées de pluie.

Je t’ai offert la bouche qui sait désirer,
le front qui sait rêver dans tes caresses,
les bras qui gardent leur chaleur.

Je t’ai offert des sensations et des sensitivités
des mots justes et des sonorités.
Le lustre et les sauvageries une fois je t’ai représentés.

Je t’ai promis l’amour sous la souffrance,
le cœur qui ne cesse pas de se donner.
Les pleures et les regards ne t’ai-je pas jurés ?
Les yeux qui comptent les larmes,
mes propres sentiments ne t’ai-je pas offerts ?

Accepte donc la totalité de mes promesses,
l’addition, la somme, le début et la fin du compte.

Veuille recevoir alors la signe de mes promesses,
la main droite tremblante, la vérité blessante, la sincérité.

Et je te supplie, chère toi qui as déjà mon cœur,
qui as mes veines, mon souffle et mon sang,
d’entendre la voix de mon serment,
celle-là tout bas,
comme si elle venait de lointain,
obscurée de doutes,
celle-là que peut-être tu trouves trop tendre,
celle-là qui ne cesse pas de poser la question,
celle-là qui attend de toi une réponse.

Dis-moi.
Notre vie ensemble n’est-elle pas qu’une promesse ?

1. Vows (English translation)

I once promised you everything when I offered you my life. 

I promised you nights and evenings, sunny mornings and days of rain.

I offered you a mouth that knows desire, a brow that can dream in your caresses, and arms that can keep us warm.

I offered you sensations and sensitivites, right words and sonorities. Of brightness and wildness I gave you a vision.

I promised you love underneath suffering, a heart that never ceases to give of itself. Didn’t I promise you weaping and eyes that see you and eyes that count tears. Have I not offered my own feelings ?

Accept, then, the totality of my promesses, the sum, the bill, the beginning and end of the account.

Receive the sign of my promesses, a trembling right hand, truth that hurts, and my sincerity.

And I beseech you, you my dearest who have already my heart, you who have my veins, my blood and my breath, to hear the voice of my pledge to you—the voice soft and low as if it were coming from far off, obscured by my doubts, the voice that maybe you have found too tender, the one that will not stop asking the question, the one that is waiting for a response :

Tell me, is are life together not a promise?

2. La fête

Qu’il y aient à notre mariage des violons,
des bouquets de fleurs et des parfums de roses,
à chaque table des tintements de verres.

Qu’il y aient des costumes gris et des tissus légères,
de nouvelles robes et des aromes de cuir.
Pour chaque jubilation, une danse.
et pour chaque silence, une pause.
De la fraicheur à chaque fenêtre
et à chaque table une carafe d’eau.
Que les danseurs viennent mouiller leurs lèvres desséchées.

À tous ceux qui veulent causer, un partenaire.
À tous ceux qui veulent danser, des battements de cœur.
Et à tous ceux qui veulent en contempler, des points d’or
au moment où la marée nuageuse révèle ses perles.

Et que nous quittions, ma chère, la salle de danse,
avant que les pétales sortent de leur bouquets et les carafes se vident.
Avant les tremblements de branches
et les premiers soupirs du vent,
avant l’avance rosâtre aux champs
et les premières étoiles aux cieux,
que nous retrouvions notre propre espace de cœur.
Là nous nous donnerons notre amour.

Que nous nous offrions nos chuchotements
alors que les cadences des violons commencent à s’allonger.

Car notre amour est comme une fleur rare
si fine et si inconnue
qu’elle n’a qu’un seul nom dans une seule langue.
Or, notre amour est comme un chant,
si intime, si inscrutable
qu’elle ne fait aucun rythme ni aucun sens
aux ceux qui en déchiffreraient.
Mais que nous sachions, ma chère, mon cœur à moi,
quand nous partageons nos secrets
que nous touchons un amour de si sacré et de si commun
que les amoureux de tous les pays
ont pour lui leur propres adresses,
leurs propres salutations,
leurs propres tendres noms.

Que cet amour soit suffisamment grand pour entourer
un univers de solitude et de pertes dans son étendue.
Que le vent du soir, mêlé à la musique,
soulage chaque blessure.
Qu’ils trouve à chaque souffrance un regard,
à chaque espoir un accord.

Qu’il y aient des violons et des extases,
des saveurs, des danses et des parfums,
des carafes d’eau et des perles d’étoiles
l’entrechoquement de verres, des roses, des rires,
et à chaque table, des rêves du cœur.

2. The feast (English translation)

May our wedding have violins,
bouquets of flowers and perfumes of roses,
at each table the clinking of glasses.

Let there be gray suits and light fabric,
new dresses and smells of leather.
For each cry of joy a dance,
for each silence, a moment of stillness.
At every window may there be cool air
and at each table a carafe of water.
May the dancers moisten their dried lips.

To all who want to talk, may there be a partner.
To all who want to danse, stirrings of the heart.
And to all who would contemplate it, points of gold
at the moment when the tide of clouds reveals its pearls.

And let us, my love, leave the dance hall
before the petals spring from their bouqets and the carafes run dry.
Before the trembling of the branches
and the first sighs of the evening wind,
before the fields are filled with their pink
and the skies are filled with stars,
may we find our heart’s own space.
There, we will give each other our love.

When the cadences of violins begin their lengthening
let us offer each other our whispers.

For our love is like a rare flower
so fine, so unfamiliar
that it has only one name in one language.
Or it could be that our love is like a song,
so intimate and inscrutable
that it makes no sense or rhythm
to those who would decipher it.
But may we know, my love, my own heart,
when we share our secrets
that we touch a love so sacred, so common
that those who love from every country
have for it their own titles,
their own greetings,
and their own tender names.

May this love be big enough to circle
a world of losses and loneliness in its reach.
May the evening wind, mingled with violin music,
salve each wound.
May those who suffer find one who sees them,
and may those who hope find an answer.

Let there be violins and ecstasies,
flavors, dances, and perfumes,
carafes of water and pearls of stars,
the clinking of glasses, roses and laughs,
and at each table, dreams from the heart.


 

My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.

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I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.

 

The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.

 

 

When snails love

Birds and fishes have rightfully earned our respect and our sympathy. But what if two snails fell in love? Where could they hope to make a home?

And does it happen every day, now at the end of winter? Do they find each other in the shady patch of their garden, underneath a plant whose flowers they have both eaten from, never before meeting? Or do they first encounter each other after the rain, each clinging to the edge of the curb? They have traveled separately to this place and suddenly they feel themselves now in the presence of another. And in the new rush of togetherness (they have begun to uncurl themselves, slowly, always evaluating the dampness of the changing air, the intensity of the sunlight) they sense the thrill of another morning on their skin, and the promise of returning to their shell somehow different than when they set out minutes ago from their familiar corner of the garden. Does one call out to the other, saying “My springtime!” for what is a better name of love for this friendly figure, this safe shadow, this weighty companion? Does the other ask, “You too?” surveying the trails they have each stretched across the pavement to this boundary, to this limit of all they have known, seeking their own freedom from the drowning rain? They do not. Birds can sing, are renowned for it, and fish can wriggle the sounds even of oceans across their bodies. Each morning and evening the leaves and waves will be ripe with their songs. But the snails know only this silence of love, the sensation that says, without words, or meter, or any outward vibration, “I have come a long way to be here with you,” (the sameness, the difference!), “and you have come a long way to be here with me, and we both have come a long way.”

Slices of Onions, Part 2

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On Saturday, for the second time this month, I thought of my brother when chopping up an onion and texted him a line from an unwritten poem about onions and some theme of love. It feels like the time to share these lines, and what they have become, more broadly. This time I won’t even attribute what is said in the back rooms of my mind when I’m craving breakfast to the writings of French author, as I have been known to do on occasion. For, as the French say, “Occupe-toi de tes oignons.” Mind your own onions. Yes, they really say this. And I am taking it to heart.

The Blues

I could fall in love faster than I can cut up an onion
And when I hold the slices of my heart
I could cry more too
I could cry more too

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After the Blues

Last night, I cut up an onion, and I didn’t feel any sting in my eyes. No tears flowed. I imagine this is what it was like for you when you broke my heart.

But did you still put it in the sauce–this onion, your clean work of five minutes? The light of the end of the afternoon coming through your kitchen, did you stand over your stove and empty, with one pass of the back of your knife across the cutting board, the pieces of onion into the pan? Or did you pick them apart one at a time, the roughly cut ones, the thick wedges, the slivers too tiny to withstand the heat, the cones and the spirals, and place them with your fingers into the burning oil?

Maybe it was too late in the day. Maybe it was already too dark for you to see the rush of steam rising from the pan. But you could hear the hissing because you stepped back from each flash of oil, for seconds at a time, when you lowered each new piece into the heat. Still your hands got pricked, didn’t they? For precious too many minutes, you made this music of singeing then waiting then singeing again until all the slices of onion were in the pan and the burner had brought the oil and onions to a gentle hum.

You flicked on the light. The fleshier cuts were translucent and already turning brown. The thinner ones were crisping at the edges. You could feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks as you gazed into the pan, now close enough almost to feel the heat in your eyes. Could you?

You stepped back to the counter and returned with handfuls of diced garlic and shavings of ginger, which you stirred in with the onions. This is the part of the recipe that everyone asks for but that everyone knows is a secret. In another bowl were freshly cut chiles, and you added them to the pan, sprinkling them with salt, with pepper, and with lime. And soon even the back rooms of the house were filled with the perfume of spices, and filled too, when you turned back up the heat, with the sounds of sobbing: the gaspings, and then again the sighs, coming from the onions, the garlic, the chiles, and the ginger, in ruffles of steam.

I wish that I could have been with you to smell this sadness, to taste with you this love we shared one last time.