With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I enter the room where she waits for love
and is always surprised, exclaiming, “You’ve gained weight!” or
“You’ve lost weight!” Timeless accusations of change.
Later, she mourns: “Your hair!
It used to look so nice when you had it short.
Nice and neat like a little bird. Oh! you have such a
face for all that hair.” Still later,
in a half whisper (this is a forbidden
topic, she knows, but irresistible), “Do you want
a nose job? If it’s the money
don’t worry, honey, I’ll take care of it.
See how we could make it straight
and slender, just take out the hook, the bump, here?”
And her fingers, dry as aristocrats, trace
on my stubborn, resisting peasant’s face
the outlines of a potential perfect nose.
A beautiful nose, a safe nose, a sort of
Julie Andrews crossing the Alps (in short hair) while the
sun shines and the orchestra swells heroic and happy
violins kind of nose.
I heard a poet once exhort
her sister writers to mention all things under the sun
at least once, and praise them:
the phosphorescent green-black back
of the dung beetle, or the broken bottle
scattered in diamonds on the pavement;
the elephant, the eagle.
My grandmother has made complaint
her art form, and everything she loves she coats
with a protective glaze of pain and doubt
to mark it: This is special — let no one touch,
no gods or angels
of death defile. This one’s mine.
My nostril is like the long
arched shoulder of a seagull about to take wing,
veering off to the left.
It would look good
with a tiny emerald nestled in its delta; nag me
one more time about this nose job
idea of yours, and I’ll do it.
I’ll pierce my nose.
Shall I celebrate how it goes
with my high
slightly flat Slavic cheekbones?
My eyebrows are unruly, grow
a bridge (too far) across my — there’s that
nose again! My eyes are owlish, round.
A couple of people
claim to have drowned in them,
but we all survived.
This whole face is my gift,
this round, quizzical, and flyaway
face, attached to earth by way of pendulous breasts,
long waist, hips like sloping hills; all
verboten in my grandmother’s eyes.
But what can I do? I have
another grandmother, eons older, she of the scales and feathers,
she of the fur; goddess of hoof, horn, beak, and claw,
gnarled and riven, wiser than fashion
by far. She decreed my beauty hers
long ago and even condemned me to praise
it endlessly. I stand on my nose.
Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean only these poems but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work,
about the single mother on welfare I talked to
years ago, who said, “It’s hard.
You bring him to the park, run rings
around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner, and there’s no one
to say what a good job you’re doing, how you were
patient and loving for the ten
thousandth time, even though you had a headache.”
And I, who am used
to feeling sorry for myself because I am lonely
when all the while, as the Chippewa
poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
think of the invisible work that stitches up the world
day and night, the slow, unglamorous
work of healing, the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe and bees
enter and leave their lovers like exhausted Don Juans while owls
and poets stalk shadows, our
loneliest labors under the moon. There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us long
after we have stopped
listening. I stop and let myself lean
a moment against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s
heart. There is no other art.