Chaconne for My Lover's Hands.

A chaconne is a composition in a series of varying sections in slow triple time, typically over a short repeated bass theme.

"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

- Brahms on Bach's Chaconne in D-Minor For Left Hand in letter to Clara Schumann, 1877


Chaconne for My Lover’s Hands

i.

Regret I wore raw

a silk dress, poured to follow
each fold & slouch of peridot flesh

that met the suede
touch of fingertips
nails nibbled down to nub

the unexpected flange
of a lover’s hands
conspiring to caress

or to crowbar me open
like neon, the unsettled buzz

of lust for ravish holds tempo



ii.

Terror I wore raw

into rooms without windows
the beauty of barbarism
being all ways it could have been
otherwise

nothing binds us
to what is brutal
but a choice

lust for ravish shears
the safe silhouette, the story of luggage
packed to leave him

semiprecious plagiarism
of affections past
unsecured from a boat

useless life rafts

iii.


Regret I wore nothing

swore the image
of his hands on my hips
would not stab me

like the dry stems of flowers
tucked into boxes, the death of over-admired
objects hurts to touch

or be touched
by such familiar thunder
when rain bruises us with kisses
because it must

let us rust
into lust for ravish
or what rushes me into chapels

where Joan of Arc once knelt
in a village named after a flea
and the itch of this hairshirt

is just longing
for me


The Warm-Up Routine: I listened to this chaconne and picked three words that kept whispering somehow from the melody and particular measures. Then I wrote into those words and their associations. I do things like this every day as exercises to loosen images and clumped thoughts before getting started on writing. For the most part, I don’t keep or use or even revisit these many warm-up poemings (my notebooks are full of them), but I appreciate when other poets share their practice routines so I thought I’d share mine from yesterday. Which started with googling Trifonov performances and then discovering this fascinating thing called a chaconne, and then using it as a bridge into my warm-up exercise.

1979, with little steps forward.

Video made by my dad of my first year in Romania, just before my parents defected.

My dad made these video on film reels before defecting from Romania the following year. My parents left me in the care of the my grandparents, who also kept film reels safe.

The day before they ran, my parents invited family over for dinner and told them they were leaving early in the morning. There are no words for the fear they left on their loved ones’ faces. And no words for the fear they carried over borders when leaving their baby behind.

Maria Tanase remains.

To friends upset by disparagement of southern & red states as attacks on female bodies continue.

Me and mom in Bucuresti, circa 1979, in the month before they defected.

Me and mom in Bucuresti, circa 1979, in the month before they defected.

 
 
Writers Resist in Tuscaloosa, late 2016.

Writers Resist in Tuscaloosa, late 2016.

 
 
November, 2016.

November, 2016.

 
 
In Birmingham.

In Birmingham.

 
 
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I was raised in a state that taught me to sing its praises—to strive for its debutante corsets and bend my body to worship its purist ideals.

I was raised in a state that made it clear from the start how my being “foreign” kept me from being able to contribute to discussions that mattered. Starting with history and ending with culture.

I was raised to pledge allegiance to flags, to football teams, to men who mastered the fine art of killing foreign bodies in countries we never learned to pronounce.

As I grew older, I met more progressive-minded Alabamians that encouraged me to think outside the please-accept-me immigrant box.

I relished the moments of safety inside nice, liberal bubbles that made the majority of my state’s citizens feel so far away—and harmless.

When I became a naturalized citizen, I began the long journey of loving a country without making excuses for its crimes and cruelty.

I learned to stop defending the indefensible.

I know the history that prides itself on excluding me is also the history for which I am responsible.

I know the price of not being likable and not playing “the game” is exclusion from polite circles where power is concentrated. This is true for any leftist, anti-imperialist female in the south.

This is how the stakes are drawn.

This is how we line up to angle for influence.

This is how we commodify dissent into “acceptable” forms that keep others feeling comfortable.

To the friends who condemn me for staying here, you talk a good game of privilege that assumes I’d abandon other women to the mess in which I (as a voting, tax-paying citizen) am complicit.

To the friends who tell me to go back to where I came from, I’m sorry my poster upsets you but I’m not here to offer peace of mind that my silence or disappearance would give you.

To the friends who want me to say Alabama is just like the rest of the country, I can’t do that without selling out countless of humans who live in the gagged regimen of polite southern silence where we go along to get along. Which is what makes all of this injustice possible.

Should I critique the deep misogyny of southern life in a way that makes it seem like only elected officials are responsible?

Should I make it easy to say the gregarious mega-churches are innocent?

Should I pretend that so many people I love don’t support Trump in this state—and don’t support misogyny so deeply that we barely avoided voting a child rapist into office?

Why do you get to decide what Alabama means for me?

What about your life, body, or career enables you to be the expert on my experience?

And isn’t that the point, finally? My job. My role as good immigrant and southern girl. My commitment in the effort to maintain a cherished ideal of southern life that is warm and welcoming and hospitable and no more racist or xenophobic or self-destructive than states where the majority votes against xenophobia, racism, and misogyny.

I’ve spoken about this before. I will speak about it again. As an American. As an Alabamian. As a woman. As a citizen of this warming planet.

I will hold my state accountable for lies we are asked to live. Daily. Constantly. Without mercy or reprieve.

My voice is NOT the problem. My criticisms of patriarchal life in the south are NOT the problem. The problem is a system so deeply rooted in allegiance and loyalty that even my liberal friends find themselves invested in its appearance.

As for those whose experience in the south is different from mine, believe me when I say that I am glad. This is a place where everyone should feel welcome and seen. This is a state with room enough for all kinds of humans beings with varying hopes and dreams.

If I didn’t believe goodness was possible, I wouldn’t fight to expose the seams where cruelty dwells, and nests, and breeds.

Gladness aside, I hope that we all hold our government and communities accountable for the laws and the culture that punishes humans for their birth.

I hope that our energies are focused not on rescuing the mythologies of “a good south” or a “liberal south” but on dealing with the reality of a merciless south where the institutions of justice and social aid are as complicit in racist, sexist outcomes as the laws that keep them that way.

I stand in the Customs Line with “nothing to declare” on my lips.

Inside that “nothing,” however, is a struggle between the need to belong and the need to tell the truth.

I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive me.

Peace,
Alina

One Week Before Congress Voted That XX Bodies Were Intended as Vehicles for Male Stories

An activist broke her heart. The girl whose heart broke was not a feminist. She stayed away from politics and male-dominated tropes.

When asked to describe herself in a freshman essay, Heartbroke used the word traditional three times. Listed dreams that involved a good husband, a beloved wife, a safe suburban family likely situated in the suburbs of a thriving southern metropolis. She has pastel tshirts and bumper stickers and a B- minus in freshman composition to prove it.

Heartbroke can't help thinking her embrace of femininity has been held against her. As if any living human should sacrifice their dreams to a frat boy that bought her a drink at the Row Row Row Your Kappa Alpha Boat party.

And then left her in alley behind a warehouse.

On a street she didn’t recognize.

In the sprawl of a boy whose name she didn’t know.

Who isn't in the right frame of mind to be anyone’s loving Daddy.

She thinks the very nice church-lady understands. The church-lady promises that we are all sinners.

The church-lady clutches her hand and presses it to her chest while swearing that we are all sinners. There is no need for shame. Things happen. Satan attacks a man's mind and forces the man to attack a female.

Heartbroke carries tiny morsels of hope into this church. She becomes an official visitor. Her name appears on the prayer list. During prayers, she tongues the word sanctuary like a lozenge.

When Heartbroke gets distracted from the sermon, she imagines being saved, maybe marrying the blue-eyed fellow that places checks into the silver tray.

A few guys in a nearby pew turn their heads from her bloated belly.  

Rode hard and put up wet, she hears one guy whisper.

She can't erase the tandem drum-whirr of snickers.

She can’t stop wondering if she is. Or what she is. And who made her that way.

Heartbroke wonders how much more they will ride her to please a man they don’t know. She knows that to please any man requires effort and dedication.

How many more months of being ridden, and then—into motherhood, forever?

Near the restroom, Heartbroke sees the poster. It says no body is innocent. Not since that girl in the garden. No girl gets blamed without a cause. No man escapes losing his mind to lust every so often. The culture warns us. The man takes the fruit. The woman offered.

*

When she sees the kind church-lady at the clinic waving a sign, Heartbroke’s feet freeze into icicles or stalagmites or whatever those things that grow in caves up from the ground due to a single drip drip drip.

Has the church-lady seen her? Did the church-lady get her name from a list and then invite her to the church? Did the church lady hug her and introduce her to her husband, three sons, and single daughter for a reason that wasn’t casual?

“Emma!” The church lady shouts in a wrung-clean voice. “Jesus loves you! Don’t murder his baby!

A man to the left calls her “Jezebel”, his tongue forking into a hiss.

She thinks when a girl is pregnant her name must not matter. She is whatever a lousy fellow screams in a gravel parking lot.

She thinks about how the activist said her job was saving lives. There was money in saving lives. The activist received a paycheck for bringing God’s love into the world.

She thinks the lives saved by the activist do not include her own.

Jezebel.

Child of Satan.

She forgives the rapist, a nice middle-class boy, driven by the sudden urge to have her. She remembers how his eyes gleamed when she cried, when she said it hurts. He liked it. She forgives him for the terror. But she will never forgive the activist who breaks her heart. She will never forgive the woman who knew her name in that clinic parking lot and said nothing, nothing, nothing.



Writing prompt from a Galway Kinnell poem.

Or really, writing prompt from a poem you can’t stop reading, loving, admiring, and needing to engage. I’ve been challenging myself to write a poem in response to a poem that haunts me. It’s a challenge that frames my morning and ruins my placid coffee-guzzling routine.

I learn so much from the prompts and possibilities posted by fellow writers, so I’m going to share this Wait/Don’t Wait experiment in full knowledge that nothing I write in a morning compares with Galway Kinnell’s poems. This statement is both particular and general in its scope. This poem will never be submitted, published, collected, or read. It is a poem for the compost. It is critical to produce a steady stream of poems one is willing to bury. A poet’s task is to feed the flowers, which includes grinding old bones into soil.

Because I love Galway Kinnell’s “Wait”—from the way he touched depression to the way he wove a melody to free it. Kinnell wrote this poem for a student who wanted to die after a love relationship went wrong. Because it is one of my favorite poems and yet—I feel a hollow space in its promise, a sort of positivity that promises we will learn from the suffering of life. I’m not sure I believe this anymore. I’m not sure I need to believe this in order to love living—or to bear the implacable parts.

The Rub: Subvert Your Idol

Pick a poem that you adore, a poem by a famous poet, a poet you admire and emulate. You should have a fear of profaning their poems. This fear is important—it’s where the poem gets its energy.

Start by playing with the title, reading it, feeling its relationship to what the poet wants from the poem. Then subvert it. Flip it. And write into what happens.

(My example in response to Kinnell’s “Wait” is below.)

Don'twait.png

It’s worth watching the poet read this beautiful poem aloud—because watching adds layers to listening, and layers thicken the bed, broaden the available brushstrokes.

And what’s funny to me about this poem is I went in thinking I wanted to argue with Kinnell about whether we “recover” from broken hearts in the context of romantic love. As I wrote into the titular subversion, I discovered my mother—and how I needed to think about love and loss in general, how the intensity of love can attach to unromantic relationships, including parental ones.

The point of this post—the point of my daily subversions—is to schedule time for failure. To slot in a space where I write to fail, and then feel through that failure to new subjects. So I wrote the poem above (which is compost) and then discovered the poem I needed to write (which is not compost and not shared here but hopefully appears somewhere someday, ptuie ptuie).

In this way, writing “Don’t Wait” led me to a tension that I probe in a poem I do not plan to compost. But I’m not sure I would have resolved to write into the uncertainty of this space if I hadn’t first discovered its parameters through this writing exercise.

And that, friends, is the risk I need to bring to the page. Alongside the reminder that, if we are writing, then we are producing reams of nonsense alongside a few moonflower vines. And producing those reams is a good thing. A shameless thing. A facet of practice and commitment. Don’t wait.


Dicktat and the dick-tater-tot.

A few years ago, Mount Analogue (a small press in Seattle) ran a submissions call for political pamphlets. My brain was one big list of events, marches, protests, direct actions, and possible pamphlets. I was thrilled when MA decided to publish this precious little fellow named dicktat (which you can download for free below).

The title was a word that came to mind which described the Trump POTUS scenario, namely the etat of dick. Or the dick-state. Or the dicktatertot.

I’m grateful to Mount Analogue and Paper Press Punch for producing political pamphlets in a historical tradition that reaches into what is best about the printing press, namely, its use as a engine for dissent. And I’d love to learn more about how to support these efforts locally in Birmingham, Alabama.

For more from Mount Analogue, see their Instagram at @themountanalogue.

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How I Am Not Like Donald Trump

In response to a poem that unsettled me.

Yesterday, I kept quiet
as a mouse inched

careful pink claws across
our kitchen floor.

I did not speak
or say Grand Canyon things

that forced doors open
into postcards. I left

gluttons of the grotesque
to the business of making noise,

peddling majesty.
And as the mouse came so close

to my toe, I did not lay
her small wonder at the hem

of a G-d or a nation.
Instead, I watched the fur

on her flanks pulse fast.
And sped my breath

to meet the terror
of the tiniest.

Using footnotes per Ryan Ruff Smith.

In “New Neighbors,” a creative nonfiction published in Subtropics, Ryan Ruff Smith uses footnotes to enrich the authorial perspective speaking from within a relationship.

Here’s footnote 4, for example:

4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.

And footnote 5 undercuts the veracity of the narrative itself:

5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.

David Leavitt asks him why he decided to use footnotes in this way. I’m going to quote Ryan’s response in full just to give a sense of how an improvisational tactic winds up playing an interesting and provocative role in an essay:

Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.

The way in which the footnotes challenge the authority of the narrator only makes the narrator more reliable to me. I footnote so many of my thoughts and assertions…and I appreciate the way Smith uses this as a device to acknowledge multiple leavings of meaning in service of truth in the essay.

Allan Gurganus thinks fiction writers NEED to take things personally.

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I change my mind about what a short story is nearly every day. So, then: a short story is that junkyard magnet. The form itself attracts. All the pieces of a short story — characters and lines of dialogue, events and images, setting, wild ideas — have been forged separately. Now they’re here, clinging to the one thing they have in common. In the junkyard itself, they mean nothing, a jumble. They are refuse. But once the magnet passes over they jump up and hang together, hub cap to hub cap to old pipe to wrenched-off refrigerator door. You see how they fit together, how they make a shape different from any other collection of scraps. Some of them don’t even touch the magnet: the current runs through the whole assemblage and holds it together. That story your parents always told about the early days of their marriage; the insult that ruined one of your oldest friendships; the morning news of 1962; other people’s writing; your worst memory of fourth grade. Turn on a magnet and watch them fly together. Today, anyhow, that’s what I think.
— Elizabeth McCracken, "I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either"

Elizabeth McCracken helped me through the writing doldrums today with her essay, “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either”, in Electric Literature. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

Apart from her prompts and reassurances, McCracken also linked to a wonderful craft essay by Allan Gurganus that covers the gamut from community gardens to historical complicity as well as the AIDS crisis. I sat outside my daughter’s ballet class laughing, holding my notebook close to my chest, that stupid smile of relief patched over my not-here-to-mom-chat face.

Published in a 1989 issue of Iowa Review, while Gurganus was taking a year off from teaching to write, ’ “Garden Sermon” (properly titled, “Garden Sermon: Being the History of a History, Notes from a Journal about How to Keep a Long Long Project Alive. Or: What I Did with My Summer Vacation”) is beautiful and encouraging. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

A few excerpts:

“What starts a romance is rarely what sustains a marriage. My novel is called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I consider my relation to the oldest living confederate widow my life's longest monogamous connection. What starts a young writer is not what keeps a geezer coming back for more. You begin with the sound of one voice that goes forward into nowhere and, after years and trials enough, begins to come back with an echo, dividend.”


“We are often urged not to take things personally. A sales clerk yells at me and, shaken up by it, I tell a friend and my friend says back, "My God, you take everything so personally.” Maybe that belongs on the artist’s coat of arms. The agreement is: when you cease to take the world personally, you relinquish your credentials and your moral hold and your subject matter, and it's then that they issue you a gold card and they tell you that life is hard but that you should relax and then they send you on your way and you are utterly utterly lost—but it's okay because hey it's nothing personal. Just your life.

I want to keep it personal. I want the horrors of the daily New York Times to shake me up. This year, let's make a vow to each other—let's promise to take every thing personally. Let's help each other not be numb. "Deliver us from evil and lead us not into numbness." When I stop feeling embarrassment and rage, please take me out into the garden and bury me where Spot, and Muffy and the hundred family goldfish rest under crossed sticks. “

Held in reserve: Visiting the vets, c. 2011.

In my hometown, the less there is to discuss, the more impassioned the discussions. This is true at gas stations, in school parking lots, in hair salons, in every place where people huddle and clot except the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

At the V.A. Hospital, words are held in reserve, marshaled for unknown future action.

We visit the vets to honor them. We pronounce each name aloud as if part of a liturgy.  We sing songs, play piano pieces, and attend to geographic details in their personal histories.  We intend to offer hope, although the vessel which bears hope is usually nothing more gilded than a story, a vignette from outside the handsome red colonial brick walls.

*

When we arrive, the administrator’s smile chloroforms us.

“There will be two separate holiday performances for two separate groups of vets,” she drones.  

I try to speak, joke— I didn’t realize the demand for carols was so high.

“No, it’s not a logistical issue.” The administrator assures me they have all the space they need. The bad joke rolls like a penny across the glossed floor.

The caroling needs to be divided because the recent vets refuse to share a room with the Vietnam and Korea vets. That is all she can tell me. Words are held in reserve, held back like reserve troops, not wasted on minor explanations. I imagine a massive aluminum tank bubbling with abandoned verbs, the gradual condensation of past tense.

*

Since our visit is divided according to wars, I begin to mark off each carol as a particular battle. Each song one breath closer to victory. There are no losses in our vocal battles because we have nothing to lose whereas they have already lost the things they hoped not to lose. Independence sounds abstract but aches like a concrete pillar pinning a foot in place.

My son performs a piece he composed especially for the vets. The piece is named “V.A. Vets’ Carol”.

A ward asks if he can’t play “Carol of the Bells” instead, since most vets prefer familiar, popular tunes to personal ones. There is so little we can offer these men and women that does not feel intrusive or privileged.

Be polite, I remind the kids between carols.

It is unclear whether I am referring to the sudden jumping jacks or the burgeoning impulse, the ongoing spontaneous impoliteness, that burning flame of childhood that runs and bumps and jumps and finds occasional release in a string of why why why whys. I worry their actions might be misinterpreted.

Neuroscience studies have shown social anxiety to be an entombment within first person— an inability to adequately hear or see other human beings. Jokingly, a researcher said the cure for this anxiety-induced lack of empathy might be as simple as good manners. The researcher was kidding but the truth isn’t funny.

The truth is a web of over-taut nerves which threaten to snap. I fear that my words will cause harm; that my nouns will turn against me; that my children will sell me to the hospital administrators. Selling information, after all, is as natural to them as withholding has become to me.

I don’t remember being innocent enough that my words caused unintentional hurt. My empathy deficit widens to include my children alongside the silent, smiling veterans.

*

Thank you for….—and I’m not sure how to finish after making eye contact and realizing the man cannot see me. He is blind. I am a voice drifting through the room to thank him for his service and this phrase suddenly feels vulgar and ominous. I am a conventional arrangement of meaningless platitudes floating past. I am a hallucination. Mostly, I am so very very sorry.

Ten feet away, my son chatters about heirloom seeds with an elderly female in a wheelchair, her silver hair bobbed into a sleek helmet. She is beautiful. She is resilient tomato stalks pummeled by southern rain. She is still standing— despite the wheelchair.

The heart stutters, bats its wings against a closed window, when I overhear the words protest and pacifist coming from Max’s lips.

It is over. The moment has arrived. I will be unmasked as the traitor who carried cardboard signs with the words Not In My Name painted in black tempera. Every eye in the room will turn to erase me.

A nurse will speak firmly when she asks me to leave.

The firmness in her voice will be thick and unyielding as a druid oak root.

Veterans will rise from their chairs and raise their fists in anger and fury.

I shoo the hummingbird in my heart away, tell it to settle down. Slurp soda water. But the drum in my head leaves me deaf.

The vet who resembles Ursula K. LeGuin motions to me, “Come here”. Here it comes. Finally. My son flaps his hands and continues speaking.

I smile, my name is Alina.

The surface of the heart is silent but the not in my name by now marches to its own underground drumbeat. As it always has. As it will continue.

“Your son says you’ve had a rough year,” she says hoarsely, a soft grin easing the corner of her lips upwards, a genuine expression of a school teacher’s retired sympathy. She is not what I expected. A fellow-veteran of American female-ness. A rebel, I imagine, to have served in the military so long ago—back before females were officially acknowledged.

“WWII,” she explains. “I was telling your son about flying old aircraft. He said you were a feminist.”

Did she use the f-word? What is familiar for us— a word still forbidden.

She isn’t going to confront me. Her name is Margot. She’s happy to make my acquaintance. She believes we have something in common.

I don’t know if she got the whole story.

“I told her about your tinnitus, mom.” Max leans against my arm, confident, the ghost of Howard Zinn between us.

Margot nods, her squint resembling the fruit in a bowl of cereal. “I’ve had tinnitus since my thirties. Other mothers didn’t understand. It made me feel lonely. And different.”

Does it ever go away? I want to pretend I didn’t ask. To erase my silly question and the silly flower-skirted face of me.

Margot shakes her head. “Tinnitus lasts longer than most marriages these days. It’s a very faithful friend.”

We have tinnitus in common. But the other mothers could never understand—they weren’t vets were they?

Mar-got. I tender her name like a tiny mollusk still attached at the center, a fragile mystery I can’t bear to break.

“They weren’t vets…” That smile again. Only now do I notice her hand trembling. The expression on her face, nonplussed, says they’d been trembling all along.

“Are you a vet?” She asks in earnest. Her face is a tapestry, a splendid map, and I am only just now beginning to read it.

“No, I’m not a veteran. I’ve never experienced war. Or combat.” I fight so many colors of shame.

Margot’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re a veteran, alright. Your son says you homeschool. And that you have tinnitus. And that you’ve brought that kids with you. To protests.”

The moment has arrived— brighter, more blinding than I could have imagined.

My son had told Margot about my involvement in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. About the protests against war. And Margot is still smiling without a hint of anything hidden below the surface. Looking at me as if she’s not afraid to read the whole story.

Her eyes honor me.

The honor of her eyes is relentless.

She honors me with her eyes until the word changes colors and honor becomes a word that has everything to do with seeing one another outside our social anxieties and comfortable scripts. On this trembling, quake-prone ground, a child’s earnest impulse is the true one. Looking back, I can’t see anything else.