Winter 1992, Volume 9.1
Poetry

JANENE BOWEN

Chador

They are doing it.
We all know it.
There is still a need for Jesus.
In Texas, two freshman senators cut out the words
they find offensive.
They do not know there are countries where,
hidden in black linen except for an eyeslit,
their fingers ruffling like lace below the arms
of their gowns, women have more freedom
than American women.
In their disguises, they can go anywhere.
Take lovers.
When I was a child in church I remember
learning the verses, a clean one hundred lines.
I thought it would make a difference,
my name on my Bible printed in gold letters.
I remember the stories. Jesus who fed the multitudes
three loaves and some fish,
the lost son returning home, but if you
look at the geography, Jonah went
the other way.
You think it's the words
that are doing it, but we all do it,
some just better than others.
If that's what you're afraid of, you better
stop living. We are all doing it. Even
the Immaculate Mary, there is some doubt.

 Le's Dragon

Le holds the reed in her hands, the ink
like oil on its tip.
Carefully, she makes the quick strokes,
feeling the old familiarity.
When she was a child, her grandfather taught her
her characters. Every afternoon, after American school,
as her grandfather called it, humphing through his nostrils,
she had repeated them like scales on a piano,
her grandfather watching, each errant brushstroke
like a missed note.
Le dips a clean reed into the second ink.
Through the window, the sounds of her childhood:
Market street. The white chickens with their red combs.
The deep belly-roar of the truck that delivered
the pigs, flat-bellied, their entrails removed,
their skin smeared with blood.
In her mouth, she can taste the honey-glaze
of her mother's char-shu.
Le touches the reed to the paper,
lets it bleed its ink in fat little blobs.
In front of her the controlled black likes,
the red accents, her mother's defiance.
In Le's mind the lines and the blobs mingle.
The Chinese New Year. The multicolored dragon
with a hundred feet moving through the street.
As a child, she had been afraid.
Even now. That face coming through the crowd,
its eyes red, its nostrils flaring.
The char-shu what would never be approved.
The lines that will never be perfect.

After Tequila

Last night I licked a man's hand in
Evangelo's. I slid my tongue
along the ridge of flesh that forms the purlicue,
that bridge that connects thumb to forefinger,
to make it receptive for salt.
Tonight, miles from Santa Fe, I slide my tongue
across your shoulder's plateau, down
the narrow central valley that forms the small
of your back.
I have become entranced by the desert,
its small changes.
My tongue slides over the rounds of your buttocks
that soften the lines like adobe.
It is strange to think that in some landscapes
the only surface fluid is stone.
You turn over, slowly, half asleep.
I lay the side of my face on your stomach
and cup your testicles in my hand,
balancing them like marbles.
I have heard that we should all carry a few
small stones in our pockets for silence,
for a way to get out of the world.
I believe it. Last night, after tequila,
I stood in the cold air listening for coyotes,
wishing I could hold the moon,
the earth's largest stone, in my hand.

Hating Black Boys
 
I used to listen to a black woman tell stories.
It wasn't white woman talk. It was deeper than that.
It came from the earth. You could smell it. The heat.
She carried it with her in the creases of her eyelids,
beads of sweat between her breasts, in the black hair
of her crotch where her legs form a V,
sweat so heavy it can lull flies.
Not like white women, so careful to wash off
any sign of life.
Maybe it's the southern heat.
Up north we tend to forget.
The Emancipation Proclamation never freed
any slave.
It only freed whites in the north of the responsibility.
A hundred years later, one way or another,
it was still the same in Mississippi, and if we went south,
my mother made sure to pack our white gloves
with the buttons on the wrists.
We were bred to be cautious.
The pit of hell runs through our veins.
It was something we no longer believe but it was still there,
the separation grater than the Mason-Dixon line.
Like the woman, my father told stories—
how, stationed in Louisiana, he learned to hate black boys.
He's not much for religion. It had nothing to do with fervor.
And my husband too, twenty years later, told me the same thing.
Only he didn't care much for the white boys either.
Maybe it's what the army does. Breeding an enemy,
a thing with which those northern college boys
had no experience.
Or maybe it was just the South—resenting
its existence, being closer to that jungle
they were being trained for than anything
either of them had ever known.
On his off time, my father fished the bayous
in flat-bottomed boats, their sides so low
he could touch the water sitting straight up.
He said he'd never seen anything so beautiful
until the day he stepped over a branch.
"Black and shiny," he said.
From then on he saw them everywhere—water moccasins,
each step a land mine, the knowing
making it all the more terrifying, but not knowing
which was worse, the steps forward, knowing, or those taken
blind now that the odds could be counted.
In the end—my father, my husband—both escaped.
My father to Wendover, a new station on the edge
of the Salt Flats, a place so desolate
that three weeks later he borrowed a car
and drove me and my sister to Ely
just so we could touch grass.
Like I said, he was not a believer
but even so it was a deliverance.
It counted. A blessing.
He'd had enough swamps for a lifetime.
And maybe it was because of that.

Walter Helps Aunt Betsy Unplug The Drain
 
Twenty years after Uncle Elmer died
Aunt Betsy decided it was time.
Along with his other things, Betsy had kept it
sacred. After all these years she was afraid
to imagine its condition. Elmer always said
anything mechanical had to be kept
well-greased and pumping. Often he did it
once a month, even when he got old.
So she assured herself she was following
Uncle Elmer's advice when she called Walter.
She watched him poke his thick fleshy
finger into the hole,
her breasts heavy under her cotton blouse,
her nipples hard as buttons.