Monthly Archives: September 2012
‘You have to watch them close.
Keep them away from water-bowls.
They hatch out from a world of water,
don’t like it out here in dry cold.’
The heavy woman, younger than I am,
shows off her brood.
Her clothes are spattered with feces and blood,
the sweet-rank scent of joyful poultry.
Her face is perfectly made up, a mask of taupe base.
‘They smell the water, brains yell ‘home!’
and the next thing you know they’re feet up and floating.’
She shows us how she feeds them from sponges.
My friend and I have been here five minutes
and already we are ankle deep in death.
The friendly Australian Shepherd
who thrust his nose into my crotch
when we exited the car
slaughtered an adolescent rat
in plain sight of Cristina’s children.
The boys, preadolescent themselves,
think it is a mouse.
I have to show them the difference.
A wide belly, fattened on corn
and rent down the middle,
bare, human-like fingers
repetitively clenching, open and shut,
as though it would reel in the last three minutes.
A naked brown tail, thrashing.
If my shoes had more reliable heels
I would have ended its suffering,
but after our earlier wood-lope
they are hanging on by a thread.
I steer the children away
from body and dog.
Cristina’s elf-eyed daughter
clings to her mother, near to the car.
Their wings are nearly visible, blonde and black.
I think about the chickens.
Why does it kill us to go backward in time?
I feel relief, for an instant, at the knowledge
that I am not the only one
who wants to slide back to the womb.
The woman shows us the quails her child is raising.
He is eleven years old.
She looks twenty-seven.
My twenty-nine year-old belly clenches
in a pang of guilt, which quickly passes.
The quails are scattered in a wide cage,
almost a shed. They smell like
what they are composed of; flesh, grain, hay,
a calcium beak-stone, warm feathers scattering dust.
It has been a long time since I have felt so at home.
I remember the orphanage,
as it was in places, life-filled and bright,
its shadow cast elsewhere.
I ask, ‘Are they hierarchal?
That female there is nearly bald?
Are the women picking on her?’
The scalp of the bird is the same shade,
the same bare flesh, as the tail of the rat.
She stares, immune, through the thin mesh bars.
The farmer smiles, red lipstick, a little tooth-smeared.
‘No, males. They do that when mating.
Pull the feathers out in clumps.’
I ask myself, are all of them like that?
I note the question, fold it up neatly.
I file it away.
Cristina buys four-dozen eggs,
two quail, two chicken. Sensing my poverty,
she divides them with me.
Her oldest son informs me
that I have been blessed with the only white one,
though he concedes that it isn’t white really.
More a cool, pale green.
Food for a weeks’ worth of meals,
my husband eating.
Given the size of the hens,
I am amazed that quail eggs are so large.
How their lives must, daily, pain them.
Every morning they are made to give up.
In the car, driving to my house,
we talk about Homer and the eating of rats.
The children are hypnotized
with memories of market-food.
My time in Manila. I gnawed them
roasted, headless, skinless, retaining their hands,
their hollowed torsos speared on sticks.
A feast for a peso.
They had such sweet flesh. Devoured.
Gone in an instant.
It takes fifteen minutes to drive me back.
Once every year we were gathered from our houses,
herded like goats into borrowed county school busses,
and driven to the Athletic Centre of the nearest
hanger-like mega-church. The genders were segregated
upon arrival, the boys in one enormous shed,
the girls in another, my rapist among them,
and the hundred or so inmates of the orphanage
were intermingled with the residue of thirty different
Sunday Schools creating a froth of children of many
different ages, united by one thing; they were richer than us.
I was dressed in a used Fila tracksuit
which the girls in my house, in a mood
that was temporarily benevolent,
insisted was fabulous; like a skinny,
white Missy Eliot. Leesha had been
at my hair again, practicing for her upcoming
exam in cosmology, a thing I often suffered for.
I sported short mouse-coloured corn-rows
and stood out a mile in this sea of Lacoste.
The athletic centre stood two stories tall,
but was high-roofed internally, completely hollow.
Four full-sized wooden basketball courts
occupied the floor-space, collapsible metal
bleachers lined every wall. There were two
working toilets for three-hundred adolescent females,
and a fully-stocked, caffeine-free kitchen to provide
us with food; primarily hot dogs.
Towards the rear of the building, underneath the baskets,
someone had set up a high, hollow stage that reverberated
drum-like whenever anyone stood on it.
We were instructed to stack our belongings
against the hidden benches, piles of backpacks
and rolled sleeping bags lined every wall.
I remember looking for windows, finding
only air vents and that vast people-filled space
which smelled so strongly of menstruating children
that my mouth watered and my feet ached
with the desire to flee them.
Soon the room was heated, fuggy
with the stench and sweat of many bodies,
cut with a sweet citrus perfume.
After what felt like an hour, but was really twenty minutes,
a tall skinny man mounted the stage and began haranguing us,
via microphone, about our virginity. He was dressed like a man
used to starched business suits attempting young-casual.
Pressed khaki trousers, a blue shirt buttoned up
to prominent Adams apple. His ears stuck out, rounded,
hyena-like, and reddened perceptibly as he spoke,
comparing us to, of all things, bananas.
‘Who here likes bananas?’
A confused silence from the audience, whipped up
into shouting by a few rousing gestures, ‘You all like bananas!
They are nature’s candy, after all. So firm and sweet, so good
in your mouth! What if someone offered you a banana right now?
You would take it, right? Say thank you?’
He was pacing now, working himself into a lather.
The hairspray he used must have been
incredible, a hair hardly stirred.
‘But what if someone offered you a banana
that had been partially eaten? A gross, half-chewed,
used up fruit covered in a strangers saliva.
How would you react to that? Would you be willing to eat it?’
Children were shouting now, in disgusted agreement.
‘You girls out there today are like bananas.
I hope that you are good ones, firm and sweet,
so juicy and clean. You can only give yourselves
to a man like that once. If you maintain your virginity
your husband will have you the way that he wants you,
pure and unused.
‘Otherwise, if you are not careful,
if you filthy yourself, or allow anyone to touch you,
you will be giving your husband something defiled,
mauled over. And what man would want that?’
He shook his head sadly. ‘No man at all. Certainly not
your Father in Heaven. God wants you pure.’
I thought about the way that Talon had touched me,
and clenched my fists so hard my fingernails bit
into the palms of my hands, branding them
with livid arcs of fire. I had my own ideas, already,
about cleanliness and God. Years spent
among parishioners had taught me that one
can attend church three times a week
and know little of Christ. I remember who,
given the option, our Lord chose to hang out with.
He went on, still pacing, trailing the lead to the microphone
like a long rodent tail, ‘If you want Jesus and your husband to love you,
come up on this stage,’ he gestured at the carpeted step leading up to him,
which his assistants were climbing with large cardboard boxes.
‘Come up here with me and sign this pledge. Swear to God
that you will not sully your virginity before the time comes to wed.
‘That you will not ever sleep with any one or allow
anyone to touch you, before your father
walks you up that aisle and gives you into
the keeping and protection of the man
who is to be your husband. Remember, all of you,
that your virginity is not really yours. It belongs
to your husband, though you might not yet know him.
It is God’s gift for him, and you do not own it. You keep it safe.’
I had enough body issues to last a lifetime,
and my rapist had not been a man, but the idea
that I could never own myself was repugnant even then.
Still, this man was a minister. And God speaks
through many different tongues. As keyed up
as I was, as ashamed, as frightened, I had room
for one thought: If I sign this paper and give myself to God,
maybe for life, there is a chance that He will give me
a little protection and make the raping finally stop.
And that is why at the end of the harangue
that I more than half disbelieved in, I climbed
those stairs one by one, took a pen in my hand,
and signed my name to paper.
On the way down, as I left the stage in that throng,
a fat woman in a black t-shirt emblazoned
with a yellow cross gave me a small silver ring
implanted with a gray fleck of diamond.
She slipped it loose onto the third finger of my left hand.
I wore it like the shield it was until long after
I escaped from the orphanage and finally began growing.
Eventually, my mother had to use a pair of pliers
to cut it off and restore my circulation.
A review for my book. ‘A Radiance is a stunningly original debut collection from Bethany Pope, a young American poet who is now settled in the UK. A Radiance is, by turns, visceral, deadpan, mysterious and comic. It is one of the best first collections I have read in some time and deserves to be widely read. ‘-David Cooke
‘Part of this collection’s skill lies in the maintenance of a coherent narrative throughout the poems. The story is that of a remarkable family. Whilst each individual work is long, the poems are not baggy and every detail furthers some aspect of the story. Moreover each poem is itself a complete vignette and may be read separately.’- Fiona Sinclair
Buy your copy here! http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/a-radiance
Check out my short story, ‘The Birth of Dogs’ here: http://ampersandreview.com/2012/08/the-birth-of-dogs-by-bethany-pope/
I stood at the bar with my Diet Coke,
sidling in between Jem
and the man
who’d just finished reading.
It had gone well; he launched
the Emperor’s rocket-chair
almost to heaven, close as any can come.
He’d earned celebration.
They were making plans for after;
there were good vintages to be had
in the pub by the river.
He slicked back his hair,
always foxy, perfectly combed,
‘We deserve a bacchanal.’
I, skirted, awkward, said,
‘Are we maenads then?
They ate men, you know.
Right to the bones.’
I took a pull from my bottle,
they made their excuses to go.
I was not showing off.
It wasn’t the wine that turned them
to blood-grasping savages,
knocked out their teeth, and hung
suckling lion-cubs from their weeping breasts.
It was something else,
something I know well
after eleven at night
when my eyes grow large
in pale flesh
and the caffeine sets
my small heart racing.
Those hours which plunge
between hard lust and violence,
when- if your husband is not willing-
you gnaw a chunk from his haunch
and rub yourself off
using the filthy edge of your covers.
The dark, irrational grasping,
dreaming awake; scenting fire
through the window-panes, hear
your children, your brothers
pawing the door-frame
marring the lintels with blood
that came from no lamb.
The shudders last hours.
The Gospel of Flies
Mankind is not the only end.
Your tears, the blood-holes
piercing Your forehead,
were for the communion of flies
which laid their host of eggs
in the folds of Your ducts.
On the third day
in a scented flurry of wings.
There is a gospel for serpents,
trod on by saints. A text written out
for the nostrils of dogs,
scribbled through indelible Latin
disclosing the lamb-bones and crumbs
that fell beneath the hem of the table
and the sudden hemstroke
which healed rabies and mange.
Your purpose is to purify,
or at least to reveal,
the glory of God
amidst Your creation.
Open my eyes that I may see
beauty in the black talons
the ivory light of the beetles
that mingle on skulls.
Give me ears to hear
the psalms of the whales,
those hidden crystalline love songs
buried in waves,
passed mouth to mouth,
tongue to baleen
Let me know, oh Lord God of Creation,
the Passion for ravens,
Your pity for doves,
Let me feel the flames of Pentecost
You poured out for the remission
of the sins of the lambs
you blessed and ate of
as you are eating my heart.