The following is an excerpt from poet Elaine Bleakney’s new book, For Another Writing Back, which will be published this April by Sidebrow Press.
She’s been this body before.
Men-of-war hang. She fans them away with her arms. But the sting—she goes through with her face. They lift her for treatment on the boat, a steroid shot. She slips under again. Three divers surround, watching for sharks. They see pilot whales ahead. The sky on her back. The network says: inspiring. She markets herself with a rhyming phrase and an intention. In her intention to swim the straits, Cuba to Florida, she can’t hear the dead. They sing to her, tired and stung. Where are you going? She can’t ask; she’s not perplexed yet. When she loses feeling—her mind says something should be here, off her spine. The doctor or doctors on the boat warn: one more sting and you’ll be lost. She drops her purpose. She strokes back in.
* * *
My mother’s friend flies down, broken-up. We follow her around the house. She likes to air-dry her body in the morning after a shower or a swim. I have nowhere to put this so I pedal my legs above my parents’ bed.
One night their sound goes wrong: my father’s voice. My mother flickers from her laughter—wait, why aren’t we laughing? She’s a beat behind or ahead. A door closes. Water runs in the kitchen.
I love you unless you lie to me, my father says to us after prayers. My mother smoothes it off the bed. In the Ellwood City High School yearbook my father is shorter than his classmates. In one picture he looks ready to be needed, kneeling by the team. Their mascot is an aching wooden grin.
What happens? My mother’s friend doesn’t visit again. We still have the hollow fish hanging by the pool. Yellow jackets nest in its mouth. My father ducts it up with tape or sprays—straining as we stand at the window watching him on the ladder. I know he’s stung. I can’t see how. I could invent a conversation we had about the fish. Then I would be able to hear them, and locate myself again.
* * *
North to Zipaquirá. Two women in a doorway, one in an apron and the other looking down at yellow in her palm. An older man on a bicycle sparrows by. There’s a perfect color, a hillside in the distance. I look harder. A real or fake village is set up: cafés like cafés but at night people disappear in cars with guns at their backs. I’m carrying a book about this near carts selling candy. Do we eat chicken where?
Dogs asleep under trees.
Yellow chimes yellow in the capital. I see my grandmother all in black walking without her easel. A girl cascades against a wall. Discúlpeme. In the plaza at noon the Palace of Justice stands outside of how it appears in photographs where they talk about the siege. There’s no movement in the stone, no artist standing across the street with her walkie-talkie, watching the roof.
Okay, now. A chair drops from invisible hands and hangs by a wire against the exterior. When this happens, how many people stop? Then more chairs—the artist made them for the ones hostage inside. Passersby watch the building’s wall shift. Now that she’s opened time with them like this, what is duration?
Behind the false door in Candelaria we’re breaking up. A dry golden skin is the mealy blanket or dust. And it’s cold. Everything isn’t better the next day. We check out. This is one of those searing fights I remember as aftershock and fragment, the end of first-year tenderness fucking against a wall. My skirt and language—language raining into language. Writing it is the emptied coast after the wall-wave has receded: just taking a look, I won’t be long. Paul left his socks in the basin dripping? Will you hold me, my body asks but we’re too angry.
I’m not angry, he says first. Meanwhile the artist’s team is researching for her next installation, a crack she wants to construct at home and then send through a hall. Its absolute offends her. Find out how cracks start, she implores her team, how they surface—she says in my head-drama about this. Paul and I catch up with the wedding in the mountains where a white priest presides in the nave. Half-meat, half-cloud. He’s big, someone says, in the church. Our friends have flown him in to the mountain to exchange with him.
* * *
Then I rip us near his face. Comprehending, he gathers himself. What are you doing? my voice sprays from the other side of my head where speaking lives. A shock, the little dog we’d found together pawing at my legs. My hand trying to press his wet face back without pressing him back: stay, no, stay. I shut the door.
A door onstage pulls the great actress and her unlocked suitcase across. Items spill. The actor playing Stanley sticks his hands in, deriding her: flinging pearls, silks, lace. I’m eight months pregnant. Paul is next to me and all I want is the bathroom. Black space beckons under red exit signs. No one can move; she’s bones and light and her character’s disastrous thinking. The actress who played Jane Eyre is seated three rows down. I keep looking for her face. My body doesn’t fit. He flutters; he kicks.
All it takes is a flick of the key in the lock and I’m back. He was working in enamel then. The door opened to dots and sticks, implosions, candy slicks of aluminum on the wall. The ice cream truck downstairs—a wrenched singing. When he stroked through and pressed I heard welding sounds down the hall to basin where I would run cold water over my wrists: what are you doing? A party on the roof, the roof next door. My friends were stuck downstairs. He’d made them chicken. I’d met someone else. A man at another party, twenty-seven, stepped into or fell down the shaft.
* * *
My turn to be taken apart. So I try swimming. They teach me how to turn and breathe, turn and breathe, but my feet drift: I can’t keep them winging. The coach dips her head in my lane. Something happens. I write it down.
I show my friend an essay I love. Some people write so well you almost believe, she says knowingly; it’s just good writing. She returns the book. I can’t shake her view: how right she is, a corner where I have to cross the street.
One summer night we eat Italian cookies in the window: each one dusted and wrapped. She sets fire to a wrapper. It lifts out of my palm, gaining fire, smoldering down the window well until I repeat this with someone else. Fire sails through an open window two floors down. If a flame speeds the curtain and we’re laughing—no, no flame. We call: we’re sorry, so sorry and no one appears.