FIRST BOOKS ISSUE
Brandel France de Bravo
"...scientists have found fetal
cells surviving in the maternal bloodstream decades afer the women have
given birth to their children."
—Natalie Angier, Woman, An Intimate Geography
The satyr in Aesop's fable,
seeing the human cool his soup
and warm his hands with the same breath,
mistrusts him. The child too,
blows hot and cold, paining the mother
who once shared her breath with him,
allowing his sighs to pass
invisibily through her lips.
She does not regret this conspiracy,
the plot that overturned her life.
The son will travel far from home
to try to get there. In a room full of people
inhaling and exhaling, he will sit
with crossed legs watching his belly
roll ashore and back.
He will look at his navel, forget-me-knot,
and remember thinking as a little boy
if he untied it all the air would escape from him
until he was just an empty balloon.
He marries a woman from another country
with a temperate climate. One day,
making guacamole, the man
slices open an avocado, wide as hips
around the pit, which he digs free
to discard. "Not yet," says his wife,
tossing the pit into the mixing bowl.
"It's what keeps the avocado green."
The man's mother thinks of him often.
Sometimes he is distant in her mind,
like a slogan shouted decades ago
when independence was what mattered most.
Other times he is near as the pastry on her plate,
a colonial left-over that fills her
with its foreign-sounding name, each bite
a creamy syllable of the language she once lived.
Her country may be free
but her son's cells still occupy her,
patrolling her pulsing alleys.
A powerful junta will rule over her
until her last breath:
memory of mother and son as one.
metal wire and bones (2007)
24 x 24 inches
see more work by Sheila Rotner
Dr. Duncan MacDougal didn't shriek Eureka, running naked
from a bathhouse, or later reveal his discovery to a king,
but published the results of his scientific experiment
(based on a sample of six) with pride in American Medicine.
The New York Times headline read, "Soul Has Weight,
Physican Thinks"—21 grams to be precise,
weight of a hummingbird or a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
Only one of the six whom the doctor watched die
on a scale-bed of his own design had a sudden,
irreversible drop in weight at the moment of death,
which we now know is not so easy to be precise about,
but none of the dog-controls lost even a gram when put to sleep,
confirming the doctor's belief that animals have no soul.
Purity—not weight—was King Hiero's concern.
His newly crafted crown had the right heft,
as many ounces as the gold given to make it,
but what if lesser metals had been used in its place?
The King charged Archimedes, lover of levers,
father of bouyancy, with teasing truth from rumor
and devising a means to test the holy wreath
that would not damage or defile it.
"A good, hot soak," thought the mathematician,
inventor, "will help me come up with a solution,"
and immersing one leg and then the other, he watched
as the water rose, overflowed from the tub, and experienced
the euphoric moment more precise than death,
that gave us the sound of secular ephiphany.
If Hiero's crown must weigh the same
as the lump of gold from which it came,
the smith who substitutes lighter silver, melts down spoons,
will forge an object of measurably greater volume.
The more water displaced, the more gold replaced.
Archimedes proved the goldsmith's duplicity
but no one has found a way to test the soul's mettle.
Some days we feel its heaviness, but even if the soul had weight,
—weighing the same on the day we die as at birth—
what about its expanding girth, the alloy of years?
We age silver-gray, lose value, but compensate
by growing softer and turning up the volume.
It's not enough just to be, in all its density.
We ask for more and, of course, make it filigreed.
As for the pure soul...
It never spills out of its airplane seat,
never encroaches upon the next passenger,
forcing him to remove his arm from the rest
or displace one thigh, crossing it over the other.
The movie producer who could not be
awoke to find in his bed, not a starlet,
but another sort of trophy: the severed head
—black with a white diamond—of his new racehorse.
After that he dropped his obstinacy like two lumps
in his coffee, drained the cup and called to say
Corleone's godson could have the lead, after all.
Only the night before he had boasted
to the Don's emissary of his contacts with the FBI,
his close personal relationship with J. Edgar,
but Hoover was a milquetoast compared
the man to cozy up to if you were a miscreant
in ancient Greece, for whom stealing a cabbage
was cause for capital punishment:
an eye for an eye, a head for a head.
Sentencing a vegetable thief to death
is not as extreme as it seems once you know cabbage
—peasant food that stinks when boiled like the sweat
of workers in a Minsk tractor factory—has noble origins,
having sprouted from the tears of a king.
And the teetotaling ruler of Thrace, Lycurgus,
had reason to weep after challenging Dionysus.
We have, in one corner, the king
(boxers emblazoned with "Let's put the kibosh on fun!")
in the other, DJ Rave throwing down
tippling sound of Club Bachanal.
Lycurgus suffered a couple of blows—drought
and the death of his son—before going down for the count.
But the match continues: to this day
people swear cabbage is a cure for hangovers,
not to mention cancer, obesity, and the effects of radiation.
Its leaves are a salve for the swollen breasts
of nursing mothers everywhere, and kimchi, they say,
will keep Korea safe from bird flu.
It's no wonder a French wife calls her husband
"my little cabbage," reminding all who are married
how we once lost our head in love.
The lion and the unicorn were
fighting for the crown:
The lion beat the unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown,
Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.
The sound of two sticks beaten together
as black ink, even if the hands that hold them
are graphite-gray and half-erased.
A leper comes, a leper walks among you.
He will part the crowd into opposite pages,
fusing message and messenger.
In India, the drummer, percussive heart
of the festival, while not an outcast,
is lower caste, just as in rock and roll
the one behind the battery
is a lesser star—think "Ringo."
If you're talking about a revolution,
rat-a-tat-tat and fife,
or the birth of a messiah,
pa rum pum pum pum,
he's the maudlin soundtrack.
The guitarist, strumming his crown
slung low across his pelvis, is king
while the drummer is the court jester
whose solo we must endure.
The audience waits for the snare to beat it out of town,
gallop into the woods from which it came,
a fleeing unicorn, its horn rising and falling
like a drumstick.
There are deal-breakers and deal-makers.
What sealed it for me was you came fully assembled
and equipped with two tuxedos—one white,
one black—and the Encyclopedia Britannica
—macropaedia and micropaedia.
You didn't give my family a cow, two goats,
and a check like my friend who married in Africa,
nor did I come with 17 gold pieces or even a hope chest.
Exchanging rings, we made a bet in front of many,
which we pay up, collect on every day in private.
We are lifelong gamblers.
Hanging an inch apart, our toothbrushes
are not talking to each other,
the bristles bristling with tension.
Your razor and my razor
are sleeping on opposite sides
of the sink, growing dull.
Bedrock isn't just a town that Fred
Barney and Betty and all the other prehistoric couples
in leopard skin togas call home; it's what marriage
is supposed to be (honey, you're my rock),
but I say less steadiness and more animation,
less caution and more cartoon because
I want to be laughing when death do us part.
I'm tired of working so hard:
you have to run as fast as you can
if you want a stone car to move.
At the wedding a priest placed a long
of plastic pearls over our bowed heads—one loop
hung around your shoulders and another around mine—
like neurons yoking our memory.
You will remember faces; I will remember names.
You will remember addresses, and I, how to get there.
In Spanish, handcuffs are called dos esposas: two wives.
Yet married men are happier, live longer, studies show
than males without mates. It's hard to admit
but there are times we like having our hands tied,
sharing our bed with a bad cop.
The woman says: I'll have to ask my husband.
The man thinks: It's not so bad in here.
As long as I can smile and wave
to the people on the other side of the bars,
as long as the bread is dry
and the water so very wet.
Brandel France de Bravo is author of
Provenance, winner of the 2008 Washington Writers' Publishing
House Poetry Prize, and co-author of Trees Make the Best Mobiles:
Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World (St. Martin's
Press, 2001). A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA program for writers,
she lives in Washington, DC.
The poems here are reprinted from Provenance,
with the author's permission. For more information on the book, see:
Published in Volume
10:2, Spring 2009.